The following represents as big of a transformation as the arrival of TV in politics half a century ago: This weekend, an army of more than 100,000 ordinary voters, spread across every state in the nation, will work together as single disciplined team as they conduct a sophisticated GOTV operation to reach "drop off" Democratic voters in competitive House and Senate races.
MoveOn.org's "Call for Change" program (motto: "It's too close NOT to call") provides its volunteers the same kind of high-tech online console that tele-marketers use to contact micro-targeted voters as report in results. The difference is that these volunteers actually believe in what they're saying, and therefore connect with voters in a way that paid tele-marketers can never. As anger peeks at cynical and negative campaigning, putting voters directly in touch with other voters is a brilliant strategy -- one made possible only recently by new technology and new organizing techniques.
Any individual with an Internet connection can use the MoveOn system to make calls alone. But tens of thousands of volunteers have exponentially scaled up the program by holding "call parties" at their homes. Go to MoveOn's site and search your zip code -- there are parties near you. Each one is hosted by an unpaid volunteer, working with little or no in-person support from organizers. Hosts furnish their guests with snacks, voter lists, instructions and moral support. Many attendees, having been shown the ropes, then go host their own party the next week.
I reached a handful of these party hosts last night to find out what makes them tick. I started getting a picture of a vast network of local leaders scooping up volunteer energy in their neighborhoods that has for so long gone untapped.
Consider Maria in Coatsville, Pennsylavania: "I've been making calls for the last three months starting with the Busby race in California -- I try to do it at least once week. I've been having parties for some weeks now -- because I got myself over this hump and started making calls myself, and now I think it's important to help others to do that -- to show others how to make the calls, and that it can even be fun."
Does she get nervous about strangers coming over? "Oh yes, I tend to be a little bit anxious each time -- I hope they're normal people, you know? But each time, I relaxed as soon as the first walked in. Each time they were wonderful people."
Part of the beauty of this program is that the events can be any size: Maria said she usually just gets two or three people. "Once it was just me. Which was fine -- I ate the food I prepared and made my calls just the same as I do every week." Even just the small parties like Maria's -- because there are thousands of them -- add up to a massive GOTV phone bank. It's an elastic model that accommodates any situation -- there can never be an "empty" event because every organizer is also a worker. There is simply a continuum of events from those having one attendee up to those having hundreds and everything in between -- all adding up to a single, coordinated, powerful GOTV operation.
Jerilynn, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on the other hand, is going all-out to build up attendance for her party this weekend. She and her husband are heading off any possible "awkwardness" of a room full of strangers by making a game out of the phone calling to break the ice, increase productivity and make the evening fun for all involved. She calls the suburbs around Philly the "Ring of Fire" -- a nickname she and other MoveOn volunteers made up in 2004 because they were striving to ignite enough volunteer activity to deliver the vote for Kerry. Now, she's working with many of those same volunteers from 2004 to drive Call for Change. "In 2004, I'd bring along friends to do door knocking with me. I showed them that it was easy and could make a difference. Now some of them are holding their own Call for Change parties. Maybe in '04 I inspired them, but now they are inspiring me and keeping me going."
Before MoveOn popularized this decentralized-yet-disciplined model of organizing, many in politics simply couldn't believe that anyone would open their home via the Internet to strangers, or attend an event at an unknown person's home. Many traditional campaigners were convinced that "Internet people" were wackos, and in any case had never seen structured and effective volunteer work happen without a paid organizer holding hands and pushing people. It will still be a while before this model is internalized in the campaign world.
In the 2004 cycle, several variations of the model were tried by MoveOn -- as well as other groups and the Dean, Kerry and Bush presidential campaigns -- but the refinement and massive scalability of the Call for Change program now represents a revolution in how campaigning is done.
Yet journalists have barely noticed. Why is that? Journalists enthusiastically cover certain new trends in campaigning, such as blogging, micro-targeting and the use of YouTube -- to name a few. Maybe field organizing and campaign volunteering are just not glamorous enough. But do the math: hundreds of thousands of callers, making millions of calls -- all into just a handful of districts where mere thousands of votes will decide outcomes.
Glamorous or not, what could be more exciting and newsworthy than the voters themselves standing up to take control of politics? And doing it all in their own living rooms with people they don't even know?