Earlier this year, Hillary was leading Barack by 25 points in Pennsylvania; by April 22, Obama closed the gap to 9.2. Interestingly, this result has been largely interpreted as a loss for Obama, even by supporters. (Partly this effect was psychological – hopes were raised early in the evening last Tuesday when the networks claimed it was “too close to call,” making a single-digit victory loss, which had always been more or less what supporters hoped for, suddenly seem like a disaster.)
Commentators are drawing different conclusions about what this means for Obama’s electability against McCain. Some fear it only confirms rumors that he can’t win states like Pennsylvania in the Fall (he remains almost certain to win the nomination.) But a look at variation of the results within districts in Pennsylvania would give a more nuanced picture and suggest that Obama can do well even in areas where he is at a disadvantage if the campaign adopts the right strategy.
Consider the 14th Ward in Pittsburgh. While Clinton won the state 54.6/45.4, Obama won the 14th ward 60/40. Why? Was this a black neighborhood? No – 85% white. Surely then it was a neighborhood full of well-educated, liberal whites? Partly – 46.5% work in education, health and social services. But it is also a neighborhood of unionized teachers and dominated heavily by Jewish families, both populations in which Hillary is supposed to have an edge.
What may have distinguished the 14th Ward from other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh – and from the Hillary campaign, accounting for its win – was effective grassroots mobilization.
Consider a simple indicator of grassroots support for Obama: yard signs. I drove around the 14th ward and the adjacent 15th ward, primarily a white working class neighborhood, the weekend before the primary. I counted approximately 45 different Obama signs, but only three Hillary signs (I didn’t count the sign some Hillary staffer had planted [illegally I think] at the ramp to Highway 376). On primary day, it became clear where the Hillary signs were: the campaign had hoarded them to place instead at polling stations throughout the city. This is a simple example of a general difference between the two campaigns and the two candidates’ leadership styles – Hillary organizes from the top down, Obama organizes from the bottom up. At least in theory.
But why did Hillary win the state anyway? And why, conversely, the great variation in results across neighborhoods in Pittsburgh? The 14th Ward didn’t stop with yard signs. The leadership used email lists, Google groups and word of mouth in such a way as to make it easy for many individuals both within the neighborhood and from nearby areas to get involved in small ways. It decentralized leadership positions to the extent that inelegant but important tasks (like securing water bottles for canvassers and voters standing in line) never fell through the cracks. It drew on grassroots knowledge and capacities to solve problems (like getting Obama’s headquarters wired in the early, chaotic days of the campaign before staff had arrived in the state) spontaneously, without direction or resources from above.
Perhaps most fundamentally, the 14th Ward opened up a satellite office in Greenfield that became the focal point of grassroots Obama activism for the 14th and three adjacent neighborhoods. It brought visibility to the Presidential race in an area that was underserved by both campaigns. Numerous volunteers were roped in to doing simple, non-time-consuming but morale-building tasks like bringing hot meals to those staffing the office. Many got into the spirit and stayed on to phonebank, run errands, or deliver messages.
None of this was funded by the Obama campaign itself: neighbors pitched in money to rent the empty office space on a busy street corner near an ice-cream shop for ten days. Volunteers phone-banked and canvassed tirelessly while enjoying the comraderie of a neighborhood office where there was plenty of beer and pizza. On election day, when Hillary’s yard-sign strategy became suddenly apparent, an army of volunteers was ready in shifts to collect signs from yards throughout the 14th and 15th wards and relocate them to polling stations.
Volunteers in the 14th ward fought, often against defensive paid campaign staffers, to get resources and attention from campaign headquarters in Pittsburgh and for ‘permission’ to disseminate lessons learned to organizers in other neighborhoods. The lesson of PA ’08 for both campaigns is that if they want to take grassroots organizing seriously (which Obama claims to want to do and Clinton should consider while she remains in the race), staffers must be encouraged to overcome their suspicion of the common folk and embrace a decentralized organizational style such as the satellite office model that worked so well in the 14th Ward. Had the Obama campaign actively encouraged this model, it might have materialized in many other Pittsburgh neighborhoods and made all the difference.
Not that any of this will matter much in the nonmination. Obama is still leading; Clinton lacks any real chance to catch up; and prediction markets, which predict election outcomes better than polls, see Obama as the nominee.