On a bright winter morning in Monza, a town near Milan in Italy’s Lombardy region, a few dozen young political activists walk through neighborhoods rustling up votes for their candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party. Many of the volunteers have traveled from distant cities. “The idea was to come where it’s really needed,” says Elly Schlein, who took a bus from Bologna, some 140 miles away. “Everybody is realizing that Lombardy is where the game will be played.”
Busing in outsiders to knock on doors is an age-old election-year practice in the U.S. Not so in Italy, where campaigns are usually top-down and focus on national rather than local concerns. But this is an unusual election year. No candidate for prime minister has sewn up enough support to be confident of forming a government after ballots are cast on Feb. 24-25; the contest will likely be decided by voters in a handful of closely contested areas, including Lombardy and Sicily, which have emerged as the Italian equivalent of U.S. swing states. To win their support, political pros in Italy are experimenting with American campaign tactics.
Italy has two chambers of Parliament, and a majority in each is needed to form a government. Bersani, ahead in national polls, is expected to have little trouble in the Lower House, where victory is given to the coalition that wins the largest share of the popular vote. The Senate, where seats are allocated region-by-region in a system a little like the U.S. electoral college, will prove more of a challenge. As of Feb. 8, at least 5 of Italy’s 20 regions were too close to call—most notably Lombardy, the country’s most populous region and home to 12 percent of the Senate’s members.
To sway the all-important Lombardy vote toward Bersani, Schlein helped launch Operation Ohio. “It’s based on something that is done during U.S. presidential elections,” says Giuseppe Civati, a parliamentary candidate from Monza. “You take volunteers from across the country and move them where they count.” The effort—organized, Italian-style, in less than a week—is much more modest than the data-driven machinery of the Obama and Romney campaigns. In some 40 towns, local party members join activists from as far away as L’Aquila, 400 miles to the south. The group’s Facebook page featured a big red button encouraging participants to attaccare bottone—or buttonhole—voters from Lombardy and press upon them the importance of casting a ballot.
Schlein, 27, who holds both Italian and American passports, volunteered for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and returned to Italy determined to put what she’d learned to use. “This is an attempt to bring that experience here,” she says. She spent a recent morning uploading photos of cheerful volunteers to the campaign’s Facebook page, which challenges canvassers to tweet snapshots of voters they sign up. “The idea is to make things a bit dynamic,” she says.
Bersani’s rivals could make it difficult for him to seal up places such as Lombardy. Silvio Berlusconi, the sex scandal-plagued former prime minister, has spent the last two months making increasingly wild promises to voters, wrestling his way into second place nationally. While he likely remains too weakened to take the Senate outright, Berlusconi could win enough support that Bersani would be left with only a slender majority, making governing difficult. That’s what happened in 2006, when Romano Prodi formed a government with a single-vote majority in the Senate. It hung on for just two years before collapsing.
Alternatively, a close result could create an opening for Prime Minister Mario Monti to have a second chance at political power. The technocrat, who took office in 2011 but stepped aside in December when he lost support of Parliament, is running again. Monti is also borrowing from American politics: He hired David Axelrod, Obama’s strategist, as an adviser. Though Monti’s showing in the polls has been poor, he’s likely to command enough senators that he could throw his votes behind Bersani to form a coalition. “It’s a funny paradox,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss University in Rome. “Monti has to cheer for Berlusconi, to hope that he becomes a spoiler. Only then can Monti become the pivotal actor in the Senate.” Italians may just be getting their heads around the idea of swing states. But they have long experience with swing candidates.