Tag Archives: field CDP VAN CAVoterConnect

Echoes of the Future

It might still be a little early to draw conclusions about what we learned from the 2008 cycle. Votes are still being counted and precinct-level results have yet to be analyzed, and I know for sure that most days I feel like I have about three neurons left for thinking about anything substantive.

But maybe we’re starting to pick up some echoes. David started the conversation on this topic here and here, and as a reminder for those who can make it, there will be an in-person After Action Review meeting tomorrow as a breakout during the California Democratic Party (CDP) e-board meeting in Anaheim.

I can’t make it to Anaheim, but I want to get the three lessons that are starting to emerge from my perspective out there…

The first two lessons are that in close elections, 1) outreach to racially and ethnically diverse communities and 2) the implementation of a vigorous field campaign are simply not optional. And 3): we still have a LOT of dimension three power to shift in this state. (For those unfamiliar with this term, to summarize greatly: dimension one is being able to stop stuff, two is getting stuff you want done, and three is shifting worldviews, ideologies, values, common sense and assumptions. The American Prospect has a good starting point for more on this here.)

Regarding diversity outreach, there’s a lot to say on this and a ton of work to do. But in the short run, I don’t understand why everyone running any kind of campaign for anything in this state isn’t knocking down the door of groups like Hope Road Consulting (full disclosure, they work down the hall from me), whose entire focus is on how to reach these communities. And dimension three shifts are a whole other huge topic for later. The focus here is some preliminary ideas on how to proceed on the field side.

First, a little more background on this. After the February California primary, I wrote up a summary that was published on TechPresident with as much detail on what the presidential campaigns did and how they did it as I had. I was very excited by both how the Clinton and Obama campaigns had executed in California, but in particular by the techniques that Obama deployed here.

That story might be helpful in getting some of the broad dynamics and details, but Zack Exley’s recent report from being embedded with Obama for America (OFA) in Ohio is completely invaluable. Zack manages to really hone in on what made the Obama field operation tick and why organizing can be the most intellectually demanding and deeply satisfying work there is:

“A well-run organizing campaign is the most beautiful thing in the world: people know what they’re working for; they have little successes everyday; they prepare for problems ahead of time and have great fun attacking them when they happen. Everyone is in a state of constant euphoria. In the end, win or lose, you have built something that gives you hope for the future-hope that humanity can, as it turns out, work cooperatively towards a better future and succeed.”

Maybe Zack’s overstating things a bit – but maybe not. Jen and I got a brief glimpse of the Virginia operation two weeks out when we were there for a family emergency. From what we saw, euphoria sounds about right. We ran into the organizers in this picture at one of the staging areas, and sure enough, they were pretty euphoric, as was the grinny guy at the first one we stopped at. On a Sunday afternoon we went to three different offices and staging areas, and at all of them, they had run out of precincts. Not that they hadn’t printed enough, or they were out of tier one precincts, or that they were out of lit or something: they literally had people out in every precinct in the region. There were so many staging areas that most people didn’t even have to get into the car to connect with the campaign. They’d literally baked the campaign right into the landscape, right into the neighborhoods.

Contrast this apparent constant state of euphoria with the depression, centralization, disorganization and anxiety I’m picking up from many organizers during our various campaigns and on display in the previous threads. Can we get from here to there? To do so we have to answer two questions. First: how’d OFA do it? What’s in the secret sauce? and second: even if with these details, can we do it here – or does this hinge on the particular dynamics and excitement generated by Obama?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Obama’s Secret Sauce

If we’re going to cook up our own batch of Obama moonshine, the first step is to think about the ingredients. I’m going to try to do more evaluation with folks who were on the campaign over the next few weeks, but here’s an initial take:

The first ingredient is to get the overall strategy right. OFA built a highly distributed, social network-oriented operation built on trust. The best phrase I’ve seen to describe this is “Empowered Accountability.” The one social network we all have is our neighborhood, and that’s where it starts, but they were also very savvy about getting people to tap whatever networks they had. This part has to come from the top, from the campaign leadership and the candidate. As a complex system, a good field campaign is very sensitive to initial conditions. The reason Barack’s campaign was so good had a lot to do with Barack. We have to figure out how to build this kind of leadership at the state and local level, but my guess is we’ve already started.

The second ingredient is training. The way the Camp Obamas were set up was key in getting folks not just to do useful work, but to feel like they were a real part of the campaign. This sense of ownership then drove people to make bigger and bigger commitments in both time and in small donations. Whether it was a 2 hour, all day or two-day training, the format was built around three main components: Cesar Chavez/Marshall Ganz-style storytelling, a campaign update, and then training on tools and techniques. All of these components were designed to be scaled up or scaled down to fit the available amount of time; this flexibility made it possible for the California primary campaign to hook and train hundreds of people at a time the few weekends before February 5th.

The third ingredient is having the right tools. (the usual full disclosure here: I’m going to say nice things about the VAN, which my organization, CA VoterConnect, offers to campaigns of all sizes on a sliding scale.) Coming out of our experience in the 2004 primary, we knew that the main web-based toolset a campaign would need included first, a social networking system of some kind to enable meetups and self-organization, and second, an easy-enough to use voter file to turn that self-organization into a usable electoral force. The tools are important, because if they’re designed and deployed right, they help give activists an upward path towards becoming ever more effective and more involved. [Update: I forgot better targeting, somehow. Better targeting tools, including reiterative targeting that could be used as a force multiplier for a field campaign, are absolutely crucial. Improvement in this area probably would have won us the three close races we’re losing by under 1% handily.]

On the social networking side, a local organization can use a mishmash of the DNC’s PartyBuilder or the Courage Campaign’s social network, as well as tools like Google Groups & Google Docs, and to some degree Facebook (although sometimes it seems like Facebook has gone out of their way to make it impossible to use it to organize). On the voter file side, while of course I’m a big proponent of the VAN (the Voter Activation Network, a web-based voter file tool), as long as the system has fresh, high-quality baseline data, supports local control, local ownership and ongoing storage of the contact data, and can be used for social-network and neighborhood organizing, it will do. This may be the direction that Political Data, Inc. OnlineCampaignCenter and MOE tools that the CDP uses are going. My feeling is that the VAN is still superior and will become more so over the next few cycles, but all that’s required of a tool is for it to meet those basic requirements. There will also likely be new tools and new innovations in this area that campaigns and organizations can and should experiment with as they’re developed and released.

Can we do it here?

My feeling is that yes, we can – and for a lot of reasons. People want to get involved, and if we can create satisfying roles for them and walk them along a path of deepening commitment, they will get involved and stay involved. Sometimes all it takes is to walk past a smiling volunteer with a clipboard and a big sign that says “GET INVOLVED HERE.” It takes time and patience. In Santa Barbara, we did a low-key recruiting push for the Democratic Service Club simply by setting up a table at the farmer’s market, but it took months before we started to pick up real numbers. The earlier a campaign starts, the longer of a runway they’ll have. But local party groups can and should organize year-round and the state party should do everything they can to encourage this. If we can show people how their efforts are effective, how they are helping to build the functional and participatory next version of our democracy, they’ll build it. It gets easier to imagine that future every year: for the first time, we have a big, national campaign (and a glorious victory) to point to as an example.

And just as the structure of the campaign has to be distributed, maybe our inspiration can be distributed, too. Maybe one of the candidates for governor will emerge as the strong progressive voice we need to turn things around. But maybe not. Since power concedes nothing and our current batch of leaders may not decide that democratizing state political power is in their best interest, we may have to build this thing ourselves.

But what more inspiration do we need than our vision? We’re starting to figure out what we want, and we’re starting to get some ideas about how to get there. Maybe we’ll pour our energies into building strong state and local organizations and networking them together. I don’t feel like we have an inspiration deficit, we just need to figure out how to channel that inspiration effectively.

One of the next steps is that I hope we can make building the participatory future an issue in the CDP Chair contest. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of the candidates for Vice-Chair is already pretty well on board. I hope this will be a topic of discussion in Anaheim. It’s not something I have much expertise to, but I look forward to contributing in whatever small way I can.