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Section I: Community and Reform



n its first year, OFA focused overwhelmingly on two priorities: Maintaining the community networks developed during the presidential campaign and advancing the administration’s plan for health care reform.

OFA occasionally engaged members in other areas, such as the budget, economic recovery, the Supreme Court and fundraising appeals, 30 but its main lobbying focus in 2009 was decidedly on health care reform. There were more OFA communications to supporters about health care than any other topic; the most significant “asks” for volunteer activity were tied to the health care battle in Congress; OFA’s most valuable resource – the President’s time – has been spent primarily on OFA health care events; and most OFA organizing on the direct track, engaging Congress, was designed to build momentum and political space for the passage of health care reform. Indeed, by OFA’s own estimate, during the second half of 2009, “95 percent” of the organization’s efforts have focused on health care. 31

By another rough but influential measure, health care absolutely dominates communications on the OFA email list. The organization’s email priorities are especially revealing, since the list remains one of Obama’s most valuable political32and financial assets.33 (It topped 13 million people after the election – larger than any other political list, as detailed in the Introduction – and remains a crucial tool for raising money for the party and advancing Obama’s reelection.)

According to a tabulation of emails sent to the national OFA list on the official OFA blog, health care dominated over every other topic.34 In 2009, 44 percent of OFA’s emails focused on health care, while 17 percent addressed economic and budget issues, and five percent discussed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. This graph shows the breakdown:

Health care was actually more important than the annual breakdown suggests, because communications about other issues were concentrated in the first few months of 2009, as OFA experimented with its outreach.

A chronological breakdown of the email program shows that by the middle of 2009, health care became the major and often the only topic on the list, shutting down all other emails besides fundraising.

This section focuses on OFA’s programs for community maintenance and health care lobbying.

Community Maintenance

Social Capital

Most politicians do not maintain continuous, direct contact with volunteers and supporters once victorious campaigns end.

First, there are few access points in government to directly engage supporters. Explicitly tailoring government activity or communication for political supporters is generally prohibited.35 (The Obama White House manages a non-political government email list, separate from campaign and OFA lists,36 and White House officials publicly stress their outreach is “not in any way connected” to OFA.37) While there are surely some individual exceptions among elected officials and state parties, Presidents, members of Congress and the national party committees generally do not maintain direct, frequent contact with their base of supporters on a massive scale between elections. “It’s been a failure of conventional politics that we didn’t engage people – even activists, even people who are deeply committed to politics and to public policy, [were] only [engaged for] a few months every two or four years,” observed Jim Jordan, a political veteran who managed the DSCC and John Kerry’s
Presidential Campaign. “[It’s] a waste of people’s energy [and] attention,” he explained in an interview about OFA in July 2009, noting that the new organization was “trying to fix that.”38

“It’s been a failure of conventional politics that we didn’t engage people – even activists [outside campaign season]”

Second, until recently, the only dedicated channels for mass communication with supporters were in-person events and direct mail (which is largely used for fundraising). While email has obviously been a force in politics since the late 1990s,39 few politicians maintain active, community-oriented email lists between elections. Some of the largest national lists were generated during failed presidential campaigns, but these lists typically atrophy40 or are cut and sold for fundraising.41 (The major exception is Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign list, which was effectively rolled into a separate, ongoing organization, Democracy for America.42 Yet as DNC Chair, Dean was obviously not running the federal government, and the scale of DFA’s list was far smaller than OFA.) Moreover, it is worth noting that most of the successful, enduring political email networks, like MoveOn, have grown around a series of causes – impeachment, Iraq war – rather than the ambitions of individual candidates.

In a break with those trends, of course, Obama’s aides prioritized the continued cultivation of the campaign’s email list immediately after the election.43 While emails about policy can also advance community engagement, Obama’s post-election effort provided a separate, non-policy organizing track explicitly focused on fostering community.

The overarching goal of community maintenance is to retain and refresh relationships. The list is used to launch local events for supporters to spend time with each other -- and with OFA. Unlike volunteer or legislative events, these community gatherings do not have a short-term legislative objective, such as calling Congress. Instead, they are designed to provide more subtle, long-term benefits. The goal is to replenish social capital. For community maintenance, OFA members are invited to commune at points of maximum consensus and emotional valence, such as commemorating the election, engaging participants at a social, friendly level.

This is a “social capital approach” in the sense that political scientist Robert Putnam postulates – encouraging local, social associations even when they do not contain an immediate mechanism to impact public policy. Putnam’s 1993 analysis of this process remains relevant to contemporary organizing:

Our political parties, once intimately coupled to the capillaries of community life, have become evanescent confections of pollsters and media consultants and independent political entrepreneurs -- the very antithesis of social capital. We have too easily accepted a conception of democracy in which public policy is not the outcome of a collective deliberation about the public interest, but rather a residue of campaign strategy.

The social capital approach, focusing on the indirect effects of civic norms and networks, is a much-needed corrective to an exclusive emphasis on the formal institutions of government as an explanation for our collective discontents. If we are to make our political system more responsive, especially to those who lack connections at the top, we must nourish grass-roots organization.44

Thus people-to-people organizing stokes better conditions for democratic activity, in this model, even though the events do not “exclusive[ly]” focus on “formal institutions of government.”

For grassroots organizing online, effective campaigns tend to create social capital online, convert it to tangible action offline, and then run structured programs to maintain that capital. In a 2008 article about social capital and netroots activism, for example, political scientist Diana Cohen stresses that a key ingredient in the online “social capital framework” is “maintenance” – essentially an ongoing program to “maintain the capital so it does not deplete.”45 And while there is a broader debate among scholars and practitioners about whether email and Internet politics advances broader civic participation,46 an issue beyond the scope of this report, it is clear that in the case of the Obama campaign, new media organizing drove effective political action (fundraising, volunteering, voter registration, and event attendance).47


Community maintenance was OFA's very first priority.

Community maintenance was not OFA’s most frequent program in 2009, but it was OFA’s very first priority. In fact, even as senior Obama aides were debating the structure and strategy for managing Obama’s valuable campaign list in late 200848 – before OFA had been established, let alone announced – OFA convened a staff summit in Chicago,49 meetings and conference calls for organizers,50 and a coordinated series of thousands of house parties.

David Plouffe, the former Obama campaign manager and DNC consultant, emailed supporters inviting them to “help plan the future of this movement” by attending local events in December, before the inauguration. “Your continued involvement is crucial to the future of this movement,” he wrote. Plouffe promised an influential role for governance organizing: “The grassroots organization you built to win the election will continue to set our country on a new path.”51 He also recorded a video invitation message, standing prominently in front of The White House, which drew over 290,000 views.52 The strong interest in the invitation was also reflected in offline attendance: over 4,000 events were held in December, according to OFA.53 (For Obama’s inauguration, OFA also aimed to cultivate a sense of national community, emailing supporters about ten OFA members who were selected to attend the inaugural through a DNC fundraising contest.54)

On a state-by-state basis, OFA also convened community maintenance events with local staff, including “listening tours” and trainings. Most state staff participated in listening sessions to introduce themselves to local activists, who might also appreciate scheduled time to reconnect with each other. There were listening events at over 400 sites, 200 trainings for organizers and a dedicated “Summer Fellows” program55 for “hundreds” of organizers, according to OFA’s public estimates.56

Dedicated, national community maintenance activities took a backseat for a long stretch of the health care fight, both because health care was the top priority and policy events operated as a concomitant boon to maintenance. However, OFA did convene service events in June, during the health care reform battle. These events touched on health care – but they were not health care lobbying events. To the contrary, these were primarily community maintenance events, focused on convening people around a common purpose and local action – but not national lobbying.

Political scientist Barbara Trish discusses this contrast, between traditional party action and community maintenance, in a 2009 address about OFA:

[OFA] made a deliberate effort to draw activists and the party organizations into service activities on an ongoing basis, but especially as directed toward a “National Health Care Day of Service” in late June... [T]his sort of activity is something quite new for traditional party organizations, which have historically focused their efforts more narrowly and directly to the election of candidates under the party label (Cotter et al. 1984, Aldrich 2000). Undoubtedly, many party leaders and activists have a service-oriented impulse at a personal level. And, in fact, service might even indirectly advance the cause of the party and its candidates, by engendering positive reactions among the community.

Still, it remains that community service [] serves a narrow, instrumental purpose for both the traditional party and for organizations like OFA. Cynical as the idea may seem, service is a vehicle to sustain engagement of activists between election seasons and, as such, helps fulfill organization-building goals.57 (Emphasis added.)

This “organization-building” is OFA’s community maintenance. Trish is correct that the approach is “quite new” for national parties, and it need not seem cynical. Most OFA members came together around the goal of electing Obama,58 many are currently enthused about his reelection, and thus many welcome opportunities to do intrinsically worthwhile projects that can also benefit the reelection.59 Those who prefer explicitly legislative or political volunteering, by contrast, can choose other activities. (For OFA members’ views on this score, see Section Two.) Furthermore, volunteers and participants can appreciate the role of community meetings for their intrinsic value; some even directly refer to the “social capital” that is generated.60

For its part, OFA presented the service day as an opportunity to help people directly and immediately – in contrast to the longer process of lobbying to pass health care reform. As Stewart told OFA members:

We're working hard together to help pass real health care reform by the end of the year. We also know that for so many people in our communities, America's broken health care system is a daily crisis -- but there are ways that we can help right now... Some groups will organize blood drives to boost local supplies... Others will volunteer at local clinics... [S]ome of us will run healthy food drives to promote health awareness and fight hunger in our communities…

No matter which way you serve, you'll be connecting with like-minded supporters in your area, helping those who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the current system, and at the same time building awareness and support for the comprehensive health care reform our country so desperately needs.61 (Emphasis added.)

Stewart stresses service and community first, while also suggesting the activities can prime support for Obama’s health care agenda. This is precisely the secondary benefit to service that Trish proposes: The party’s cause is “indirectly advance[d]” if service “engender[s] positive reactions among the community.”

While this approach is not a common strategy in American politics, other groups backing Obama later experimented with it in 2009. One ad-hoc coalition raised over one million dollars to sponsor free clinics for the uninsured – but with the explicit goal of rallying support for health care reform.62 (It is possible that OFA’s summer service events helped “mainstream” this model, or at least enlarged the number of potential volunteers and donors for this kind of effort.) In late June, OFA announced that it convened “thousands” of service events in all 50 states.63

Later in the year, OFA launched community events to coincide with the anniversary of Obama’s election. President Obama recorded a video for the anniversary, telling supporters, “Over 2 million of you have taken action in support of Organizing for America’s health care campaign,” and thanking volunteers for making a difference “in their own way.” The video drew about 170,000 views after David Plouffe sent it to the email list. That audience was more than quadruple the prior five videos from the same period – mostly health care segments drawing under 40,000 views each – suggesting that more supporters are interested in the campaign connection to Obama as a person, rather than the agenda-oriented content. OFA also convened “watch parties” for the President’s health care address (discussed further below), an event that achieves both community maintenance and policy mobilization.64 OFA also sent community, non-policy emails to members for the holidays in December, inviting people to create and send personalized, electronic greeting videos to their friends.65

Overall in its first year, 10 percent of OFA’s communications were devoted to community maintenance.66

Health Care Reform

Grassroots Mobilization

OFA’s health care lobbying effort officially began on May 22, 2009. David Plouffe emailed supporters with a plan for national health care house parties featuring President Obama.67 Drawing on the aspirational language from campaign season, Plouffe told supporters that they would one day remember the upcoming events as “the moment when the fight for real health care reform began in your neighborhood — perhaps even in your own living room.” OFA cultivated a program for active volunteers to host and organize events, and then use those volunteers and list outreach to drive attendance for the gatherings.

President Obama did a telephone conference call with volunteers on May 28, in advance of the house meetings the following week. Calling in from Air Force One, Obama said the need for volunteers was urgent. “If we don’t get it done this year, we’re not going to get it done,” he stressed. “We’re going to need all of you to mobilize. We gotta have you knocking on doors, making calls educating your neighbors, and when that happens – I promise you – politicians take notice, members of Congress take notice."68

A national policy conference call with a President is unusual, and OFA aimed to leverage it in several ways. It used the call to reward and motivate volunteers, suggesting a special connection with the President. Afterward, OFA distributed recordings of the call to other supporters, conveying to a wider audience that the President was in touch with his grassroots supporters and offering a potential rallying point for new activists. The audio was posted on the OFA blog,69 as a mobilization venue, and on YouTube,70 and on a dedicated petition site. The petition portal invited visitors to “listen to the President’s call” and sign up to “declare your support” for the health care plan.71 This approach, combining mobilization and outreach, also helps replenish the OFA email list with new people who are drawn in by a given opportunity.

The President’s remarks to OFA made national news, providing public validation for the idea that the communication with supporters was a genuine, important part of the health care strategy — not simply a venue for symbolism or dated talking points. “President Barack Obama warned Thursday that if Congress doesn't deliver health care legislation by the end of the year, the opportunity will be lost, a plea to political supporters to pressure lawmakers to act,” began one typical A.P. article covering the call.72 For volunteers who are active media consumers, this kind of coverage can reinforce OFA as a credible, alternative source of news and information – the President is not only “warming up” the troops, but actually conveying news before it hits the wire. (Plouffe has also emphasized that this kind of direct communication dynamic with supporters, routing around the media, builds trust and relationships.)72

In June, OFA held several thousand health care meetings were held around the country.74 The events also featured screenings of a new video of Obama advocating reform and speaking directly to OFA volunteers.75 (It was also uploaded to the Obama-Biden YouTube channel,76 drawing about 20,000 views.) The video presented OFA’s political director asking attendees to take three actions for the new effort:

  1. Review and support the administration’s reform agenda;
  2. Tell their personal health care stories; and
  3. Commit to taking local action for health care, including future organizing and participating in a “day of service” the following month.

At this stage, the OFA events and strategy operated primarily on the indirect track. People were invited to commune, discuss their experience and role in health care reform, and take action in social outreach and community service (discussed below), rather than in direct legislative advocacy.

Like the presidential conference call, OFA also leveraged these gatherings for both organizing and media objectives. It promoted the events to national and local media, distributing four press releases about the effort and directing reports to attend one of 31 events handpicked for media guests.77 Much of the media coverage of the events was positive, especially at the local level.

OFA initially collected about 238,000 health care stories,78 and featured several in television ads.79 White House officials also said the stories collected through OFA helped “continually remind each and every leader in this country of the importance of health care reform.”80

OFA also estimated that it collected over two million declarations of support for the President’s plan. (It did not indicate what percent of those declarations were by individuals who were already OFA members.)

On another public track, OFA supporters reported that they sent about 233,500 letters to the editor in local publications on behalf of health care reform. (A year-end tally later estimated the figure at 250,000.81) The official website also provided an activist portal to “set the record straight,” providing fact sheets, talking points and videos to rebut misinformation about health care.82 In one indication of the audience for the effort, the video embedded on the main page drew about 78,000 views over several months.83

On the indirect track, OFA later launched a contest inviting members to create their own health care ads. OFA’s New Media Director explained the idea in an OFA email as “30 seconds to win reform”:

This is your chance — you ingenious, insightful, funny people out there — to make a 30-second ad telling the story about why the status quo has got to go, or explaining how the Obama plan will ensure we get the secure, quality care we need... The top submissions will be voted on by the public and a panel of experts, with the winning ad aired on national television. This is your opportunity to add your voice and creativity to the debate, get some great exposure for your work, and make a huge difference.84

Over 1,000 videos were submitted, with some of the top entries drawing over 180,000 views each, while the entire series netted a cumulative three million views.85 The participation and viewership rates were quite high for this kind of political video contest.86 David Plouffe announced the winner in a November OFA email, asking supporters to watch it, share it, and donate in order to “spread the message on national television.”87 The video about the winning ad, a somber collection of children sharing their families’ struggle to obtain health care, drew another 130,000 views.

The video contest marked OFA’s most consequential foray into enabling members to impact the message, if not the substance, of Obama’s health care reform strategy. While OFA retained control as a moderator, ensuring it could remove entries that were offensive or controversial, the winning ad was a definite departure from the administration’s messaging. Administration officials routinely pressed reform based on practical considerations and self- interest – lowering costs for all, improving access, avoiding deficit spending – the winning video hammered the moral imperative of caring for the most vulnerable members of society.

“I'll die because we couldn't afford health care.”

“Two years from now, I’ll be diagnosed with leukemia, and I’ll die because we couldn’t afford health care,” says one of the children, staring at the camera in a tight close-up. Even the ad’s creator, Eric Hurt, said he was surprised to win, since he thought the ad’s style was probably “too heavy.”88 If the ad had been produced by consultants through the normal DNC process, it is unlikely it would have ever made it through vetting. After all, the video cast children as the starring spokesperson for health care reform – in a year when Obama faced repeated attacks for “involving children” in politics.89 Indeed, some commentators criticized the ad on those grounds.90 (Others tried to tarnish OFA by criticizing Hurt’s previous film work.91) By opening up OFA’s message to grassroots participants, however, supporters were able to exert some of their own influence over the kind of arguments OFA marshaled in the national health care debate. And for other health care ads, OFA appealed to supporters for stories, discussed above, or fundraising to buy airtime.92

Direct Lobbying

While OFA continued to expand its indirect organizing in the summer, spearheading events for calling and canvassing neighbors to build public support, it also began the first direct legislative lobbying in earnest. During this period, OFA’s appeals to members took a disciplined, even stern tone, urging volunteers to commit to a hard slog.

“With Congress debating their plans for health care reform this week, building strong local support couldn't be more urgent,” wrote Deputy OFA Director Jeremy Bird on July 14. “That's why, last weekend, [OFA] volunteers across the country called their neighbors and went door-to-door, asking them to support the President's agenda for health care reform and to urge Congress to do the same. Next week, we're doing it again, and this time it has to be even bigger,” he continued. (Legislative strategy is discussed in more detail in Section Two and Three.)

In addition to local grassroots events, OFA led an August bus tour with 18 stops around the country. OFA estimated that 20,000 supporters attended events connected with the bus tour, and about 90,000 people attended other OFA events over five weeks in August and September.93

Town Hall Backlash

Even OFA field efforts turned out crowds, however, OFA shifted its message to acknowledge supporters’ deep frustration with the coverage and tone of the summer’s health care debate. While reform supporters were out in the field, the congressional town halls and health care media coverage increasingly focused on intense and rowdy opposition at public health care events. During several stretches of August, health care and “angry town hall meetings” dominated the national news more than any other topic, according to measurements from Pew’s Excellence in Journalism project.94

”Where's the other team?”

Meanwhile, media coverage that did focus on Obama’s field campaign turned increasingly critical. A representative August headline trumpeted Obama’s “floundering campaign on health care,” quoting experts who found OFA’s outreach lacking.95 "A campaign that was able to activate its grass-roots constituency through the Internet and then activate and send them into the streets to meet their neighbors to persuade them to vote for Obama has not been successful in mobilizing individuals in this health insurance effort," concluded Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a typical interview.96

Several new media commentators, who were often sympathetic to Obama, also interpreted the protestors’ success as an OFA failing. Josh Marshall, the founding editor of TalkingPointsMemo, contended that Obama’s aides were struggling to turn out “supporters at these events.”97 Addressing both Obama’s aides and his own readers, Marshall asked, “Where's the other team?” Blogger Greg Sargent replied by noting, “the other team [] is supposed to be Organizing for America.” He reserved judgment on OFA’s performance at that point, but echoed the common refrain that health care was the first crucial test of the OFA experiment:

...OFA is supposed to be doing exactly what the right is now doing: Staging very visible displays of passionate support for their side’s goal — i.e., health care reform. I don’t know if OFA is succeeding or not. If so, its successes are decidedly less visible than what we’re seeing from the anti-reform forces, though this could reflect the fact that OFA events don’t employ the raucous agitprop we’re seeing from anti-reform crowds... [It is] yet another reminder that health care is the ultimate test of whether Obama’s vaunted campaign operation can drive Obama’s legislative agenda and achieve real results.98

OFA responded to the mounting summer angst with several direct appeals to supporters. An email from Mitch Stewart singled out some of the most egregious tactics of anti-Obama protestors, including the report that a congressional office “was defaced with a swastika.” Stewart cast the protestors as tools of “a deliberate plot by the special interests” out to “kill reform.”99 (This critique found more sympathy among Democrats than Republicans or independents, according to Gallup polling.100) An email and web campaign featured pictures from months of field events from around the country, promoting the “untold story” of grassroots activism as the “real story” of August.101 And in a separate bid to reenergize supporters, OFA tapped David Plouffe for an email rebutting media coverage and inviting people to join another event with the President:

The D.C. media has been trumpeting coverage of town halls disrupted by angry opposition to reform. But the reality on the ground is very different. Organizing for America supporters are showing up in huge numbers at these meetings all across the country -- outnumbering opponents of reform, often by overwhelming margins. You've organized 11,906 local events in all 50 states... since we launched our big campaign for reform in June.

Plouffe invited supporters to watch or listen to “a live strategy meeting” with the President on August 20.102 About 280,000 people watched the official webcast of the proceedings,103 and the YouTube video of the 77-minute event drew another 125,000 views.104

OFA officials also used the event to release figures on their field work since June, providing these estimates105 to the public: 1.5 million members took some action and members organized 11,906 local events. Between August 21 and November 11, when OFA released another batch of estimates, volunteers held another over 10,000 more events and another 700,000 people were counted as taking some action, from signing petitions to attending events. (These events were distributed throughout the country.)106

Yet in the more skeptical climate, media coverage of the strategy session tended to note that Obama was struggling to get traction for reform — and that many Democrats, including OFA members, preferred a more progressive health care plan with a guaranteed public option. “Obama spoke to a gathering of OFA, the group of activists who supported his candidacy,” reported the New York Times, for example. “Many members of the organization, along with other liberal groups, have accused him of wavering on his pledge to include a public insurance option as a central part of his health care plan, but no such concerns were expressed [as] Obama delivered a pep talk to the group in a meeting at the [DNC] that was broadcast on its Web site.”107

OFA’s follow-up email about the event, however, quoted the President’s remarks on the public option: “The President made the stakes of reform crystal clear. He talked about how, with health care costs rising three times faster than wages, the cost of inaction is simply too high,” wrote Jeremy Bird, in an appeal for supporters to attend reform events. The email continued: “And he made plain his stance on the public option: ‘So let me just be clear: I continue to support a public option, I think it is important, and I think it will help drive down costs and give consumers choices."

Lobbying Homestretch

Meanwhile, OFA’s direct lobbying continued. The legislative message remained quite broad, calling on lawmakers to support Obama’s general principles for health care reform. In the several months leading up to the House vote, the outreach was not generally targeted by district or differing political goals. Instead, OFA asked supporters, regardless of location, to call and visit with their members. In a one-week push in August, over 64,000 members participated in Congressional office visits. (Congressional visits are discussed further in Section Two.)

OFA also leveraged the President’s September 9 address to Congress as a mobilizing point. After the speech, “members of Congress have no doubt about where the President stands,” wrote Mitch Stewart in an email. “Call your representatives, and tell whoever answers where you are from and that you watched the President's address. Then tell them that you want your representatives to support the President's plan.” OFA also excerpted a clip from the address for targeted outreach to seniors concerned about Medicare changes,108 which drew 30,000 views.

In October, OFA sponsored a “day of action,” driving volunteers to make 315,000 phone calls to Congress. In an email to supporters, Mitch Stewart reported back on the results:

It's late; I know you've gotten a lot of messages from us recently, and everyone here at OFA headquarters is pretty tired. But the last reports of calls and commitments are just coming in from events on the West Coast, and I wanted to share the news with you. As you know, we set a big goal: 100,000 calls to Congress placed or committed to in a single day by OFA supporters and allied organizations. By 2:30 p.m., you had crushed it. So, we gulped and said let's go for 200,000, not knowing what would happen. But the calls just kept pouring in... I'm looking at the numbers, and with almost all of the reports now in, the tally wasn't 200,000 calls placed or pledged -- it was 315,023. You did it.109

The coordinated calls provided another opening for OFA’s grassroots activity to generate some media coverage, as new media reported that Congress was “crushed” with lobbying by OFA members.110 Much of the traditional media, however, did not cover the effort as part of health care stories at all.111

Passing Legislation

OFA used the U.S. House’s November 7th vote to pass health care reform as a pivot point to motivate supporters and open up a new line of lobbying against targeted Republicans who voted against the bill. OFA sent an email from President Obama the night of the vote to supporters, urging them to celebrate, keep fighting, and donate to the DNC:

This evening, at 11:15 p.m., the House of Representatives voted to pass their health insurance reform bill. Despite countless attempts over nearly a century, no chamber of Congress has ever before passed comprehensive health reform. This is history. But you and millions of your fellow Organizing for America supporters didn't just witness history tonight -- you helped make it. Each "yes" vote was a brave stand, backed up by countless hours of knocking on doors, outreach in town halls and town squares, millions of signatures, and hundreds of thousands of calls. You stood up. You spoke up. And you were heard. So this is a night to celebrate -- but not to rest... OFA has built a massive neighborhood-by-neighborhood operation to bring people's voices to Congress, and tonight we saw the results... Winning will require each of us to give everything we can, starting right now. Please donate $5 or whatever you can afford so we can finish this fight.112

The OFA email from Obama uses a double discourse familiar from the 2008 campaign. On one level, supporters can hear inspiring gratitude from the President – an acknowledgment of their work and its place in the bigger picture of the movement’s impact. In this narrative, the legislative process rests on a grassroots foundation, with each vote backed by organizing, door-knocking, and phone-banking of regular people. On another track, supporters can hear Obama asking them to do more, and donate more. For those who view their work and connection to Obama through fundraising, this kind of direct message can be a welcome invitation to forge a bond, and stay connected, with a legislative agenda that might otherwise seem ephemeral, or far away. Thus the message capitalizes on a key moment, and operates as both a health care mobilization email and a fundraising email.

In November, OFA also launched the first major coordinated effort spotlighting Republican members of Congress. OFA focused on 32 G.O.P. legislators who voted against the Democratic health care bill, but who hailed from districts that voted for Obama. The effort aimed "to remind these members that voters in their districts voted for change last year," according to OFA officials, "and urge them to reconsider their position when the House votes
again on a final bill later this year."113

OFA Director Mitch Stewart described the effort as the more confrontational side of Obama’s bipartisan politics, telling supporters in an email: “The message was clear in these districts: Americans want change, and they expect their Representatives to work with President Obama and reach across the aisle to help deliver it," he said. The GOP opposition to health care reform shows that Republicans are standing "with the insurance companies and right wing pundits to put politics above doing the right thing," he added. The language reflected a sharper tone for OFA emails. In an interview, an OFA official discussed the strategy behind engaging these G.O.P. offices:

[We] targeted Republicans who represent districts that the President won -- the thinking being these people are going to be much more responsive to their constituents on this issue because the President won there. Also our reach within those districts is deeper, because we have a lot of supporters there. [Those constituents are] open to not only idea of health care reform, they’re turned off by the idea of someone who, for partisan reasons, would want to obstruct the President’s process.

When the legislative battle moved to focus on the Senate, OFA reiterated general, positive appeals. One December email asked supporters to “send a holiday card to your senators, telling them that your wish this season is for them to pass health insurance reform.” Yet as the political class and media focused on deal-making and shifting provisions in the Senate legislation, OFA was largely silent in communications regarding changes to the Senate bill. While Obama supporters and prominent liberals from Howard Dean to Paul Krugman engaged in vigorous, extensive public debates about the merits of the final health care compromise, OFA emails largely held to the same positive tone about historic progress. One December OFA email from President Obama, attempting to fundraise off health care as if there were no concerns about the bill among the base, presented a dramatic example of how OFA’s legislative communications diverged from the expectations of some supporters.<114

In late December, OFA appeared to shift its communications slightly to address concerns about compromises in the Senate bill, sending a 13-point policy brief from David Plouffe to specifically advocate for the legislation emerging from the Senate.115 The email directed supporters to share a link to an OFA page, “The Benefits of the Senate Health Reform Bill,”116 by email, Facebook and Twitter. Plouffe also spoke to supporters on a conference call on December 18.117 OFA also sent emails from President Obama when the Senate reached 60 votes for cloture on December 21, and again when the Senate passed the bill on Christmas Eve. “If we finish the job,” Obama wrote, “We will have beaten back the special interests who have for so long perpetuated the status quo. We will have enacted the most important piece of social policy since the Social Security Act in the 1930s.” He also credited OFA members for their calls, letters and organizing, directed supporters to a web portal118 to send “note of appreciation to all the senators who have worked so hard to make this possible.”119

Next: Section II >>

30For the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, OFA sent emails from Joe Biden rallying support, distributed one of the first extended videos of Obama explaining the nomination – one of OFA’s most viewed videos of 2009, topping 440,000 – and provided “Stand with Sotomayor” icons for people to share their support online. For economic recovery, including the budget and federal stimulus, OFA gathered petition signatures, sponsored grassroots events around the nation, and organized 3,200 economic recovery house meetings. OFA also ran an early pledge drive for the President’s budget. See “President Obama's Message to the Economic Recovery House Meetings,” OFA blog, February 7, 2009. “Special Delivery! OFA's Budget Pledges Given To Members,” Hotline on Call April 1, 2009

Also see MyBo pages: OFA emailed members with requests for DNC fundraising, and with opportunities to engage in local elections, see MyBo pages:

31 “Transcript: OFA's Mitch Stewart And Jeremy Bird Speak To TPMDC,” Christina Bellantoni, TalkingPointsMemo. November 11, 2009. In the interview, Stewart said that “since June 6 we’ve been focused 95 percent of our efforts on health care.”

32 Reflecting on the list’s ongoing power in December 2009, David Plouffe argued it was a crucial and underappreciated part of OFA’s activities: "One of the things OFA does -- they didn't appreciate this in the campaign, and its not fully appreciated now -- [is] reach over 10 million people directly ... that's more than any nightly newscast." “Plouffe Counters Obama’s Healthcare Critics,” Ari Melber,, December 16, 2009. Plouffe stressed a similar point in his book about the 2008 campaign, writing that the email list "essentially" provided the campaign with its "own television network, only better.” He contended that the list enabled the campaign to "communicate[] directly with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes [needed] to win - a remarkably high percentage." “The Audacity to Win,” David Plouffe at 364, Viking (2009).

33 The email list was considered so valuable, in fact, that the Obama campaign offered it as loan collateral at one point during the 2008 campaign. “Under Obama, Web Would Be the Way,” Shailagh Murray, Matthew Mosk, Washington Post, November 10, 2008.

34 Tabulations in this report are based on publicly available records. OFA has not released comprehensive information about all its communications or activities, and it runs additional targeted and state-based programs that may not be reflected in these national estimates. Nation emails were tabulated from OFA blog. (Targeted emails posted on the blog, such as constituency emails for a single group like seniors, were not included in the national tabulation.)

35 See, e.g. The Hatch Act, 5 U.S.C. 1501-08 (1966) (originally titled “An Act To Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.” Also see “Hatch Act for Federal Employees,” U.S. Office of Special Counsel website,

36 See. e.g. Statement by Nick Shapiro, White House spokesman for New Media, August 16, 2009. “White House responds to Major Garrett’s questions about unsolicited emails,” Fox News,

37 Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, August 6, 2009

38 “Obama Taps Volunteers for Health Care Outreach,” Mara Liasson, NPR, July 23, 2009 (quoted in segment).

39 See, eg David Dulio, Donald Goff, James Thurber, “Untangled Web: Internet Use during the 1998 Election." PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 32, 1.

40 John Kerry experimented with using his list for legislative advocacy and fundraising after the 2004 campaign, to mixed success, while the lists of candidates like McCain, John Edwards and Wes Clark generally atrophied.

41 After her presidential campaign ended, Hillary Clinton rented and sold parts of her 2.5 million email list to local candidates (Mayor Gavin Newsom), former rivals (Obama’s inaugural committee), liberal groups (EMILY’s List, Media Matters) and even to her own senate election committee, for $2.6 million. "The best e-mail lists in politics,” Kenneth P. Vogel, Politico, May 24, 2009.

42 “Dean promises his group will raise money, recruit candidates,” Elizabeth M. Gillespie, Associated Press, March 18, 2004.

43 Before Obama was inaugurated, the email list was used to generate house party gatherings on December 13 and 14, 2008, as discussed further below.

44 Robert Putnam,“The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,” American Prospect, Spring 1993.

45 Diana Tracy Cohen, “Netroots: Ned Lamont, Social Capital, and the Liberal Blogosphere.” Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, Vol 8:1 (2008).

46 Researchers and commentators continue to debate the Internet’s impact on social relations, social capital and political culture, with several scholars arguing that in many cases, time online reduces social capital and political dialogue. See, e.g. Robert Kraut on social involvement and Cass Sunstein on diverse ideological exposure and dialogue online. This report discusses social capital and community maintenance in the specific context of the networks and volunteerism that grew out of the 2008 Obama campaign, which does not necessarily apply to all online organizing or political outreach.

47 See, e.g. “The Obama Campaign: A Great Campaign, Or The Greatest?,” Sarah Lai Stirland,, November 30, 2008. “Obama Raised Half a Billion Online,” Jose Antonio Vargas,, November 20, 2008.

48 At the time, it is significant to note that Obama aides were still debating whether the campaign network should be folded into the DNC or organized as an independent entity. See, eg “Vast Obama network becomes a political football," Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2008.

49 “Report from Chicago: ‘We're Making This Up As We Go Along,’” Micah Sifry,, December 9,2008.

50 “More Hints from Chicago on Obama For America 2,” Micah Sifry,, December 11, 2008.

51 David Plouffe, “Change is Coming,” Obama for America email, November 25, 2008. Plouffe also indicated that the meetings would provide opportunities to “discuss the issues that are most important to you, what you can do to support Barack's agenda, and how you can continue to make an impact in your community.”

52 While later videos drew less traffic from the Obama campaign’s presence across the Internet, the Plouffe video drew an unusually high share of its audience from the Obama campaign’s MySpace account – 15 percent of viewers – according to YouTube statistics. The video was also most popular with people aged 45-65. “Change is Coming.”

53 “’He can't do it by himself. He's gonna need our help.,’” Christopher Hass, OFA Blog, December 10th, 2008

54 “Our First Guest,” Michelle Obama, OFA email, January 6, 2009.

55 See OFA website:

56 “OFA Metrics Nine Months In,” Christina Bellantoni,, November 11, 2009

57 Barbara Trish, “Organizing for America,” Presentation to The State Parties Conference, October 15-16, 2009, Akron, Ohio. Accessible at

58 Over the tenure of the first term, of course, OFA continues to recruit new members who may not have participated in the 2008 campaign. The impact of new members (or newly active members) is especially pronounced among online donors: about 25% of online donations in 2009 were from new donors, according to OFA. This figure suggest that OFA is reaching some new people in the governance phase, or activating supporters for the first time, though figure may appear high as a percentage of total donor because many campaign-era donors feel tapped out and are not donating in 2009.

59 Some former OFA staff have indicated 2012 is a key organizational priority, noting that is a logical and positive goal. Quoting one aide, for example, Politico reported: “...organizers for the [OFA] group have also been instructed to focus on Obama’s 2012 reelection, according to a former regional director, Jeremiah Anderson. ‘Even in the midst of training, they were asking us to start thinking about 2011 and what our areas would look like then,’ said Anderson, 28, who left the job last month to attend to family issues and eventually return to school. ‘I thought that was cool, because I’m not that big of a fan of advocacy. I’d much rather work for a candidate.’ “In his own image: Barack Obama's DNC,” Kenneth Vogel, Politico, October 24, 2009.

59 Mandate citation

60 See, e.g. OFA: Harnessing Obama’s grassroots network in Massachusetts,” May 27, 2009 (discussing an OFA meeting with Marshall Ganz and OFA Director Mitch Stewart). massachusetts/

61 MitchStewart, “National Health Care Day of Service,” OFA email, June 12, 2009.

62 See, e.g. “Free health clinic in New Orleans highlights need for reforms,” Sue Sturgis, Facing South, November 17, 2009 (reporting on clinics drive backed by National Association of Free Health Clinics and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann); Also see “Health reform's human stories,” Rich Stockwell, and DailyKos dairy entry, “WATCH: Keith Olbermann Free Health Care Clinic New Orleans 1000'S without Health Care Show Up,” Tazzz, (including MSNBC television segment), November 17, 2009.

63 “TOMORROW: Organizing for America Will Hold Thousands of National Health Care Day of Service Events Across the Country,” DNC Press Release, June 26, 2009.

64 “Host a Watch Party,” OFAblog, September 7, 2009.

New visitors who sent the video through the OFA website were automatically signed up to “receive emails” from OFA; recipients of the videos would not receive OFA emails or have their information stored by OFA. Friends.aspx

66 This is a higher percentage than most political email lists for issue groups or the national parties.The email breakdowns are featured in the introduction to Section One.

67 OFA emails rotate the sender depending on the subject and “ask” of a given email, including people who are not official OFA staff. Plouffe does not retain an official leadership position inside OFA at the DNC, though he remains engaged as a paid DNC consultant. The DNC paid his firm over $375,000 in 2009. “Steele shows fundraising savvy and spreads the wealth around,” Reid Wilson, The Hill, September 24, 2009 “In his own image: Obama's DNC,” Kenneth P. Vogel, Politico, October 24, 2009.

68 “Time is now on healthcare, Obama says,” Foon Rhee, Boston Globe, May 28, 2009 (with transcript of conference call).

69 “President Obama's Phone Call to Volunteers,” Christopher Hass, OFA blog, May 30th, 2009.

70 The video received about 10,000 views. “President Obama's Call with Health Care Volunteers,” June 4, 2009

71 Recognizing that many people are more interested in hearing a call than signing another petition, the site also assured visitors that the “audio will continue to play” when they submitted their information. “Organizing for Health Care,” Organizing for America dedicated call petition page

72 “Obama Says Health Care Changes Must Come This Year,” Philip Elliott, A.P. May 28, 2009. The article’s subheader also treated the mobilization appeal to OFA as an important development in and of itself, noting that Obama’s warning was issued to “political supporters.”

73 See, e.g. “Campaign dissected: Obama manager promotes book in Portsmouth,” Foster’s Daily Democrat, November 18, 2009. The article reports on Plouffe’s disintermediation strategy: “It was clear to the campaign early on that it had to communicate with voters in a way that could circumvent traditional media, Plouffe said. Therein lies the importance of the campaign's vast e-mail network, which shared unfiltered messages and videos among supporters and others. ‘We thought the most important conversations were the ones happening’ locally, Plouffe said.” Also see, “Obama's Bush Rebuttal Breaks Another YouTube Record,” Ari Melber,, January 29, 2008. “[R]eporters are noticing that Obama is not using them to get stuff out....whenever possible, he is routing around the filters and gatekeepers so that he can speak directly to voters.... a classic disintermediation approach.”

74 “Obama Campaign Activists Find Health Care Harder Sell,” Bloomberg, Heidi Przybyla, June 17, 2009.

75 “Health Care Organizing Kickoff Host Guide,” OFA website.

76 Health Care Organizing Kickoff Video

77 Organizing for America Kicks Off Grassroots Health Care Reform Effort at Thousands of Meetings Across All 50 States, OFAPress Release, June 3, 2009.

78 OFA provided a ‘stories’ portal on its official website, which operated as a collection point for contact information and endorsements of the President’s plan. Users were asked to consent to public use and endorsement of their story: “I agree that by submitting my story, my name, city/state, and personal story will appear publicly in a powerful display of support for the President's principles and I agree to the Submission Terms.” “Health Care Stories for America,” OFA website.

79 “Organizing for America Announces New Television Ad, ‘It’s Time,’” OFA Press Release, July 15, 2009.Two ads ran in the following states, calling on Senators to support the President’s plan: AR, IN, FL, LA, ME, ND, NE and OH calling on Senators in those States to Support Reform

80 Excerpt from White House Press Briefing: “Q. The President talked to [OFA] yesterday and they have this campaign where they're asking people to not only go knock on doors, but to gather people's stories, which has been a theme of story collection from the beginning of the campaign. How do you envision these stories then actually being used, since very specific legislation is being written in Congress right now for the health plan. How will ... this story collection really translate into policy, since we're not dealing just with principles in Congress now, which is what the President talked about, and the call was about, to go support these several principles. How do you envision this going down to the actual writing of legislation that's going on right now? MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that just as the President gets letters each day that illustrate some very specific and real-world examples of what Americans are going through... The illustration of stories that are -- I think are vivid examples of the problems that Americans face and what they want addressed through this legislation. ... Q: ..these stories that you're collecting... you give the impression to people that somehow this is going to affect what's going on in Congress. Well, Congress this very week is writing it. It's not in the future. It's not distant. So how can you -- MR. GIBBS: If stories that are being crafted or written or told aren't impacting the process of government, then you and I are going to have a hard time rationalizing to our prospective employers how we've spent the previous, say, 45 minutes. Q: No, no, no, I'm talking about your collection... you're having house parties, campaign-style house parties... So I'm asking you, since you are now sending out a nation of your volunteers to have these house parties and to go knocking on doors to collect more stories about how rotten the health care system is and why we need change, which no one is disputing, because your allies in Congress are writing a bill to remedy this -- what is all that activity really for? MR. GIBBS: To continually remind each and every leader in this country of the importance of health care reform. Look... if it was done and we could all go home, it would be great; we could call it a win and nobody would have to do anything. But I don't think that's the case.” Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, May 29, 2009.

81 “2009,” Mitch Stewart, OFA email, December 30, 2009.


83 A Message from OFA on Health Care Town Halls,

84 “30 seconds to win reform,” Natalie Foster, OFA email, September 26,2009.

85 The cumulative figure counts the view for each video, not individual viewers.

86 A similar video contest during the 2008 presidential campaign, MoveOn’s “Obama in 30 Seconds contest,” drew about 1,100 entries, and the top videos were viewed a few hundred thousand times as of May 2008, when they were first uploaded. See “Obama in 30 Seconds,” MoveOn,

87 OFA “Contribute” page with embedded video

88 “Local filmmaker wins national contest,” Charlottesville Daily Progress, November 18, 2009.

89 Conservative critics charged Obama with politicizing communication with school children, based on his national address to schoolchildren and an incident involving a school that reportedly taught students a song regarding Obama. While many dismissed the attacks as spurious political theatre, the context is relevant for assessing the contrast between Obama’s top-down messaging and OFA’s experimentation with supporter-generated health care argument.

90 Blogger Michael Roston criticized the ad for using children: ”I hoped ... that kids could be kept out of the health care debate as stand-ins for the partisan wars of their parents. But this [OFA ad] is what it looks like when an important Democratic-affiliated group, with the help of volunteers, feeds a dire health care-related script to someone’s precocious camera-friendly children.” maddie-obama/

91 Attacking supporters who are even briefly spotlighted in political efforts is an increasingly common tactic, a trend that has only enlarged the risk of tapping bottom-up input for parties and politicians. The modern “vetting” and criticism of supporters and citizens who engage the political process has made many politicians reflexively wary of tapping supporters for any messaging at all. This dynamic occurs online and off, from “Joe The Plumber” in the 2008 campaign to the scrutiny of Eric Hurt. Bonnie Goldstein, a writer for AOL Politics Daily, seized on another video by Hurt: “OFA has not released Hurt's other entry to the public[,] but I'm guessing it was not the humorous but slightly outré short film titled "So Stoned" ... featured on his Vimeo account....” “Winning Health Care Ad Maker Eric Hurt's Creative Range,” Bonnie Goldstein, AOL Daily Politics, November 17, 2009. creative-range/

92 We're working on a new television ad ... explaining why doctors and nurses so strongly support President Obama's plan,” wrote Mitch Stewart in one September appeal. “But to produce and air the new ad before the Senate starts debating a final bill, we'll need to raise $300,000 by Thursday. Please donate $5 right away." “The cavalry, in white coats and scrubs,” Mitch Stewart, OFA email, September 30, 2009.

93 “OFA Metrics Nine Months In,” Christina Bellantoni,, November 11, 2009

94 “Anger and Rancor Fuel Cable’s Health Care Coverage,” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. August 10-16, 2009. Also see “Town Hall Showdowns Fuel Health Care Coverage,” August 3 – 9, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

95 “A floundering campaign on health care,” Boston Globe, August 21, 2009.

96 Id.

97 “And for the Blue Team?,” Joshua Micah Marshall,, August3,2009.

98 “Is Obama’s Vaunted Political Operation Getting Outworked By Tea-Baggers?” Greg Sargent, Plum Line Blog, August 4, 2009.

99 “Time to set the record straight,” Mitch Stewart, OFA email, August 19, 2009.

100 An August survey found that 61percent of Democrats thought orchestration by “political activists” were a major factor in town hall protests, while only 42 percent of Republicans and Independents thought so. “Town Hall Meetings Generate Interest, Some Sympathy,” Frank Newport, Gallup Poll, August 12, 2009.

101 See, eg A coordinated slideshow on Flickr gathered several hundred views per picture:

102 “Obama To Hold Live Strategy Meeting With Organizing For America Supporters,” Brian Beutler,, August 18, 2009.

103 “Let’s Get It Done!,” Jeremy Bird, OFA email, August 22, 2009.

104 Obama's Strategy Session Draws 270k, Dems Claim Good Week,“ Sam Stein, Huffington Post, August 21, 2009.

105 In the presentation, OFA also asserted that it “outnumbered” protesters at town halls. It did not provide numbers for that comparison, however, and most observers agreed that the anti-health care protesters were effective precisely because they had impact despite their relatively small numbers, not because they had organized an equally large presence. Jeremy Bird, National Health Care Forum with President Obama

106 The summer events were geographically diverse, according to real-time listings on OFA’s website, See, eg “Organizing for America, Obama's Sleeping Beast, Starts to Awaken,” Micah L. Sifry, TechPresident, July 15, 2009 america-obamas-sleeping-beast-starts-awaken

107 “Obama Sees G.O.P. Plan to Derail Health Proposals,” Jeff Zeleny, Carl Huse, New York Times, August 21, 2009.

108 President Obama Speaks To Seniors, Also see

109 “Off the hook,” Mitch Stewart, OFA email, October 21, 2009.

110 See, eg, “Congress ‘Getting Completely Crushed’ With Over 100,000 Calls For Obama's Healthcare Reform,” Dawn Teo, Huffington Post, October 20, 2009.

111 “The day after Congressmembers were flooded with calls, for example, an 878-word story in the New York Times headlined ‘Obama Takes a Health Care Hiatus’ did not mention the calls.” Jose Antonio Vargas, Huffington Post, November 3, 2009.

112 “Making History,” President Barack Obama, OFA email, November 8, 2009.

113 “OFA Volunteers To Target House Republican Members Who Voted Against Health Insurance Reform, DNC Press Release,” November 12, 2009.

114 See, e.g. “Idiocy,” Markos Moulitsas, DailyKos, December 9, 2009 (arguing “this is insulting, betraying a lack of understanding of just how pissed the base is at this so-called reform”).

115 “What’s Really At Stake,” David Plouffe, OFA email, December 22, 2009.

116 “The Benefits of the Senate Health Reform Bill," OFA website,

117 “Conference Call with David Plouffe,” OFA website (recording).

118 “A historic moment,” OFA website.

119 “A historic moment,” OFA email, December 24, 2009.