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.
“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.