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Jeremy Bird on the Future of Organizing for America, 2012 and Beyond

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 5 2012

"We weren't quick enough out of the gate," four years ago, says Jeremy Bird, the national field director of President Obama's re-election campaign. "We will be quicker this time."

He's not talking about the race just concluded. He's talking about how Organizing for America, the president's political organization, operated in the days and months after Obama's first election in 2008, compared to what is coming now.

Bird should know. A Harvard Divinity School graduate who studied organizing under Marshall Ganz, worked on Howard Dean's 2004 primary bid, and then went to work for the United Food and Commercial Worker's Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, he's been working for Obama since March 2007. He was the campaign's South Carolina field director during the primaries, and later managed the Ohio field operation in the general.

Then, after Obama's victory, Bird was given the job of thinking through all the lessons of that campaign in preparation for Obama's re-election bid, while working as the national deputy director of Organizing for America during its embodiment as an arm of the Democratic National Committee.

He was there while OFA was first put together and faced challenges keeping a strong connection to its base. One reason, he says now, "we didn't hire a digital director early enough and so there was a gap in the conversation with our supporters." And he was in the thick of OFA's fall 2009 push to win health care reform, when the group engineered hundreds of thousands of calls aimed at Members of Congress, helping to tip that battle. (OFA leaders from that time still feel they don't get enough credit in the media for that effort.)

This time around, Bird was in charge of both rebuilding and deploying the largest and most sophisticated political organization ever seen in contemporary American politics.

How big? In 2008, the campaign claimed a base of almost 1.6 million volunteers. This time around, they say they had more than 2.2 million. (These are people who filled a volunteer shift--not necessarily people who volunteered every day.) These activists were organized by 32,000 "core team leaders" who reported up to 8,237 "neighborhood team leaders," who were overseen by 2,704 paid full-time campaign field organizers, Bird reports. And they worked their butts off, making about 150 million direct contacts with voters, and registering 1.8 million new ones.

Whither OFA?
Speaking Tuesday at a lunchtime forum at the Center for American Progress, Bird sought to put the accomplishments of 2012 in the context of what he thinks Democrats and progressives should be doing next--and to put expectations about OFA's role through a bit of a reset.

"Going forward, we have to continue to have grass-roots donors and candidates that inspire people to give, and we have to put that money in states where people vote and build long-term infrastructure," he declared. When Bird talks about infrastructure, he's talking about the things that he and the rest of the campaign obsessed about: staff, volunteers, voter registrations, contacts, community organizing and tracking. In Florida, for example, he said the campaign had 776 staff working with 268,000 volunteers. They made 22 million calls and door-knocks and generated 361 new voter registrations--more than Obama's margin of victory there.

"This is the kind of program that we need to invest in, heading into 2014," he told the audience.

Asked by Ruy Tiexera, a CAP fellow who was the event's moderator, what the prospects were "for keeping this mighty machine together," Bird tried to downplay expectations. "There will not be two thousand seven hundred organizers on the ground in January 2013," he said, "because the Obama campaign will not exist." But, he added, "There will be a large and effective effort, but it's going to be one of the planets in the universe of folks doing a lot of things."

One thing that hasn't been sorted out yet is how and where to move OFA's assets. Though he is involved in the discussions--one White House staffer refers to Bird as "the keeper of the flame"--he isn't saying much yet about what form this will take. Obviously, the data hasn't all been collected and analyzed, and the Decider-in-Chief hasn't decided.

Where the Obama forces have already been quicker is in communicating back with their core supporters about this unfolding process, and in encouraging the creation of a temporary vehicle for their energies called "TheAction.org" that can do some things the campaign is legally prevented from doing.

Campaign finance laws prevent the Obama presidential campaign committee from using its assets to directly lobby members of Congress, which explains why they've been making email appeals and Facebook posts asking people to share their stories about how the "fiscal cliff" might affect them (aka #the My2K problem), but not urging people directly to call their Member of Congress. Meanwhile, TheAction.org has started doing some local organizing and phone-banking in support of Obama's position in the negotiations. (A map of TheAction's actions looks a bit like the Obama battleground states map, minus Iowa and plus a few hard-blue states like New York and California.) But this, sources tell me, is expected to be temporary.

Could OFA become the backbone of a revitalized version of former DNC chairman Howard Dean's "50-state strategy"? That is one possibility. But it's not clear yet if that would mean providing resources and staffing to state parties, or it would be more up to former OFA staff and supporters in those states to do the heavy-lifting. Interestingly, one top Obama campaign official told me that Dashboard, the campaign's ballyhooed and somewhat maligned digital field organizing platform, could be an important piece of such a local push. "It could be more important in 2013 and 2014 than it was in 2012," this person commented, "in the same way that it was for a volunteer in say, Tennessee, who didn't have a local Obama office, than it was for one in Ohio who did."

A membership model for OFA, where supporters paid dues and had a stake in the organization's direction, doesn't seem likely, though. This official said that while that approach could mean people would feel more of a stake in the organization's success, the idea of something that members could use to push the President wasn't realistic. Far more likely is a traditional 510c4 public welfare organization that can take small and large donations, hire staff, and conduct lobbying campaigns to help press the president's agenda.

To Bird, the future of OFA itself isn't the only question worth paying attention to; he's optimistic that lots of the field managers he worked with on the campaign are now being placed in state-level campaigns and with advocacy organizations, and thinks their impact will be substantial in the coming years.

"Hopefully, our legacy will be that we have trained a generation of organizers who know what it's like to build something real," Bird says. Indeed, that is something they do know.

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