Yesterday's Washington Post op-ed page featured a familiar rap against Organizing for America - it seems to be wasting our time with small asks. Where's the army? What's going on? What's with this small-scale neighborhood action plan? Why don't we see a national movement in the streets?
Yep, that's right. We're telling stories. We're knocking doors. We're making phone calls. We're engaging in local activism. That's exactly what we did during the campaign - for two years. And it worked pretty well, the last time. . .
Harold Meyerson thinks OFA is spinning its wheels, when it should be able to push a button and send folks into the streets:
The problem begins with the administration's inability -- or disinclination -- to use its greatest political asset, the list of 13 million supporters that the Obama presidential campaign amassed last year. In 2008, that list was the wonder of the political world, enabling Barack Obama to run the best-funded campaign in history and to activate more volunteers than any candidate ever had.
This year, however, the administration has asked far less of that list and received, not surprisingly, far less in return. Organizing for America (formerly Obama for America), which maintains that list within the confines of the Democratic National Committee, has asked those 13 million Obamaites to "create a conversation within their communities," in the words of one DNC official. Specifically, the DNC has asked them to collect health insurance horror stories and put them online, to support a set of broad health-care principles, and to go door-to-door among independent voters in their neighborhood and talk to them about those principles. On June 27, some activists participated in what the DNC termed a "day of service," working in blood banks, volunteering at health clinics, raising money for medical research.
All very commendable, and about as likely to affect the outcome of the health-care deliberations as the phases of the moon.
All I can say is, where were you for the last two years? What, exactly, do you think the magic of the Obama e-mail list is? It's the real people who respond to a series of small asks: have a house party, go to a phonebank, spend a weekend canvassing, give $20. Each of those very small requests has the potential for a much bigger long term payoff. Have a small gathering at your house, and invite ten friends and neighbors, and get two or three of them to keep working with you. Become a neighborhood leader, build a team and start doing more. Organize door knocks, take responsibility for turf, volunteer in an office, manage a local phonebank. Have an event that draws a larger crowd, and call everyone who comes afterwards and get them to volunteer.
A lot of people on that list will never do more than open the e-mail, maybe send a little money. Or maybe make one phone call. But everyone who does only that much is now invested. Next time they are tapped, they may do more. And out of the 13 million come thousands of leaders, who mobilize real people off the list.
It was never the case that someone in Chicago just pushed a button and voila, as if by magic - voter contact! On a scale never seen before! All those intermediate capacity building steps - the long, hard work of field organizers - that part you don't see - that is what makes it work. You can e-mail people and ask them to canvass, like we're doing in California this weekend. But if you don't have organizers ready to set up canvass locations, print walk packets, and train volunteers, that e-mail isn't worth anything.
The investment in building up those volunteer resources always seems from the outside to be a distraction from the "real work" - whatever it is. In October of 2008, Zach Exley reported on this Obama model and how risky it seemed to spend so much time capacity building instead of working:
It was a huge risk for the national field program to have paid staff take the time to methodically build volunteer teams instead of rushing directly to spend all their time running voter contact activities themselves . . .
Jeremy Bird, the Ohio general election director and one of the driving forces behind making teams a national strategy, said, "We decided in terms of timeline that [our organizers] would not be measured by the amount of voter contacts they made in the summer—but instead by the number of volunteers that they were recruiting, training and testing. . . . .It is impossible to overstate how counter intuitive this slow-build approach was for Democrats. Even Regional Field Director for Southwest Ohio, Christen Linke Young—who I witnessed in 2004 pushing independently for just this strategy as an Ohio FO in Franklin County—said it was scary to take this patient approach:
"We had a whole month where, on our nightly calls with headquarters, we did not report our voter contact numbers. We only reported our leadership building. I definitely stayed on top of what our voter contact numbers looked like. But headquarters wasn't paying attention to how many voters we registered or how many doors we knocked that day—they were paying attention to how many one-on-one meetings we had, house meetings, neighborhood team leaders recruited, how many people we had convinced to come to this wonderful training in Columbus that we had. Yes, it was definitely scary to see how big our persuasion universe was and know that our first priority was not to just be tearing through that."
But in the end, the investment paid off - with the ability to knock far more doors at once than the organizers would have believed possible:
"We spent a month focusing on getting the pieces in place and now we can knock on 2,500 doors on the first Saturday in September. I'd love to count up how many canvasses we actually staged that day but I think most organizers had at least two canvasses—they were able to be in two places at once because they had recruited and trained leaders who could run their own canvasses and who could train other volunteers in persuasion."
When this story was finally ready to go to press, I called to get an update on Christen's numbers. Last weekend (October 4-5), the teams in her region knocked on 10,300 doors—and another 1,906 in the weekdays leading up to that. She mentioned a team that is canvassing now three times per week. They have dinner together every Tuesday night and breakfast every Saturday morning.
I saw the same thing happen here in California, over and over. Between August and November I saw phonebanks grow from a few people to dozens, to 100 callers a day, to 1000 callers a day or more on Election Day. Why? Because of e-mail? No, because the volunteers who ran those phonebanks called everyone who signed up online and reminded them to come, and then got them to sign up for a new shift when they left. And they provided the training, the handouts, the handholding everyone needed to get the job done. if you walked into our HQ office in late August, you might have thought Obama was in trouble. If you walked in in late September, you would not have found a chair.
So yes, we're gathering stories, because telling stories is the way to move Congress, get earned media, build a narrative about the pressing need for change. Movements don't just happen - they need inspiration to action. What's more motivating than hearing about how broken the system is, and seeing how many people are ready to fix it? And if you look at the stories page on MyBO (stories.barackobama.com), you can see a compelling case being built.
And yes, we're doing events like the national health care day of service June 27 because Congress pays attention to local actions in their districts, and because these events draw new local volunteers. You have to invest the time recruiting and organizing the volunteers in their communities, building the capacity, in order to scale up to the level that makes a national impact.
Oh, and we're knocking doors, because we want people who aren't yet engaged to start paying attention. And the best way to do that is to go to them personally. That's what we did during the campaign. It's hard, tedious work to build neighborhood by neighborhood. The work is invisible and the time to payoff is pretty long. What lead to millions of volunteers on Election Day was weeks and months of much smaller below the radar screen work.
I've seen this complaint before. Only a few weeks ago I responded to a series of nearly identical complaints about OFA:
What I think this criticism misses is that we're at the beginning of a new campaign. In the warm afterglow of building a huge, record-breaking and highly-effective campaign organization, our expectations for Organizing for America are predictably off the charts. But in fact, OFA has to go back, one by one, to all its supporters and re-engage them. Each campaign requires a new pass (or 12) through the list, carefully identifying supporters and potential supporters, volunteer leaders ready to take action, and connecting with individual voters, or in this case potential citizen activists.
House parties, calling your member of Congress, signing a petition. Each contact, each local activity seems quite small. But enough of them, on a big enough scale, produces surprising results.
In fact, we've been here before. Here's what I wrote back in November of 2007 - before Iowa, before Super Tuesday, before states like Indiana and North Carolina fell in the general election.
Largely invisible up until now, Obama's field structure is now coming into focus. That's what is energizing the campaign and the candidate. If Obama wins in Iowa, California and elsewhere, organizing - not oratory - will be the reason. . . . The Obama campaign has been relentless about two things: (1) raising enough money to be competitive with Clinton and (2) building field structure. The first has been fairly visible, with the quarterly reports providing a clear progress indicator. The second has been happening largely below the radar screen. We tend to focus here on what we can see - who has made an endorsement, what has a candidate said about a particular issue. Knowing who is "winning" the field structure war is tough, because we can't really see what the campaigns are doing. We largely rely on impressions or anecdotes, or gut feelings about who is more organized.
. . . And the geographically-based field structure has an advantage. We know our communities. We are calling and canvassing our neighbors, literally. We have a sense of what kinds of messages and strategies can work where we are. It's messy, because it's such a huge organizing project and it is bound to be uneven. It's risky, because the campaign's paid staff and centralized messaging is depending on volunteers to carry our these strategies and they can't fully control it. It's far from perfect. But it is exciting to be a part of it. The payoff, if it works - and I recognize that's a very big if - could be huge.
At that point in time, it was hard to see results. But just as welcoming $10 donors on a scale never before attempted broke the bank, welcoming volunteers with small, easy tasks produced the "largest field operation in the history of American politics."
Back in late 2007, a lot of people were writing off the Obama campaign. But from the ground, it looked like a potential winner. Time will tell if we are about to see the same dynamic play out again. But there's good reason to hope it will.
So if you want to see what grassroots action on healthcare might look like, this weekend we are canvassing door to door in California to generate support for healthcare - find one to join here.
And here's more:
OFA Story Page (Read stories, search for stories, and tell yours)
Organizing for Healthcare Web Portal (Write an LTE, Call Congress, and much more)
Disclaimer: I'm a volunteer with Organizing for America in California. I'm not writing or speaking on behalf of OFA. This diary, and all the words in it, are entirely my own.