In 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama put together a groundbreaking campaign structure that took him from freshman-senator obscurity to the presidency in less than two years. Obama used the same campaign structure to survive a serious challenge in 2012, winning a second term with fewer votes than the first, the only time that's happened in the modern era. His masterful use of grassroots volunteers, social media targeting, and ground-up messaging should have charted a path to the presidency for everyone who followed him.
Yet more than a decade later, it's an open question as to whether either major party has learned anything from Obama's success. That will matter to both presidential candidates in the same battlegrounds that decided the 2016 election — when neither candidate took advantage of Obama's innovations.
Democrats have begun to raise the alarm publicly this week. Anonymous DNC officials told The Daily Beast's Hanna Trudo that "President Trump is crushing us" in battleground states. Jim Zogby, co-chair of the DNC's ethnic counsel, went on the record to criticize DNC chair Tom Perez for allowing the party to ignore "voters from Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern Central European, Arab, and Armenian-American communities highly concentrated in the Midwest." The Trump campaign has already begun "carpet-bombing Ohio online," state party chair David Pepper complained. "Donald Trump is in general election mode while we're still in primary mode."
In their own defense, DNC officials told Trudo that they have invested significant resources in battleground infrastructure. In Wisconsin, for instance, they have added another field organizer, one more dedicated to rural voters. They have also established a "war room" for "daily e-mail blasts," as well as coordination with comms centers in some key battleground states.
While all of those efforts are necessary, however, at best they miss the lessons of 2008 and 2012. At worst, they copy the failures of 2016 by assuming that politics works best in a top-down structure. Former Obama deputy field director Joy Cushman hit much closer to the problem in the New York Times, asserting that Trump learned what Democrats have forgotten. "Over the past decade, the party elites — consultants, strategists and donors — have caught the data-and-analytics fever and largely abandoned organizing," Cushman warned. "This has meant that entire neighborhoods have been politically redlined out of engagement in our most fundamental democratic practice."
This was the most important and surprising lesson I learned in researching my 2016 book Going Red. The most common misconception about Obama's organization in 2008 was that it used social media only as a communications channel for national messaging. Instead, the use of social media — Facebook in particular — was much more sophisticated. The campaign used it as a tool to find allies in key precincts and neighborhoods and create social circles of volunteers and supporters around them. That allowed the campaign to develop a ground-up feedback loop and to contextualize Obama's agenda at the neighborhood level. For instance, they told Tampa supporters that their infrastructure plan would help resolve a chronic issue with street lights, an important local issue that went directly to quality-of-life concerns that helped create an emotional connection between those voters and Obama. The campaign knew what messaging worked, and could quickly adjust when it didn't — and the engagement drove millions of new voters to the polls.
Rather than emulate that model, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump relied much more heavily on national messaging and data analysis. Both are needed in modern campaigns, but both fall far short of turning out the voters needed to swing an election. The results speak for themselves; Clinton lost the three "blue wall" states by losing hundreds of thousands of votes that Obama turned out in 2012, while Trump barely gained at all from Mitt Romney's performance in the previous election.
Cushman credits the Trump campaign with having learned this lesson, but it's not at all clear that they have. The RNC did learn that lesson after 2012 in its famous "autopsy," and then-chair Reince Priebus created the Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI) to emulate the Obama model in key battleground states. That effort has continued, helped along no doubt by the RNC's fundraising dominance over the DNC. However, the Team Trump advantages cited by Democrats in Trudo's article deal with the same kind of traditional, top-down messaging and organizing, perhaps not surprisingly since Trump won his last election with that strategy. Even if the RLI is fully funded and activated, it still requires a presidential campaign that values contextualizing their agenda into local messaging and trusts its grassroots at least as much as its top strategists. Trump is not temperamentally suited for that kind of nuanced presentation, and neither was the team he built in 2016. It's still not clear whether his 2020 team will be any different.
Even if Trump's campaign misses this opportunity, the DNC seems determined to ensure that their nominee misses it as well. Thanks to lackluster fundraising and high debt, Perez doesn't have the resources to build that kind of organization independent of the nominee. However, Perez has gone one step further and has demanded that Democrats running for president pledge not to create a similar parallel organization for themselves. While Obama created an innovative organization, he did so in large part by cannibalizing the DNC. Perez wants to prevent that from happening again by barring "any organizing or messaging infrastructure that is parallel or duplicative" of the party establishment. That might preserve the limited resources that the DNC can develop, but it might mean forgoing strategies to turn out battleground state voters in numbers large enough to win the White House.
We have more than 14 months until Election Day, and a full year before the traditional start of the general election. The strategies are not yet cast in stone, but this kind of organizing — both in personnel and in culture — doesn't happen overnight, either. For now, it looks like both parties will once again miss the huge potential that the Obama campaign revealed.