Section II: Reaction to OFA
Congressional Reaction Overview
hile influencing Congress is a major goal of OFA, there have been few explicit, public reactions from members of Congress to OFA’s work in 2009.120 The absence of public congressional statements regarding OFA is fairly unremarkable; members of Congress often discuss democratic influence in terms of listening and responding to their constituents, not by citing the work of membership or lobbying organizations. Unlike many traditional Washington-based interest groups, OFA has not convened the kind of annual conferences, “insider” events, or lobbying days where members of Congress would publicly speak to activists and (potentially) credit their work.
To learn more about reaction to OFA on Capitol Hill, I conducted telephone interviews with selected congressional staff in both parties.121 The interviews focused on members’ offices that had been strategic priorities for OFA legislative initiatives. Sources were granted anonymity to encourage candor, and the interview selections are divided by political party.
Democratic Congressional Offices
Most Democratic congressional staff interviewed viewed OFA fairly positively, and crediting it for mobilizing Obama supporters around coordinated lobbying efforts. Democratic staff did not generally view OFA as overstepping Congress’ role, or necessarily having a large impact on day-to-day activities on Capitol Hill.
One senate chief of staff saw OFA as an effective force that both supported and prodded Democrats. The staffer concluded that OFA had improved its legislative outreach over the course of 2009.
I think [OFA has] definitely evolved. I think they’ve gotten more micro- targeting; they worked out the kinks a little bit in their on the ground operations – looping them into the national strategies, doing what they did best during the campaign, being able to take a grassroots local message and making it a national campaign.
By contrast, the staffer voiced concern about some of OFA’s initial lobbying efforts. While noting that the tactics were common practice, the staffer contended that early mobilization efforts did not acknowledge their senator’s supportive position on health care:
They have been thinking they’ve done things that are more helpful than they’ve turned out to be, [and] instead have accidentally caused some hiccups. We’re on the Finance Committee – in an effort to persuade every member of congress to support health care, they hit up a massive ‘call your senator to support health care reform’ [program]. It ended up burying our offices in lobbying calls, screaming at the senator to support health care reform – which is not to say that other organizations haven’t done the same – but the challenge being when you’re trying to lobby from the friendly side to keep people going you need to be more specific with your messaging. You need to be more politically savvy. I think there’s a difference between sending a blast email that says, ‘call Senator [X] and let them know you support health care reform,’ versus ‘support their [allied] efforts on health care reform.’ One is more helpful than other.
The staffer also volunteered a contrast with MoveOn, contending that the health care debate showed MoveOn was interested in “keep[ing] their base active,” and not “in having a conversation with Members. OFA has been “more constructive” in its outreach, the staffer said. The staffer also said that constituent contact mobilized by OFA is treated with the same “respect and responsiveness” as any other type of constituent contact.
A House staffer credited OFA for effectively and constructively mobilizing support for The President’s priorities: “My experience with them is that they’ve been very effective in mobilizing constituent calls.” On the budget and health care, the staffer recounted, “We noticed a significant uptick in calls and constituent outreach.... Certainly, it’s a fairly significant outpouring of support that we see, when they try to get their members motivated.” This staffer noted that it can be challenging to rally around affirmative goals, and that OFA’s work was helping “progressive” offices, including theirs. “It’s always helpful to have very large groups of people who are motivated on the side of reform,” the staffer said. “A lot of times its easier to be against something, than it is to motivate people for a big complicated reform of a sixth of the nation’s economy. And [OFA is] helping do that.”
Another House staffer said OFA was a “pretty well known presence” on the ground in their district. “At least in our case, from our office,” the staffer observed, “they’ve been in good contact with our constituents, people on the ground, definitely been an effective advocate and mobilized people.” The staffer added that their district staff had ongoing contact with OFA staff and volunteers. Similarly, a House staffer from a Democratic office backing Obama’s health care plan said, “OFA folks were active in district... [and] it was a very positive interaction.” The staffer said they received visits, calls, thank you cards and about 200 letters that specifically cited OFA in advocating for health care reform. “Since the beginning, [my boss] was a supporter of reform with a strong public option,” said the staffer, and when there is agreement on an issue, such “members appreciate that groups thank them for the work they’re doing.”
A staffer from a Democratic representative who voted against the health care bill, and who represents a district that McCain won in 2008, said OFA was a positive force, but it had not altered the underlying public opinion against Obama’s plan in the district. “Hopefully, [OFA] will be able to change some minds and form that community of [our] party base – whether they be fully progressive or consider themselves moderate Democrats – I just think [their] impact is harder to measure than it would be in bluer districts,” said the staffer, adding “It’s definitely important that there be something holding that [more progressive] community together.” The staffer also said their member of Congress might have voted for Obama’s health care bill, had there been more local support.
Republican House Offices
Most Republican offices in the House and Senate did not have significant contact with OFA members. The main OFA program for Republicans targeted House members who opposed Obama’s health care plan, and represented districts that Obama carried, (as discussed in Section One). The following excerpts are from interviews with staff from those 32 districts.
As with Democratic offices, one consensus among the Republican offices interviewed was that constituents mobilized by OFA are treated and counted like any other constituents. No staffers argued that the advocacy was less influential because it was somehow “orchestrated.” Furthermore, while many Republican officials contended that OFA was not overwhelmingly represented or influential in their districts, none suggested that OFA or the DNC should refrain from these activities. The concerns about a “permanent campaign” or constant mobilization effort were not top of mind among the congressional staffers interviewed. (That may be because they do not view this engagement as problematic, or because they have accepted this dynamic as an inevitable part of the modern legislative process, as discussed further in Section Three.)
For example, this Republican staffer’s description constituent lobbying was typical:
If they’re a constituent they’re a constituent -- no matter what prompted them to call. We’re going to take down that information and make sure it’s recorded. We don’t distinguish that much, if someone took the time to write out a well-thought out letter, we address their concerns individually. Mass form letters -- in the overall tally we count them all the same -- but the answers may be different [for individualized lobbying].
This staffer said health care sparked one of the larger grassroots outpourings the district had seen over any issue, both pro and con, and it was evident that OFA had mobilized some of the supportive activism. “On both sides, it’s been a larger quantity of contact, the only thing I can compare it to was 2007 illegal immigration,” the staffer said. “When it’s a big issue and hits close to home,” the staffer continued, “whatever side is mobilizing [can get] people involved and call[ing] the office. Even with the OFA push, we’ve still just seen, for our district, overwhelmingly people are against the bill. Maybe that goes to the nature of our district -- the issue is big, and people will find a way to get involved, and that’s great.”
Another Republican staffer said the office was aware of OFA’s health care effort from local newspaper coverage and a gathering of about 20 people at a district office, and there were also phone calls during the stimulus debate. The staffer said OFA’s field efforts did not impact the member of Congress “making decisions,” though “that might reflect the [conservative] tone and nature of our district.” The staffer also volunteered that the DNC was airing a radio ad in the district on health care, but contended that effort was mobilizing support for the member’s opposition to Obama’s health care bill.
...I know they’re doing it in the 32 some odd districts that President Obama won in the 08 cycle. To tell you the truth, from comments I have seen – [we’re] pretty active in the blogosphere and new media type stuff -- it has actually emboldened people to say ‘thank you,’ or [engage] folks who may not have been vocal supporters in the past, but now. [OFA’s] intention is to get more folks to participate, in favor of President Obama’s agenda, but the same goes for the other direction.
Like most offices, the staffer said the mobilization and engagement spurred by OFA was positive, both in mobilizing support and disagreement with the President’s agenda.
Another staffer reported a similar reaction to OFA ads: “We’ve actually gotten more calls thanking her from the ad that’s been running in the district, anecdotally.” Unlike other offices, however, this staffer said the office had not “gotten more calls than would be normal for a major issue, as far as calls being pushed to our office from this [OFA] campaign.”
Another staffer said the office had not detected an increase in constituent contact during OFA’s congressional push, and that the “only” OFA-effort the office recalled was confusion in August regarding scheduled office visits.122 The staffer contended OFA had not impacted the office. “I understand that Obama won [our district],” said the staffer, “but I think he won it because of the wave of his campaign,” rather than an endorsement of his policy agenda. “You know, I talk with the entire delegation,” added the staffer, “I see [OFA’s] name so rarely that they don’t really register. And maybe that’s because they really are just focused on Democrats.”
Other Republican officials stressed that Obama’s electoral support in the district simply did not translate into a policy endorsement, and argued that OFA was simply not in a position to alter those underlying dynamics:
Here’s the thing: He did win our district for a variety of reasons, but the people in our district have been pretty clear that they don’t want the [health care] plan, and they’ve been supportive of our stance throughout. Naturally, you’re going to get a certain amount of calls supporting Obama’s plan, but same as you see in other [conservative areas], they like The President personally, but they don’t like his policies... not seeing a large influx at all of people supporting his policies. As I said, there’s been a couple of letters to the editors - that’s the extent [of OFA impact in the district]. We’ve heard tons, throughout whole health care campaign, that they were going to come to our offices and do all sorts of protests and meetings, and its really been quite overblown, in large part because people in our district don’t support the agenda that they’re pushing.
The same staffer credited Obama’s organizational strength, and noted its repercussions on Capitol Hill and in media coverage:
I think what happens -- and partly with good reason because the Obama Campaign was great at mobilizing people in the campaign – [is] they’ll put out a release that they’re making a big push, and media will pick it up and we’ll get calls on it, and nothing really materializes. I’m sure that they’re have been people in our office coming from OFA, but it is not by any stretch a large amount. Frankly, I’ve heard almost none, I got to imagine at some point, someone has come in... The amount of calls we get on a daily basis, in a district that Obama won, are overwhelmingly in support of us…
… I think rightly so, their organization is taken very seriously, because of how well they organized in 08.... You see the difference between campaigning and having to govern. Once they have to go out and support an actual policy, obviously their base is weaker supporting, and they’re not getting the same support across the board. I don’t think the media is stoking it -- the media rightly takes them seriously. On the flipside, we’re not seeing a huge presence. Now, maybe other districts are, but we’re not.
According to the Republicans staffers interviewed, OFA established a brand and presence in its first year, but did not have sustained grassroots contact or impact on these congressional offices.
From Polling to Practice
There is limited quantitative data focused on OFA members. OFA conducted one post- election survey of its members in November 2008,123 drawing 550,000 responses, and released summary answers to a few of the questions.124 (It conducted a second survey at the beginning of 2010, which has not been released at the time of this writing.125)
As a competitive political entity, OFA logically does not release much of its most
valuable data, such as fundraising analytics, email open rates, and geographic breakdowns of political activities. Such intelligence could be illuminating to observers, but also useful to opponents.
The major polling organizations generally track people by party identification and political behavior, but not by OFA membership. (There are several challenges to polling OFA members directly, as one pollster explained when interviewed for this report.)126 Given the sheer size of OFA’s list, however, some topline conclusions can be drawn from these surveys. Democrats overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s first year in office and retain very positive views of him,127 for example. That population includes most OFA members, so the baseline OFA sentiment towards Obama presumably remains quite warm.128 Turning to ongoing engagement, far more self- identified Liberal Democrats donate online, watch web videos and read political blogs than any group in either party. Therefore, this group tends to overlap more with OFA,129 and may provide a rough touchstone for its views.130 Furthermore, a very high portion of all Democrats who made online donations to a campaign in 2008 have been on the Obama email list, at least for some time, since the campaign aggressively collected emails of online donors and tried to convert small dollar donors and merchandise purchasers into OFA email volunteers.
Without more precise data on OFA members from the DNC or polling organizations, this report does not attempt a quantitative (or representative) discussion of all OFA members. To augment the public record, I conducted online surveys of 72 OFA members and volunteers, probing their views and experiences. Interviewees were selected independently, with an attempt to reach people around the country at a range of engagement levels. The sampling method was a snowball sample, contacting OFA members and soliciting their recommendations for other OFA members to survey. (The Appendix discusses methodology in more detail.)
To be clear, this qualitative reporting does not provide a random sample; readers should not interpret the responses as somehow representative of all OFA members.
Instead, the survey and interviews provide new reporting and qualitative information about the experiences and views of some OFA members. In certain instances, these members’ experiences and ideas may overlap with broader trends or provide insight into OFA’s work. In other instances, they may simply provide input and ideas that are worthy of consideration, even if they are not representative of broader trends among OFA members.
Four Types of OFA Members
Among OFA members interviewed, four different types began emerging in 2009.
Leading the pack are super-activists, discussed below and in Section Three, who are enthusiastically seizing on new governance activism opportunities to volunteer at rates that rival campaign season. Some of these members are active in politics for the first time in their lives.
Other Obama supporters are taking the role of critical participants, volunteering on OFA tasks while also voicing skepticism about aspects of Obama’s strategy or policy.
Some OFA members have shifted into supportive bystanders, intensely backing Obama but passing on volunteer opportunities, because they do not feel needed or are busy with other activities.
Finally, there are former members, Obama voters who dropped out of participation and communication with OFA in response to its first year activities, but still feel positively towards Obama.
Resilient, Intense Obama Support
A major theme in discussions with OFA members is the resilient, positive views towards President Obama and his agenda. Even among OFA members who have scaled back their participation or consumption of OFA communications, many hold high hopes for Obama – and for other supporters’ efforts. Some supportive bystanders describe their decreased activity as a logical shift once the campaign ended, or cast their drop off as a reaction to the kind of opportunities provided by OFA. Even people who do voice disagreement with OFA strategy, or who have unsubscribed from the email list and ceased all participation (former members), still tend to separate that preference from their positive views of Obama.
The surveys suggest that the most active OFA volunteers, super activists, are remarkably engaged. Some sustain schedules that rival their work during the peak of the campaign. While there is no way to measure how many people fall in this category,131 this is a relatively unusual activism pattern for American politics.132 One teenage OFA member, who volunteers between one and five hours a week, said he has attended in-person meetings, in-person service projects, wrote to Congress, called Congress, emailed the media, forwarded Obama email to friends and participated in student organizing. He noted the challenges facing OFA and legislative activism, but sounded very optimistic in describing why he devoted so much time to OFA:
It's one of the most effective ways of being involved in key political battles of our time because of the scale and tools OFA brings to the table. It is sometimes a challenge to stay active in legislative issues because they are harder to stay active on than campaigns. Campaigns have a set time period and a clear objective: Getting a candidate elected.... Healthcare is much harder, in that the goal is not as clearly defined, and [the] influence of activists is less clear. But all of that is not through any fault of OFA.
Another highly active OFA member, who first connected with the campaign in early 2007, said she has taken every type of action for OFA, and continues to volunteer 30 hours a week. She explained her motivations:
I want to see key pieces of legislation successfully enacted, and what we are doing in building capacity in every state and in every Congressional district will have a huge impact on the future of the Democratic Party and on progressive policy goals. It's been a slow build, which I'm comfortable with, because that is how our field campaign has always worked.
She added that OFA is doing several projects “really well”: “training volunteer leaders, building local organizing teams, and managing a pretty big impact on healthcare.” Another highly engaged activist, a 28-year-old who began helping Obama in the 2008 primaries and still volunteers 30 hours a week, described his ongoing motivation
as a natural progression: “I worked as a volunteer throughout the campaign. OFA was the logical next step for me to support President Obama and the platform he ran on.”
Similarly, one 53-year-old member volunteers 5 to 10 hours a week, reads most emails and has taken every type of action for OFA. “I am 100% convinced Obama remains on the best path for the country,” he said, though he thought OFA has not yet “made the transition to articulating how their volunteers can influence legislative progress.” Another active member, an unemployed 29-year-old, said he still volunteers 20 to 30 hours a week, has taken every type of action for OFA and reads every email. His motivation to volunteer is “to help strengthen America through enhanced community networks and wide-scale cooperation,” he said, adding that he didn’t think there is anything OFA could do better.
One 42-year-old Democrat stressed that she had “never been involved in politics at all before Obama,” but she volunteered ten to twenty hours a week for OFA in 2009. (She attended political and service projects, called Congress, contacted friends and wrote email to the media.) She views OFA as a meaningful opportunity to support Obama and work with other people: “I love the fact that we are joining together to support our incredible President and his/our policy agenda!” she wrote. Similarly, a 62-year-old who volunteers five to ten hours a week marveled at the chance to continue working on Obama’s behalf. “What a gift to have President Obama's policy agenda,” he said, “it is too much of a gift to pass up the chance to participate in making sure it happens.” Although he is not a member of any political party, this volunteer said OFA inspired him to attend political and service events, call and email Congress, and contact friends. He was very enthusiastic about OFA’s program and fellow organizers in his area:
Mostly, [OFA] so much exceeds my experience with human nature in prior volunteer efforts, that I just marvel at their degree of cogentness and on-target organization. I am fortunate that in my locality there is an exceptionally committed core of volunteers, always ready to make things work on the ground.
Diverging Views of OFA Strategy
Other volunteers raised concerns about OFA’s strategy, though many of these critical participants continue to volunteer despite their strategic disagreements. One member, who has attended political and service events, said she wished OFA ”would send emails on how to contact Democratic representatives who oppose the President's agenda” – referencing OFA’s reticence to use a confrontational posture towards Democrats opposing Obama’s agenda (discussed further in Section Three). The volunteer also contended that OFA “withheld” information about certain legislative developments, citing OFA’s silence regarding Rep. Stupak’s pro-life amendment to the health care bill, but said she continues to volunteer an hour a week for OFA.
Another OFA member, who volunteers one to five hours a week, lamented that OFA had “no interest in push back against poor decisions such as Stupak,” and he also criticized an organizational sensitivity about “attacking other Democrats.” The volunteer, who has attended in-person meetings, service projects, and contacted Congress by phone and email, contended that many “OFA1” people are “very disappointed in OFA2.” He said he reads every email and thought that while the quantity was right, the quality and “depth of information is low.”
Another 51-year-old OFA member said she had hoped OFA would function as a more “progressive,” reformist force in American politics, but she remained enthused volunteering one to five hours for the current effort:
I personally had hopes that this movement, which has now become OFA, would somehow become the New Progressive Party movement – rather than part of the status quo DNC. However, I am still committed to working as a C.O. and will support OFA with those projects and agendas that mesh with mine. I think OFA could use a little less rah-rah and a bit more substance in their messaging, particularly when it is dealing with items within the Democratic Party, like the Blue Dogs and the push back on [health care reform]. But overall, it is impressive that this movement that began with the campaign has not only stayed together, but  grown in influence.
She said she first joined the campaign after the 2008 primaries began, and she continues to read every OFA email. Similarly, a 37-year-old supporter who volunteers 5 to 10 hours a week said she felt the health legislation was “obviously  not perfect” and she had ongoing “concerns” about the process, but she intended to keep working for OFA. “I want to make as many of [Obama’s] ideas as possible into realities for the USA,” she explained, and she believed the “summer campaign” to lobby members of Congress in their offices had “some positive effect.”
Other volunteers were more critical. “Plouffe said he didn’t want this to be a ‘call and email your congressman organization,’” noted a 22-year-old who volunteered 40 hours a week for OFA as a summer organizer in 2009, “but that’s exactly what it was, because it was the least controversial tactic and it was approved throughout the bureaucracy.” This person said volunteer efforts to advocate alternative strategies, such as confronting resistant Democratic legislators, were rebuffed. “I got in trouble for saying focus on [a particular Member], because that was targeting. This whole tactic that is central to Saul Alinsky organizing is to pick out the power player who has the authority over the specific tactic that you want done, and use a variety of pressure tactics,” the volunteer recounted. “So OFA specifically denounced that targeting ... I don’t know if it came down from above, but the state director communicated it to summer organizers.” The former OFA volunteer continued:
I think that, to a large extent, this Obama election hasn’t signified a new moment in American politics... Going through OFA showed me that they're using these same insider tactics that political machines have used forever... The White House was directing this mobilization and marketing effort, and pitching it as organizing to its supporters. It made me feel like the White House was using me to mobilize supporters for a rally, rather than to organize -- to build power through real grassroots organizing. [Instead] I was part of this machine to enact the White House political directives; I didn’t have influence on those political directives; there was no reciprocal relationship... It’s not a new opportunity for grassroots organizing. It’s just a different political climate.
This person no longer reads OFA emails, but remains fairly positive about President Obama: “He seems to be making the best of incredibly tough political and policy situations. He hasn’t made all the right decisions, but no president or politician does.”
Some members work less for OFA, but remain positive about its efforts and role as a conduit of information. An activist who had attended political and service events, called Congress, emailed Congress and contacted friends for OFA in 2009, for example, decided to volunteer for the local party instead, because it “needs” her more. The activist said she still reads every OFA email for information about local events.
Other Obama supporters say they left OFA because of its activities in 2009. One 45-year-old said he unsubscribed from OFA after participating in one initiative to call Congress. OFA “overpromised” whether “input is meaningful or even heard,” he said. “Seriously, I feel that OFA's main objective is to facilitate and maintain pseudo- personal relationships with supporters in order to exploit them,” he contended, adding, “I think it’s called relationship marketing.”
Another activist, who connected with the Obama campaign in early 2007, said that while she has not unsubscribed from OFA, she doesn’t read the emails and does not know the main objective of OFA. OFA should “take the Kool-Aid off the agenda,” she said, and instead provide more opportunities for people to take “meaningful action.”
A 31-year-old member, who attended a service event and still reads some OFA emails, said her relationship with OFA had evolved. “I just don't feel as connected to OFA as I did the campaign. OFA seems to lack that sense of urgency or mission,” she said, adding, “There's no big goal to work towards like the election.”
Other volunteers questioned whether their volunteering was effective. “I've been disinterested in calling on members of Congress to ‘support Obama's agenda,’ since I don't feel like I fully understand the details of what that agenda entails,” said one 33-year-old Democrat who has called Congress, wrote email to Congress, and contacted friends for OFA. “I would like to see OFA doing a better job of informing us - or maybe just reiterating - what is involved in Obama's agenda,” she continued. “With respect to the health insurance reform, I feel like this has kind of fluctuated over time - with respect to the inclusion of a public option - and it's hard for me to really understand what I'm saying if I encourage others to sign on to ‘The Obama Plan.’” While she still reads some OFA emails, the activist said she feels less motivated to volunteer through OFA’s legislative program:
While I'm compelled to support the President and especially to have my progressive voice heard by the Executive and Legislative branches ... it hasn't seemed like OFA has been a useful vehicle for me to do this. Rather, it seems as though it's more of a way to enlist my neighbors [and] social network to support the President's agenda. Calling and doorknocking seems to be more socially acceptable - at least among my neighbors - for the purpose of a political campaign, for which citizens can cast their own vote. On the contrary, engaging in these activities in order to encourage Members of Congress to pass a vague idea of "Obama's" health care plan isn't as palatable to me.
Similarly, a member who had called Congress and wrote to Congress in 2009 for OFA decided to stop reading emails entirely, because of the “embedded fundraising requests.” The respondent also said they were not sure what OFA’s objective was.
Other OFA members say they are less active for personal reasons, regardless of what OFA is doing. A 59-year-old independent, who attended a political event and forwarded OFA emails in 2009, decided to reduce her volunteering to under an hour a week, because of her own schedule. “I worked a lot for the election,” she said, having first gotten involved when primary voting began, but “regretfully” she has not “had as much time since.” She continues to read most emails, she said, and she is “thankful” for the information that rebuts the “untruths out there.” One 24-year-old, who first connected with the campaign as the general election began, said she attended one in-person event in 2009 and reads some emails, but finds it hard to stay engaged. “I have really fallen off. I care a lot about passing healthcare legislation, so I was trying to stay involved with that,” she recounted. “However, it's tough to stay engaged for so long since the campaign when other life priorities come up.”
One 59-year-old, who reads every OFA email and volunteers under an hour a week, said she is less active simply because of the “timing of events.” Still, over 2009 this volunteer had called Congress, emailed Congress, contacted friends for OFA, attended political events and wrote emails to the media. In passing, she also noted the change in personnel from campaign outreach to OFA: “The blog is pretty weird now, with few of the original bloggers still on board from the campaign.”
Others have shifted their volunteering to different outlets. A 20 year-old-student, who connected with the campaign in late 2007, struck a typical note for a supportive bystander: “[I] stopped volunteering for Obama specifically after he was elected.... I am a full time student and president of [my college] Democrats,” she explained, “I do not have time to give to the [OFA] campaign.”
Increased Volunteering and Local Strategy
Finally, some OFA volunteers and local party officials are pushing the boundaries of the activism opportunities that OFA provides members – with intriguing results. In one especially active OFA network, volunteers have organized their own outreach events, phone banks and localized legislative strategy, and then coordinated their efforts with the OFA’s state staff to drive new supporters and volunteers to their own grassroots events.
“When OFA sends out an email saying ‘please call your congressman,’ our folks didn’t want to call [our progressive Democratic member] anymore because there’s no point,” said the party official. “There seemed to be a limited value to see if she’s on board with health care... we felt that what would be helpful is to use our volunteer energy to push people who really need to be pushed.” So the volunteers began organizing their own phone banks, recruiting people from both homemade email lists133 and national OFA lists, to call supporters in other districts and areas where there were not “extensive volunteer networks.” In some of those areas, the official said, people “hadn’t been getting phone calls, or been asked to do things - so we were assisting in that.” They estimated that they made over 8,500 calls from their recurring phone banks, which are attended by 30 to 40 people. The official said the events continue to draw new volunteers:
What’s really incredible and continues to demonstrate, despite all the naysayers, the power that OFA still has - and [the] Obama brand - when one of those [OFA] emails goes out, or even the general, we will still get people who show up that we’ve never seen before. They’re responding to being asked by OFA to come in. Sometimes its because of the issues, really committed to health care. Sometimes these are folks who participated during campaign, and haven’t gotten involved yet, and get pushed by some desire... we had a senior citizen who came in for several nights of phone banking, who had never ever done political work before, not even during the campaign... but finally the health care issue and the fact that it seemed like it might not be getting through Congress, and getting that OFA email - that’s what brought him into office. There are people out there who pay attention, and they still respond.
The official said this model was not only valuable for meaningful volunteering, but also believed it had legislative impact:
I think that partnership has been particularly productive and effective. It’s great for our volunteers because they feel like they’re doing something worthwhile. And it’s good for areas in our state where they didn’t have extensive OFA networks built up... and it also was effective politically, because we were extremely gratified when all of the House Democrats [in our delegation] voted for health care reform -- that was not at all a certainty.
Finally, the official contended that their local collaboration was likely unique. “I suspect, and I’ve been told this fairly directly by OFA folks, that we work with, that we may be the only operation like this in country.” The official elaborated:
There may not be a lot of outposts like ours – Democratic Party operations with a sizable volunteer base that have a close working relationship with OFA. Nonetheless, we represent an important, and especially successful, element of what's going on with OFA. Your questions tend to presume that people come to OFA on their own, evaluate emails individually, and then determine how to respond. But we have an effective symbiotic relationship here, where both OFA and the [local] Democratic Party ... reach out to our networks, and we draw in large groups of volunteers to do critical work that way. For various reasons this may not be possible in lots of places, but where it is it is an especially powerful partnership.
This experiment may be rare at this juncture in OFA’s development, but it suggests one model for citizens and volunteers to make more local and strategic decisions in some of the legislative approach.
The anecdotal examples of newly engaged governance volunteers – in contrast to activating campaign volunteers – suggest that OFA is providing a new, less political gateway to civic engagement for some citizens. Anecdotally, surveys of OFA members found that while the largest plurality of members became involved in the campaign during 2007, before primary voting even began, several people said they first became involved after Obama was inaugurated.
Former Obama Campaign Staff
While OFA’s public communications focus on organizing work, highlights and achievements of the organization, I conducted telephone interviews with a range of former Obama campaign staff to solicit views and analysis of OFA’s first year.
Former campaign aides can offer a salient perspective on OFA’s work and challenges, since they have an insider, practitioner’s understanding of what worked for Obama and his supporters during the campaign. (Like all interviews and surveying for this report, individual staffers are cited on background to encourage candor.) This section generally quotes one source per paragraph, for clarity.
OFA is not OFAC: Why Organizing for America is not the Obama for America Campaign
The clearest point of consensus among former staffers is that OFA’s mission is drastically different than Obama’s presidential campaign – and that many political stakeholders and observers do not seem to fully appreciate the challenge of transitioning from a campaign to OFA’s current experiment.
“Organizing a movement around one man, [and then] moving it to organizing around his agenda -- that was a big challenge,” noted one former staffer, explaining:
You have this amazing charismatic central figure, and while he’s still in the picture, it’s a change dynamic to keep people as enthused as during the campaign -- when there’s a clear end date and a clear goal. Introducing the concept of OFA to folks, getting them excited about it, I think that’s the main challenge.... [Given the challenges,] they have wildly exceeded expectations, and that’s amazing, and I’m really happy for them.
Another former staffer said the campaign’s outsider ethos is hard to sustain from party offices in the Beltway:
They have a specific challenge different than the campaign: How do you recapture a grassroots movement of people fighting Washington insiders when you’re sitting inside Washington trying to direct this movement? It’s difficult. I think its been difficult for them to find that sweet spot.... I think that they’re in a very tough position.
While OFA’s overarching, aspirational message still echoes the campaign, this staffer noted, the messenger is now different. “‘Come together to move government to do the right thing’ – that message is not getting through in their program, because unfortunately they are seen as part of the system,” the staffer concluded. This dynamic may have been reinforced by the decision to focus on the health care battle, a protracted, insider process, as opposed to a range of issues that may have presented more dramatic or decisive moments.
Another staffer emphasized that the campaign provided more resources and independence. “They have a lot fewer resources than we had on campaign,” the staffer said, adding, “They were set up unfortunately in a way that has not empowered them to have as much autonomy.” “I think they’re doing fine,” the staffer concluded, noting “it’s really easy to criticize these organizations from the outside, and it’s always more difficult, more complicated, the more you get in to the details.”
While former campaign staffers were not in unison on this point, most interviewees stressed that OFA’s current structure, within the DNC and reporting to the White House, put significant constraints on OFA’s activities. In this narrative, while the campaign operated as a single, holistic strategic entity, OFA is now inevitably subsumed in a sprawling organizational matrix, including the White House, Congress and party infrastructure. Thus it can be easily outranked.
“It’s very, very hard, because you’re being led around by the White House, which has shifting strategy and different political concerns,” noted one former staffer. The organizational chart makes it hard to quickly answer practical organizing questions, this person observed, or even settle on the right “political rhetoric” for communicating with supporters. This former staffer was also concerned about the commitment to a robust OFA at the White House, a view echoed by other campaign staff.
The White House is not only a bureaucratic hurdle, according to some former campaign staff, it has emerged as an intramural opponent with diverging strategic priorities. Unlike the presidential campaign leadership, one ex-staffer contended, White House management is simply not very enthused about grassroots organizing, or convinced of the potential benefits of mobilizing OFA’s millions of members:
It’s complicated, because OFA is not a campaign – they are an arm of the White House. They have to do what White House tells them. The White House, it seems to me, Rahm and whomever else, [they don’t] give a crap about this email list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing. They want to do stuff the delicate way – the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying. So they see it as more effective to get [Deputy Chief of Staff] Jim Messina on the phone with all these folks; the way to deal with this is to get on the phone. [They say] ‘unleashing a massive grassroots army is only going to backfire on us.’ But at the same time, they have unleashed it, letting it call Congress…
Within this power dynamic, this former staffer argued, many potential concerns or criticisms about OFA do not actually stem from OFA decisions, and instead should be leveled at the White House. (Other Democratic operatives, like former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, have presented the same argument.134) The ex- staffer elaborated:
For the sake of relationship-building, it seems to me there are two warring things. One is pleasing the White House. The other is pleasing this 13 million-person list. You can’t do both, but it seems to me that there has been not enough emphasis on [the idea that] 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. It feels a little like [the White House thinks], ‘Here’s this list, we don’t have to change the way we do anything to please that list. Just have that list conform to the way we do things.’ The consequences for that are that it’s going to weaken the list, and more and more people are going to unsubscribe. It will still be huge, but if they do finally want to unleash it, and turn it into a powerful thing, what then?
Another ex-staffer echoed the concern about White House management:
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. And I think the backstory, if you’re talking about the White House [staff] – and not OFA [staff] – is [the people] working at the White House are the [campaign] communications people, who never, I don’t think, fully appreciated the network of activists in the first place. So, that means that when they’re there, [this organizing] becomes an extension of a larger communications and messaging strategy, and much less a concerted effort to use a lot of people who care a lot [about] creatively pushing through a legislative agenda.
This staffer also lamented that David Plouffe was not in a daily management position at the White House or the DNC. “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 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.” (Plouffe has publicly responded to questions about communications staff gaining more influence than organizing and Internet staff, noting that some shifts are understandable since “in the White House, obviously you're not really raising money and you're not really doing organizing.”135)
Mobilizing Legislative Activism
Another campaign staffer said it was impressive that OFA had clearly generated sustained, grassroots contact with members of Congress and mobilized attendance at events around the country.
It’s important they’ve motivated people to make phone calls and contact their congressmen. I think that a lot of people made a lot of noise at townhalls in August, but more people have been making calls and writing the letters – even if they’re not doing the circus [act] of standing up and screaming at their congressman... The fact that that many people [participated] means there is a bunch of interest out there. People still are engaged; it’s a myth that just because Obama won people are tuning out. I think there still is a lot of passion out there, and people still want to be part of a movement.
Beyond the vote of confidence in OFA’s general mobilization, this staffer added that governance activists could benefit from more precise information on health care, partly because the activist community has become especially fluent with health care policy this year:
I think [some supporters] have suffered from a lack of specifics [from OFA]. People need to know what they’re specifically asking of their member, other than generally ‘health care reform.’ I think people have become very educated in this debate, and there’s a group – people are more informed about the specifics of this legislation than at any other time in recent history about other legislation... The hardcore people understand the details, things like what a public option is, and how that’s different, and the different kinds of public option. Not giving people specific things to push for has meant that a lot of people don’t understand the point. So I think the lack of specificity has hurt their efforts.
Targeted Legislative Strategy
While most former campaign staff interviewed said they support OFA’s focus on Obama’s legislative agenda, several questioned whether the (evolving) mobilization model was as sophisticated and effective as possible. These ex-staffers also volunteered that OFA is in an early, learning stage, and noted the inevitable transition constraints (discussed above).
Several still argued, however, that depending on future refinements, OFA’s 2009 model may not only be a missed opportunity to advance more of the administration’s agenda, but could also reduce some of the trust and relationships between Obama and his supporters.
“Why is this email in your inbox, and why is what I’m telling you not a waste of time?” Every effective political appeal must have clear answers to those questions, suggested one staffer, and some of OFA’s legislative communications fall short. “It’s always going to be a hard needle to thread, but asking people to call safe incumbent Democrats who are voting the right way anyway – like Barbara Boxer or Chuck Schumer – at a certain point has diminishing returns on the actual action, and on people’s willingness to spend the time,” the staffer argued.
In this pragmatic critique, the argument is that it may ultimately be counterproductive to urge supporters to repeatedly deliver the same lobbying message, regardless of who represents them in Congress or how a legislative fight has evolved over time. The staffer suggested an alternative legislative strategy that directed OFA members to target vulnerable members and swing votes, committing support for their reelection campaigns:
Imagine a whole other thread of communications to OFA people before the [health care] vote, instead of sending the same old email saying ‘call congress or sign a pledge.’ If you live in a tough district, tell [members of Congress] we are going to be there to tell why this was the right bill next year. Get people from surrounding districts to contact people in tougher districts... If you told someone who lived in San Francisco or Brooklyn to write a note to the vulnerable member in the district next door, 90 minutes away, committing to go tell my health care story in your district – to tell why this was the right move when you’re running for reelection next year, I want to be standing there with you.
Especially after all these emails have been about telling [politicians who already support reform like] Barbara Boxer how to vote on health care, it would be interesting to people. Even if its not something you think would be effective, it’s interesting, connects to elections next year, reinforces value of being part of this community. Even if it persuaded zero members, it’s a different kind of action that – versus another email saying call Barbara Boxer – would make people pause and think it’s something interesting to consider: A unique avenue of political action that they can’t get elsewhere.
Like others, this staffer noted such a strategic shift depended on the White House, not OFA leadership.
Another staffer noted the shortcomings of directing so many supporters to lobby members of Congress who already back Obama’s health care agenda. “It’s a major ask to ask people to call a Congressman. It takes a good amount of your time, it’s awkward – it’s easier to donate than call a congressman,” noted the staffer, suggesting other avenues:
[What if OFA told us] we have targeted a congressman in a certain congressional district, which is not your district, and they are going to vote against a health care bill. Your voice doesn’t matter in terms of [lobbying] – if I called that congressman they don’t care [about non-constituents], but what are the other things I can do? Theoretically, I could donate money to run advocacy ads in his district. I could call other people on the MyBO list who live where these Blue Dogs are, and say, ‘Hi, I was a volunteer on the campaign just like you, do you think you have time today to call your congressman?’ I feel like there’s stuff that we could do. I don’t know how the legislative process works, but it offends my sensibilities to be asked to call [liberal members who are] obviously going to vote for health care reform... Or for me to call Chuck Schumer – author of the [public option plan] that passed the subcommittee. Why am I calling him? And what does it mean to thank someone who is already a left liberal in a liberal district?
This argument not only echoes the targeting critique, but also questions the purpose of OFA’s “thank you” drives. Another campaign staffer raised the same question regarding legislative targeting. The staffer contended that it is “literally useless” to ask people to call Members who are “clearly going to support the President’s health care proposal.” The staffer elaborated:
That doesn’t mean that I necessarily need to call Snowe’s office, because I don’t have anything to do with Maine, but I sure as hell would love to call to OFA volunteers, or potential volunteers, or swing voters who are in Maine, and talk to them about [health care] and what they can do to make sure their senator supports it. It would be not only valuable, but help give me a feeling that I was actually doing something. Having that feeling is really important; it’s [a] commitment, it’s inspiring, too, and that’s also what leads to fundraising success and other organizing success.
This former staffer felt that OFA’s health care drive repeatedly presented supporters with “traditional asks,” which did not “take advantage of the technology or sheer organizing capacity they have.” The staffer added:
Calling Congress is fine... [but] showing up at every public event that Olympia Snowe has in Maine with people who are actually for the health care bill – and even only ten people, making sure you get their names in the newspaper next day, that feels like public pressure on a senator that, at least in theory, could vote either way on this. They could easily do that --easily agile enough to get people out to a particular place at a particular moment in time... My suspicion is they’re just not allowed to do that politically, by the White House, and that’s a shame. Maybe I’m not sensitive enough to all the political nuance.
This bundle of advice tracks with effective strategies from the Obama presidential campaign, when the email list was used to drive and target volunteers to specific areas that were most consequential for the campaign’s objectives. People made calls into the most important states, not necessarily their home state, and people traveled to where the campaign needed them. Applying that approach to OFA in the future would likely find a receptive audience, since OFA members are primed for that kind of activity from the campaign season.
Finally, several campaign staff interviewed felt that the tone and relationship quality of OFA emails had shifted. Some raised concerns about the potential impact on the strength and intensity of the supporter list, both in the near term and as a resource for a 2012 reelection campaign. (Such concerns were usually discussed in the context of the challenging and constrained environment facing OFA, as discussed above.)
“I think if you look at the body of emails that have gone out in general, the things that haven’t been about health care have not done enough to buttress the reality of the relationship [between supporters and Obama],” said one former staffer, “and the more practical things that people could do, and feel, and consume in order to balance out the very tough reality of that health care relationship.” The mix of communication towards supporters focused too much on health care, the staffer argued: “There’s got to be a home at OFA, and in the party, for people who aren’t really fired up about the way health care is being handled.” The staffer continued:
When I get email from [OFA] it feels like a bunch of people sitting in a building who are really into their jobs, but who don’t have an appreciation for the fact that this email is being dropped into inbox in the middle of everything else that [people are] doing, in the middle of all the other communications and news that they’re seeing, and there’s supposed to be a value, and a significance, and a resonance... Is it meaningful? Does it frame what we’re trying to do? Is it a real relationship? There’s language about what we need to do... but when I’m reading this ... as a person, is this actually meaningful to me? Not ‘do I think it would be meaningful to some pool of people,’ but the best test is, Are the first two graphs of this email meaningful to me? To go back and look at stuff from the campaign ... that’s the big difference
But the larger relationship, we’re hitting send on an email to 13m people, that should be a very balanced diet that reflects all the things that the administration feels are its successes so far, and its priorities moving forward. It should be balanced, and every once in a while you do another sweep  spending time popping the big list with opportunities to opt in to health care – but [you] can’t pretend the whole list is health care.
The same ex-staffer worried about the OFA’s participation rates for governance activism, and whether the data OFA already publicly released was undercutting its potential clout in Washington:
Thirteen million people making 300,000 phone calls? What are the other 12.7 million people doing? ... [O]nly 2.1m took action, and 1.5 of those actions are signing a pledge that feels pretty empty and meaningless anyway, I wouldn’t put that number out. If you thought Obama had 13 million -- actually he only has 10 percent of that... Imagine the leverage, if people really believed there were 13 million people and 4 million donors – and it was all really well curated and taken care of and interesting – and backed up by this field program, imagine the carrot effect for these squishy [members of Congress] who are worried about their reelection next year. Instead of dropping OFA in cacophony of people banging on Congress’ doors, could be powerful leverage for political commitments.
Another staffer worried that a degradation of the email network could impede the intensity among supporters and volunteers going into the reelection campaign.
“Unless people feel like they have a voice, and they’re empowered by campaign infrastructure, I don’t think you’ll see them participate the same way,” the staffer
argued. “Technology is just the means to help people work for what they believe in, and connect with the other people who are similar to them more easily. Who knows what will happen in 2012, unless you have a campaign run by different people in the White House right now, I don’t think its going to be anything like 2008.”
120 The few instances where members of Congress have publicly addressed OFA have often focused on concern regarding the group’s lobbying logistics, but not major substantive issues. For example, in August, some Republican members and one Democratic Senator, Diane Feinstein, publicly questioned whether OFA’s effort to mobilize office visits had confused constituents into perceiving that they had scheduled a specific meeting with their representative. OFA responded, saying “we’ve had a few offices call to clarify that these were visits and not meetings. Of the tens of thousands of people who signed up, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few may have mistakenly thought they had an appointment. ” See, e.g. “Republicans Charge Democrats With Confusing Constituents,” Jackie Kucinich, Roll Call, August 11, 2009. Also see, “Dianne Feinstein’s Office Gripes To White House About OFA-Inspired Constituent Visits,” Greg Sargent, Plum Line, August 12, 2009. http://theplumline.whorunsgov.com/health-care/dianne-feinsteins-office-gripes-to-white-house-about-ofa-inspired-constituent-visits/
121 Interviewees were drawn from press secretaries and chiefs of staff, the two positions typically authorized to speak on behalf of the office.
122 “Republicans Charge Democrats With Confusing Constituents,” Jackie Kucinich, Roll Call, August 11, 2009. Also see, “Dianne Feinstein’s Office Gripes To White House About OFA-Inspired Constituent Visits,” Greg Sargent, Plum Line, August 12, 2009.
124 David Plouffe wrote several bullets of highlights from the results in a December email:
- House meetings were the primary way supporters got involved in the campaign
- People are excited to volunteer around a number of top issues, including education, the environment, health care, poverty, and the economy
- 86 percent of respondents feel it's important to help Barack's administration pass legislation through grassroots support
- 68 percent feel it's important to help elect state and local candidates who share the same vision for our country
- And a staggering 10 percent of respondents indicated that they would be interested in running for elected office,"
“What you’re saying,” BarackObama.com email, December 19, 2008.
125 In addition to an email solicitation from David Plouffe, OFA Director Mitch Stewart recorded a year-end video asking supporters to take the survey, and stating it had generated an “incredible response.” “Mitch Stewart on OFA: Historic Year, More Work Ahead,” January 8, 2010, OFA YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDRB723-x0U
126 “We have not tracked them,” a pollster for Pew said, referring to OFA activists, in an interview for this report. There are two challenges for scientifically surveying OFA activists: OFA would ideally have to cooperate in creating a representative list, and longitudinal data would still not be available from the past. The pollster explained that they were “not even sure how you do it without the cooperation of the group [OFA].” After the 2004 presidential campaign ended, by contrast, Pew worked with former Dean aides to survey a sample of former Dean activists. “[That was] the best thing we did in terms of smaller samples of activists,” the pollster added. For longitudinal data, the pollster indicated that ideally, “from our perspective you’d have to track these people over time, and we haven’t done that. If you got a group now, and said ‘what did you during the campaign?,’ it’s a retrospective... [Maybe] people over-report or under-report their level of activism at the time,” the pollster said, adding that such surveying could still be valuable and “interesting.”
127 See the Democratic cross-tabs in recent polling on Obama’s administration and personal qualities. E.g. “Obama Approval Ratings Steady, Personal Image Remains Positive,” Pew Research Center, September 17, 2009. 128 The Pew pollster interviewed forth is report concurred with this rough interpretive approach. “In a public opinion survey, the best you can get would be people who strongly support Obama now, and see what they’re doing [in volunteering and OFA activities].”
129 At the conclusion of the 2008 election, for example, Liberal Democrats were twice as likely to attend events than Moderate Democrats, and three times as likely to donate money online. Compared to Conservative Republicans, Liberal Democrats were twice as likely to watch political videos online. “Liberal Dems Top Conservative Reps in Donations, Activism,” Pew Research Center, October 12, 2008.
130 Pew also conducted one post-election survey that addressed a few questions to “wired Obama voters,” referring to “those who go online,” cited further in the discussion section below.
131 See polling discussion in the introduction to this section.
132 See, e.g. “The Narrowing of Civic Life,” Theda Skocpol, American Prospect, May 17, 2004.
133 They estimate the open rate on their local email appeals is typically 28 percent.
134 Trippi pointed to the White House when asked about OFA’s progress in November 2009, saying, “They were outsiders who made a conscious decision to play the inside game... They decided that the best way to get things done is to get somebody who can run legislation through, who can tough-mouth and arm-twist anyone who gets out of line. That's why Rahm is there. To arm twist people and Rahm is good at that." See “Obama Online -- What's the Future of Organizing for America (OFA)?,” Jose Antonio Vargas, Huffington Post, November 3, 2009. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jose-antonio-vargas/obama-online----whats-the_b_343598.html