Yes campaigners should take lessons from Obama victory


  By Mark McNaught

The euphoria of the historic 2008 US election, in which the reign of George W. Bush was finally swept away and the nation’s first African American president was elected, was heavily diminished in the wake of the 2010 mid-term elections.

Opposition to ‘Obamacare’ had inspired the Tea Party to mobilise and take over the House of Representatives and reduce the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

As the new Congress convened in 2011, prospects for Obama’s re-election seemed bleak.  The results were perceived as a repudiation of the President’s  agenda, and the difficult economic conditions made Obama seem ineffective.  Republicans made it clear that their absolute top priority was to make Obama a one-term President.

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News actively took part in selecting the Republican nominee in the primaries, who through their advocacy was to easily be elected the 45th president.  Billionaire plutocrats like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Republicans.  Lights out Obama…right?

On November 6 2012, Obama won a resounding victory, garnering 51% of the vote, and handily willing the electoral college by a score of 313 to 225.  While many polling firms had predicted an Obama victory, the right-wing punditry had remained convinced of a Mitt Romney victory up until election night.  Some still can’t accept reality.

How over a space of two years, could serious doubts about an Obama victory be erased with such a triumph?  What lessons does it hold for those who are advocating Scottish independence, but see storm clouds on the horizon in terms of mainstream media bias, and a seeming lack of enthusiasm for independence among sectors of the population who justifiably are concerned about the future?

Perhaps the most important key to Obama’s victory was his high number of volunteers and their great dedication to his candidacy: the proverbial ‘ground game’.   Especially in the ‘swing states’ like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, potential Obama voters were targeted, and contacted several times over the course of the campaign.

There were also massive ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, which not only helped individuals to register to vote, informed them on relevant issues, but also made sure they were able to physically get to the polls to vote.   This included organising networks to drive people to the polls.

The innovative use of social media by the Obama campaign thoroughly outstripped Romney’s team.

Money was not nearly as much of a factor as many had feared.  Literally billions of dollars was spent on TV advertising, but so many voters were so fed-up with ads, that the law of diminishing returns set in.  American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s Superpac who spent $104 million on the general election mostly on TV ads, was estimated to get a 1.29% return on investment.  In the end, voters simply preferred Obama’s message to Mr. Romney’s.

In the words of the Democratic consultant Paul Bagala, “One of the great legends of political consulting is the Dog Food Problem: an apocryphal tale of a company that had the best packaging, the best advertising, the best marketing.  But there was only one problem: the dog wouldn’t eat it.  Forevermore we should no longer call it a Dog Food Problem.  We should call it a Mitt Romney Problem.”

Could this in turn become a ‘better together’ problem?

Granted that the Scottish referendum of 2014 will take place under very different electoral circumstances, it is worth emphasising what lessons can be applied.  In Scotland, there are rightly strict caps on campaign spending, and the campaign will not be based on TV ads.

This places a high premium on highly motivated volunteers, willing to knock on doors, talk to their neighbors and friends, and convince others of the merits of independence.  Enthusiasm and optimism for a brighter future is what will fuel the ‘yes’ campaign, and it is more effective than paid ads could ever be.

Social media must be increasingly harnessed not only to organise and spread this positive message, but to refute false claims coming from both sides so that the integrity of the debate is ensured.

These volunteers must be mobilized to do everything possible to make sure all voters are registered, convince them of the merits of independence, and make sure they are able to get to the polls and vote.

Above all, it demonstrates that a positive, reality-based message, delivered by enthusiastic advocates can carry the day over the often mendacious doom and gloom issued by mainstream media outlets.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.  For advocates of independence, dropping any fear, confidently and enthusiastically making your case based on the facts to undecided friends, while always being respectful of the opposition and their concerns will ensure a ‘Yes’ vote.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission, and Associate Professor of US civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France, and teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.