Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to win an election

Commentary : How to win an election

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: February 16, 2009

AT a forum last week of the National Institute for Policy Studies, an American visitor who worked in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign shared insights about the campaign. He said the spirit of the whole campaign was based on community organizing (CO). He reminded people that Obama was a great admirer of the late Saul Alinsky, the father of modern urban organizing, and that Obama himself had served for three years after college as a community organizer in a small organization that traced its roots to Alinsky.

The visitor, Jo Hansen, moved on to other topics, but some of us who work in community organizing decided to look into the matter. How did CO elect a president? Can the CO approach help elect a president here?

In Iowa, the first of the primaries, and arguably the most important one for a relatively unknown candidate, Obama and his people set up an entirely new campaign structure. They ignored the existing Democratic Party structure (maybe they felt it already leaned toward Hillary Clinton or John Edwards) and built their own organization from the neighborhood level up, the bottom-up approach. This is what COs are supposed to do when they enter a community where the leadership structure is not pro poor.

Obama’s team recruited the best of the people who came to their campaign office to volunteer. They were from all types of neighborhoods, rich, middle-income and poor, but they all knew everything about their own neighborhoods and they were full of energy. None of them was connected to the regular Democratic Party structure. The Obama team gave the volunteers room to act as they thought best; they appointed as supervisors those neighborhood volunteers who worked the hardest and showed the most ingenuity. The whole structure from bottom to top was informal and personal. In the end the volunteers outworked the veterans of the other candidates.

Obama got far more money from ordinary Americans than any other candidate, because he made special efforts to ask them to help. In the end he had money in small amounts from 2.5 million people. Each of these donors became in some ways a campaign worker as donors always do: they want to make sure their money isn’t wasted. Imagine 2.5 million volunteer campaigners. CO has always worked best when it gets the money for its activities from the people.

Hansen discussed the sources of Obama’s campaign platform. He said the candidate felt it was the essence of democracy to find out what the people wanted and then make it part of his platform. There is nothing wrong in basing one’s actions on what polls tell a candidate the people want. As Obama went along, he found the demand for change was the overriding wish of the people, so that became the motif: “Change. Yes we can.” CO regularly gets its issues from the people. The alternative to such an approach is to come to the people with a platform entirely worked out in advance by a party or the powerful or some technocrats.

Finally Obama paid poor people who took a day off from work to help him. He had more poor people working for him than anyone else.

Can these emphases of Obama and community organizing help a candidate win here in 2010? The essential thing, according to Hansen, is that the candidate must be able to make the big majority of people, who in the Philippines are poor or what can be called near-poor, believe the candidate cares what happens to them and shares their values. To share their values and care for the poor and near-poor, the “D” and “E” categories of the pollsters, the candidate must get to know them as well as Obama did in his three years in Chicago’s slums. He or she must visit the poor, learn their issues, talk about those issues and champion those issues or demands.

The candidate who travels this path will be outside the existing party structures, and will have to put together from the bottom up his or her own campaign structure as Obama did in Iowa. The candidate, like Obama, should pick the best people outside the existing political structures, people from all income levels but mostly from the poor and near-poor. The candidate should give them freedom and exploit their ingenuity, let them be themselves, give them room, and let them be creative.

He or she would do well to seek the money needed from the poor and near-poor and from well-off people who believe in reform as Obama did. In this regard Hansen downplayed the value of TV and other costly campaigning techniques. The biggest influence on a voter in the United States is a person’s peers, he said, not TV or the press. In the Philippines it’s family and church (or mosque and temple), according to an Ateneo de Manila Institute of Philippine Culture study of influences on voters in the 2001 election. This means, it seems, that the candidate must early on convince core groups of the poor and near-poor and reformers, and the Church and other religious leaders, that he or she really shares their values and is deeply concerned about their welfare. The campaign will only succeed if the candidate truly does share those values and concerns. If the candidate can do this, the message will spread. Witness the success of Corazon Aquino in 1986.

CO and the form of campaigning Obama championed are good examples of democracy in action. It could work here.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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