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Hidden in Plain View: Obama 2012's Organizing Blueprint

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, July 3 2012

Image from "Campaigning to Engage and Win: A Guide to Leading Electoral Campaigns."

Yesterday, the New Organizing Institute, a progressive training center, published a 210-page manual titled, "Campaigning to Engage and Win: A Guide to Leading Electoral Campaigns." Written by and for campaigners at every level of politics, it is also the Obama 2012 field strategy, hidden in plain view.

Indeed, of the 40 people listed as advising NOI on the manual, at least ten of them, including Jeremy Bird and Marlon Marshall, the national field director and deputy national field director of Obama 2012, have played important roles in Obama's political operation since his first run for the presidency.* Joy Cushman, the manual's editor and NOI's organizing director, worked closely with Bird on the 2008 field effort in South Carolina. That was a critical early battleground and laboratory for many of the methods that became the Obama organizing model. And NOI's executive director, Judith Freeman, who wrote its new media chapter, worked in the 2008 campaign at the intersection of new media, tech and field organizing. (Susan Markham, Doug Hattaway, RJ Bee, and Karen Hicks also contributed to the manual's writing.)

"We actually wrote the first draft of this in 2009," Freeman told me today. "It totally reflects the way we interpreted and experienced the 2008 campaign." Can we read it as a blueprint to what the Obama forces are doing now? "I guess I hadn't really thought of that," she answered, "but it does speak to the 2012 campaign as well."

For people who have gone through one of NOI's programs in recent years, the guide should look familiar. That's because, Freeman says, earlier drafts were used for trainings and online webinars in 2009 and 2010. But they are publishing an updated version now, she says, "because I wanted to recommit NOI to the open source ethos. It didn't make sense for us to keep it to ourselves." Indeed, the manual bears a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

While it is meant to apply to races up and down the ballot, the forward to the manual reads like a memo to Jim Messina and David Axelrod: After describing the "roller-coaster ride" of American politics over the last four years, from the big surge of voter participation and record youth and minority turnout in 2008 to the rise of the Tea Party and the conservative resurgence in 2010, it lays out the key challenges and opportunities facing campaign managers in 2012.

The challenges are: "Super PACs and unlimited, anonymous corporate funding"; more paid advertising making it harder to "break through the noise"; a dispirited base that has to be re-engaged, requiring an early time investment; voter registration rates "collectively 11% lower than the rest of the population" for the unmarried women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans that are the progressive base; voter suppression efforts; media fragmentation; and "millions of new people in the voter files that we have very little information about, which will make calculating projected turnout and targeting difficult."

The opportunities include: a public thirst for real economic and government reforms; young people coming of voting age who can be registered and engaged; new leaders and volunteers; new ways to persuade voters via social media; and targeting tools that "help reach new and once obscure segments of the electorate, and to engage voters with social outreach through their trusted networks."

Critically, the manual makes the case for adding a new element to the traditional political timeline of engaging and turning out voters which it calls the "Engaging Supporters" phase: "This helps you to build support and enthusiasm across political and social networks long before campaigns normally begin and gives your campaign a pathway for turning supporters into donors, volunteers and campaign leaders. In addition to capitalizing on human resources, an Engagement Campaign draws on recent breakthroughs in new media and technology across every division of the campaign structure to better find, motivate and turn out supporters."

Sound familiar?

To be sure, the manual's authors don't tell campaigns to put all their eggs in new media and tech.

"A broadcast television advertisement," they write, "still reaches more voters than 100 volunteers and in almost every case a good week of candidate call time will raise more than a fundraising email."

But, they add, "when your anticipated margin of victory is under 5%, the incremental opportunities that wide-scale engagement offer cannot be ignored. And remember, your goal is not just to win the campaign but to enter office with an army of supporters at your side, ready to fight for the legislative change that will improve our lives."

Arguably, this is what the Obama campaign did in 2008, and what it appears to be trying to do again this cycle. Starting a year ago, it has invested heavily in finding new supporters and re-engaging old ones. Recall, for example, campaign manager Jim Messina's announcement last November of having conducted one million one-on-one calls held between supporters. And think about its heavy investment in online engagement across various social platforms, as well as its big spending on data scientists.

Of course, if you've been paying attention, this is hardly a big secret. But it's one thing to infer a strategy from the campaign's behavior and quite another to read an ostensible blueprint written by the closest thing the Obama organizing staff has to a think-tank.

So, what are some of the key ingredients of an "Engagement Campaign?"

  • Start much earlier -- not just 6-8 weeks prior to election day -- in getting volunteers involved. "Just like early money is the yeast that helps the fundraising dough rise, getting supporters engaged as early as possible ensures maximum growth for your organization… the early start allows for training and early trial and error so staff and volunteers can learn and improve over time without jeopardizing the outcome of the election."
  • Engage "as many supporters and voters as possible in meaningful ways that bring resources to your campaign to win." The manual admonishes campaigns that focus only on raising money, or only on mobilizing grassroots support.
  • Make strategic use of new media, data and targeting to amplify traditional campaign activities.
  • Motivate people with two-way communications, and maximize word-of-mouth, "the most valuable, inspiring and cost effective" form of communication.
  • Delegate responsibilities in order to develop internal leadership. That means distributing consequential responsibilities into many hands. "Rather than assigning discreet activities to volunteers, such as “will you come phone bank on Tuesday evening?”
  • Have engagement organizers assign measurable objectives: “will you be responsible for identifying and turning out 382 voters in your precinct on election day?” And this can also mean giving volunteers tasks that traditional campaigns used to only entrust to paid staff, like blogging, social media networking and digital photo editing.

The benefits of an Engagement Campaign, according to NOI, are more resources, more reach via word-of-mouth, and perhaps the biggest intangible, more resilience in the face of the unexpected challenges that will come:

Two important measures of the Engagement Campaign are the number of people who feel a sense of ownership over the campaign, and the overall organizational capacity, meaning the people who are actually working in organized teams to accomplish important goals together. These factors help create a stable base to deal with the inevitable rough patches of a campaign, especially if the paid media message tides turn against you. Supporters want to respond when there’s a challenge and can become your most effective means for pushing back on negative, misleading attacks.

The bulk of the 210-page manual is chock-a-block with checklists, sample scripts, spreadsheets and timelines that a campaign manager or staffer can use to plan and execute on each phase of an electoral battle (it's even got a list of questions to pepper prospective consultants with), and most of those are much further in the weeds than most readers will care to go, if they aren't themselves running or planning to run a campaign for office. But it's fun to spot the digital footprints that are stamped all over the document, down to a checklist that online staffers should use before hitting "send."

To wit:

  • In addition to setting up a basic campaign website with a way to collect email addresses and contribute money, NOI recommends that campaigns set up at least these four core social networking accounts: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and DailyKos.
  • NOI likes VAN (the Voter Activation Network, which is now merged with NGP).
  • "Online solicitations have a low (around 1%) response rate. However, it costs almost nothing, and contributions can be collected much more quickly than other methods of raising."
  • Adapt your media strategy to where target audiences are spending their time -- and watch out, because they're spending it less in the TV and newspaper environments and more with cable, the internet and mobile devices. Advertising on political blogs helps reach opinion leaders early.
  • Train everyone, staff and volunteers alike, on how to talk about the campaign, because in today's environment, anyone can be a reporter.

It's surprising to see so much detail in an organizing document, and NOI deserves praise for pulling back the curtain on practices that many consultants might prefer stay hidden in a profitable back room. Asked if she worries that publishing such a detailed manual might help the other side, Freeman shrugged. "If someone has been paying attention, they're probably going to know all of this already." She added, "The hope is that it helps our side more than the conservative side."

Freeman happily admits that she and her colleagues are making an argument that conflicts with the old model of raising lots of money fast from big donors and then bombarding voters with TV and other forms of push media.

"A lot of people have run campaigns like this, but still a lot of political campaigns are run completely transactionally, via TV ads," she says. And she also says that an Engagement Campaign isn't going to work if the candidate isn't personally on board.

"This only works for a candidate that wants to go all in, and wants to engage volunteers," she said. "It's not going to work for everyone."

What remains to be seen, of course, is whether it's going to work this time for Obama.

*The other eight are Alex Lofton, Lucas Fleischer, Sam Witherbee, Angela Botticella, Aharon Wasserman, Stacy Berger, Betsy Hoover and Ethan Roeder. Lofton, a founding advisor of National Field, was a top field director for Obama 2008 and OFA afterwards. Fleischer is the campaign's new media director and before that was the DNC and OFA's digital director. Witherbee was a field director for Obama 2008 in Michigan. Botticella was the deputy field director for Obama's New Hampshire primary campaign in 2008. Wasserman, the founder of National Field, was the deputy field director for Obama 2008. Berger is the Obama campaign's deputy national training director. Hoover is OFA's digital organizing director. Roeder was director of data for OFA.

With Natalia Nedzhvetskaya