The Obama organizing model
In this presidential election, media and academic attention has often focused on the so called “air war” of TV ads and cable news coverage. What is overlooked in this analysis is the field organization of each campaign. Frequently, field organizations are symmetrical in strength, resulting in little change in electoral outcome as the result of field work. Yet in this election, President Obama’s campaign has been pursuing innovative field tactics that may provide a distinct advantage.
One remarkable feature of the campaign is its persistent nature. Obama for America (OFA) was created in 2007 and, as we all know, successfully saw Barack Obama to the White House. Yet, unlike in any previous presidential campaign, the organization continued past Election Day and was transformed into Organizing for America. As a part of the Democratic National Committee, this new OFA worked to organize grassroots support for Democratic legislation, notably the Affordable Care Act.
However, what is most significant is that President Obama’s network of volunteers was mostly maintained through the intervening years between elections. OFA used that same network of volunteers to advocate for House and Senate candidates in 2010. When OFA once again became Obama for America last year, it had the already-built network of volunteers and contacts.
But this vast network would be useless to the campaign if they could not be organized effectively. Traditionally in campaigns, field organizers would lead events such as canvasses and phonebanks, which create a natural limit since organizers can only maintain contacts with a limited number of volunteers and personally lead only a limited number of events. The Romney campaign generally functions on this model.
The Obama campaign circumvented this limitation through utilization of what is called the “snowflake model.” The roots of this model are in community organizing. At the center of the model lies the field organizer or a fellow (the OFA term for intern; the significant number of senior citizen fellows would likely resent being called interns). The field organizer or fellow maintains contact with a series of what are called neighborhood team leaders (NTLs). Each state is divided into turfs the size of small cities or collections of towns. Rhode Island has over a dozen team leaders with separate turfs like Cranston or the University of Rhode Island. Each team leader maintains contact with their field organizer or fellow. The NTL then works with a network of CTLs – core team members who are each responsible for a certain aspect of that turf’s advocacy. Common CTLs activities include phonebanks, data entry, and even faith group outreach. Those CTLs then organize their respective teams to complete these tasks, like data entry on a persistent basis.
These volunteer leaders are also trained to be more effective. A standard slogan for OFA staffers is that the Obama campaign is the first presidential campaign to have a training department. Volunteers are taught how to best tell a personal story to support the President, instead of reading from a traditional script. They are also instructed how to train others to do so, along with many other types of training for more effective advocacy.
Finally, the expansion of digital organizing is noticeable. The heart of this organizing is a social networking tool called Dashboard, described by one organizer as “Facebook with only Democrats.” Dashboard allows volunteers to create their own advocacy events, often with only the advice of staffers. Volunteers RSVP online and can even phonebank from within Dashboard on their own. The Romney campaign has some of these digital tools, but they appear to be used far less extensively.
The result of these new strategies is a data-driven campaign that relies on its volunteers in nontraditional ways. It still remains to be seen if this gamble will benefit the campaign, but OFA’s organizing methods indicate that political organizing remains dynamic and a significant aspect of this race.
photo of President Barack Obama by the U.S. Army