Interview with key architect of Obama’s ground strategy

Many have commented how Obama’s election was a tone-perfect combination of high tech (MyBarack.com, new cellphone applications, rapid response to smear charges, assembling a text messaging database of millions, etc.) and high touch, mobilizing over a million volunteers according to the Obama campaign. (In Florida alone there were over 19,000 Obama teams.) In the Obama campaign’s endorsement of technology, they also hearkened back to old “shoe-leather” campaigning.

I was recently reading a quote from Obama in the Newsweek behind-the-scenes look at the Obama campaign and Obama, in considering whether to launch his campaign said (according to Valerie Jarrett a close Obama friend):

“[I]f he (Obama) were to do this (run for president), he wanted to make sure that it was a different kind of campaign and consistent with his philosophy of ground up rather than top down.”  Jarrett said that Obama was influenced by Saul Alinsky, a radical-realist community organizer, who had said “Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people.”  Jarrett indicated that Obama knew he could find a non-threatening way to make people comfortable with change, including his own race and that he wanted to take the community organizing model and help it to go national in his campaign.

It’s a pleasure to be able to share a conversation with Marshall Ganz, a colleague of mine at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a community organizing maven. Marshall helped put meat on the bones of Obama’s vision of taking a community organizing approach from local to national scale; Marshall was a key architect of Obama’s “ground strategy”, training scores of trainers starting with Camp Obama (the ground zero of the Obama grassroots effort), and providing organizational consulting to the campaign. He comes out of a long history of grassroots organizing, dropping out of Harvard in 1964 to work on Freedom Summer. He then returned to California (his birthplace) where he spent a decade and a half organizing for Cesar Chavez on the Farm Workers campaign. He ultimately returned to Harvard, earning his Ph.D. and now teaches at the Kennedy School. He also trained organizers in the NH Dean campaign.

THOMAS SANDER: Marshall, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Obama election.

MARSHALL GANZ: Delighted to.

SANDER: First, tell me a bit about the organization of the “shoe leather” element of Obama’s campaign. One thing that fascinated me is that the Obama campaign believed that to overcome racial fears of some white Americans, it was important to have other white Americans making a door-to-door pitch for Obama, convincing them that other whites thought this was a safe choice.

GANZ: On the approach, Obama, whom Palin mocked for being an organizer, didn’t canvass door-to-door as it has come to be done. Campaigns hire staff who by phone calling or going door to door identify supporters and then turn them on Election Day. The Obama campaign trained people to be organizers. The organizers recruited local volunteers, structured them into teams, trained them in leadership, assigned them goals, provided them with the tools to mobilize the voters themselves, and coached them to success.

SANDER: So less of a command-and-control operation and more of mobilizing and inspiring others.

GANZ: Actually building an organization based on commitment capable of motivating others, and holding them accountable for real results. That’s why Camp Obamas, where we launched these leadership teams, were so important. In particular we trained people in how tell their stories. The campaign was based on shared values – and story telling is how we translate values into action. In California, for example, we launched 200 teams in 2 weekends, and, coached by only 4 paid organizers, built a volunteer organizations that could make 100,000 phone calls in a single day. I know you talk about “social capital.”; I think this was “civic capital.”

SANDER: the Obama campaign mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The speed of this effort may dwarf other efforts we’ve seen previously (abolition, temperance, equal rights for women, environmental movement, etc.) Should this be thought of as a social movement and will it influence partisan politics?

GANZ: Typically the party structures themselves get ossified over time and set themselves up for renewal. We saw this with the changes that McGovern brought to the Democratic Party in 1972 or the changes that Conservatives brought in with Reagan in 1980. Once the parties become obstacles to renewal, they are ultimately displaced by a wave of people mobilized by social movements that take over the party apparatus. Social movements historically influence partisan politics, some times contributing to core partisan realignment, or, at the very least, to electoral mobilization. We saw this with abolitionists, the free soil movement, and the Whigs, with populists and the Democrats, progressives and the Republicans; and, of course with the civil rights movement that mobilized Democrats and the conservative movement that mobilized Republicans in opposition.

SANDER: Is the Obama victory a watershed for the Democratic Party?

GANZ: I’m not sure what that means exactly. I was part of two “successful” efforts to take over the California Democratic Party, both of which turned out to be chimeras. We soon learned that we had wandered into a swamp with all its little pockets of quicksand, undergrowth, overgrowth, and distinct loss of access to the sunlight (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, it could signify that the Democratic Party – and American politics in general – have recovered from the racial divisions that undermined it in the 1960s’s. LBJ predicted it would take just about as long as it has – 40 years, the lifetime of a generation.

SANDER: Were there things about how the Obama campaign was organized that play into such a realignment?

GANZ: Well in my mind people place too much stress on the Internet and other new technology. It is very useful – but as tools placed in the hands of skilled organizers, not as a substitute for them. It made it easier for people to alert the campaign that they wanted to help and easier for the campaign to plug these individuals in to ongoing efforts. By “trusting” volunteers with access to the campaign’s sophisticated voter file, volunteers could target their work far more effectively, at the same time making their work transparent – this allowed for recognition, accountability, and learning as the work moved forward.

SANDER: What about the role of new voters and new volunteers?

GANZ: This campaign was very unusual in creating a venue, contributing the resources, and providing the strategic focus within which the “movement to elect Barack Obama” could flourish. Most of the volunteers and organizers were new to electoral politics, organizing, and advocacy work. Part of the appeal was the “values” base of the Obama’s call, as opposed to the narrow single-issueness of most progressive advocacy groups that tend to conflate values and strategy into identification with a particular approach to a particular issue, something that contributes to strategic rigidity and ideological purity. The combination of clear – and inclusive – values and pragmatic strategy is a very powerful one. To make change requires willingness to take deep levels of commitment, the risks of dealing with uncertain waters, a certainty about one’s cause. None of this is possible without shared values or moral commitment and Obama realized this and appealed to a much deeper moral level.

One of the key conditions was that the campaign was able to finance its own organizational structure, with its own integrity, requiring others to cooperate with it. It thus created genuine “free spaces” within which new people could become involved; as a consequence new ways of doing things developed and new relationships formed. In 2004, the Kerry Campaign wished for a national field program, but lacking the money, people, and vision, it was gobbled up by 527′s, by state and local party organizations, by unions, and other groups, and by everyone’s favorite subcontractors of services. It made the DNC look like the privatization process of the war in Iraq. No coherence, no integrity, and no space within which new ways of doing things could be developed.

The question is whether the “movement to elect Barack Obama” can sustain enough strategic coherence – and funding base – to become an ongoing force, engaging people in local, state and national forms of activity for a broad “program for a new America”, countering the influence of conventional interest groups. It requires a real organization, not another Move.on. Another question is whether this approach to campaigning — based in organizing and not in marketing – could spill over to an approach to policy based less on “service provision” and more on “active citizenship” or organizing.

I’d be very cautious about attributing agency to some monolithic “Democratic Party”, a creature I’ve yet to meet. It is much more a venue, a kind of political market place, in which actors interact with each other to advance their interests, create coalitions, etc. It is exactly NOT a constituency party like those in Canada and Europe, with real substantive power to choose leaders, decide policy, and mobilize on their behalf, as a party.

SANDER: Marshall, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

GANZ: Sure. Let’s all work to see that this Obama infusion of energy, especially among youth, has “legs”, as they say.

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One response to “Interview with key architect of Obama’s ground strategy

  1. Marshall nailed it in this interview. If you read the words and between the lines you will learn and know.

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