Can Obama Turn the Democratic Party Upside Down with the Biggest Voter Mobilization Drive in History?
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Barack Obama's presidential campaign is seeking to register "millions" of new voters immediately after the Democratic Convention, according to top campaign officials who say the effort is one facet of a "capacity-building" effort this summer that includes extensively training thousands of campaign workers as community organizers.
The voter registration effort is part of a broader strategy to not just elect Obama, but also to alter the political landscape by shifting power from Washington to the grassroots, the officials say, to cultivate a base for significant political reforms. The campaign sees its training and voter registration efforts as the cornerstone of building a new progressive movement like the rise of conservatism during Ronald Reagan's presidency.
"We need everybody in this party to get behind this effort to turn out thousands and thousands of volunteers in every single state in the country, to hit the streets and go register millions of new people that weekend alone," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, speaking at the recent Netroots Nation conference. "It's not about whether or not we will get Barack Obama elected. It is about whether or not we will have a progressive majority in this country for decades to come."
Last week, the campaign and the Democratic National Committee announced it would commit $20 million to "engaging and mobilizing" Hispanic voters in an effort that will include "voter mobilization, voter registration, online organizing, community outreach and paid advertising" and "also include Camp Obama trainings around the country."
"We expect our demographic to turn out at 80 percent," said Jason Green, the campaign's national voter registration director. "We are all about cultivating leadership."
The plan to train thousands of new community organizers and register millions of new voters is not business as usual for Democratic presidential campaigns, which for years have been run as top-down operations with little input from the grassroots. Instead, the campaign is seeking to blend the best aspects of community organizing, which stresses relationship building, with established, nuts-and-bolts voter outreach tactics to win.
A handful of experts who have worked in these dimensions of campaigns said the Obama plan realized a longtime hope of community groups to have a real role in presidential campaigns. However, those same people -- who did not want to be named -- questioned whether the Obama campaign had "the experience to do it right." Some longtime Democratic Party campaigners agreed. As one voter outreach expert put it, before listing many things that his group took years to master, "I want to believe."
Neither Hildebrand nor the other campaign officials who divulged their grassroots strategy at the Netroots conference replied to requests for follow-up interviews. However, as the deputy campaign manager concluded his talk, he said there were very good reasons why the campaign's strategy could work in 2008: the public wants real change; its candidate is charismatic; the campaign has the money -- and the volunteers -- to make it work.
"If we don't use this opportunity, if we don't do this right, shame on us," Hildebrand said, "because we will never have it as good as we have it right now."
The Obama campaign also has a track record of winning in 2008's primaries using this same strategy, which it is now institutionalizing for November's election.
Exhibit A: South Carolina
"They said the way you used to win down here is you pay off the ministers, you pay off the state senators and the state reps, and you have some chicken dinners," said Jeremy Bird, the campaign's South Carolina field director during the primary, recounting the thinking he found among local Democrats when setting up shop in March 2007. "That didn't jibe with our candidate's message, or his bio, or anything that he said since he started to run for president or started running for the state senate."
Bird, who joined Hildebrand and others at the forum for bloggers and independent media, exemplified the Obama campaign's new ethos.
Bird began by telling his story -- which echoed the campaign's narrative. He grew up in Missouri in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist family and got involved in community organizing after graduate school in Boston. In 2004, he worked for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and then for the Democratic National Committee, and after the election for organized labor. After reading one of Obama's books and relating to his work as a voting rights activist after law school, Bird joined the campaign. He arrived in South Carolina in March 2007 with little more than some videos and his acumen as a community organizer.
Instead of courting the local political establishment, Bird said he sought out community leaders and held "thousands of one-on-one meetings," where he would show a video and then listen to their concerns. The meetings typically lasted 45 minutes or more -- a long time for a top staffer of a national political campaign to spend with anyone. The most responsive leaders were then asked to host local gatherings, Bird said, where they introduced the candidate and campaign to their community.
"We asked them to support us and bring their social networks and hold house meetings," he said. "In those meetings, we were testing our first contact's leadership, and then we asked people to be team leaders."
Bird said he divided the state into neighborhoods and created teams for every five to 10 precincts. He said he rejected "the old precinct captain model" in which one person would be in charge of a candidate's operation, because Obama did not have enough supporters in every precinct. Bird then asked the teams how they could be helped by the statewide campaign. By the 2008 state primary day, Bird said Obama had 283 neighborhood teams and more than 10,000 volunteers working across South Carolina.
Obama won South Carolina's January Democratic primary with 55 percent of the vote -- a stunning margin. Hillary Clinton had 27 percent, and John Edwards had 18 percent.
"I was a skeptic of Jeremy and his crew in South Carolina, and whether he could build enough capacity to get us across the finish line," Hildebrand said, explaining that he has worked on campaigns for 22 years but never put as much trust and responsibility in the hands of local organizers. "I quickly lost that skepticism, and I saw the numbers that they were creating."
"It wasn't about identifying voters," Hildebrand said. "It was about building capacity to have the resources to do our persuasion and to turn out the vote. I give Jeremy and his team a tremendous amount of credit for building this field model and implementing this in a way that a state like South Carolina has never seen before. ... Every state is a field state if you know how to organize the field."
After the primaries, Bird said the national campaign interviewed 200 field organizers from all the states to assess and fortify the process for the rest of the campaign.
"The top lesson was, training and empowering people made the biggest difference," he said. "This wasn't just making phone calls and (telling volunteers that) you are going to make a lot of them. It's 'We are going to train you in a quality way from the second you come into our office ... in how to become a real leader.'"
Green, a recent Yale Law School graduate -- whose father was a minister "who preached a message of change" -- is now Obama's national voter registration director. He worked in Nevada during the primary and caucus season. Green said the campaign knew it would not succeed unless it cultivated real ties with supporters.
"If our organizers who are paid in our states made phone calls all day, we would not get it done," he said, explaining why the campaign turned to tactics used by local organizers. "We do it by building relationships. We rely on telling people's stories to create more connections. We listen more than we talk. In organizing, it is important to take the time to hear what people have to say, about the campaign, about politics generally."
The campaign says it does not ignore the nuts-and-bolt tactics of any contest -- voter contact, recruiting volunteers, boosting visibility, expanding the electorate -- and benchmarks to reach those goals. But what it also does -- and this has been noticed with some degree of bewilderment by the national press and more experienced Democratic Party workers -- is put an extraordinary emphasis on training its staff to tell their own stories, and to listen to others, especially the very people they are seeking to reach.
Numerous press accounts describe Obama training sessions where volunteers tell their personal stories, as if it were a political Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Experienced party activists who have attended these sessions have complained they were frustrated that the campaign did not give them more tools to be effective. But top Obama staffers like Hildebrand said empowering people at the grassroots level has created a more committed campaign, with tangible results in the primary states.
"They believe this is real. They don't believe it is a game. They believe they can get it done," he said. "This was a welcomed opportunity for so many of us to get involved in -- when you have a candidate that really believed in building this from the ground up."
Bird said the primary season had several important lessons. Foremost was the value of training. That was followed by "working close to the ground," or opening many local campaign offices, he said. Next was focusing on volunteer leadership and developing teams "because when you have people who are out there in teams, you see they come together in a way that precinct captains, on his or her own, aren't able to do."
"The fourth thing was to integrate the technology to support this," he said. "The fact that when you sign up on our e-mail list, you are automatically on our voter file, and we can follow up with you and know when you signed up and what you are interested in. ... On Election Day in South Carolina, we had an unprecedented number of cell phone numbers, people that had opted in, that we were able to text and remind people to vote. And they were able to text back in (when they voted)."
Bird said the campaign rejected a long-standing political campaign assumption that saw meeting strict goals and developing grassroots relationships as opposing values, because the community-building component was ephemeral while the benchmarks like meeting voter registration targets were concrete. Both of these approaches were needed, he said, so volunteers would take ownership over meeting the campaign's goals.
What is clear is that Obama's approach has attracted some very committed workers.
"I was looking for a place where there was an effort to get change from the top down and the bottom up at the same time," said Joy Cushman, who volunteered in South Carolina, where she went to house parties, held one-to-one meetings with local leaders, and met Bird. She, too, was on the Netroots Nation panel.
At first glance, Cushman is an unlikely an Obama supporter. She grew up in rural Maine and became involved in politics through her church, where she advocated for conservative issues such as school prayer. She then went on to work on affordable housing and other issues affecting low-income communities in Massachusetts. That brought her to the Obama campaign -- after she realized that grassroots power and new political leadership were both necessary to change the status quo.
"I saw that Jeremy recognized, and the organizers recognized, that the awakening it takes for people to take on the responsibility for really being citizens is not something that happens at a mass level," she said. "It is something that happens one living room at a time, one kitchen table at a time, and this campaign was investing in that effort."
Obama's Organizing School
It was striking to see Cushman and Bird -- who grew up in socially conservative homes -- as examples of the campaign's best and brightest organizers. Indeed, many of the campaign's local organizing tactics have long been used by the religious right.
"I am a child of the conservative movement," Cushman said. "The brilliance of the church was we were organizing on abortion and prayer in schools, and it wasn't just focused on Washington, it was focused on our local community. They realized for everyday people to be involved, the issues need to connect with our values, and we need to have a very local way, and a meaningful way, to get involved at the local level that isn't just forwarding e-mails to our Congress people in Washington."
Obama's deputy campaign manager agreed. "Why does Barack Obama at times admire Ronald Reagan?" Hildebrand asked. "Because he built a movement -- not because of his policies. Don't ever criticize him for that. It is because Ronald Reagan built a movement. That's what we will do. That's what we are doing."
In April, Caroline Kennedy e-mailed Obama supporters, saying the campaign would train a new generation of grassroots leaders this summer. A "fellows" program would take 30 hours a week for six weeks. Thirty-six hundred applicants were accepted, said Cushman, who was asked to help develop the program. The training started in June.
"Over three days in early June, we trained them how to be authentic leaders themselves and share their story," Cushman said. "We train them how to build relationships, how to do one-on-one conversations with people, how to lead house meetings, how to do voter registration, because we have a 50-state voter registration project."
First, the fellows were given voter registration goals, Cushman said. Her team in Georgia -- where she was assigned -- registered 1,200 new voters. The next goal was holding house meetings. Two weeks later, on June 28, the campaign held more than 4,000 such sessions across the country, she said, to "do what used to be truly American, which is sit and talk about what do we want for ourselves, our country, and what is our responsibility."
"The fellows aren't just college students looking for something to do over the summer," Cushman said. "They are teachers and airline pilots and firefighters and people who have decided that they are willing to take the risk and make sacrifices to change the country."
Cushman said people she meets often say the last time Democrats saw anything like the campaign's grassroots effort was during the civil rights movement a half-century ago. And it is a page from that very era -- an unprecedented national voter registration drive immediately following the Democratic Convention -- that the campaign hopes will be the key to victory in November and an ensuing groundswell for political reform.
Millions of New Voters
Green, the campaign's national voter registration director, said the campaign knows an estimated 60 million Americans are eligible to vote but are not registered. States such as Nevada, where George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 21,500 votes in 2004, has 390,000 eligible but unregistered voters. The task, Green said, is to reach out to potential voters in conventional and unconventional ways. That means finding them anywhere in their communities, such as at bus stops, shopping centers, social service organizations, senior centers, naturalization ceremonies, campuses and concerts, as well as house parties.
"We know that our targeted group is very transient," he said, referring to the fact that lower-income people, students and young people move often, which complicates the voter registration process in states that require specific forms of documentation to register.
"The night Barack accepts the nomination, we will have house parties," Green said. "We will ask those people to register voters on the next few days."
"We saw through the 2008 primaries that we had voter registration opportunities that never existed to us in this party," Hildebrand said. "We learned through experience ... that our efforts on the ground to register voters was really, really important."
Those listening to the Obama campaign officials speak at Netroots Nation included longtime Democrats and others who work in voter registration organizations. One party official was skeptical that the campaign would be able to find millions of new voters on Labor Day Weekend, which follows the Democratic Convention, and subsequently turn out these new voters come Election Day. Another feared that the campaign, despite its talk about the importance of grassroots, would siphon volunteers who were badly needed for down-ballot state legislature and municipal races. Those officials said early reviews of Obama's training and outreach efforts were frustrating, with predictable errors on voter registration forms and a reluctance to ask more seasoned campaigners for advice -- despite all the talk of listening to local leaders.
Another voter registration expert predicted that mistakes on the voter registration forms -- an inevitable part of any voter drive -- would be used by the Republican Party to accuse the Obama campaign of voter registration fraud, just as the GOP has repeatedly attacked voter registration efforts by groups like ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in recent years. It was one thing for a nonprofit group to make these kinds of mistakes, the expert said, but more politically volatile when a presidential campaign errs.
"They have the infrastructure to reach a million voters," said a voter registration researcher. "But do they have the infrastructure to reach a million disenfranchised voters who would not register otherwise?"
Efforts to contact these Obama campaign officials after the Netroots Nation conference to discuss these points were unsuccessful. The campaign aides at the conference did not discuss "quality control" issues, which established voter registration groups say are critical.
But Hildebrand said the planned voter registration drive was intended not just to benefit the Obama campaign, but to help elect Democrats at every level, especially in state legislatures where the majority would redraw congressional district boundaries in 2009. And since Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, his campaign and the national party's operations have been merging, as evidenced by the DNC's announcement last week that it would spend $20 million to engage Hispanic voters.
Hildebrand said the training of community organizers and the voter registration effort was necessary not just to elect Obama, but to deliver on an agenda of political change.
"We can't be so single-minded that this is about Barack Obama, because it is not," he said. "It is about the American people and the principles that are important to us. Whether or not we will get health care passed; whether or not we will stop the war in Iraq; whether or not we are going to build an education system that we can be more proud of. There are a lot of things that we as progressives hold fundamentally dear, and if this is about a game, we are not being all that successful -- and neither is our opposition. But if it is about a movement that can fundamentally change the way we do business in this country at every single level, then we will be successful."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election ," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).