The New Organizers, What's really behind Obama's ground game

Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people's organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.
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Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people's organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.

The "New Organizers" have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so "top-down" and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or "bottom-up" organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.

Win or lose, "The New Organizers" have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition. If he doesn't, then the broader progressive movement needs to figure out how to pick this up, keep it going and spread it to all 50 states. For any of that to happen, the incredible organizing that has taken place this year inside Obama's campaign—and also here and there in Clinton's—needs to be thoroughly understood and celebrated. Toward that end, here are glimpses from several days of observations and interviews in Central and Southwest Ohio. This article focuses on the field program's innovative "neighborhood team" structure and the philosophy of volunteer management underlying it that is best summarized by the field campaign's ubiquitous motto: "Respect. Empower. Include."

In her job at a Middletown, Ohio, steel factory, Glenna Fisher managed the preparation and shipping of millions of pounds of steel per year until her retirement six years ago. But when she has volunteered for democratic campaigns in the past, no one ever asked her to do anything more complicated than calling voters with a script.

This year, the field organizer (FO) assigned to her town, Ryan Clay, had much bigger plans for her.

"He'd gotten my name from info I'd entered on the Obama website listing ways in which I'd be willing to volunteer," Glenna explained in the Hamilton office before a regular report-in with Ryan. "He called and we set up a time to meet at a local coffee shop."

One of the ways Ryan asked Glenna to help was recruiting other volunteers.

"And that Sunday, my church had a joint service with our sister church, a local African-American congregation. There I talked with a friend who gave me several names of people who also might be interested in volunteering with the campaign. I called Ryan and passed on those names and phone numbers," Glenna said.

Ryan was impressed, and continued to ask Glenna to try increasingly difficult tasks. She didn't know it, but she was being "tested" to see if she had what it took to be a neighborhood team leader (NTL).

After Glenna had proven her reliability and effectiveness, Ryan asked her for another special one-on-one meeting where he invited her to formally agree to become an NTL. He spelled out all of an NTL's responsibilities before allowing her to accept it and even gave her a binder spelling it all out in writing: She would work with him to recruit other team members such as coordinators for canvassing, phone banking and data management. Her team would be responsible for connecting with all of the Democratic and undecided voters within their "turf." Other volunteers who stepped forward in her area would not be managed by campaign staff, but by Glenna's team. As team leader, Glenna would report results to Ryan a couple times per week and would be held accountable for meeting specific goals by certain deadlines.

2008-10-08-rootscampad.pngIn 2004, it was unusual for volunteers to have persistent roles and responsibilities—both at the Kerry campaign and the independent field operation Americans Coming Together. That is the norm for electoral organizing campaigns, and perhaps organizing in general these days. In contrast, the Obama neighborhood team members are organizers themselves, sometimes working more or less as staff alongside the young FOs.

Patrick Frank, 21, joined the campaign as a volunteer, won an unpaid "Organizer Fellowship" and finally was hired as an FO in July. Having served as a volunteer on more than 10 political campaigns, Patrick contrasts his experience at Obama with the traditional organizing model he was used to:

"It's about empowering. When I was 16 I worked on a big governor's campaign. And we were reliable volunteers and we were putting in serious hours. I felt like we should have been leaders, but that never happened. They said, 'Do your call lists, knock on doors—let us do the thinking.' Now, on the Obama campaign, when I see people like me and my friends used to be, we turn them around and say, 'Well hey, here's how to be a community organizer. Let me help you be a community organizer.' And then they go out and they get people to be their coordinators. And then we tell those new coordinators, 'Build yourself a team and be organizers too.' There's no end to it."

And that's exactly what Patrick did with long-time Democratic activist Don Daiker, who told me at the Oxford campaign office, "I've succeeded in recruiting 4 organizers: one in charge of canvassing, one in charge of phone banking, one in charge of volunteer recruitment, and one in charge of data transcription and recording. So that's my team. And we're responsible for roughly a quarter of Oxford, excluding the campus. And on top of that, I've taken charge of organizing house parties in the area."

While it was Patrick's job to make sure that all of those coordinators had been sufficiently tested for reliability before they got their official position, Don was the one making the ask. Describing how he made the ask to his canvass coordinator, Anne Bailey: "I said, if you're really interested in doing more, meet me at the coffee house and we'll talk about it. So I met her there and I said, 'How would you like to be canvass coordinator?' And she said, 'What does that mean?' I described it and I said, 'I'll print it out for you—because the Obama people have a little manual and there's a section in it about how you do canvasing.' "

Team leaders like Don have some latitude to shape roles around individual personalities. While not everyone has a volunteer coordinator, Don created that role for retired high school English teacher Marilyn Elsley, one of his recruits who wanted to lead but wasn't comfortable with the canvassing coordinator position.

"Up here there's a sign up sheet for phone banking," Don said, pointing to a giant chart on the wall of the office, "And it's filling up. Marilyn calls the people, and then we fill them in here, and then the phone bank coordinator, Cynthia Durgan, sets up the phone bank and trains the callers. We'll be phone banking just about every day between now and November 4."

After visiting my fourth or fifth team, it was painfully clear that an enormous amount of power is unlocked by this incredibly simple act of distributing different roles to people who actually feel comfortable taking them on. And I say "painfully" because I couldn't stop thinking about all the union and electoral campaigns I've worked on where we did not do this.

I thought about Patrick's story from high school when I met Jacob Manser, a 16 year-old who is serving as the canvass coordinator for his neighborhood team in the heart of Columbus. The team's FO, Steph Lake, took me by the beginning of an afternoon phone bank that the team was coordinating. All the team members were playing their different roles: The team's volunteer coordinator, a semi-retired software developer named Robert Hughes had prepared the call lists in conjunction with the team's phone bank coordinator, Leslie Krivo-Kaufman, another high school student. Team leader Janeen Sands oversaw the whole event. And another volunteer, who was not even a team coordinator (yet) had donated her house for the event. Jacob helped out that day by collecting the data from the event. The team was still looking for a data coordinator and other members were sharing that role. Later that night, Steph and I stopped by his house to get the tallies (though volunteers organized by the team would do the actual data entry). They made the exchange in the street in front of Jacob's house, talking softly so as not to disturb any neighbors. It was about 10:00 PM—on a school night!

"Should I be worried about your grades?" I asked.

"I have a 4.2," he said.

"OK—I didn't even know that was possible," I admitted.

While the team structure dramatically increases volunteer productivity, it does so even more for the staff FOs.

Ryan, for example, has six teams covering a wide swath of rural and exurban Southwest Ohio. He said, "It's great—it's like having six offices around town."

He elaborated: "So many people lose elections because of the places you can't get to. This program allows Glenna's team, with just two or three weeks of VAN training to know how to cut turf, to know how to pull lists and put canvass packets together. So all that type of work that eats up so much time for organizers can be handled at the local level—at her place. That allows me to bounce around and find other team leaders. Since she's become a team leader and started taking care of her neighborhood, I've been able to go out and find four other team leaders—because I can rest assured that she's made the volunteer recruitment calls for her canvasses, and that she's made the confirmation calls. I might make a few calls at night—and if I find a new good volunteer I'll shoot Glenna an email saying, 'Call this person when you can.' But for the most part, it allows me to jump out of that neighborhood and spend time with another neighborhood that needs the help."

"So being able to play in every single street is really important and the teams are what let us do that," Ryan continued.

The Ohio campaign is attempting to build teams in 1,231 campaign-defined "neighborhoods," each covering eight to ten precincts. They are targeting virtually every inhabited square mile of the state. The campaign claimed to have teams in 65% of neighborhoods when I visited in early September. That's risen to 85% coverage at press time—and they are shooting for 100%. In contrast, the Kerry campaign effectively wrote off rural counties, and completely abandoned them in the final few weeks of the campaign in a last minute all-in shift to the cities.

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. From the point of view of the conventional wisdom of much of the pre-Obama field organizing world, the campaign is actually taking two big risks: first they are risking everything on the effectiveness of masses of volunteers, then they are risking everything again by relying on volunteer teams to lead those masses. What if teams was just a bunch of hippy nonsense? What if it turned out there just weren't that many unpaid activists capable of running high-quality canvasses?

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 was much more an infrastructure focus. So there would be no calls from Chicago saying, 'Why haven't you made more calls?!' Instead there would be calls saying, 'Where are your neighborhood team volunteers?' Or, if the numbers seemed high, 'Are they real?' It was a whole shift in mentality that was really, really good."

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 Christen said the meticulous building has paid off: "And then last weekend we [teams in Christen's area] had 100 volunteers on Saturday canvassing—which is not something I ever would have thought was possible. And they knocked on 2,500 doors. And so you go: 'OK, it paid off, it worked.' 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.

Christen said, "I feel like people are committing more time this election because there's a community thing going on, and they're part of something that's local and social. But we're also more effective at harnessing volunteers because the teams do a lot of the training and debriefing themselves—it scales well. Everyone who goes out canvassing comes back with at least one story of someone they impacted. The team leaders are trained to give people time to tell those stories, and so everyone gets a sense of progress and they learn from each other how to be more effective next time."

That's a totally different picture than what I saw in scores of Kerry offices in 2004: crowds of canvassers receiving minimal instruction before being sent to an unfamiliar neighborhood and rarely getting the chance to debrief with others as a group.

The long term planning and relationships that emerged in the process were the keys: "These are tested and trained leaders—we knew we could trust them, and they knew they could trust us. They knew that if we said we'd give them everything they needed to run their event, that we'd have it for them. So that when we said, 'recruit 15 people to be at your house on Sunday, but I'm not going to be there'—that they knew we'd adequately prepare them for that day."

Compared to 2004, the productivity of the field is on a whole different level, said Christen, "There wasn't even a special push last weekend to get those volunteers there. I remember in 2004 there was a huge push to knock on this many doors one weekend in Franklin county as part of a nationwide thing. We dropped everything for that. But here, it was just a normal Saturday. And it's just going to keep getting bigger each weekend."

Training for organizers—and for volunteers—was critical to the success of this unorthodox model. In Ohio, Jeremy insisted on getting the whole staff together for an intensive full-weekend training early in the program.

"When I got here, yeah, I was nervous," said Jeremy, "because most of these organizers had never done this [team building] before. We did two days—we got everyone together, we went to Oberlin."

That training was expensive, but Jeremy said, "We spent more money than they ever wanted us to. But training is the most important thing. So [in our field budget] I'll cut whatever you want—but having all of our organizers together and training them for a full weekend. A lot of campaigns say they do training but it's often like a two hour orientation. We wanted to make sure that ours was a real, interactive, in-depth training."

A similar training was held for the first wave of team leaders that had been recruited by late August—and two different volunteers who I spoke to about it literally choked up as they tried to describe how powerful an experience it was. Training for staff and teams continues every week. Just the day before I first met Don and Patrick, they had spent an afternoon with the whole team gathered, going over the big-picture campaign strategy right up through Election Day. Of course they took some time to beef up on voter contact basics too. While I was in Ohio, the whole paid staff came together regionally for a full-day session of sharing successes and trouble shooting problems. The campaign is fanatical about constant quality checking and continuous feedback.

Both staff and volunteers are unusually reflective and analytical regarding the team model and the organizing philosophy of "Respect. Empower. Include." Those words were plastered in hugh letters around almost every office I visited, and organizers will get carried away talking about those principles and how they are supported by various details of the organizing model they're practicing.

I think this is partly because the model is working, and so people are excited about it, and excited to think about it. But it's also because the leadership—models this methodological introspection in all the trainings they do in in their daily management of organizers.

Jeremy and other national leaders actually produced a 280 page manual spelling out the model after conducting hundreds of interviews with primary and caucus organizers as well as ploughing through thousands of survey responses from volunteers.

The field director Jackie Bray was driving around the state doing spot checks on the quality of local team structures when I was in Ohio. So I asked her to describe the field model in an email. I'm struck by two things about her response: first, how detailed and self-analytical it is; second, that it represents exactly the model I saw actually being practiced in the field—because I'm sorry to say it, but I'm just used to anyone with the title "director" being hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the ground. (Including myself in more than a couple past jobs!)

Jackie wrote: "When we identify a volunteer or a potential volunteer we always hold a one on one meeting. Movements aren't built on individual people—they are built on relationships. Then we ask our volunteers to make deeper commitments. We coach new volunteers and facilitate the process for folks who are old hat at this stuff through an organizing activity. Usually the organizing activity is hosting a house meeting but it can be hosting a community meeting or a faith forum or recruiting seven plus new volunteers to take the first step and come to our office. Once someone has succeeded at an organizing activity we ask them to try their hand at leading a voter contact activity. Mostly we are interested in how well they train fellow volunteers to make phone calls or knock on doors. Training is a huge part of quality control and we need our leaders to be good trainers. If a potential leader is a successful trainer then we meet with them again to ask them to take that next step and become a Team Coordinator or Team Leader. If at any moment in this process a volunteer isn't successful our organizers are trained to spend time coaching them through getting better. We are an inclusive team here and our goal is always to make people better."

All the organizers and team leaders I met were similarly reflective and highly aware that they were enacting a special model of electoral organizing. They actually sound like they're in a continuous state of shock at their own results and the power being unleashed by teams. A chill went down my spine one night—the good kind—when I was listening in on a nightly report-in conference call with 20 FOs at the Hamilton, Ohio, office. It was about 10:00 PM, and a new organizer was reporting in her daily voter contact numbers to Jackie.

Jackie asked her why that week they had been so much higher than the previous week. The young woman on the other end of the line—who I imagined calling from a car pulled over on the side of some far flung rural route—spoke with genuine amazement when she said, "It's the teams! It's these awesome team leaders! It's working! It's actually working!"

This high level of self-awareness regarding the organizing method seems to allow organizers to better adapt it to their own unique turf and personalities.

For example, field organizer Patrick Morrell has created a three-ring bound instruction manual all on his own that he gives to every member of his team. One of his team members, who is Ryan's housing provider (most field organizers are living in supporters' spare rooms), left her binder on Ryan's bed one night with a note saying, "Maybe you should take some notes."

Ryan's mainly working-class turf—or his own more flexible style—has led to a looser structure for his teams than Patrick's. Patrick's turf is a relatively well-off set of suburbs. Maybe because of that—or maybe because of his own detail-oriented personal style—his teams work in a highly-structured manner. Both organizers' teams are achieving their benchmarks on time.

Organizers like Patrick and Ryan who had very little campaign experience before Obama are already talking like experts, with insights worthy of a long career. Somehow in just a handful of short months, they have already distilled practice into theory that in turn feeds and improves their practice.

Patrick said, "I start by finding the team leader and then I work with them to find the coordinator folks—people who from my experience in working with people in volunteer activities and also people who they know in the neighborhood who are custom fit for different roles. Once that team is established then we have a sit-down meeting where we get everyone a binder, we go through it step by step, and make sure everyone is on the same page. And then it's very much me passing the torch—and I'm here for questions but the team is running the campaign at that point."

Ryan had his own wisdom on team building to contribute: "Don't pass the baton to someone until you get someone else running at your speed. It's important for organizers and team leaders to find that point where a new leader is running at the same speed—mentally, physically, time-wise, interest level, desire to win—all those things. You find that point, and then all of a sudden it hits you: they're running neck and neck with you and that's the time that you pass it off and move on to building the next new team."

Patrick Frank was a junior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, when he started volunteering for the campaign. Now, as an FO, his turf now covers the university, and he has encouraged innovation. Sitting on the outskirts of a large campus rally that his teams had organized, he explained to me some of the modifications they were making to the teams model, "Rather than say we have X leadership roles to fill, we're creating leadership roles for as many leaders as we have. So we have people in charge of whatever they ARE. We are saying, 'What's your social network?' We say, 'OK, you're The Balcony Coordinator—your job is to go party at Balcony [a local bar] every weekend—like you do anyways—but now wear a Barack Obama button—and bring voter reg forms.' Or, 'Hey, you work at Brunos—when you go out on deliveries—as long as it's OK with your boss—ask people if they're registered. You're going to be our, um, pizza coordinator.' "

When Patrick was talking to me, a handful of team members were buzzing around the rally asking every student to sign in. The sign in sheet gave every person the option of indicating interest in becoming a leader. Free food would be served at the end of the rally, but you needed a little green sticker to get some. Of course, you got a sticker by signing in.

"There's no end to what you can do when you have the power to empower people as leaders on campus. It's beautiful. It's awe-inspiring," Patrick continued, pointing to the big event that was running itself without him having to worry about it or check on anything, "I mean look at this!"

We saw glimpses of the potential for this kind of organizing campaign in MoveOn's 2004 and 2006 volunteer operations, the Dean Campaign and even the Bush and Kerry campaigns. And there are great examples of this kind of organizing if you go back to the social movements of several decades ago. But the Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign. For anyone who knows how many times this has failed to happen, this is practically an apocryphal event. Marashal Ganz, who is an advisor to the national field campaign, and one of the main architects of the team model, said he's been waiting 40 years for it.

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.

In the middle of a good organizing campaign, volunteers will stop and tell you that they are becoming better people. That's sounds cheesy, doesn't it? But I'll tell you, I wrote that line in a first draft of this article while waiting for my own neighborhood team meeting to start in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri. I looked at it and thought, "People won't buy that." I figured I'd delete it.

Then, at the end of our meeting, my neighborhood team leader, Jennifer Robinson, totally unprompted, told me: "I'm a different person than I was six weeks ago." I asked her to elaborate later. She said, "Now, I'm really asking: how can I be most effective in my community? I've realized that these things I've been doing as a volunteer organizer—well, I'm really good at them, I have a passion for this. I want to continue to find ways to actively make this place, my community, a better place. There's so much more than a regular job in this—and once you've had this, it's hard to go back to a regular job. I'm asking now: Can I look for permanent work as an organizer in service of my community? And that's a question I had not asked myself before the campaign. It never occurred to me that I could even ask that question."

Through the meeting, Jennifer had inspired and commanded the room of 50 new volunteers on top of her five team members who already had roles. Her seven year old daughter had been staring up at her with calm awe the whole time. Good organizing changes the world. In fact, it's what humanity is made out of. Every one of us is the product of centuries upon centuries of the struggle between good organizing and bad organizing. Barack Obama—through the most incredible, random, beautiful, twists of history—has brought good organizing back. God bless him and the army of volunteer and paid organizers who are making it real.

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