The Barack Obama campaign's winning web strategy employed the latest in social networking to create a highly efficient update of old-fashioned politicking. Marshall Ganz designed the field-organizer and volunteer training systems that turned Obama's campaign volunteers into organizational leaders.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This election also marks a breakthrough in the art of electioneering. Never before has a campaign so effectively merged old-fashioned shoe leather politicking with the efficiency of Web-based social networking. It was, as Sarah Lai Stirland wrote recently in Wired Magazine, “the most sophisticated organizing apparatus of any presidential campaign in history.”
Take Florida. Obama’s campaign far outspent McCain’s in TV ads, Stirland noted, but equally important, it created 19,000 neighborhood teams, directed by 500 paid organizers. That effort was replicated throughout the battleground states with more than a million volunteers, according to the campaign.
The hazard in fielding such a vast army is volunteer fatigue. But Marshall Ganz, an experienced organizer, devised a way to combat that. He helped develop a website to recruit and share information, and a weekend training program called Camp Obama, where volunteers created brief personal narratives to drive their message home.
But Ganz says the real breakthrough wasn't in the tactics at all. It was in the whole approach to campaigning, the traditional marketing approach versus real organizing. MARSHALL GANZ: In the traditional approach to fieldwork in a campaign, you hire a bunch of staff, you send them going door-to-door or you put them on telephones and you pay them to contact voters and identify who’s for you and who’s against you, and you keep doing that over and over again until you turn ‘em out on Election Day.
The organizing approach is that you hire full-time people, train them to be organizers, and their job is to recruit leaders from local communities, bring them together and equip them and train them to work together to reach out to their neighbors, the other people that live in the community, the voters themselves. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So describe how the Internet gets brought into this process and supercharges it. MARSHALL GANZ: The way the Internet facilitates this process, first of all, it makes it easier for people to let the campaign know that they want to help. Secondly, it makes it easier for the campaign to communicate with them about opportunities for them to become involved.
Thirdly, it allows local groups access to the kind of information, i.e., highly targeted voter lists, that they can use in their work, so their work becomes much more effective. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, they can learn which voters will be open to their message and which voters are basically lost. MARSHALL GANZ: Well, eventually. But, I mean, initially, let's say I'm in a precinct in Manhattan. I would start with a list of Democrats and I would start contacting them. Now, the response to that would go into the voter file. And so, gradually a profile will be developed on everyone, and who’s for us and who’s not and whose concerns are this and whose are that, which then allows us to go back to them and persuade them in other ways and eventually identify who our people are.
But what’s different is because it’s all a single database, people can coach these teams. They can see how well they're doing, they can see when they're not doing well, and it makes the whole operation transparent. So the transparency then makes it possible to be much more effective. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haven't the Republicans been using voter lists and this kind of data crunching for, you know, for many elections? How was this different? MARSHALL GANZ: Everybody’s been using it. The difference here is that a whole tier of volunteer leadership were cut into the action in this campaign. No one has ever done that before. At our first training in Los Angeles where we said, look, you’re going to have access to all this stuff because you’re part of the campaign, it blew people away. What? We're going to actually be able to – yes!
So there was a level of empowerment of volunteer leadership at the local level that is a theme that’s run all through this campaign. And that’s why you see the responsibility, the enthusiasm, the creativity. And that’s why when the campaign is over, as it is now, this isn't going to go away. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell us about Camp Obama. I know that rather than memorizing Obama talking points, people who went for training learned how to build personal narratives – the story of self, the story of us and the story of now. MARSHALL GANZ: What we helped them understand is that the first thing they need to learn is how to articulate their own story, in other words, what is it that moved them to become involved and engaged, because it’s from their own story that they're going to be able to most effectively engage others. So when people leave, they leave equipped to do that. That’s sort of the foundational piece.
And in the initial series in California, we launched 200 teams in two weekends that, with the support of four staff people, built that operation out there to the point where it could make 100,000 phone calls a day. This is like an investment in civic assets, in local communities that no political campaign has done for years.
The right benefited from being rooted in social movements, which do this because that’s what social movements do. They translate values into action; they bring people in to work together. But on the progressive side, everybody had become marketeers. Everybody’d been marketing their cause or marketing their candidates as if it was another bar of soap, transforming people from citizens into customers.
What we did was bring the citizenship back in and put the people back in charge, and then put the tools in their hands. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall, thank you very much. MARSHALL GANZ: All right, thanks very much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marshall Ganz is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he helped design organizational systems for the Barack Obama campaign.