Organizing Matters: The Lesson from Hillary's NV Win

Before the mainstream media descended on Nevada, I spent several days with the Clinton campaign there in early December. The field campaign, led by State Director Robby Mook and field director Marlon Marshall turned out to be an incredible example of passionate, yet cool-headed management and results-focused organizing.

Every single night, for almost one year up until today, in the modest Las Vegas offices of the Clinton campaign, young, exhausted organizers have reliably reported the results of their hard days' work to a regional field director in incredible detail. Every night, without fail.

For the mainstream news media, a few seconds of "tears" or a last minute robo call will always trump the story of a year of meticulous organizing by disciplined armies of young campaign staff and volunteers. Though it's difficult to report comprehensively on scattered and closed-mouthed presidential field operations, there are reasons to believe that high-quality field organizing has been decisive in the first contests of 2008. This week in Nevada, Obama had a surge in the polls and an endorsement from the powerful Culinary Workers union on his side. Meticulous organizing and good management by the local Clinton Nevada staff have made the difference.

But the big field story of 2008 is not about the horse race. In the 2008 and 2004 presidential primary cycles, the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire -- joined by Nevada and South Carolina this year -- have functioned as training grounds for a new generation of field organizers and incubators of new field techniques and technologies. The dramatic surge in early resources available to campaigns has put large staffs on the ground up to one year before voting day. These organizing hothouses -- especially on the Democratic side -- are producing a new generation of activists who are as disciplined and skilled as they are passionate.

It remains to be seen, however if this new generation of talented and battle-tested organizers and field leaders will be given the reigns during the general election.

A little after 9:00 PM, in one nightly reporting meeting I witnessed, regional field director Ryan Donohue started with three questions for all his organizers: "Did you have a Caucus 101 meeting today?" "How many people were you expecting to show up?" "How many people did you actually have?" In the case of a discrepancy, organizers were asked to explain what happened. There was the feeling that it was better to have a small number of volunteers and to have predicted turn out correctly, than to have a big unexpected turnout. In other words, as an organizer, this campaign expected you to be in control.

The walls of Donahue's team office were covered with overlapping charts and lists of staff, their precinct captains, and other measures of their progress. But no numbers were put on the wall without a discussion of how they were achieved -- and the lessons to be learned from the experience. In these nightly reporting sessions, regional directors went beyond mere numbers to debrief every conversation the organizers held that day with potential campaign workers as well as detailed plans for future recruitment, voter ID, persuasion and organization building. Each reporting session included good-natured self-critique and group-critique of team members' day-to-day efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. All meetings closed with a "role play" in which one organizer was called upon to lead a mock volunteer house meeting (the mainstay organizing tool of the campaign). The role plays too were followed by self- and group-critique.

After organizers had given their reports, they went to work inputing data from the day's work into "The Donkey," a new online volunteer management system. Regional directors then gathered in another room to report their teams' results to the statewide field director, Marlon Marshall, followed by the same process of self- and group-critique and evaluation.

In one of these upper-level meetings I visited, word was handed down by Marshall of new internal polls showing Obama surging in Nevada. And rumor had it that all bets were off, even in Iowa. No more inevitability. And intelligence about the Obama campaign pointed to massive turnout on their part.

Marshall explained to his bleary-eyed regional directors that the vote goals for all precincts therefore had to be revised. In other words, the goal post for all organizers had suddenly moved much father away. The regional field directors looked to be in various states of anxiety. But there was no sense of depression or despair. They were part of a well functioning organization. They knew the next step. They knew exactly what they had to do the next day, because they had just detailed their plan to their field director in the meeting.

Finally, getting close to 11:00 PM, Marshall would then report the progress of the past 24 hours in detail to state director Mook.

Through that repetition of work, accountability, reflection and change, an organization was being built to accomplish a goal: victory in the Nevada Caucus on January 19. That repetition was taking place within a grand strategy that, though changing along with the conditions of the race, was understood by all staff and even all volunteers.

Mook sees that kind of big-picture strategic understanding as essential for everyone from regional field organizers down to precinct captains: "If I train someone, and hold them accountable for delivering overall goals in a precinct, they're going to work a lot harder than if I just say, 'Go find 3 supporters and then come back to me.' If I say, 'You're accountable for winning," then they're going to do whatever it takes. And also, as the definition of what it's going to take to win changes over the course of the campaign, they're going to be able to adapt to that."

Even as the clock struck midnight, staff were still buzzing around the office in a mixture of calm efficiency and adrenalin rush as the news of the new tough reality spread among the staff.

Mook and Marshall are naturally good managers. And they work at being good managers. They see it as a major ingredient to winning--something that makes campaigns work.

"I've worked for Robby before and he sets a tone of being accountable--not just in terms of numbers, but also your work ethic and how your treat people, and how you run an organization. It comes out of asking a lot of people, but respecting people too," caucus director Mara Lee told me.

"Here, people are asked to do what they can do, and a little bit more. The nice thing is that organizers know they can go to their regionals. Regionals know they can go to Robby, or myself or Marlon. So it's not just a matter of reporting up--there's actually a two way conversation. Sure, it's hierarchical because it's an organization. But everyone is helping each other to succeed."

I asked Ryan Donohue if the level of detail expected in daily reporting seemed excessive. "At first yes," he said. "But now I realize it might actually be a little under."

That echoed what Mook told me about his method of breaking organizers in to this insane level of regimentation:

"It's never hard to get people to work hard on this kind of campaign. If someone came all the way out here to Nevada just work for Senator Clinton, they're already ready to do what ever it takes. And they really want to win. But the discipline piece is the hard part. And a lot of times, that means giving them time to prove to themselves that things need to be done a certain way. We'll say, 'Here's the way to have a successful house meeting -- if you do this you will have done everything you can to have been successful.' Things like: sit down with the host and get them to give you 50 names to invite. Little disciplined steps like that. A new organizer will say that's overkill. But then their first meeting will not be successful and so then they get it."

My first organizing job after college, with a union, demanded a similar level of daily accountability as on Mook's campaign. But my mentor's primary means of enforcing it was the traditional Old Left staple: terror. He'd often yell at us or viscerally insult us when we failed to carry out our tasks exactly as ordered. Actually, it worked quite well for me. But this new generation of left leaders favors trust and respect.

Lee, the caucus director, told me that respect was part of the DNA of the organization Robby built in Nevada: "We respect our leaders -- and so yelling just wouldn't be tolerated. What we're doing here is different from so many other organizations because we really are investing in our staff and in precinct captains. We're building permanent organizers and a permanent organization."

For Democrats in 2004, all these ingredients were lacking in most places during the general election: repetition of disciplined work, sound strategy, respect for precinct volunteers and staff organizers, and the most basic elements of decent management. Most of that was missing in Iowa for front runner Howard Dean too, where meticulous and consistent organizers working for John Kerry and John Edwards pulled victories out of Joe Trippi's "perfect storm" of passionate, numerous and unorganized, volunteers.

Dean's long-haul New Hampshire campaign was another story, however. Robby Mook developed as an organizer there through it's house-by-house, meeting-by-meeting process of organization building. Dean's fiercely independent New Hampshire operation produced a roster of young organizers who are now playing key roles in 2008 campaigns. Jeremy Bird, who is good friends with Mook, is in charge of organizing in South Carolina for Barack Obama. Karen Hicks has been a senior field advisor to Hillary Clinton's operation. And Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz, a veteran of the Farm Workers Union who helped shape and inspire Dean's New Hampshire strategy, is an advisor and trainer for the Obama campaign. Many others have been trained since 2004 by organizers from the New Hampshire Dean operation--for example, Buffy Wicks, who directs Obama's innovative California field operations.

"The NH experience was kind of a 'crucible' in which some talented young organizers had to work their way through some big challenges, taking an approach to electoral organizing that had been marginalized for years. So it wasn't neat, it wasn't smooth, and, at times, it wasn't professional," says Ganz.

"The US presidential selection system uniquely combines cosmic significance with utter contingency in a way that is truly remarkable. It takes a strong heart, a clear head, and skillful hands to provide the leadership to make it work. Jeremy and Robby came from very different places, but both showed their strength of heart, kept their heads clear--most of the time--and grew skills with their hands to make a difference in the world. That's what they're doing."

All the discipline and repetition of Mook's Nevada organization wouldn't have meant anything if it didn't satisfy that "utter contingency." The purpose of the organization Mook was building was to accomplish a very specific string of results: (1) Recruit a competent and dedicated leader for every precinct; (2) Test those leaders to make sure they are capable of recruiting and leading other caucus goers; (3) ID and turn out as many Clinton supporters to caucus as possible; and (4) Train precinct leaders to make sure they know how to lead their caucus attendees on the big day.

Precinct leaders were recruited and tested though the mechanism of the house meeting. These house meetings are not to be confused with the "self-organized" house parties popular with the national Dean campaign in 2003-2004. These house meetings were imported to the insular Dean New Hampshire operation across the decades from Caesar Chavez's Farm Worker movement, Saul Alinsky's neighborhood organizing and older movements by Marshal Ganz and other veteran Farm Worker organizers who visited New Hampshire in 2003.

Unlike most of the Internet-organized house parties of the national Dean campaign, the house meetings of Dean New Hampshire 2003-2004 and Clinton Nevada 2007-2008 had definite goals that would be tracked and reported immediately after the gatherings. In the case of the house meetings I visited in Nevada, the goal was commitment cards--promises to caucus for Clinton. Organizers also had to report how many new potential leaders had offered to hold their own house meetings.

Hundreds upon hundreds of house meetings over many months slowly built out Clinton's organization in Nevada. And then, as December finally arrived, it was time to bring leaders together to a series of training events to give the organization concrete knowledge and skills about caucusing as well as a sense of collective identity and excitement.

On Saturday, December 15, I attended one of these mass trainings at the William Orr Elementary School just outside of downtown Las Vegas. An incredible number of volunteer precinct captains showed up for this all-day commitment. Of course, showing up was a test in itself. Precinct captains who committed and didn't show up would be replaced.

Introductory speakers included Rory Reid and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And then caucus director Mara Lee and Robby Mook got to work preparing precinct captains with the detailed knowledge they would need to have to compete in the caucuses successfully. Following that, the mass broke up into smaller groups according to the staff organizers who were in charge of their precincts. I sat in a meeting run by a young organizer named Megan Rodman who repeated the same set of instructions over and over until her group of precinct captains could produce no more questions.

At the very end of the training day, a gaggle of reporters and television cameras showed up for a pre-planned photo op of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa going "canvassing." With at least five people from his staff and another five from the Clinton campaign following behind, he walked down the street from the Elementary School and began knocking on the doors of unsuspecting Latino voters who were shocked and confused to find themselves talking to someone who said he was the Mayor of Los Angeles and had the TV cameras to prove it.

That was the scene that made the evening news that day, not the meticulous organizing that had gone into the event.

The Nevada Clinton campaign is not the only well-run campaign among the early-state primary operations. There are at least 12 such operations on the Democratic side: four (the number of early states) times three (the number of major candidates running robust operations in all four states). There are several more on the Republican side this cycle. In each of these pressure cookers, a new generation of organizers is maturing.

Through this process, circumstance may be handing Democrats a long-term advantage in field organizing over Republicans. In 2007-2008, Democrats have far more organizer incubators than the GOP, and theirs are far better funded too. The overall amount of money raised by Republicans is far less than that raised by Democrats. And on the Republican side only Romney has had anything close to a robust field operation in all four early states. Furthermore, the 2003-2004 cycle also had a number of such incubators in the primaries for Democrats. That cycle, the GOP had no primary.

In other words, Democrats have enjoyed bumper crops of field organizers for two presidential cycles. The next big question is this: Will the nominee succeed in harvesting these crops and making the very best use of these organizers. Or will she or he put blockages and bureaucracy in the way of these young organizers, as happened in the 2004 General Election?

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