Political affiliation in the United States has historically been a Republican sandwich of sorts -- blue along the coasts and red throughout the middle. However, in the recent presidential election, there was a splash of blue smack dab in the sea of red. Colorado, a state that was once historically Republican, voted for Barack Obama for president not only in 2008, when every state witnessed an upsurge in Democratic turnout, but in 2012 as well.
There is a reason why Colorado, a state that epitomizes the American West ideology of expansionism and independence, a state heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry, with a strong evangelical community, voted for Barack Obama -- a candidate, purported by the right-wing pundits to be a leftist/ socialist/ terrorist.
The Republicans had the Super PACs in their favor. They had Citizens United in their favor. They even had the weak economy in their favor. But the reason the Republicans ultimately lost in November, and the Democrats won, is largely due to a man named Marshall Ganz and the neighborhood model of organizing.
Back in February of this year, I participated in the class "Leadership, Organizing and Action: Leading Change", taught by Ganz at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ganz, a former student at Harvard, dropped out in 1964 to join the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, then headed out to California to organize with the United Farm Workers, finally returning to Harvard decades later to complete his undergraduate degree. Shortly after, he became a Harvard professor and worked as a political consultant. In 2008, Ganz was hired by the Obama Campaign and devised the "neighborhood model" used by "Organizing for America" in 2008, and again in 2012.
In the class, Ganz teaches budding organizers from around the world how to organize the resources in their communities, to mobilize power, to create change. The concept is simple and elegant: Identify your "community," clarify the problem that exists, and then work within that community to build resources, to create power, and ultimately affect change.
"Organizing for America" -- the Obama campaign's grassroots arm, provided the ultimate example of the neighborhood model in action as it wove together the work of neighborhoods across the United States and maintained a local feel, on a national scale.
Following are some tricks of the trade of community organizing taught by Ganz, which I witnesses in working for Organizing for America:
Tell your story
One integral component to organizing a community -- according to the Ganz style of organizing -- brings us back to the most basic forms of communication: storytelling. Ganz teaches an entire class on the art of the personal narrative, comprised of three key ingredients -- the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. This is a winning combination that any good leader will use to inspire and motivate others to action.
The first thing on the agenda at an Obama campaign house party is introductions. Everyone gathers together in someone's living room with crumb cake and hot coffee and tells their story following the same prompt: who are you, why are you here, and why are you supporting Obama.
Storytelling is an integral component of the campaign and through this process, an interesting shift takes place. In discussing one's personal story, linked with the challenges our country faces, perfect strangers with nothing more in common than standing in the same cramped living room, become connected and a bond forms. The practice is inspiring and motivating and often emotional -- leaving many in tears. It not only reaffirms one's commitment to Obama, but forms and strengthens the connection within the group and ultimately, in the community.
Relationships are the foundation of community organizing
According to Ganz, "Movements aren't built by individual people, they are build on relationships" and therefore, relationships are the crux of organizing a community of people.
The beauty of community organizing lies in the neighborhood model. It is working neighbor-to-neighbor and community by community, to create change, from the bottom up. Leaders are identified and resources developed. The Obama campaign strategically decided to focus on the power of one's inner circle to communicate a message, while the Romney campaign tried to rely on the power of paid media, focusing on advertising to get their message across.
The Obama campaign was able to win a state like Colorado because of the power of organizing. In 2008, there were 30 Obama offices in Colorado. In 2012, there were 60. While the Romney campaign was focused on volunteers waving signs at passing vehicles, the Obama campaign had volunteers knocking on doors in rural Colorado. There were "Women for Obama" events, house parties, workshops and potlucks, all designed to include people and empower a community.
I spent an afternoon canvassing with a woman named Jan, in Salida, Colo. While examining our walk packet, Jan found her neighbor Lynn listed. Jan knew she wasn't going to find Lynn at home on this particular afternoon. Instead of going to Lynn's house, we went by the law-office where she works to make sure she had received her mail-in-ballot and to remind her to send it in.
On a typical night at a phone bank in Glenwood Springs, the room would be abuzz with people making calls on their cheap plastic flip phones. The volunteers greeted their familiar names listed in their call list and conversations such as the following would ensue: "Hey Joe, it's Frank, how are you tonight? Great, and how's your wife? Wonderful, well I'm calling you tonight from Obama headquarters in Glenwood and I just wanted to make sure that you knew where you could go in to vote early. It's at the Courthouse. You need a ride? Not a problem! I can pick you up tomorrow and we can go together."
Whatever Organizing for America office I traveled to, I experienced the same phenomenon with the volunteers. Whenever a volunteer would return from a shift they would automatically want to debrief you on the events that occurred during their shift. They will go through their walk packet house by house to tell you about the barking dog, the Romney sign, and the friendly and unfriendly neighbors. They felt obligated to go through their packets because they felt personally responsible for their work. They wanted to debrief the number of new voters they registered, the number of doors they knocked on, and the conversations they had because they were proud of the work they had done and experienced a sense of accomplishment.
Regardless of the dozens of focus groups and hundreds of appearances made by candidates and surrogates, it is clear that the most effective tool in a campaign are the volunteers -- the people in the community who know their community best.
This election served as an important lesson in politics. Even though more money was spent in this election than any other election in history, it proved that Super PACs couldn't buy the election -- or at least entirely. In the United States of America, the president is still decided by the people. This election was an incredible demonstration of the power of community, in a time when people have become more and more distant, and less and less connected to one another.
The Republicans banked on the idea that ads, taxes and the mantra of "it's the economy, stupid" would win the day. They were wrong. What won was the Obama campaign's organizing model -- the ground game of millions of volunteers, staff, and offices that worked in every state in the country day in and day out, around the clock, to make sure swing states like Colorado would go blue. In the end, not only Obama won but Americans won too -- our communities are left stronger and individuals, empowered.