Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas's Dems must learn from Obama



Many of Arkansas's Democratic candidates have avoided speaking Barack Obama's name throughout his years on the national scene. However, if the party is to retain two preeminent state offices in 2014, it will need to borrow the techniques of the Obama operation crucial to his 2012 victory.

On Election Night 2012, the president spent a section of his victory speech noting the work of "the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics." Such hyperbole is common on Election Night, but in this case the praise was well-deserved. The Obama campaign operation was exceptional because of its embrace of a system that uses new data collection techniques and new technologies to re-create an older style of politics focused on communicating with individual voters on their own terms about the issues driving their attitudes.

The database, constantly being updated, is used not only to track where voters' minds are but also as a virtual Rolodex from which volunteer leaders and worker bees can be drawn by paid staff. Since time-intensive door-to-door campaigning and phone banking is central to the system both as an outreach technique as well as a way of updating voters' information, a key component of those staffers' training is how to empower locally connected volunteers who have a unique capability to have honest conversations with their neighbors. Thus, the Obama system melds new technology with old-fashioned person power. writer Sasha Issenberg's "The Victory Lab" was published before the election, but it tells the story of the evolution of this component of the campaign where Team Obama trounced its Republican opponent (and, importantly, went well beyond its effective, but more haphazard, Obama 2008 efforts). In a series recently published in MIT's Technology Review, Issenberg updates his book relying upon interviews with key Obama operatives now liberated to tell the story of the operation.

Now, more than ever, Arkansas Democrats — with a history of employing resources primarily on television and radio advertising — must similarly embrace new ways of doing politics. To win elections in this newly competitive environment, statewide Democratic candidates have to maximize turnout in core Democratic communities, ascertain on a daily basis the issues driving the attitudes of "rural swing" voters with a fleeting history of voting Democratic, and identify new voters in growing Northwest Arkansas that the party has historically ignored. (It's important to note that Washington and Benton counties trailed only Pulaski County in the number of votes provided to President Obama in the state in 2012.)

The Obama system, sensitive to such local peculiarities, is what is needed to meet these complicated times for Arkansas Democrats as they seek to protect Sen. Mark Pryor, the party's last outpost in the congressional delegation, and the governorship (a feat made decidedly more complicated because of the events of the past days).

For reasons that have nothing to do with lingering ambivalence towards Obama himself, however, the dynamics of Arkansas politics create some real barriers to bringing the system here. First, aside from basic voting history and superficial demographic information, the databases of Arkansas's political parties are in particular messy shape because there has not been a competitive statewide general election here since Mark Pryor's first election in 2002. Those who do campaigns don't know much about voters' predilections at the individual level. An investment in purchasing commercially available data about voters will be a start, but it is an expensive undertaking and the organization must be in place to perfect that data across time to truly understand what makes voters tick.

Even more challenging is using that data to bring new volunteers into the system. With the exception of Vic Snyder's congressional campaigns, contemporary Arkansas campaigns beyond the local level have not been volunteer-oriented affairs. Campaigns will have to shift resources from television to hire and base staff all over the state to pull volunteers into the system. This must occur in a place where folks are not used to being asked to join such causes. A culture change in Arkansas politics will have to occur as campaigns welcome in new activists — and provide them legitimate leadership roles — rather than maintaining a somewhat closed system.

It will be expensive and difficult for Arkansas's traditional majority party to change how it does politics. But a failure to evolve will have dire consequences for Arkansas's Democrats.

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