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Obama and His Field Force: How California Roared

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There's a good chance that the role California played in Barack Obama's victory will go unnoticed by even the more astute political observers. After all, California was never in serious play -- it's been twenty years since it went for a Republican in a presidential election. The Obama campaign's directive to the California operation was simple: keep up a presence but don't spend money. Fewer than 20 paid staff members were hired in September (compared to hundreds in battleground states), a handful of offices opened and a minuscule budget approved. So it may come as a surprise that the California team actually pulled off what can only be called a field operation coup: on Election Day, California volunteers got on their own phones and managed to make an astonishing 2 million calls into battleground states -- a number that outstripped the calls made by all other Obama phone banks in all other states, combined. They called from coffee shops, from houses, from parks. They called from baby groups, from pajama parties, from book clubs. In the end, the state logged a total of 10 million calls between Obama's nomination speech and his victory speech. It was a milestone achieved with very little drama, and one that is noteworthy not only because it is unprecedented, but because it nearly took the national campaign by surprise. How it was done may also provide some insight into what lies on the horizon, on the grassroots front, going forward.

I had the good fortune to witness this operation first-hand when I morphed from being an Obama fundraiser into an Obama field volunteer, embedded in the "boiler room" of the state operation. At the center of that room was Mary Jane Stevenson, a self-described stay-at-home mom, married to a judge appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. With no previous political experience, Stevenson would seem on paper an unlikely shepherd of a mass mobilization effort. But in real life, her drive was infectious. She reminded me of my own mother who helped spearhead a short-lived, but successful, grassroots idea called "Home Headquarters" in Illinois in 1970, activating housewives on behalf of Adlai Stevenson III's (no relation) bid for Senate.

Mary Jane Stevenson's involvement in the Obama campaign began in July of 2007 when she had a bit of free time and decided to volunteer. She drove to Burbank to attend something called "Camp Obama," the campaign's then newly-minted community organizing bootcamp. Still in beta form, it was led by legendary community organizer, Marshall Ganz, himself. Three days later, Stevenson and a few hundred other trainees walked out of the session in organized groups, each with a volunteer title and a full-time volunteer job, primed to help organize for the California primary. Despite eventually losing in California, the strong network of volunteers, aided by the now-famous Obama web site, stayed alive, sending volunteers to later primary states, generating phone calls and waiting for the nominating process to be over.

Fast-forward to a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention, when Stevenson, now a respected organizer within the campaign, was tapped to run the California field operation with Mitchell Schwartz, a former Clinton staffer with a field background, already in place as State Director. Assigned by Chicago to adopt Nevada as a sister state, it wasn't, perhaps, the highest priority mission, but it was treated with urgency: California was to call lists of Nevada voters as well as to send massive numbers of volunteers there to help with voter registration and canvassing.

Despite the time crunch, one of Stevenson's first decisions was to replicate her own formative Obama training experience. Starting on September 9, her team brought Camp Obama back to California with a commitment that no other state would come close to duplicating -- scheduling a series of 30 sessions all over the state, even in unfriendly, rural areas. It was a gut-decision, and a controversial one, but it proved to have immeasurable impact. In the weeks leading up to the election, thousands of Californians attended the two-day, sixteen hour session. Trainees broke into mini-groups to learn such things as the art of talking to voters effectively and the finer points of how to record voter responses. Interestingly, it was here that California solved the enormous data processing hurdle which has dogged campaigns forever: how to effectively capture the information volunteers gathered in the field each day from voters. The answer: decentralize. Each mini-group had volunteers who were taught to handle voter files directly, with unprecedented access, and to update the new information daily.

The centerpiece of the training session however, was learning to tell the "story of self" -- a narrative tool that helps volunteers understand and mine their own personal motivations behind their support of Obama while trying to persuade voters. It turns out, among a certain ilk of California Democrats, the exercise is akin to drinking a powerful elixir. Volunteers reported being so deeply moved by their experience at the training that they broke down crying.

Originally a gamble because they drained pre-election resources and staff, the Camp Obama sessions ended up being a recruiting bonanza: hundreds of trainees were shipped out to battleground states, sometimes for five week stints.

But the true power of Camp Obama for the California operation was discovered almost accidentally. At the end of each session, the 200 or so trainees were asked to act as an impromptu phone bank, calling right there, together, into a battleground state. The very first weekend they logged 2,500 calls. When the team reported that fact to Chicago, the penny dropped. With Camp Obama serving as a sort of activist talent search, the state's phone bank volume could be increased exponentially. Suddenly there was a new way to harness the energy of those volunteers who couldn't travel to battleground states: they would become leaders in a full-blown, state field operation, putting muscle on the skeletal structure than had hung together since the primary. Even in this non-battleground state, grassroots was back. Volunteer leaders, from baby-groups to district coordinators, were soon deputized with management-style responsibilities: setting and meeting call goals, reporting results using campaign designed metrics and solving data entry problems.

By late September, the nascent phone bank operation already had 100 locations and was outgrowing the available lists from Nevada. Burning through call sheets almost before they could be printed, the operation was confronted with its own worst nightmare: a willing army, staring at their own phones, and no voters to call. By early October, the boiler-room operation was "going rogue," staying up all night cutting voter file lists from battleground states, obtained without the consent of Chicago, and divvying them up to idle phone banks around the state. (Those lists came by way of Obama state staffers, who had originally been trained in -- California).

In a matter of days, the national campaign field director, Jon Carson, took notice of the volume coming out of California. Two days later, the rogue operation was embraced -- and became the engine for a new national strategy designed by Stevenson and Carson, dubbed "Last Call for Change." Chicago would build targeted lists based on predictive data in all of the battleground states, and California would take the lead on calling through them, ultimately identifying voters who could be counted on to vote for Obama. As the lists expanded, the California phone bank volunteer recruitment expanded. New groups of volunteers flooded in. All over the country, supporters felt similarly eager to do something, anything to help Barack Obama win the election. But it was the California operation that hit upon a simple community-based formula to ride that wave.

On Election Day the campaign put out a final recruitment push and opened dozens of phone banks simultaneously, including a few phone banks on steroids, or "mega-phone banks" with 600 callers in one place. Here could be found a striking scene -- a bright, noisy sea of people with say, a grandmother cheek-by-jowl with a tattooed teen, all on their own cell phones, talking in a very personal way about why they believed in Barack Obama's candidacy. Together, the room called selected battleground states one at a time, starting in the east, ending with Alaska, cheering every time each a state closed its polls.

I have seen it reported that the campaign's field success can be attributed to its vaunted email database of volunteers and donors. My experience tells me that would be inaccurate. While the campaign certainly generated heat by sending out mass emails, the real magic lay in the staff's ability to carry out one of the earliest promises of Barack Obama himself -- individual empowerment. Tapping key volunteers and asking them to reach out to their friends requires personal contact. Yes, that job was made infinitely easier by the advent of Facebook and email, and the campaign's remarkable use of its website. However the real structure was not created by, nor can be reflected in a database of names housed by a centralized campaign.

Yesterday, I heard that phone banks are forming in California to call voters in Georgia on behalf of Jim Martin, the Senate candidate who is in a tight run-off race there. I checked around, curious to see if the campaign was officially involved. The answer came back -- no. Yet voter files are being sorted, lists are being cut, call sheets printed, data entered, calls are being made. The idea that a muscle once flexed can take on a life of its own has intriguing, almost science-fiction-like possibilities. Whether it signals something remarkable in the annals of grassroots politics, or is another forgotten piece of history, like my mother's idea of "Home Headquarters" in 1970, remains to be seen.

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