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Obama Field Organizers Plot A Miracle

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This article, covering the Obama campaign's approach to the February 5 primary, is the first in a series investigating the evolution of field organizing in the 2008 presidential campaign. In it, Exley juxtaposes his own experiences from working inside the 2004 presidential cycle with the impact a more mature online world is having on organizing for 2008.

Inside the Obama campaign, an eclectic team of field organizers is attempting something that has long been considered impossible: building a precinct-level field organization large enough to affect the outcome of Super Tuesday (now February 5, or "Super Duper Tuesday"). If successful -- aided by email lists, web tools and old school organizing techniques long missing in electoral politics -- these organizers could rewrite the rules of presidential politics, dramatically raise the profile of field organizing in the campaign world and help rebuild Democratic party structure in states, such as California, that have been long forgotten to electoral field organizing.

Over the past two months, the Obama campaign has staged a number of in-depth, three-day trainings in February 5 states, with more than 1,000 carefully selected volunteers attending. Trainees leave the events organized into teams by Congressional district, charged with building an organization that reaches all the way down to the precinct level.

For decades, presidential primaries have been almost exclusively fought in Iowa and New Hampshire -- through a complex mix of retail politics, local endorsements and media. If no clear winner emerged from those states, then last minute efforts in other early states such as South Carolina and Michigan sometimes became important (In 2000, Bush played rough in both states with New Hampshire first place finisher John McCain.)

However, by the time Super Tuesday came along (formerly in early March), campaigns had only prayers, no strategy. The vast size of the electorate voting on Super Tuesday, when combined with relatively small budgets, meant that a field strategy was simply out of the question.

In the 2008 cycle, however, two things have changed the calculus of presidential primary organizing and now raise the possibility of a hard-fought precinct-by-precinct field battle in states as large as California and as numerous as 20 possible February 5 primaries and caucuses. Many of these states have not seen serious electoral field organizing in decades.

First, an unprecedented amount of money is now available. The Obama campaign has a mountain of cash on hand and the ability to raise tens of millions more before February 5, 2008.

Second, use of campaign websites now makes hundreds of thousands of volunteer campaign workers available to campaigns in states before a single staffer is hired to work in them. At virtually no cost, campaigns are able to contact those volunteers via email, turning them out to events and trainings and giving them valuable work to do for the campaign in key states.

Those two factors raise the possibility of a well-financed, volunteer-driven field operation on a totally unprecedented scale, reaching even into states that have been organizationally forgotten for decades by both parties.

But it will only happen if field leaders in at least at one presidential campaign can figure out how to blend effective, old-school field organizing techniques with the methods of "online organizing" that are only beginning to be discovered and understood.

Temo Figeroa is one field leader trying to make the leap. A longtime labor organizer, and the son of farm worker organizers, Figeroa, was hired away from the top political job at AFSCME to be the National Field Director for the Obama Campaign. Figeroa believes the new presidential field equation gives Obama a sharp advantage. On Saturday, motioning to a room of several hundred volunteer grassroots leaders attending "Camp Obama" in Atlanta from around the South, Figeroa said, "What's different is there's never been a candidate who has drawn this type of enthusiasm and has raised this type of resources to even fathom doing something like this. That's an amazing combination--if you have the resources and the volunteer base to do it."

He emphasizes that the Obama strategy is an early state strategy, focusing on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. "But what if it's completely mixed results in the first four? Then you go into a battle for delegates. There are a little over 1,500 delegates that are up on February 5. Twenty states! So, for us, we have to prepare: because we have the ability to prepare. We have that luxury because we have the resources and this amazing volunteer base."

Camp Obama is the main ingredient in that preparation. Not counting dozens of trainings held near the Chicago campaign headquarters (which mostly focused on Iowa), there have been six Camp Obamas in February 5 states so far: Burbank and Oakland, California; Saint Louis, Missouri; New York City, New York; Phoenix, Arizona; and Atlanta, Georgia. While the curriculum has varied with the different teams behind each training, the end goals have remained consistent: send tight-knit, well-trained and highly motived teams of volunteer organizers back to their home Congressional districts with a plan.

Trainings have been lead by a diverse set of experienced -- even legendary -- organizers. The Dean campaign had Internet gurus; the Obama campaign has community organizing gurus. Many have come to the campaign through relationships with Figeroa and Barack Obama.

Figueroa: "For me, personally as an organizer, coming from labor, it's been an incredible experience to invite mentors of mine--colleagues in labor organizing, community organizing and faith community organizing to come and be part of truly an inspiring movement....And it's a really powerful message to our activists to be trained by some of the same organizations and organizers who trained [Obama]."

This past weekend's Atlanta training was lead primarily by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz, once a National Organizing Director of the United Farm Workers and now sought-after advisor to political campaigns, unions and NGOs. In 1968, Marshall Ganz dropped out of Harvard to join the civil rights movement. He returned to his hometown of Bakersfield California with "Mississippi Eyes" and was able to see for the first time the poverty, racism and injustice that had been around him his whole life. He joined Ceasar Chavez as a farm worker organizer and was mentored by figures from Saul Alinksy's community organizing movement. Ganz eventually returned to complete his undergraduate degree at Harvard, and then stuck around to earn a PhD and become a professor.

In 2004, Ganz was a key advisor to a special Dean campaign organizing program in New Hampshire. Staffers who were influenced by him in that program are now running South Carolina for Obama, and Nevada and New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton. Karen Hicks, who ran the New Hampshire program is a National Field Coordinator for Clinton (Other recent Ganz students include co-founders of Facebook, the managing editor of political blog TPMCafe and an interesting assortment of evangelical Christian faith-based organizers.)

The Dean New Hampshire organization was built meticulously over the course of one year of intensive one-on-one conversations with voters and intimate house meetings. In the ten days after the "Dean Scream," that organization was credited by many for Dean's steady regaining of ground in the polls to place second in the New Hampshire primary. Michael Whouley, "the man who won Iowa for Kerry" was one of the people impressed by the power of the organization in New Hampshire -- so impressed that he hired Karen Hicks to be the National Field Director for the Kerry Campaign. Since 2004, thanks in part to the Dean organization there, the New Hampshire legislature has gone form red to blue and the state has elected a Democratic governor, and a long list of grassroots leaders from the Dean organization have run for local office.

However, the New Hampshire program was an exception inside the Dean campaign. Iowa's field operation was widely criticized after the fact for being utterly disorganized. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi successfully used the Internet to bring thousands of volunteers to Iowa, but neither old-school field tactics nor new online-organizing tactics were employed to put them to work effectively, in an organized manner, for the campaign. (Obama's Western States field director, Buffy Wicks, was one young Iowa Dean staffer who led a failed mini staff rebellion there to bring in the New Hampshire model.)

Interestingly, for all the power of Dean's New Hampshire organization, almost no attempt was made there to use the Dean email list or online organizing tools to recruit supporters. That sprang from the distrust of the Internet by old school organizers who saw it as an "impersonal" medium.

A few short years later, it is inconceivable that a field director on a national campaign would reject volunteers because they signed up online. It has become second nature among even the oldest of the the old school field organizers to recruit people for events by sending out emails and posting events online. Every single person queried at Atlanta's Camp Obama said they had found out about the event by visiting the campaign website -- in a group that was about two thirds African American and probably one half working class or low income.

Nevertheless, campaigns -- including Obama's -- are still only haphazardly using webtools and email lists to organize volunteers. For example, on the Obama campaign, there is still no online system available for the teams graduating from Camp Obama (or the teams they establish below them) to report in their progress back to headquarters. This is a huge missed opportunity to give field directors perfect visibility into the work of every team, anywhere in the country -- visibility that could be used to identify the best field volunteers in the organization for promotion, and to identify problem areas that need special attention from staff organizers. That said, no other campaign has anything like that kind of accountability system either.

Maybe one candidate will decisively win all first four primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. In that case, the Obama February 5 plan will probably be judged to be unnecessary. Even so, it will continue to pay dividends for supporters of the Democratic party in 20 states for years to come.

On the other hand, if the First Four states produce no clear winner, then these months of meticulous planning by the Obama campaign could prove a history-making success. Perhaps there will be no bigger winner from that scenario, however, than field organizing itself, that would find itself in a dominating position in the future of electoral politics for the foreseeable future.