The American Connection
François Hollande has embraced the tactics of Obama’s 2008 campaign—and it might win him the French election.
Photograph by Samuel Dietz/Getty Images.
Also read Sasha Issenberg's reporting on the first round of presidential voting in France.
LILLE, France—The three young men monitoring the volunteer sign-up table outside François Hollande’s rally at a large arena here on Monday all hail from Strasbourg but trace their political awakening to Cambridge, Mass. In early 2008, while studying at Kennedy’s Harvard School, Guillaume Liegey learned the rudiments of voter contact through a class with Democratic operative Steve Jarding and encounters with Marshall Ganz, the legendary labor organizer whose protégés included some of Barack Obama’s top field staffers. Another Harvard student, Arthur Muller, saw their tactics at work during regular treks to New Hampshire in the final weeks of the 2008 general election to knock on doors for Obama’s campaign, masking his native accent (out of concern for Bush-era sensitivities) and pretending he was Dutch. Muller was a childhood friend of Vincent Pons, a graduate student at MIT under the tutelage of Esther Duflo, the international development economist and specialist in randomized field experiments that, when applied to electioneering, had quantified the ability of a single door knock to deliver a vote. After the election the three Frenchmen realized where their new curiosities converged. “We got interested in all the voter-mobilization stuff,” says Liegey.
It was an unlikely area of fascination for three foreigners in their first encounter with American politics. Most of the foreigners who made a trans-Atlantic pilgrimage to examine Obama’s campaign up close fixated on the cosmopolitan candidate or the avant-garde trappings of his communication strategy, and reduced it to a series of easily mimicked gestures, like the Israeli website whose design was filched nearly entirely from Obama’s despite the fact that the candidate deployed the American as a foil. Such slavish copying eventually exhausted itself and the marketing slogan “Obama-style campaign” lost its novelty, in large part because few of the copycats actually understood the complex infrastructure that made Obama’s innovations possible. “A lot of people look at the U.S. and see the poli-optics of it but never look at what’s behind it,” says Julius van de Laar, a German national who served as Obama’s Missouri youth-vote director in 2008 and has since opened a Berlin new-media consulting firm.
Van de Laar is just one of a motley collection of foreigners who traveled to the U.S. to see the Obama operation for themselves and developed a more nuanced appreciation for its accomplishments. The stories of such pilgrims were common in 2008: the Tory foreign-policy aide who left London to get out the vote in Philadelphia, the young Canadian with ties to the New Democratic Party working in South Carolina, the Andorra-based media strategist who announced via press release that he was joining Obama’s team. But as they’ve returned to their home countries they’ve often run up against the hardened political cultures of their homeland. “Campaigns take a different shape in Europe,” says Marietje Schaake, who observed the Obama campaign as a consultant working in the United States and was inspired by his victory to run for the European Parliament, where she has served since 2009. “The money is not there in Europe—on the scale people are doing it in the US would be considered corruption in the EU.”
No members of the Obama diaspora, however, have been moved to reimagine their country’s politics as boldly as the three Frenchmen who met in Cambridge. By latching on to that “voter-mobilization stuff,” they stumbled into the most enduring recent shift in American electioneering, one not exclusive to Obama but exemplified by his campaign: a renaissance of individual voter contact, boosted by new tools that allow it to be keenly targeted and its effects clearly measured.
After Obama’s inauguration, Liegey, Muller, and Pons returned to France, where elections tend to play out as mass-media pageants with little personal touch. They oversaw a randomized field experiment during 2010 regional elections in the Paris area, demonstrating that with targeted door-to-door contact they could increase turnout among the nonvoters the French call les abstentionnistes by 4 points. An adviser to Hollande, the Socialist Party’s candidate and a favorite to displace Nicolas Sarkozy next month, took an interest in their work and hired them to organize a face-to-face mobilization campaign. They set a goal of reaching 5 million doors by the end of the second-round elections on May 5. Inside the hall in Lille, the actress hosting the Hollande rally reported that Socialist volunteers had reached more than 3 million so far. Before the three Alsatians met in Massachusetts, no one had ever before developed a centralized plan to knock on one.
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The Strasbourg troika, all between the ages of 28 and 31, are now known as les Bostoniens in much of the press coverage marveling at the air of foreignness that surrounds their peculiar undertaking. “The media liked us,” Muller said the other day at a café around the corner from Hollande’s Left Bank headquarters. “We were young and talking about modern methods and mentioning Obama in every sentence.” Many of those stories, however, focus so intently on the porte-à-porte aspect—the provocative gesture of arriving unannounced at a stranger’s house, especially in marginal neighborhoods, to talk politics—that they fail to appreciate the most radical aspect of the mobilization project: Liegey, Muller, and Pons are running a campaign operation aimed at nonvoters.
In France, presidential elections have been treated almost exclusively as a deliberative exercise. High turnout rates—regularly hovering around 80 percent of registered voters—mean that there is less room for elasticity in participation than in American elections. But the deliberative paradigm is also testament to national self-regard: Campaign debates play out nightly on highbrow talk shows, and the latest issue of Philosophie magazine devotes its cover to a mockup of the two leading candidates as “Rousseau Versus Hobbes: The Real Duel of the Presidential Election.” Even deploying the verb abstain to describe the 20 percent who stay home on Election Day suggests that nonparticipation is an action, derived from an informed stance.
Liegey, Muller, and Pons returned from the United States with a different idea. There were clearly other reasons why people didn’t vote besides principled disillusionment with the political system. Some people simply did not know how or where to cast a ballot. Others lacked familiarity with the specific candidates or parties. When they performed a demographic analysis of the left-leaning precincts with the lowest turnout rates, the three researchers found that age and education levels helped explain most of the phenomenon. Analysts, they suspected, had confused disillusionment for disengagement; the former might require a transcendent candidate, the latter only a bit of personal attention. “There are places where political volunteers never go,” says Liegey.
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.