Sun Tzu wrote that, ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’ Obama and his campaign internalised this maxim. They combined a political strategy that focussed on a singular narrative and open organisational structure with modern tools to maximise fundraising and voter mobilisation. The critical difference between their campaign and that of either Hillary Clinton or John McCain is that while perfecting the use of these new tools – particularly online – they stuck ruthlessly to their strategy and instilled a level of trust in their supporters which is rarely seen in politics. Progressive parties around the world need to understand which lessons apply to them, but be wary of adopting the technology without a corresponding message or degree of trust.
Cast your mind back to a chilly February morning in Springfield, Illinois over two years ago when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States:
‘[I] know that the ways of Washington must change … Let us be the generation that ensures our nation’s workers are sharing in our prosperity … that ends poverty in America … that finally tackles our health care crisis … that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil … This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams.’
Compare this with his acceptance speech 633 days later:
‘Change has come to America… For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century … There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair … And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.’
As Paul Begala described it at a recent conference organised by the Center for American Progress, ‘Obama’s announcement speech had great fidelity with his acceptance speech.’ ((Remarks by Paul Begala at Center for American Progress conference, March 9, 2009.)) This is rare in modern politics where the trials and tribulations of 24 hour media and a near two-year campaign conspire to push candidates off course. Instead, Obama stuck unyieldingly to his message, staying steady rather than responding to every external attack.
The electoral strategy had a similar stability. To win the primary, Obama had to knock the ‘inevitable’ candidacy of Hillary Clinton off course by winning Iowa and then ensure that the contest did not end in early February on Super Tuesday. As a result, the Obama campaign spent the majority of its time and money before that first caucus in the Hawkeye State while Clinton focussed on the bigger states such as New York, California and Florida (which ended up forfeiting its right to take part in the primary election in any case).