10 November 2012

Kenya: Obama's 'Firewall' and the Ground Game - Notes From a Campaign Volunteer

As I drove on highway US 231 at 4:30am on November 6, 2012 heading to Tallahassee, Florida a frightening announcement blasted on my car stereo.

The Alabama Republican party announced that they would be "celebrating" Mitt Romney's victory at the Montgomery Gun Range.

My stomach cringed as I visualised returning to Alabama that night. This would scare the living hell out of any black man who understands racial politics of the American south.

I pulled over, said a prayer and begged God to grant Barack Obama victory and then proceeded on with my trip. I was pensive as I listened to Lucky Dube, Buju Banton and Bob Marley for inspiration.

Four hours later I was in the company of vibrant, yet weary Democratic Party volunteers knocking on hundreds of doors and canvassing for Obama in Tallahassee.

I chose to volunteer in Tallahassee, Florida's State capital because I wanted to understand why Florida ticks during elections.

Florida was too closely contested that I felt obliged to do whatever it took to help Obama win. After hours of knocking on doors on election day I visited several voting precincts, interviewed people, visited the Republican party base and eventually retreated to the democratic party headquarters.

By the end of the day it was clear the Obama team had a superior ground operation in Florida and elsewhere. Most polls closed at 8pm and we all crowded into separate rooms to watch the results as they came in state by state.

Southern states were the first to roll in and Romney took an early lead. Some in my watch party started panicking but by the end of the day President Obama won both the popular vote and the electoral college decisively.

As I left Florida with my head held high I thought about the many lessons Kenya and its presidential candidates could learn from the US presidential campaign and eventual victory.

Such lessons include establishing and maintaining a loyal following based on issues, the value of sincerity in campaigns, people's resistance to voter suppression, inclusiveness, discipline, the role of money, political micro targeting, risk of undermining voter intelligence, the idiocy of opinion polls and the need for calmness in the face of adversity.

In 2008 Barack Obama's campaign was often referred to as the "no drama Obama" campaign. Led by David Axelrod, a man known for packaging African candidates from obscurity to big upsets the Obama campaign team displayed extraordinary cohesiveness.

No careless statements were issued either by the campaign staff or its surrogates. Axelrod who enjoys a personal close relationship with the President ensured that the team always worked towards the same goal.

Campaign gaffes and aimless statements by surrogates characterised Hillary Clinton and John McCain's campaigns in 2008. This year the Romney campaign was more cohesive but could not match the Obama team.

President Obama's most lethal weapon is his ability to establish and maintain a movement of believers who are glued together by issues.

His campaign volunteers strongly believe that the President spent the last four years pushing the issues they cared about in spite of Republican obstruction.

Obama's background as a community organiser fits squarely in the mindset of the thousands of his volunteers. Evidently four years in the oval office did not diminish his ability to connect with regular folks.

It is important to note that majority of the campaign workers are unpaid volunteers guided by their belief in the issues that the candidate holds dear.

Perhaps the most important lesson for Kenyan politicians from this election is the need for honesty and sincerity. Whereas both campaigns played hard and had enough boots on the ground, Barack Obama was perceived by the electorate as more sincere than Mitt Romney.

Romney desire to win by any means necessary turned him into the greatest flip flopper in recent American political history.

He would make wild allegations at campaign rallies and deny the same a few hours later in a debate with President Obama.

Romney was caught, as Bill Clinton put it with his hand in the cookie jar when he sought to distort the facts about the Jeep auto manufacturer relocating its plant to China.

This desperate move to discredit one of Obama's greatest achievements of saving the American auto industry fell flat and the voters in Ohio punished him heavily at the polls.

Kenyan politicians who have a habit of running not on their own records but distorting the facts may and should meet similar fate in March, 2013.

Whereas both campaigns registered a heavy presence across the country, the Obama campaign used its resources wisely in important battleground states.

The campaign took a deliberate risk by micro targeting must win states. It created an unbeatable "firewall" in the Midwest and virtually locked Romney out of Ohio, Michigan, California and other Midwestern states.

This combined with the sweep of voter rich east coast states and circling around the edges of far flung Washington and Oregon states left Romney with predominantly confederate states.

Confederate states are southern states that opposed the end of slavery, resisted the formation of the union during the civil war in the late 1850s, opposed integration and continue to hold the dubious distinction of being the face of racism in America.

Unfortunately, these predominantly white do not carry a lot of electoral college votes. Considering the need for garner 25 per cent of the vote in 24 counties in Kenya, politicians may have to figure out a way to micro target their resources.

Undermining voters' intelligence and scripting oneself to suit the polls is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. In the just concluded election, one of the campaigns seemed to believe that the American people were naïve enough to accept whatever they were told.

Romney's campaign seemed to believe they could 'etch a sketch' or change positions whenever it suited them. The ticket's flip flops on immigration, women's issues and foreign policy attests to the fact that voters will hold candidates accountable for what they do or say throughout their political careers.

Similarly, an obsession with self sponsored polls is suicidal because a campaign ends up deceiving itself that it has an edge even when the math does not add up.

Whereas campaigns need spin masters to psych them and make themselves believe that they have the "momentum", it may be irresponsible to believe a lie and sit pretty. The Romney campaign, for instance convinced itself that it had a chance to win the state of Pennsylvania when all independent polls showed a different reality.

Back in Kenya politicians have a tendency to convince themselves that the situation is as they wish for it to be. William Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi, Eugene Wamalwa, Martha Karua and other candidates continue deceiving themselves that they also have a chance at the presidency when all independent and often correct polling shows that the race for the presidency is between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga.

It is one thing to psyche yourself up but a totally different thing to believe your own lie.

Apart from the politicians, Kenyan voters can learn a lot from the journey that took Barack Obama back to the White House on Tuesday.

Whereas politicians will always attempt voter suppression in areas where they are not popular, citizens must take responsibility to prevent disenfranchisement.

Early voting in the battleground swing states was marred by attempts to block some voters by cutting down the early voting days and hours.

In Ohio and Florida there were numerous attempts at voter suppression but the citizens would not be deterred. People stood in line for six or seven hours until they voted.

In some cases I saw people taking turns to stand in line. In other places I saw people who had already voted turn around and bring their apolitical friends and families to the polling stations.

In this regard, the Obama team ensured that the maximum number of their supporters voted by asking supporters to volunteer to give rides to those who lacked means to get to the polls.

In Kenya, every citizen can help fight voter suppression by assisting their friends and families to the polls and simply refusing to be silenced.

"Hate" played a very critical role in this election. Democrats believed that the Republicans were fired up by the sheer hate of Obama by the right.

Republicans were not extremely enthusiastic about Mitt Romney in the beginning but were united in their hatred of Barack Obama.

Thinly veiled racial attacks were directed against the President. Republican senator John Sununu's characterisation of General Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama on racial grounds did not go down well with African Americans and other minority groups.

Late in the campaign, Romney's surrogates desperately depicted Obama as an angry 'Mau Mau' descendant seeking "revenge" against colonialism in Kenya.

Unfortunately, these racial attacks achieved something totally different from their intended goal. Instead of creating fear these attacks fired up the African American and other minority groups that came out in big numbers to vote for Obama.

In the end the only demographic that Romney won was white men and a smaller percentage of white women. The Republican party was reduced to an outlier in the rural and predominantly white rural parts of the American south.

This should serve as a warning to Kenya's tribal chiefs running for president that voters can and should isolate them if they choose to promote tribalism as they are wont to do.

For the longest time money has played a big role in determining election results in Kenya. In the US, money was seen to play a big role in this year's election albeit in a different.

Each campaign spent at least a billion dollars on advertising and other campaign expenses. Fortunately, there is no direct bribing of voters otherwise the Romney campaign would have buried the Obama campaign.

This year's infusion of money from corporations was a result of a flawed court ruling that allowed corporations to pump unlimited amounts into the campaigns as if they were individuals.

To avoid a situation where the highest bidder buys the election in Kenya the country must ensure there is a strictly reinforced campaign financing code.

Finally, the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) have some serious lessons to draw from the US election.

Fortunately, IEBC have been here following the administration of the entire process. Simple things like having clearly posted signs of no solicitation and campaign free zones at polling centres make a big difference.

The commission must have contingency measures at the ready in the event of failing systems. Courts were open to receive electoral complaints on weekends and there is no reason why Kenya cannot have courts at the ready to resolve electoral disputes instantly.

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