This is a response diary to a pretty stupid trend of breathless armchair diaries. I'm not naive enough to think it will stop, but I want to offer the organizer's perspective. Campaign organizers can't talk to the press or blog (message control), so I'll let you in on the mindset.
We Are the War Room We've Been Waiting For:
And that's a large reason why the Chicken Little proclamations that we so often read and hear elsewhere - the petulant demands from armchair campaign managers that the Obama fight back in specific ways - are so silly: Surrogates almost always make the better counterpunchers and anybody with a modem or a network of friends or neighbors is now as much of a surrogate as the big names that can garner mass media attention. When you can do something yourself, it's just plain infantile to call upon daddy or mommy - or the presidential candidate or political leader upon which you project that role - to do it for you. Hopefully, one of the lasting results of 2008 will be the emergence of the more grown-up form of political activism in which rather than calling on others to do things for us we simply do it ourselves.
In Virginia, the goal between about mid-July and the October 6 deadline is to register 151,000 voters. Averaged, that is about 1,756 per day between July 11 (when this was written) and Oct 6.
If that happens, the campaign believes, and 80% of those voters are Obama supporters and 75% of the voters who newly register actually go to the polls (both highly rational assumptions), then in Virginia alone that's a nearly 68,000-vote bump. Roughly 3.2M people voted in Virginia in 2004's general election, and if 3.5M vote this time, 68,000 is 1.9% of the vote total that Obama starts with.
Consider: what kind of mass voter registration is the McCain team doing? They will have organizers in Virginia trying to register new McCain voters, don't kid yourself, but is it this huge a push? Not a chance.
That means Obama has a chance to tangibly add 1.9% or so just on raw pre-deadline voter registration in Virginia. And every heavily contested state and congressional district everywhere in America. That is happening right now, this very day.
Tonight, each organizer is going to have to report the exact number of newly registered voters he/she and his/her volunteers collected toward that goal. There is an expected quota, which might be something like 20 per organizer per day, and that organizer's whole world is geared toward finding solid, non-flaky volunteers to show up when they say and put in the hours toward that all-important number. Volunteers under the organizer's pyramid who register voters count toward that organizer's daily requirement.
Organizers get up every day and do it all over. They get shitty pay and minimal sleep and work themselves so much to the bone that they'll probably be sick for a week after the election, but they are true believers who realize that direct action makes the country better. All they want from you is a weekly, no-flake, 3-hour, determined volunteer shift that helps generate the bottom line numbers Obama needs to win.
To that organizer, as Femlaw is about to find out, the world is divided into two categories:
(1) volunteers helping get to 20 registered voters that day; and
I have to tell you something. When I joined Jon Tester's field staff in 2006, I wondered whether my fellow staffers were in tune with energy and excitement being directed his way from a place like Daily Kos. I was surprised to find how tepid the response was. I had assumed that they must certainly value how much of a cause celebre Tester's candidacy had become. But the reality is all we cared about was getting volunteers to help make phone calls, knock on doors, gather early votes and fill GOTV shifts. That's it. And no matter how enthusiastic people were online, the people who came into our offices and put real volunteer work in were rarely driven our way by blogs.
There is not as much kinship between field organizers and the political blogosphere as you probably assume; it certainly surprised me. And the reason is just that binary dynamic above. By definition, talking on blogs falls into category (2). It's actual action versus writing about action. In field offices, only actual action is respected. Not even a new volunteer agreeing over the phone to come in for a volunteer shift is truly respected. Volunteers flake at astonishingly high rates. Usually fewer than half the people who agree to come help actually follow through, and even they often get quickly tired, cutting their show-up time short. In the morning your anticipated volunteer board might have 10 names on it, and 3 actually walk through the doors.
It's exclusively the actual following through and accomplishing a task toward a specific goal by a volunteer that is respected. The volunteers who are dependable, reliable, who seem to behave as if it hadn't occurred to them to flake or not work their asses off, you love those people. I mean it. These people move you. They are there.
It's the kid oaklands and kath25s and casperrs and all you other magnificent bastards who go out and do the real work that are the difference makers.
Al G's Chicken Littles, and all the people writing Obama must! do this! now! diaries... well, let's just say that if they were being paid attention to (they're not, because everyone in category (2) is ignored as irrelevant), they would push a field organizer's contempt buttons, big time.
Here are the first three rules in Giordano's "Boot Camp for Chicken Littles" formulated back during the primary (sorry no link, Al's site hosting drama is the culprit):
- Any time you cite a "national tracking poll" as supposed evidence of your candidate’s chances of victory disappearing, you must make 25 get-out-the-vote phone calls on that candidate’s behalf. (Don’t ask me how to do that: consult the web page of your candidate for instructions!)
- Any time you fret aloud about your candidate losing an upcoming primary or caucus, and worry about alleged grave consequences (in the face of the facts that all remaining candidates have lost some contests and yet they march on), you must make 50 calls to voters in every state you mention.
- Any time you complain aloud about what your candidate’s campaign or staff is not doing you must give at least $10 to that candidate, to make it possible for them to do more.
Everyone can do something. I have seen some heroic shit by people who went way beyond the call of duty. There was a guy named Bob G. (out of privacy I won't reveal his full name) who took it upon himself to canvass some pretty uncanvassable areas, going to people's houses and patiently sitting with them and talking about Jon Tester and why he supported him. Bob would spend his own gas, would drive hundreds of miles a week and take my lists with him, struggling with the poorly marked rural roads. Bob has no fucking idea what the blogosphere is, he was a 50 year old mine worker who understood that the world was binary - (1) action today, and (2) not.
When the whole thing was over and we'd won by just over 3,000 votes, our small group of organizers went out to sit at a bar and exhaustedly soak in the bonded togetherness and satisfaction of having won. Emotionally, we talked about the people we were going to remember. I thought of Bob, and talked about what he did.
Every field organizer has a Bob G. And every field organizer has talked to literally hundreds and hundreds of people who could have done something little but tangible, but instead did nothing.
Imagine: you going to your nearest field office in Virginia, or any state, and taking action today that leads to the registration of even three new voters, you are contributing to that 1.9% bump. Maybe it's in a highly competitive state like Indiana, maybe it's in a non-competitive state like California but helps defeat an unbelievable asshole like Dana Rohrabacher.
I realize that it may sound harsh to hear some of this. My intent is not to condemn or be a scold, since I was once fully guilty of this same inaction, but I also have to be blunt about the way it really is. Would you rather not know the truth, that the word "useless" is applied liberally within the inner organizer circle even though no organizer will be anything but polite to the face of a flaky volunteer who let them down with a lame excuse? It's only true because of how urgently binary the organizer's world is.
Here's how this is a response diary. The Obama-better-do-such-and-such armchair diaries are a form of self-absolution. The subtext of those diaries is: nothing I do would matter anyway as long as Obama's determined to screw it up. By assigning oneself the 30,000-foot view role, you get to avoid the gritty, calloused hand-by-calloused hand, block-level, one-voter-at-a-time view. It's so self-indulgent. A way of letting oneself off the hook for one's personal responsibility.
You know how we talk about Operation Yellow Elephant? Well, our parallel is people who talk about and analyze the impact of organizing and direct action on Democratic electoral chances, but who leave it to others to show up and do the doorknocking. That's our war - the war to reclaim our country. Don't be someone who talks about that war but doesn't put his or her body on the line. It's grating, and an outright insult to the Bob G's of the world. You don't have to go to extraordinary heroic lengths, just ordinary ones. Once a week between now and the election, show up for a full volunteer shift that your organizer can count on. Don't flake. Head down. Work hard.
What I hope you take away from this diary is actually what I see as the core rationale for Obama's "movement" - your personal, invigorated involvement in the life of your community and country is the only way our democracy can save itself. That action may not be a sufficient condition, but is a necessary one.