With ten million early ballots already cast, the United States seems to be heading for its highest election turnout since the 1960s. If so, it will be because of unprecedented levels of enthusiasm from young people and minorities, who normally stay at home.
This is not down to chance. Headlines may have focused on Barack Obama's fundraising prowess (he has raised well over half a billion dollars), but that was part of a ground-breaking political network that defeated the mighty Clinton machine, and now looks poised to capture the White House.
Mr Obama has amassed an army of volunteers, many of whom have never before been politically active.
He has achieved this by making it easy for supporters to get involved through his http://www.my.barackobama.com website, or MyBO as it has become known. This looks and feels like Facebook, which is unsurprising as one of the social networking site's founders, Chris Hughes, is a senior Obama adviser. Once someone has logged in, they can meet supporters in their area, organise their own fundraising drive, or publish comments and suggestions. As with Facebook, users can invite friends to sign up, so recruitment for the campaign proliferates at local level. Peers recruit peers in their own language.
During the primaries, Mr Obama used a database called the Donkey (a reference to the Democratic Party's symbolic animal and also a nod to the nature of campaigning work) to manage volunteers. The system allows the campaign team to record the preferences and efforts of every regional co-ordinator, field director and individual volunteer. This was extremely effective in identifying and rewarding the most dedicated volunteers.
The first task for Mr Obama's volunteer army was to register new voters from underrepresented groups, such as under-25s or Hispanics. In Virginia - a state no Democrat has won since 1964 - Mr Obama's team vastly exceeded its target of 300,000 new registrations.
The second task is to “get out the vote”. For the past few weekends, supporters have been using sophisticated computer models to identify households where citizens are either swing voters or sporadic Democrats. On election day, national productivity will plummet as thousands of volunteers take the day off work to make sure that these people get to the polls.
This sort of campaigning can be decisive. Research by Donald Green and Alan Gerber, of Yale University, shows that face-to-face contact can increase turnout by 5 to 10 per cent.
In Woodbridge, Virginia, a town of just over 30,000 people, I was part of a small team that knocked on 100 doors and spoke to about 50 people. When we got back to the local headquarters we found that about 7,000 other doors had been knocked on in the area on that day alone. A similar effort was taking place in 40 locations across the state.
To tackle the tricky problem of locating young people who are rarely at home, Mr Obama had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. First volunteers targeted campuses, coffee shops and bars. Then in the weeks before the vice-presidential nomination, supporters were told that if they sent a text message to “Obama” (62262) they would get the news of the nomination before the media.
This appealed to the instant-gratification generation who signed up in their droves. In the end the news leaked out, but the campaign had amassed phone numbers that can be used on election day.
All this may seem daunting to British political parties. But it need not. They do not need to imagine hundreds of thousands of supporters turning up at a rally to hear Gordon Brown or David Cameron to emulate Mr Obama's successes. First, political parties have to learn to let go and follow Mr Obama's lead by trusting the YouTube generation to take control of their own role in the campaign.
Structures that require volunteers to work through local party hierarchies must be consigned to the past; young people will only get involved if they can participate in a manner of their choosing at a time that reflects the hours they keep.
Having run a top-down campaign, Hillary Clinton learnt this after her mini-revival in March and had the better of the remaining contests.
Likewise, British parties must also go beyond the traditional idea that only paid-up party members should be involved in campaigning. E-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers should be collected from all those who interact with a party. They can then be used to develop a deeper relationship with supporters, encouraging participation and activism.
The best political operatives throughout history have known that organisation is the key to power. For Mr Obama, victory in a 21st-century democracy requires a combination of technology and trust. Only by letting go will political parties achieve lasting success.
Thursday, October 30, 2008