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Tracking OFA's Pledge Project Canvass

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 23 2009

Organizing for America rolled out its "Pledge Project Canvass" this past weekend, and reports about 1200 groups went door-knocking across the country seeking signatures in support of President Obama's budget priorities. Considering that OFA boasted somewhere between three and four thousand house parties back in December, when the Obama campaign was gathering information from grass-roots activists about what they wanted to do next, this is a significant drop-off. The Washington Post reported that

"the organization remains skeletal, and the Pledge Project does not nearly cover the 435 congressional districts. The organization aims to develop a structure -- including at least one paid staffer in each state -- in time for larger fights over health-care, climate change and education legislation. "'This is all being driven by volunteers. It's an extremely exhilarating process, but also nerve-racking,' an Obama veteran said. 'We have a very, very scaled-down staff as of right now.'

While a few of us pointed out last November/December that the Obama campaign was missing a huge opportunity to keep its momentum going, it's also clear that community organizing has an ebb and flow, and clearly now OFA is in a (re)building period. It is also operating in uncharted territory with what, at best, is a really tough challenge (organizing support for a broad legislative agenda) and, at worst, is "an entirely unengaging project, where all the decisions are made for you in advance," in the words of Dean campaign veteran Zephyr Teachout.

Here's a survey of reports from all over the country:
-Lainey Melnick, a lead organizer for OFA in Austin, Texas, reports collecting 467 pledges from the Austin-Central Texas region. Not bad.
-In Indianapolis, organizer Silvia Spence says her group collected 645 pledges. Even better.
-In Connecticut, organizer Jennifer Just told the Christian Science Monitor, “Overall, we didn’t have as many volunteers as we had hoped, but the number of pledges per person was really quite extraordinary. We were hoping for 20 pledges per volunteer, [but] we’re doing more like 50 pledges per volunteer. That was unexpected.”
-Over on The Field, Al Giordano and his commenters report lots of success.

But other reports suggest the uphill climb faced by OFA. Jared Elosta, an organizer in Jamaica Plain, MA, described some "tough going" in a long and detailed blog post about his group's efforts:

Our main goal was to talk with people about the budget, let them know what Organizing for America was doing, and obtain pledges. There were five of us in total. A few volunteers were extremely successful in gathering pledges, but for most of us, it was tough going. We devised a concise pitch to try to get the attention of passers-by so they would stop and chat with us. But even in a liberal’s paradise like Jamaica Plain, few people wanted to talk to us. In my experience, a lot of people who supported Obama didn’t want to stop for just two minutes to fill out a form. One man passed me by and said, “Obama will pass the budget without me. Good luck!” Another woman who I tried to talk with walked by and I noticed a “Health Care, Not War” pin on her jacket. When I asked her if she would support the President’s budget, she looked at me coldly and let me know that Obama was disappointing her with his appointments and by not supporting a single-payer system. Well, that’s the way it goes, I thought. Most volunteers had to leave early, so we only canvassed for about an hour and ended up collecting 54 pledges.

Similarly, Katie McGee, an activist in St. Paul, Minn., was quoted in her local paper describing a similar experience. "It's challenging," said McGee, noting that on the campaign trail Obama could easily galvanize large enthusiastic crowds. "It's a little less sexy with just the issues. It's 'Why do I have to spend my Saturdays doing this? Didn't we just elect this guy?'"

NPR noted similar issues in talking with an organizer in New Hampshire, Kathy Gillett of Manchester:

"...three people responded to the canvassing invitation that she posted on the Obama supporters' Web site, 'The response has been a little disappointing,' said Gillett, who was a volunteer organizer for the Obama campaign. She noted that there will be competing political events Saturday in New Hampshire — including an anti-war demonstration. 'Organizing for America doesn't have a presence yet,' she said. 'They're just rolling it out.' The organization, which focuses on getting voters to contact elected representatives to support Obama's initiatives, is expected to send a full-time field director to New Hampshire in coming weeks, Gillett said."

Here's a look at how many people are viewing the three videos that OFA has put out, announcing the pledge drive (from Mitch Stewart, in blue), explaining how to do the door knocking (from Jeremy Bird, in green), and urging people to get out last weekend (from President Obama, in red):

And here's a look at the intensity of online conversation about OFA, compared to mentions of the anti-Obama "tea party" protests being organized by Pajamas Media and others on the right:

All in all, what this picture suggests is OFA still has a large base of devoted supporters, but it is well below the high point of last November. And the intensity is elsewhere, at least right now.

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