15 October 2008

For Those Who Have A Hard Time Believing In Obama's Chances When The Polls Are Not Enough

At a blog like mine, where there are no R Kelly updates, no photos of Malcolm X, or no list of a journalistic pedigree, what it pretty much boils down to is a certain level of trust that develops between me, the writer, and you, the readers. I'm pretty strident in the positions I take because...well, because that's the way I am, especially after getting my arms around enough facts to let my brain cells go to work. And I stand behind everything I write here, which is why I have no problem putting my real name on my Creative Commons license.

But one thing I've had to learn working in the mortgage business, where I can ask total strangers to turn over their social security numbers, birth date, tax returns and bank statements in less than five minutes over the phone, is that sometimes you have to look at things from the perspective of the customer, who is pretty much gauging whether or not to fax some of their most closely held personal and financial information on the sound of a voice and the inflections of a few key words.

When I sense this, I step back for a second from talking about the four things I need to know to give them an accurate rate quote and slide into a quick session on how to evaluate a loan to make sure it meets their needs. By the time we get back to finishing up the actual loan application, they've often gotten to see how I think and what I know long enough to finally get comfortable about sending me their documents.

So this post is for Melinda, who needs to see a little more today than my opinion. I am not a big fan using of Huffington Post as a source, but this account, unlike most of the essays they post, is a pretty detailed account of what really is going on in the Obama campaign. I will also have some links below the excerpts from "The New Organizers" by Zack Exley that I posted a few months ago, when I wanted to know what was under the hood of the "O-Train".

Melinda, I don't know if you know anything about cars, but back when I was a teenage boy, I used to study magazines like Sports Car Graphic and Car and Driver as if my life depended on it. At that time, back in the early 80's, the Porsche 930 Turbo was one of the fastest cars in the world. Porsche's engineers were considered to be among the world's best at building performance cars. Not a single car rolled out of the factory whose engine hadn't been fully tested and test driven.

But for the richest Porsche aficionados, that wasn't good enough. They'd buy the car and get it shipped directly to an independent performance engine builder here in the States. These guys, for a fee hefty enough to buy you a small car even today, would take the entire brand new Porsche motor apart and then put it back together again to tolerances closer than the minimums specified by the factory blueprints. This process was called "blueprinting" an engine.

Barack Obama and his guys have not only come up with a brand new way to look at organizing a presidential campaign. They were also willing to "blueprint" their own ideas, taking them apart and letting their volunteers and lower level staffers help put them back together again - while the campaign was going on.

The New Organizers, Part 1: What's Really Behind Obama's Ground Game


    The "New Organizers" have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so "top-down" and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or "bottom-up" organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.

    In 2004, it was unusual for volunteers to have persistent roles and responsibilities—both at the Kerry campaign and the independent field operation Americans Coming Together. That is the norm for electoral organizing campaigns, and perhaps organizing in general these days. In contrast, the Obama neighborhood team members are organizers themselves, sometimes working more or less as staff alongside the young FOs.

    Patrick Frank, 21, joined the campaign as a volunteer, won an unpaid "Organizer Fellowship" and finally was hired as an FO in July. Having served as a volunteer on more than 10 political campaigns, Patrick contrasts his experience at Obama with the traditional organizing model he was used to:

    "It's about empowering. When I was 16 I worked on a big governor's campaign. And we were reliable volunteers and we were putting in serious hours. I felt like we should have been leaders, but that never happened. They said, 'Do your call lists, knock on doors—let us do the thinking.' Now, on the Obama campaign, when I see people like me and my friends used to be, we turn them around and say, 'Well hey, here's how to be a community organizer. Let me help you be a community organizer.' And then they go out and they get people to be their coordinators. And then we tell those new coordinators, 'Build yourself a team and be organizers too.' There's no end to it."

    After visiting my fourth or fifth team, it was painfully clear that an enormous amount of power is unlocked by this incredibly simple act of distributing different roles to people who actually feel comfortable taking them on. And I say "painfully" because I couldn't stop thinking about all the union and electoral campaigns I've worked on where we did not do this.

    The Ohio campaign is attempting to build teams in 1,231 campaign-defined "neighborhoods," each covering eight to ten precincts. They are targeting virtually every inhabited square mile of the state. The campaign claimed to have teams in 65% of neighborhoods when I visited in early September. That's risen to 85% coverage at press time—and they are shooting for 100%. In contrast, the Kerry campaign effectively wrote off rural counties, and completely abandoned them in the final few weeks of the campaign in a last minute all-in shift to the cities.

    Christen said, "I feel like people are committing more time this election because there's a community thing going on, and they're part of something that's local and social. But we're also more effective at harnessing volunteers because the teams do a lot of the training and debriefing themselves—it scales well. Everyone who goes out canvassing comes back with at least one story of someone they impacted. The team leaders are trained to give people time to tell those stories, and so everyone gets a sense of progress and they learn from each other how to be more effective next time."

    Training for organizers—and for volunteers—was critical to the success of this unorthodox model. In Ohio, Jeremy insisted on getting the whole staff together for an intensive full-weekend training early in the program.

    "When I got here, yeah, I was nervous," said Jeremy, "because most of these organizers had never done this [team building] before. We did two days—we got everyone together, we went to Oberlin."

    That training was expensive, but Jeremy said, "We spent more money than they ever wanted us to. But training is the most important thing. So [in our field budget] I'll cut whatever you want—but having all of our organizers together and training them for a full weekend. A lot of campaigns say they do training but it's often like a two hour orientation. We wanted to make sure that ours was a real, interactive, in-depth training."

    The field director Jackie Bray was driving around the state doing spot checks on the quality of local team structures when I was in Ohio. So I asked her to describe the field model in an email. I'm struck by two things about her response: first, how detailed and self-analytical it is; second, that it represents exactly the model I saw actually being practiced in the field—because I'm sorry to say it, but I'm just used to anyone with the title "director" being hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the ground. (Including myself in more than a couple past jobs!)

    Jackie wrote: "When we identify a volunteer or a potential volunteer we always hold a one on one meeting. Movements aren't built on individual people—they are built on relationships. Then we ask our volunteers to make deeper commitments. We coach new volunteers and facilitate the process for folks who are old hat at this stuff through an organizing activity. Usually the organizing activity is hosting a house meeting but it can be hosting a community meeting or a faith forum or recruiting seven plus new volunteers to take the first step and come to our office. Once someone has succeeded at an organizing activity we ask them to try their hand at leading a voter contact activity. Mostly we are interested in how well they train fellow volunteers to make phone calls or knock on doors. Training is a huge part of quality control and we need our leaders to be good trainers. If a potential leader is a successful trainer then we meet with them again to ask them to take that next step and become a Team Coordinator or Team Leader. If at any moment in this process a volunteer isn't successful our organizers are trained to spend time coaching them through getting better. We are an inclusive team here and our goal is always to make people better."

This is all happening IN JUST ONE STATE. The same thing is happening in your state, if its a battleground area, like Florida or North Carolina or Virginia. And even here in Georgia, where the national resources have been redeployed, the local enthusiasm has continued, growing of its own accord.

The link above is to a long article. If you don't do anything else today, read the whole thing. And then send it to your friends, and ask them to read the whole thing. Because even though you're not out there on the street, just your believing and your positive energy will help the cause.

My own post from the past is yet another collection of links that describe the beginning of all this:

Under The Hood Of The O-Train


    I wanted to know what the real deal was behind the “O-Train”. Is it the smile? The near Sidney Poitier level of courtliness? The much vaunted “charisma” that seems to work its way into the opening lines of nay article about Barack Obama? Or could it be simply - superiority. Because he seems to have a superior level of fund raising, superior advisors, superbly crafted speeches – from the outside looking in, it appears that he has met and exceeded his challengers at practically every organizational detail…

    …that’s what I really want to know – what do the nuts and bolts of their operation look like? A little research turned up the playbook and the beginnings of its execution. Again, hats off to this wonderful internet (which I’m sure will be more closely regulated in the future) for providing access to ACTUAL INFORMATION when a brother wants to know how things work.

So if anybody tells you they are not sure Barack Obama can be trusted to run this country, you tell them that he has so much faith in this country that he has trusted average, everyday Americans to organize, staff and manage the backbone of his campaign.


  1. Well, imagine my surprise when I came online, post-debate, to check your blog and found a post that was dedicated to me! My husband now officially thinks I'm a kook, but that's ok. He will appreciate the Porsche analogy!

    Wow. I had no idea how broad and deep and ever-evolving the Obama organization is. The most wonderful thing to contemplate is this: if he wins this thing, he will have all these motivated, trained, experienced people to help lead the change and be the change that we need in America.

    I really do thank you for this post. I appreciate all the time and effort you have put into your blog.

  2. Good information is supposed to be shared. Good people sharing good thoughts lead to good outcomes.

    If this information has rearranged your thinking, imagine what it can do for your friends and relatives.

    Pass it on!

    It's the reason I reluctantly started this blog - the time I knew it was going to take was outweighed by the lack of good, solid information the people around me were relying on to base their analysis of this election.

    I'm glad you can know see what I see. If you use the links to the left like a newspaper, because that's what I do just about everyday, you will be linked to more info about the campaigns in an evening than you can get from your local paper or TV station in a week.

    20% of it won't pass the smell test, but you can figure out pretty quickly which posts are in the 80% that does.


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