Thursday, January 17, 2008

Campaign tidbit:
Field demonstrates its value

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter a hoot what I think about the Democratic Presidential primaries. Oh, I'll vote and all -- but if I wanted to have real influence, I'd work on local issues and candidates as wells as organize to increase civic participation and competence among those who aren't currently able to get in the game. And I do, for my work.

But the long running Presidential sweepstakes is great theatre, so over the next few days, I'm going to share a series of tidbits and perhaps insights as they fly by.

Many observers have been struck by how very high the turnout of Democrats was in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The fact that almost 4 times as many people attended [an Iowa] Dem caucus in 2008 versus 2000 is the real story of the night for me. It makes the Rep attendance gains seem paltry....

Beyond who won on each side, there's a very big partisan message out of tonight. Just under 220,000 Democrats caucused tonight. About 115,000 Republicans did. That is a very big vote in itself. Talking Points Memo

After New Hampshire, many observers pointed out that Clinton seemed to have an exceptionally effective Get-Out-The-Vote operation.

Raising turnout, and especially turning out the voters who have said they will vote for a particular candidate, is what "field" operations do in campaigns. If nobody loves the candidate, field can't fix things, but well run field operations can raise a candidate's vote total by 3-5 percent.

Field is unpopular with media oriented consultants; it is not profitable for them, it's messy, costly in labor, difficult to control because it employs volunteers -- and it can be a difference maker.
Field requires commitment of campaign cash. In this year's Presidential extravaganza, candidates have had enough money to invest heavily in field in the early states.

Historically, field operations have often foundered on difficulties with "the lists." Because local and state election authorities seldom maintained very reliable records of voters (the raw voter file), field ops often tried to contact "voters" from records that were as much as 30 percent wrong. It can get very frustrating when a third of your phone calls reach disconnected numbers or you knock at the fifth house of the day where the person who answers the door says "Who? She doesn't live here."

The combination of contemporary databases, list improvement using commercial data, and better state registration practices means that "the lists" have become more efficient tools for making voter contacts. And more computing power has made all that information cheaper to manage. So campaigns have been doing more field work and getting more out of it. Matt Stoller of Open Left has tracked how field drove turnout in Iowa. Campaigns had access to

...far superior field tools deployed over the last five years, including the Voter Activation Network (VAN) and Catalist, as well networks of field staffers who know how to use them and a commitment to invest in field from all the major campaigns. This was a field battle, for once, and finally, the tools were great. That means that more voters were touched earlier and more often than ever before with sophisticated chunks of information. And they turned out. Voting is kind of hard, and the campaigns made it easier.

The sentenced I've emphasized is the essence of what field brings to campaigns.

Unlike any campaign's tightly controlled media messaging, field is where democracy happens. That's some of the good news in this year's cycle.

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