The Election 2012 Playbook: Lessons for the Jewish Community

Like most politically-attuned Americans (including my colleague Adam Simon, who also mentioned the 2012 election last week in an excellent piece in eJewishPhilanthropy that can be found here), I have been consumed by the endgame of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, finding myself absorbing every tidbit of news, polls and prognostications with increasing focus (and anxiety) as the clock ticks down to Election Day.

In the world of 24/7 news media, blogs and tweets, my daily “must read” is the Politico Playbook, written by the indefatigable Mike Allen. As he has counted down to the election, Allen’s email provides essential insight into the state of play of the Obama/Romney campaigns. More than that, however, he also frames insights that are directly applicable to the state of play of contemporary Jewish community engagement.

In a recent Playbook (you can read it here), Allen did an excellent job of succinctly explaining the different strategies the Obama and Romney campaigns have deployed during this election (the former being more of a retail strategy and the latter being a wholesale strategy). The Obama campaign has placed enormous emphasis on a field operation that helps “get out the vote” by establishing an expansive network of field offices, voter-mobilization campaigns and community-organizing networks, while the Romney campaign has continued to focus on the key messages and themes that will inspire the number of voters needed to tip the campaign in his favor.

In supporting his analysis, Allen quotes an Obama campaign official as follows:

“I view campaigns as a list-building exercise, and there’s three ways that you can build your list: You can do that by registering new voters who support the President. You can persuade undecided voters to support the President. Or you can increase turnout with your existing list of supporters. Ultimately, that’s all we’re doing here. We’re going to be spending lots and lots of money doing those three very simple things.”

As I read that paragraph over and over again, the lights came on. Isn’t the Obama campaign official articulating the same vision of what we need in the Jewish community? Of course building community is more than just a list-building exercise, but consider the corollaries:

  • You can engage Jewish young adults who might be inclined to participate in the Jewish community but have yet to be truly invited to participate.
  • You can persuade “undecided” (or unengaged) Jews to participate in the Jewish community.
  • You can increase the “turnout” list of currently engaged Jewish community members.

That essentially summarizes the retail approach to building Jewish community that many of our organizations and initiatives are built to execute. From Taglit-Birthright Israel (engaging new community members), to peer-hosted opportunities such as Moishe House events (inviting the undecided and increasing turnout), most of our organizational efforts focus on a “get out the vote” campaign to entice Jews of all ages into various elements of community engagement. It is a strategy that has its strengths but also its limitations. Creating a successful field operation for engagement requires a substantial investment in network-building infrastructure, even with the knowledge that unpredictable elements can dramatically impact the efficacy of a well-designed retail strategy.

Which is why the Romney strategy, one that focuses less on field operations and more on voter motivations, is also vital. If individuals are properly motivated by big themes and ideas, then even when the field operation is limited, voters will respond to the “call to action” in a meaningful way. Whether it is the call to change the status quo, or the appeal to act on one’s values, the power of the “big message” can also activate the passion of individuals to engage in community experiences and activism. This is true in the Jewish community as well; no matter how substantial the retail engagement strategy, if the messaging regarding the Jewish community is not inviting, compelling and relevant, individuals will not “vote with their feet” and participate in community experiences. Rather, they will elect to stay home, refuse to be counted and ultimately become disenfranchised in the process.

It goes without saying, then, that the best campaigns combine both a big vision for change with a strategic and creative approach to individual engagement. So even with limited time and resources, candidates do their best to develop hybrid strategies – reaching the most people and communicating the most compelling call to action. The same holds in the Jewish community: we need both a wholesale and a retail approach that work in sync in order to create systemic change.

In many ways, the 2012 election encapsulates the alternatives (and necessities) of creating meaningful campaigns and community engagement strategies. We can compare different approaches, including retail versus wholesale and field organization versus big messaging, but the winning formula probably is somewhere in the middle. It takes both strategies to win in politics, as well as to build our local and global Jewish community.

On the morning of November 7, we will know which presidential campaign strategy succeeded; one will win, and one will lose. In our community, we can’t afford to lose – so what type of campaign will we pursue? Much more than an election hangs in the balance.

Seth Cohen is the Director of Network Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which is part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global network of philanthropic initiatives focused on igniting the power in young people to create change for themselves, in the Jewish community and across the broader world. CLSPN also includes the Schusterman Foundation-Israel (SFI), ROI Community (ROI) and REALITY.