El-Amine “In the US, volunteers show their support with their hands and feet!”

Sara El-AminGrassroots drumbeats won Obama’s reelection in November 2012, Sara El-Amine, National Director of Training of the Obama Campaign 2012 proclaimed: “Efforts of thousands of volunteers, making millions of calls, sending emails, knocking on doors and sharing their enthusiasm for the democratic candidate with their neighbors and personal networks, had much more impact than the media narrative.”

The Obama Campaign 2012 was the largest grass-roots effort in the history of campaign management, according to Obama’s Campaign Manager Jim Messina. As the youngest female national director on the Obama campaign, Sara El-Amine oversaw training and campaign curriculum development for staff, volunteer leaders, and volunteers in all 50 states. On invitation of the Naumann Foundation and the AJC’s Transatlantic Institute, she granted insights into how the Obama campaign mobilized the grass roots and discussed how with the help of volunteers, Obama won the reelection.

For one, the Obama campaign was launched early in 2012 with activities aimed at increasing voter registration. 150 million phone calls and door knocks were made to persuade potential voters to go register. More importantly, voters weren’t approached randomly; thorough data analysis ensured the volunteers targeted the right voters and behavioral scientists coached volunteers on how to ask the right questions, using simple but effective techniques such as identity framing or a type of question referred to as “hard ask”. This approach proved very successful; because of it Obama won the early vote by a large margin, reducing the number of voters that had to be mobilized on Election Day.

The campaign managers took another fact to heart: people trust the opinions of people in their networks more than advertising. In fact, the snowball system, led by neighborhood teams, the “backbone” of the Obama campaign was 30% more effective than advertising… and cheaper. But the big question is how was the Obama campaign able to mobilize all the manpower necessary? “Unlike in most European countries,” El-Amine pointed out, “parties in the US don’t collect membership fees. In the US, people support their candidate by volunteering, showing their support with their voices, hands and feet.

Thus, particularly young people and medium-income individuals were drawn to the recruitment stations. “The Obama campaign had 813 offices across the US, 631 of which were in targeted battle ground states.” In comparison, the Romney campaign had only 282 offices in targeted states. “In 2012 alone,” El-Amine recalls, “we had over 2,700 field organizers, who trained 10,000 Neighborhood Team Leaders, who trained 30,000 Core Team Members, who reached 2,2 Million unique volunteers”. Of those, 86% volunteered between 1-5 hours weekly.

Thousands of hours of volunteering have had a positive side effect: volunteers built relationships, fostered by training programs that included sessions in which volunteers shared their personal narratives. As a result a vast majority wants to continue supporting the second Obama administration – this is a great omen for the new lobbying initiative called “Organizing for Action”. The organization will spread awareness on the President’s agenda, mainly gun-control, immigration, and the implementation of the affordable health care act/Obamacare.

Susan Schneider