From the brain center at the top of the campaign, to the block by block ground game, Obama won because the American people wanted to give him more time, and because his volunteer-powered apparatus has created a level of voter-activation that fundamentally altered the calculus of presidential politics.
I volunteered yesterday, and spent every hour till the closing of the polls driving canvassing teams to their sectors across our AO in Blacksburg. I’m used to be the strategist, framing up the big goals and dynamics for change, so it was really refreshing to be at the business end for a change, right up against the coal face.
There was a busload, literally a busload, of volunteers down from Beckley, West Virginia. There was a four man group of leftist political operatives from the UK who had come over to learn the Obama way-of-war, sort of like fighters in the Spanish Civil War. The whole crew and their bus was parked in a residential neighborhood just off Tom’s Creek road. They had heart and walking shoes, but no cars. I supplied the local knowledge, hot coffee, and a 2012 Toyota Tacoma crew cab. The Obama machine provided our target lists. These were three-ring binders with not just lists of names, but maps of the sector’s footprint, along with start and finish points for the most efficient foot route to each target residence.
The target lists were handraisers that clearly met some sort of risk model, folks that were registered to vote and Obama-intenders, but that there was concern that they wouldn’t make it to the polls. No ride. No idea where the polling place was. Maybe just a bit natural human inertia. I don’t know what rich pool of data they had used to create this thing, but my intuitive sense as I knocked doors was that it was accurate. We were overwhelmingly reaching out to students with heavy course loads and jobs. We gave them polling information, reminded them of Virginia’s insane Voter ID law, and looped them into the impressive transportation resources that the campaign had assembled. We left stickers on unanswered doors - reminding them that today was the day, but implicitly reminding them that as well that we were counting on them, that they were not forgotten, that their vote was needed, valued, and important.
Yet there was more than just knocking on doors. When people would answer that they had voted for Obama and Kaine, this was tabulated by the campaign staffer back at our canvass sector OP. That yes, no, maybe data was piped back up to the mothership in Chicago and then we were sent back out. We weren’t just getting out a message. That’s old school. We were gathering data. Mountains of it. We were conducting the world’s biggest exit poll of the race-winners, the margin of the expanded electoral universe. Once I got my head wrapped around that, that I was a vital soldier in fight and that there were thousands and thousands of us working across the country, feeding intel back into the machine, going out on runs to get souls to the poll… it was a heady feeling. I was part of history, part of a team. It was happening minute-by-minute. My team had the plan, the muscle, the momentum. Winning has a spooky power. The essence of winning and losing is the key to history. We were winning.
I can’t emphasize just how impressive the intelligence operation was. The targeting, gathering, analysis, and then re-deployment of assets in the field. I couldn’t help but think of the fusion cell concept that finally broke the back of the AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and the global operation against AQ in the Afpak area. Its the old John Boyd OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The same learning/action look that wins dogfights, wins in market, wins in counter-insurgency, and apparently now wins elections.
The fusion cell concept of Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate, or F3EAD (“Feed”) can be very, very clearly seen in the OFA (Obama For America) ground game.
FIND -Use primary and syndicated research to generate a model of “bubble voters.” Use geotargeting resources like Nielson Claritas PRIZM NE and GIS to get street level information on the bubble
FIX - Ground Game! Reach out with phones and door knockers (kickers?). Find them where they live and make contact.
FINISH - Convert to “sale.” Get them to declare that they have voted, or what stage they are in inside the voting conversion funnel. If we need transport to get people to the polls, that asset is brought on scene.
EXPLOIT - Take that data back to the analytics officer at our OP. They tabulate and upload it to the command level.
ANALYZE - The numbers are crunched and state and national level strategy decisions are made.
DISSEMINATE - Data and plans for action are sent back out to the ground game.
If your team can do this, the way that OFA did this, you are hell on wheels. You are one scary, high-speed, adaptive threat. The idea that “speed kills,” time as the primary dimension of conflict isn’t a new one. McKinsey and Associates has argued that time is where competitive advantage happens. Sure, temporary asymmetries emerge in competition, and if successfully leveraged, they become structural and positional advantage. However, in a service universe where supply is elastic, asymmetries tend to be short-lived. However, operational excellence is hard to duplicate. It relies on a relatively inelastic asset - the identification and recruitment of human talent. There was talent and drive at every level of the OFA organization that developed a scary fusion of speed and efficacy. As Sun Tzu says, the sloppy blow struck quickly wins. So much more so the precision blow struck more quickly than your opponent.
There were huge strategic fuck-ups by the Romney campaign. Unforced errors. Self-inflicted losses of position. Demographic reality, and the varieties of the primary process in two-party, polarized America. But the operations research side of the conflict was the clincher. Without it, Romney won. With it, he didn’t stand a chance.
It was an honor, as both a student, operator, and citizen, to be a part of it. I want to thank everyone who came to Virginia to help -our friends from West Virginia, my fellow travelers from the UK, the brain trust at OFA HQ. The coalition never wavered, never despaired. We thought less about what the other guys were doing to us, and thought a lot more about what we were going to do to them, and for the Union.
A great day.