I want to clone the obamanauts.
October 15, 2008 4:38 PM   Subscribe

ObamaFilter: How to organize people like Obama?

I'm stunned by the smooth effectiveness of Obama's ground-game, and as someone who has to deal with poorly run community organizations, I'd love to steal his structure and ideas for making community groups effective. Are there any online resources that explain it in total mind-numbing detail? I've read that there are manuals for those running the different levels of his organization, are these types of resources available as a PDF anywhere? Google has thus far failed me.
posted by gofargogo to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
FiveThirtyEight has been running a series called "On the road" where they visit Obama (and McCain, to a lesser extent) field offices. There's quite a good bit of insight into why the ground game is kicking so much ass.

538 also touches on the ground game in other places throughout the site; I couldn't find a good index of those articles, though.
posted by jacobian at 5:08 PM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

See especially 538's dispatch from Toledo, Ohio; it goes into pretty deep details as to what's different about the Obama campaign's ground game from previous ones.
posted by jacobian at 5:10 PM on October 15, 2008

There's also the all day, every day, day after day after day after day factor.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:24 PM on October 15, 2008

Step 1, be a fabulously charismatic leader for whom people will willingly sacrifice their time and money for.
posted by empath at 5:27 PM on October 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Heh, yeah, empath. That was my immediate thought:

"Be awesome."
posted by limeonaire at 5:35 PM on October 15, 2008

I worked in the Obama campaign doing minor IT stuff and canvassing in VA/OH/DC. In highschool I "lead" (in title... it was really a very cooperative tight knit group) a robotics team. In both of those things, and in any volunteer effort I've been in, the key is to have as very concrete things for people to do as soon as they walk in the door.

In the Obama camp, this meant you couldn't stand around for five minutes without being given turf to go canvass or assigned a phone to start calling voters. If you'd been around for a while, couldn't canvass, or there was a shortage of people to do office work or make calls (like diving up turf) you were assigned to that. If there wasn't anything else to do (very rare) the fallback activity was making signs.

This is important, because people volunteer to feel useful. If they don't feel useful, they won't feel a part of your group - and that's what keeps people coming back - that feedback, and later, sense of belonging.

At some level I think the message of Obama's campaign really brought people together.
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
- Hunter S. Thompson's Wave Speech

When things were humming along, it really felt that way. I worked with elderly african american women, black and white skinned british expats, South American immigrants of wide variety, housewives, white-bread college droupouts (like me!), union guys, ex-mccain staff, ex-clintonites, etc. etc. Everyone was really aware (often aloud) of how crazy it was that all these people agreed on anything - that we'd all be in the same room for any reason. To some degree it was annoying and scene-y, sure, but they had a point. It helps that Obama's message is very Mr. Rogers - that attracts people who will get along. I'd imagine a political party that takes a Ayn Randian sort of individualist stance attracts people who aren't used to working well in groups.

People really do work together under some message, some symbol, that they feel means something. There wasn't a lot of petty squabbling as might be expected when you're doing mind numbing or futile work (often the case). When people could have slacked off, they didn't. There was this... energy, this drive, that I don't think you can get except through the kind of vision-inspired e'spirit de corps. My point here is that you can't go out with a laundry list of good practicies and expect to grow yourself a movement. You need to tap in to some existing sentiment in people, have a message that compels people, and give them the means to act on that (preferably with instant gratification).

More prosaically, as many tasks that could be automated, had. The voter file was in slick databases with good web interfaces, the process of dividing up neighborhoods to canvass was done with really clever google maps based software tied to the voter file, and phone backing was almost entirely automated (as you can see on the national website). In fact, in one SEIU office in ohio, you literally just put on a headset and the computers handled everything else (after each call you could check some basic info about the conversation in... then it would dial the next person).

So using technology to eliminate drudgery makes everyone more efficient and happy.
posted by phrontist at 5:40 PM on October 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

Oh, I should add that I'm one of those impressionable 19 year olds you imagine working in political campaigns. When I talk about the message, I mean the entirety of Axelrod's brainchild - not just the explicit statement and slogans but the carefully crafted vibe of the campaign. Youth, Change, Hope, Inclusiveness, Reason, Empathy, Positivity, Taking the Moral High Road. Obama's actual policies (which contrary to popular opionion and a lot of punditry, are quite well defined in many areas, or can be inferred from his advisor's stances) are important, but you don't ride the vibe of economic models or constitutional interpretations. Motivating people to come out and work for you - work for you harmoniously is all about that vibe, the importance of actual policy aside. In Obama's case, I think The Message reflects the policy, but it's largely irrelevant (Leni Reifenstal made some wonderfully uplifiting movies, and I hear the trains ran on time).
posted by phrontist at 5:48 PM on October 15, 2008

For examples of what I mean, check out these videos (you've almost certainly seen the last if you've ventured outside a mayonaisse jar in the last year). Here are my pictures of the NoVA HQ during the primaries. This one says it all. A few hours before it was taken, two or three days before the potomac primaries, we were suddenly told Obama was appearing at TC Williams highschool nearby for a rally. The regional offices had ~3000 tickets to give away, of which we got about a third. We sent out an email and the line stretched around the block within an hour. All the tickets, and our yard signs, were depleted within an hour of the first arrivals.

Sorry about the incoherence of my longer post above... I'm tired and meant to hit preview.
posted by phrontist at 5:58 PM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work for the Obama campaign (currently in North Carolina, but all over the place since January 07). Organizing people like this takes an incredible amount of manpower and hours. The core of our program is empowering ordinary Americans to organize their own communities. We have had amazing results, but it takes a lot of resources to support the program. I wholeheartedly recommend fivethirtyeight's "On the Road" series. The campaign staff reads it religiously. In addition to that, the best piece I've read about our campaign so far was Zach Exley's The New Organizers. If you any specific questions about what we're doing, I'd be happy to try and answer them.
posted by fancypants at 6:26 PM on October 15, 2008

Although there's a good deal of Howard Dean's operation at the core, I think the influence of Saul Alinsky is unmistakable.
posted by dhartung at 10:17 PM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

First impression, compared to the Kerry campaign: lots more people on the ground ("field" people), earlier, with better tech and more organization (but also more bureaucratic). Much less ad hoc, younger, and a few other differences I'm still processing. Ask again November 5.
posted by orthogonality at 11:01 PM on October 15, 2008

Yeah, I've been reading (read: addicted) to fiverthirtyeight since the DNC, and thanks for hte New Organizer's link.

Besides having a freightload of awesomeness, which gets the people involved, I'm most concerned with keeping people involved and effective. I guess I'm just flummoxed that such a large, decentralized organization can remain so on-message, and effiencient while at the same time growing exponentially and training totally raw volunteers. Clearly, the hours involved are staggering, but no amount of time could make up for shitty organization, and it's the structure/mode of that organization I'd love to study.

Tidbits like: you are immediately given something to do, are great. But who gives them something to do, what's the org chart look like? How do they know what needs doing?

To me, this is the biggest story of the campaign. If this model of organization can be molded to other tasks besides elections, grass-roots/community organizing could become dramatically more effective and help counter the corrosive effects of a profit-before-justice business model.
posted by gofargogo at 11:30 AM on October 17, 2008

To my mind, the single best writer on the very subject you ask about, in my opinion, is blogger Al Giordano (now writing "The Field" at NarcoNews.com, formerly of RuralVotes.com). He's been slinging out great analyses and descriptions of the stuff going on even below the level of the formal campaign offices and organizers. He's also opened the question many times of how this organization could be used to further a progressive agenda. His latest post is a good example: The Triumph of the Donor-Activist Model.

His piece on North Carolina, a few entries down, is unbelievably informative. I love Nate and 538 -- I read it obsessively and get annoyed if they don't update it on my schedule. But Al Giordano is my must read every day.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:32 AM on October 19, 2008

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