Community Organising: The Art of Grassroots Campaigning (Part 6)

Obama 2008 – 2

Elizabeth McKenna and Hahrie Han write about Obama’s use of organizing as the model for building a grassroots movement in the 2008 campaign in their book, “Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America”:

Obama for America (OFA) made a long-term, organizational investment in developing the leadership potential of volunteers…Working with volunteers, however, is not easy. For decades, most campaigns relied more heavily on staff because, they thought, only paid staff could be pushed to put in the long tedious hours needed to make voter contact. Volunteers were considered too risky because they could not be depended on to show up consistently or to produce the phone calls and door knocks the candidate needed. As one campaign manager for a 2010 congressional race said, “It is more important that we do field [voter contact] than that we have volunteers do it.”11 In short, many political campaigns did not entrust their volunteers with meaningful responsibilities.

The OFA leaders we interviewed described the gamble they had taken. They bet that if they developed the motivations, skills, and capacities of ordinary Americans to organize their communities, they could win. They bet that with volunteers, they could enfranchise, persuade, and turn out more voters than the opposition. They bet, in other words, that they could do with local volunteers what most previous campaigns had done with staff. One Ohio training document from 2008 read, “Volunteer recruitment and retention is the most important aspect of our field program. We cannot achieve the sheer volume of what we need in order to win without their help.”

Ohio field organizer Tony Speare explained, “Rather than trying to do all the work ourselves, the idea was to spend the majority of our time building up volunteer teams and then making them self-sufficient so that by the end of the campaign, volunteers were calling other volunteers to recruit them. They were running all the trainings. They were entering all the data. They were making all the phone calls, knocking on all the doors. And by the end, the last four days we were able to remove ourselves and just coordinate with all of the teams but let them run their own operation.”

The Obama volunteers thus became the groundbreakers who demonstrated the power of an alternative way of running field campaigns in America.

One of the key elements of the organising model was a structure called “snowflakes”.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.