Groundbreakers

December 18, 2014 in News by Liz McKenna

In the fall of 2006, I took Marshall Ganz’s undergraduate seminar on organizing. To illustrate the power of public narrative, Marshall showed us Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya,” Obama recounted. “He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.” Throughout the the speech, Obama connected his own story to the experience of millions of Americans who also believed that “all men are created equal” and “harbored a faith in simple dreams.”

goundbreakers1We learned that stories communicate the values that call people to action. As with thousands of others, I myself was called to act due in large part to the values Obama conveyed in the speech. Within a week of my college graduation, I drove 2,300 miles in a borrowed car to Port Clinton, Ohio to start work as a field organizer for Obama. I soon learned that the job I had signed up for was no ordinary campaign gig. For my first two months on the job, the field director, Jackie Bray, and the general election director, Jeremy Bird, did not want to know how many undecided voters I had contacted in my turf. Instead, they meticulously tracked how many one-on-ones, house meetings, and “neighborhood team leaders” I had recruited. Why?

goundbreakers2 Hahrie Han and I address why the Obama field operation was different from traditional campaigns in our just-released book, Groundbreakers. We trace the origins of the Obama ground game and describe how a handful of key field staffers assumed leadership roles during the 2008 primary season to transform the way American campaigns are run. These staffers’ willingness to experiment with team-based approaches, their belief in the power of stories, and their dogged investment in volunteer training yielded the unique electoral-organizing model that many civic associations have begun to emulate worldwide. The result of these staffers’ leadership was a field operation unmatched in both depth and breadth. The number of Obama volunteers (2.2 million) nearly doubled the previous record held by George W. Bush, whose campaign mobilized 1.4 million volunteers in 2004.

Our goal was to tell the story of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns from the perspective of the organizers and volunteers in the trenches. We draw on more than 70 in-depth interviews, ten months of participant observation, and historical research to describe the source of the Obama campaign’s voter contact capacity: not high-tech tools, but ordinary people. We hope that this account will be of value to Leading Change Network practitioners and scholars who want a deeper understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of a volunteer-driven, team-based organizing operation.