Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hope and a lot of work

This poster hangs in front hall of the Obama campaign office in a Denver exurb where I'm spending this week. The people who flow in and out are definitely full of hope. But mostly they just grind through the routine work of contacting voters, giving of their time and their enthusiasm in an organized process that can dredge out a winning margin.

The county we're working in has always been a Republican place. Looking at the addresses of the people I'm calling, I note that some developer thought to name one of its suburban boulevards "Quemoy," presumably after the Chinese offshore island claimed by Taiwan. In the 1950s this dispute that threatened to draw the U.S. into a war with China. Supporting China/Taiwan's right to the island was a rightwing obsession of the period.

Recently the county's Democratic registration has overtaken the Republican total, but the county is still very much up for grabs with a large unaffiliated registration. Obama's supporters are a racially mixed middle-income group who've acquired many campaign skills over the long campaign. They phone possible Obama supporters looking for their votes, knock on doors, and at this late moment are shepherding thousands of voters through the maze of early voting and mail balloting that Colorado makes available.

Over the last two days, this office has implemented a tactic that vividly illustrates both how hard it is to squeeze out every last potential vote -- and the possibilities open to a campaign with huge resources in money and volunteer energy.

The office had a list of some 600 voters who fit the profile of the undecided but persuadable -- but who they had never been able to reach on the phone or by doorknocking. So -- staff organizers decided that these people should get personalized letters. Volunteers hand addressed envelopes, wrote in salutations to the recipients on a photocopied persuasion letter, and many signed their own names and gave their own local phone numbers as contacts. (Some letters went out in the name of an organizer with a local phone number.) The body of the letter, which came down from somewhere much higher in the campaign, struck me as quite well targeted to voters who might be undecided. Some excerpts:

I live here in ____ county and I am writing my neighbors because I want you to know the truth about Barack Obama and tell you why I support him.

With the economy in a shambles, prices for everything going up, and people losing their jobs and their homes, I feel deeply that our country has to change direction. ...

First, you should know that Barack is a Christian, a patriot, and a loving husband and father. He believes that as Americans we are all connected -- that we are our brothers' keeper, our sisters' keeper. ...

You get the idea. But the photocopied text is not the heart of the letter.

The heart of the letter -- as a persuasion device -- is the handwritten P.S. added by a volunteer saying why s/he supports Obama. Nobody is telling the volunteers what to say in these. I've watched people sit around and figure out what they want to communicate, what they care about and are willing to handwrite, over and over, to their neighbors. Some I've seen:

"I support Barack Obama because my brother is a soldier in Iraq and he'll take better care for veterans."

"I trust Barack Obama to get our economy moving again. Something has to change."

"As someone who graduated from high school this year, I think Barack Obama will put more money into education."

So do I think this letter will win votes? Certainly it has its drawbacks. It is not flashy, eye-grabbing. Lots of the handwriting is pretty funky -- few of us have very good penmanship these days. Some of the P.S. phrases are a little inarticulate.

As a consumer of the considerable research about what constitutes effective voter contact, I have my doubts. But the letters do have strong authenticity and come from close neighbors, factors that do raise turnout in other kinds of contact. I'm willing to guess that one or two percent of recipients may find a contact like this enough to confirm a choice where a leaning existed and perhaps encourage a vote which had not been certain without this contact. That is -- a project that probably took something like 24 volunteer hours and the cost of paper and stamps, might yield 6-12 votes.*

That's an enormous amount of human labor for a very few votes. But that's what winning an election through popular mobilization looks like. Repeated over and over in many locales with many tactics, the result is enormous. The Obama campaign is an amazing experiment on an unprecedented scale in what might be achieved through such mobilization. All this field organizing may end up looking like icing on the cake in an Obama victory -- but for the millions who've worked in the heart of it, this is what victory is all about, working together in an organized way for broad empowerment that changes people and communities.

* My assessment might be wrong and this letter writing tactic might not even win the few votes I project -- to my knowledge, no experimental research has been done on this, though I could be wrong about that too. But I am certain the number of votes won is not larger than 6-12.


Kay Dennison said...

You could be right. Then again, we humans are strange animals -- unpredictable at best.

We lost two more soldiers from our county in the past few days -- one a young woman. The streets of the small suburban town and township where she grew up were lined with citizens paying their respects. Word on the street is that everyone is tired of this. It has to stop.

My own daughter, a Republican (where did I get her?), ended her career in the military because of Bush policies.

How many more of our children do we have to lose before this travesty ends?

Darlene said...

You may be right, it might not garner enough votes to be worth the effort, but is is a lesson in good citizenship for those participating and gives them a feeling of helping. And if it only gets one vote, that is one that they wouldn't have.

Being hearing impaired it is difficult for me to hear callers on the phone so if my Message ID says "Unknown" or "Toll Free" I don't answer. I am sure there are many like me.

Rona Fernandez said...

Thanks Jan for this post, and I look forward to more of your observation and in analysis in these final days. Wish I was out there with ya! I'll be phonebanking from back home in Oakland. As one of the many people that benefitted from your strategic vision, thinking and planning at CFJ, I highly value your opinion. As a fundraiser, the personal touch is definitely key to getting people to give money, so I'm hoping that it works in this case with those undecided voters. But I'm guessing the Obama campaign also won't stop calling those folks and trying to reach them in other ways? ;) That's the beauty of a mass grassroots campaign! Hit 'em up early and often.

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