Category Archives: campaign

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

OFA: Harnessing Obama’s grassroots network in Massachusetts

A couple of weeks ago (on May 16), Organizing for America [OFA], the grassroots network that was called Obama for America, had an organizing meeting in Massachusetts that drew over 400 attendees.  [I’ve written earlier about the challenge and promise of OFA, the 13 million person network from the campaign, that is unprecedented and the question of whether they will be field troops for the Obama agenda or enabled to have their own input into policy.]

Marshall Ganz provided a historical context for OFA.  He noted that social change in our history is not a constant, it is episodic: “”Change is slow except when it’s fast. We’re in a fast movement now so let’s not lose it.”  This is the first time, Ganz noted, that a social movement gave birth during a political campaign.  Successful social movements have to act national but be locally rooted, and to translate national action into local change. Ganz believes that more civic capital has been created through this campaign than ever created through our nation’s history; we have to be creative about using this civic capital.  We need to make sure that it is not a one-way arrangement.

The theme of OFA members wanting input on policy came up at the OFA-MA event, both in questioning of Mitch Stewart (national director of OFA) and in informal discussions throughout the day. Mitch Stewart noted that OFA’s prime agenda was “to support the President’s agenda.”  During Q&A a woman  shouted out “We want input in that agenda!” to large applause.  Stewart tried to siphon the OFA interest in policy by encouraging people to express their input on or by communicating with their members of Congress.  He noted that he was not a policy expert and OFA was not a policy organization.  But it is clear that the audience wasn’t comfortable with that resolution.

A number of speakers highlighted a theme that I have discussed earlier about the importance of marrying technology with “social capital” to have optimal effect. Ethan Winn (software developer) summarized it as  “organizing practices apply online” and commented that once you build the trust through F2F encounters, you can give people responsibilities.)  Marshall Ganz, Harvard lecturer, former community organizer and train-the-trainer for the Obama grassroots effort, in response to a question about how to reach low-income people through technology, replied: “It’s important to distinguish between carpenters and tools. The best tools in the world don’t build a house. The campaign made the tools and equipped people to use the tools. The Dean campaign was successful in using technology to fund raise but the Meetups were not successful — no one knew what to do. The Obama campaign did that part well. People were hungry for tools to work with one another successfully. The technology AND the leadership together were what made the campaign successful. Also, the use of YouTube to enable people to tell their stories was extraordinary. That tool has just begun to realize its potential.”  And Sarah Compton (field organizer in MA for Obama) observed:  “I hope that technology never replaces face-to-face contact. When canvassing to NH, we tried to have a carpool in every town. Those carpools were also meetings and got people engaged. A proof that that was more successful in some ways than technology, the national campaign sent out a blast email about Drive for Change, but we got thousands more people to canvass through word of mouth.”

Here is a thoughtful post on the OFA-MA meeting by “Bottom Up Change”.

Here is video of “Grassroots Organizing: Harnessing the Obama Movement” [panel featuring Sarah Compton, Marshall Ganz, Juan Leyton (director of Neighbor to Neighbor), Ethan Winn and Alan Khazei ( and co-founder of City Year)

OFA-MA has many other resources from the recent meeting including a live-blogging account of the day.

Watering the Obama grassroots post-election

(photo by MacaStat)

(photo by MacaStat)

The 2008 election really succeeded in engaging new voices into the political process.  Especially Obama (see below), but also Palin’s appeal to white men (some based more on Palin’s looks than her policies), has drew new voices in American politics.

Obama, who has a background in community organizing,  hired some of the best community organizers in the country to build an unparalleled grassroots organization in his presidential quest.    He gave campaign volunteers responsibility and access to crown jewels (like voting lists) when candidates traditionally centralize power much more.  And Obama combined high-tech and high-touch.

As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reports: “The resulting bottom line is astounding: 3.1 million contributors, 5 million volunteers, 2.2 million supporters on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page and perhaps a million more names on Obama’s own campaign Web site. Even discounting for likely duplicates, Plouffe says he could end up “knowing” almost 7 million voters by Election Day—roughly one in 10 of Obama’s likely total. “These are people who are responsive,” he says. “They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what we do.”

Now that Obama is elected, how will the Obama administration rate in the care and feeding of this tremendous network?  At our Saguaro conversations back in the late 1990s (in which Barack participated), it became clear that politicians have much more of a natural interest in stoking grassroots networks before elections and tend to neglect them after election victories, when it is often less clear both how to use these networks and “what’s in it for them–the politicians?”

The Deval Patrick Administration shows the potential dangers here.  Patrick, a very bright, young African-American Harvard Law graduate was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, also thanks to the brilliant campaigning of David Axelrod (the campaign strategist for Obama) in a campaign that had stronger grassroots civic engagement than any election Massachusetts had seen for decades. While Patrick announced that civic engagement was going to be one of the three pillars of his administration, his rhetoric has been stronger than his strategy in this regard.  While it is not clear that his grassroots supporters have turned on him, they certainly are far less moored to his Administration than pre-election.

As Fineman notes: “…[I]f you live by viral marketing, you can die by it, too. ‘His supporters have sky-high expectations and expect to be involved,’ says Will Marshall, who studied the Obama organization for the Democratic Leadership Council. ‘They are loyal but not easy to control.’ ”  Fineman observes that this grassroots network could turn against Obama if he puts far more troops in Afghanistan.

But if Obama’s strategists adequately focus on how to best engage these volunteers, and one would hope and trust that his experience in the Saguaro Seminar helped deepen his commitment and his knowledge about civic engagement, this enormous grassroots base could be a galvanizing force against so many of the woes that face us (our economy, our high school dropout epidemic, our need to take action against global warming, our need to mentor those falling through the cracks, etc.).  Especially at a time of great economic need, when government’s purse strings may be limited by the economic bailout, unleashing a civic army of volunteers against our woes could be a doubly willing strategy.

As Marshall notes”If [Obama] wins, he’s going to have a personal following he can use to press his agenda,” says Marshall. “He can use these millions to reach over the heads of the Washington insiders, the Democrats on the Hill. It could be powerful.”

See “What Have We Created: Obama’s supporters have high expectations, and they may expect to have a voice in governing?”

See also A Civic Inflection Point in the U.S.?

Obama push for citizen service

The incoming Obama administration has spun their service effort into

They are planning day-of-service events over the inauguration (which could be significant with 2-3 million Americans descending on our nation’s capital).  Their longer-term plans are less clear, but they have in the works plans to spotlight civilian service over MLK holiday weekend.

Buffy Wicks in this video explaining their efforts of “Renew America Together”, which is being launched the day before the Inauguration.

If you’re interested in this topic, read Nancy Scola (for TechPresident) on their service plans for MLK weekend.  They aspire to “reignite the American tradition of service and volunteerism and to that end the current call to action [on MLK’s birthday] is viewed as a starting point.”

This type of initiative  is one of the reasons that I’m optimistic about the role that the Obama bullypulpit may play in a revitalization of social capital in the US.  It is always critical in these “Days of Service” that it be a starting point (ultimately interesting Americans in more regular service to others) rather than an end in itself.

Former Saguaro participant Jim Wallis (of Sojourner’s), who has been on the Obama transition advisory team on civil society and faith-based organizations, notes that he is calling the MLK day speech by Obama and service-day “an altar call to take action in our own lives and families, our local communities, and in our nation on the big issues that we face. We have been exploring the possibilities of not just service but all kinds of civil action, including community organizing and advocacy on social justice issues. The president-elect will be giving a call to action on that day before he addresses the nation in his inaugural ceremony the next day.”

Jonathan Alter has a well-reasoned Newsweek piece (“Don’t Muffle the Call to Serve“) on how national service might be an inexpensive way of stimulating our economy while accomplishing a lot of the useful rebuilding we need to get done.  It echoes David Brooks’ NYT column from Dec. 9 (This Old House”).  Here are some excerpts of Alter’s column:

The day before the inauguration is the Martin Luther King holiday, and the president-elect wants it to be devoted to service. But Barack Obama knows that one Monday of good deeds—even if it becomes an annual tradition when people help each other rather than sit home watching TV—isn’t enough. Throughout the campaign, he talked about something much bigger—a new era of civic engagement, with a quarter-million young people helping pay for their education by serving their country at home and abroad.

But as Mario Cuomo is fond of pointing out, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year, you transition in prose, too. That means the dreams of the Obama Generation are in danger of being deferred even before their man takes office. The economists confronting the present crisis apparently don’t have a lot of time for programs like AmeriCorps, which uses a network of local and national nonprofits to employ 75,000 mostly young Americans to teach kids to read, to run after-school programs, to build affordable housing, to clean parks and streams, among many other service projects. The brainiacs aren’t sure these do-gooders are relevant to recovery. They’re wrong about that, in more ways than one.

This is why:

…[F]or 1 percent of the stimulus, about $7 billion, Obama could create 8 percent of the 3 million new jobs he has promised. Those 250,000 new national-service slots would simultaneously fulfill his campaign pledge to young people. And with 15 years of scandal-free AmeriCorps apparatus in place, service jobs can be established with Rooseveltian speed, an important criteria for inclusion in the stimulus. At about $20,000 each, AmeriCorps jobs are also much less expensive than those in construction.

The other standard Obama has wisely applied to the package is that every dollar spent should help the country long-term. Thus the projects enumerated by Summers would rebuild infrastructure, lessen dependence on foreign oil and reduce health-care costs. But investing in human capital is every bit as critical for the future. Service develops the talents of those who perform it as well as those they help. It changes lives. And communitarian thinking is contagious. Each year, AmeriCorps’s 75,000 full-time members leverage another 1.7 million volunteers.

Interview with key architect of Obama’s ground strategy

Many have commented how Obama’s election was a tone-perfect combination of high tech (, 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.