Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Can Obama win with field?

Years of working on and sometimes running field operations for political campaigns have given me some repeated experiences which anyone who has done this work will recognize:
  • The supply of lawn signs and bumperstickers is almost all gone, again; the campaign manager is worried about money and says field can't have any more for a week.
  • The data manager was supposed to print new walk lists for the Saturday mobilization, but someone in communications pulled the techies away to install video equipment in the conference room.
  • You've been recruiting all week for the big walking mobilization on Saturday. You've figured out how to train your volunteers efficiently so they'll really have time to hit a lot of doors. Then the campaign manager comes in to tell you that an important Party Big Shot will be there to speak to your crowd ... and you realize that once again, your volunteers will be bored and wander away before much work gets done. Besides the Big Shot wants 20 of your people to go along with him when he does a merchant meet and greet.
That's field, as it has been, in those relatively rare instantces in which a campaign even bothers to try to run a field program: under-resourced, brushed aside for the flash and glitter, slighted and poorly utilized.

Many of us are feeling queasy about Senator Obama's chances, watching him be defined negatively by McCain this August. TPM reports that McCain is outspending Obama on TV ads. But Sean at 538 says we're are missing the true picture:

While millions may be spent on advertising, so too is one campaign spending millions on ground game while the other is spending virtually nothing. Obama is investing more massively than any campaign in the history of American politics on the ground game. McCain is essentially not investing in ground. His early summer numbers of 20,000 phone calls nationwide for a whole month would be those of a single, low-budget House campaign. That's the equivalent of one person working ten hours a day for a month. For the entire nation. It's basically the equivalent of zero contacts. ...

While we don't have enough hard numbers to compose a fancy pie chart, rest assured that McCain's would show a much, much higher percentage of his pie on television ads whereas Obama's would show an unprecedentedly large slice on his thousands of paid organizers and hundreds of field offices.

... people are also failing to appreciate [the] dollars spent on the dramatic all-in move that Obama has made in organizing and neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion.

Sean thinks that field can do it for Obama in this amazing year when people desperately want something other than what they've had for the last 8 years. As someone who teaches campaigns to do field, to organize people to people contacts, I should be the first to believe. And I want to.

But I wonder. I routinely teach that good field organizing can win a campaign 2-4 percent more vote than it would have otherwise. Obama is throwing money and brainpower at field in an unprecedented way. Can it give him enough in the right states to win this election? We're all going to find out.

Here's a nitty-gritty volunteer recruitment video [3:54] that Democrats are using in Michigan. It should make you believe they are serious about field. And to wonder and hope that all these ordinary citizens talking with their neighbors can do the job. That would be very, very good for democracy. And even the Democrats admit its not over in November.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Hi Jan,

On Sept. 25, Episcopalians and others around the world will be participating in World MDG Blogging Day to raise awareness about the MDGs while world leaders are meeting in New York to chart their progress.

I'd love it if you'd consider taking part. We've got more than 100 blogs signed up already ... and that's just after one day!

You can find out more at or on Facebook at

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions (

Thanks for considering this and God bless you.

Christ's peace,

Mike Kinman
Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation (

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