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The Launch of "Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age"

BY Editors | Thursday, January 14 2010

Today we are publishing a techPresident special report on the first year of Organizing for America (OFA), drawing on new interviews with congressional staff in both parties, former Obama campaign staff, and 70 activists from the OFA grassroots. This report -- the most comprehensive review of OFA’s work to date -- is authored by The Nation’s Ari Melber, (www.arimelber.com) a longtime techPresident contributor who traveled with the Obama campaign in 2008. Barack Obama entered into office of President of the United States in January 2009 with an unprecedented base of digitally-networked supporters and volunteers. As we reach the one-year anniversary of OFA this weekend, this is an important time to have a detailed and open discussion of its work, and its future.

“Year One of Organizing for America; The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age” can be viewed on Scribd, downloaded as a full PDF and read online at techPresident.com/ofayear1. To advance the discussion, we will post reaction and commentary on the report page, and we invite readers to engage on Twitter with the hashtag #OFAyr1.

We recommend you dig right into reading the primary source, but here are a few highlights.

High Turnout in The Field

Interviews with OFA members found, consistent with OFA estimates, that the organization is successfully mobilizing and sustaining a new corps of super-activists between election cycles. This kind of governance activism is unusual for the national political parties – and has never been achieved at this frequency, or with such a massive, direct communications network.

Often below the radar, these governance activists say they are volunteering several hours a week, or more. Many are new to politics. OFA’s public estimates are striking: Their members spent a cumulative 200,000 hours volunteering in 2009, organizing 37,000 local events, driving 65,000 people to attend lobbying events, and showering newspapers with a quarter million letters to the editor on health care.

Anecdotal interviews found similar trends, with four different types of OFA members emerging:

Leading the pack are super activists, who are enthusiastically seizing on governance activism opportunities to volunteer at rates that rival campaign season. Obama Campaign Field Director Jon Carson credited “super volunteers,” people working 20 to 40 hours a week, for providing the campaign an “extra layer of staff” in 2008. Many are still going strong.

Then there are critical participants. Engaged and critical, these activists volunteer for OFA while voicing skepticism on some policy and strategy.

Other OFA members have become supportive bystanders: They intensely back Obama but decline volunteer opportunities, either because they do not feel needed or are simply busy with other things.

Interviews also turned up some former members. These people unsubscribed from OFA in 2009. Most interviewed said that they still back Obama.

While political observers have questioned whether Obama will face a drop in enthusiasm or volunteering among his base, in the report surveys, many supporters were still enthused about volunteering -- and about Obama himself.

Low Impact on The Hill

Back on Capitol Hill, most congressional staff interviewed said that OFA’s efforts are not changing Members’ votes.

While OFA’s ground game was welcomed by Democratic aides interviewed for the report, it was viewed more as reinforcement than pressure.

Democratic aides did not think OFA programs were shifting public opinion, or moving Democratic incumbents in more conservative districts. Democratic staff noted that much of the lobbying targeted offices that already backed Obama’s health care plan.

In the office of a conservative Democrat who voted against Obama’s health care, one staffer was hopeful OFA would still “change some minds” and cultivate a more progressive “community” in the district. But the aide said that had not happened yet. And OFA did not mobilize people to aggressively confront Obama’s Democratic opposition.

Republican aides lauded the Obama’s campaign field program, but said OFA has not translated a field presence into effective lobbying. “Even with the OFA push, we’ve still just seen, for our district, overwhelmingly people are against the [health care] bill,” noted one aide, who works for a Republican member in a district that Obama carried. In another Republican district that backed Obama, an aide said Obama’s “organization is taken very seriously, because of how well they organized in 08,” but mobilizing around policy is different. “We’re not seeing a huge presence. Now, maybe other districts are, but we’re not,” said this official.

Top Down from The White House

In interviews with former members of the Obama campaign, a common theme was that in many ways, OFA’s job is harder than electing Obama in the first place. “How do you recapture a grassroots movement of people fighting Washington insiders when you’re sitting inside Washington trying to direct this movement?” asked one former staffer. OFA is in a “very tough position,” this person added.

But other Chicago veterans said OFA’s first year revealed shortcomings at the White House. Some former aides worried the White House has prevented OFA from confronting wayward Members of Congress more aggressively. Former aides also worry that a repetitive, top-down organizing approach may ultimately weaken the OFA list -- a key asset to Democratic fundraising and field efforts.

One Chicago veteran said after OFA’s first year, it is clear Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel doesn’t “give a crap about this email list.” The former campaign aide continued, “This is the most unprecedented list by far in political history, with the potential to be an incredible tool for social change and a legislative hammer to help pass progressive reform. Yet it doesn’t feel like it’s being treated that way [by the White House].”

Another former campaign aide agreed, saying, “I don’t think the White House is interested in using a grassroots organizing network to really advance their agenda. I can say that flat out.” This person suggested that OFA might be more empowered if former campaign manager David Plouffe were calling more shots. “I think the absence of Plouffe is really felt. When you talk about the top echelons of campaign, who are the people who got the technology, got the organizing and got the network, the single person at the center of that was David Plouffe,” the former staffer contended. “And without him in the room on a daily basis, I think the technology and the grassroots networks get a lot less attention.”

Priorities: Health Care and Community

A review of OFA activities and communications indicates the group focused overwhelmingly on two priorities in its first year. Lobbying for health care reform constituted about 44% of the group’s total national emails, with a large uptick in the second half of 2009. Community maintenance programs, which aim to sustain the social capital and community networks developed during the presidential campaign, constituted about 10% of national emails.

OFA sponsored community gatherings around the country to encourage supporters to spend time with each other. Unlike conventional volunteering, these events did not pursue lobbying or electoral goals. Instead, they can replenish social capital. In this model, OFA members are invited to commune at points of consensus and emotional valence, such as service projects and commemorating the election, which engage participants at a social, friendly level.

By devoting its lobbying effort almost exclusively to health care, OFA often functioned as essentially a single-issue organization in its first year. It will almost certainly turn towards another issue or issues in 2010 – a decision that may have a profound impact on the participation, sustainability and flexibility of its programs during the rest of Obama’s tenure.

Legislative Strategy

In his first health care address to OFA members as President, Barack Obama distinguished between true “allies” in Congress and politicians wedded to the status quo:

    “Some of you are already in Democratic districts where your elected officials are strong allies, but some of you are in districts or in states that where, right now, politicians are resistant to bringing about change. And you need to help to mobilize these communities to say: It is not acceptable to preserve the status quo.”

While Obama was intuitively aware of this distinction, OFA’s legislative program often glossed over the issue. The legislators who are “resistant to bringing about change,” in Obama’s telling, require more pressure from grassroots mobilization. In its first year, however, OFA tended to focus least on the legislators that Obama needed most. More resources and volunteering were devoted to supporting and thanking allies than targeting holdouts in Congress, presumably in response to White House strategy.

It is still too early to tell whether this approach will continue to define OFA’s legislative posture in the future, or whether this model will significantly impact membership and volunteerism.

Organizing Metrics

One year into OFA, there is still no consensus among practitioners or observes over the proper metrics to assess OFA’s work.

The actual universe of OFA policy volunteers is smaller than the list of active campaign volunteers. Yet as an institution, OFA naturally has an incentive to stoke the perception that it continues the huge, active network that it managed during the campaign. In 2009, independent observers and OFA officials tended to assess OFA’s mobilization as a percentage of the entire campaign list. (One reporter covered a delivery of 214,000 policy pledges as “a low percentage of OFA’s total number of supporters … 1.65 percent,” while David Plouffe recently touted OFA’s success by noting “a little under 20 percent of our entire list having volunteered on health care -- that’s great”).

It is not logical, however, to assess OFA participation as a percentage of the campaign’s peak engagement level.

The 2009 participation rates are likely constituted by two groups within the list: The super activists and health care activists. With that context in mind, OFA’s first year participation rates appear quite high.

Contrary to the metrics that implicitly treat participation as a slice of campaign season peaks, it appears that OFA has galvanized significant policy and community volunteering in the campaign off-season.

Change in 2010

OFA usually functioned as a single-issue lobbying group in 2009, hammering health care every month. That will certainly change this year, as Obama’s agenda shifts and Democrats prepare for the midterm elections. The report discusses some potential opportunities, from new issue campaigns and political reform to alternative legislative strategies and democratizing DNC committees and superdelegates. The challenge is turning field progress around the country into clout inside the Beltway.

Again, the entire report, “Year One of Organizing for America; The Permanent Field Campaign in the Digital Age,” is available at www.techPresident.com/ofayear1.

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