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OFA Learned Lessons From Coakley Loss

Following is the second half of my interview with Organizing for America’s Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, and DNC spokeswoman Lynda Tran. The main headline is that, after a sometimes-bumpy road during the first year, OFA seems to have a plan in place to mobilize its volunteer database and figure out ways to connect those volunteers–many of whom were drawn into national politics by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run–with state and local Democratic candidates for the 2010 midterms.

Fivethirtyeight: Are you guys are getting a sense as you get to know your list better, are you able to—and I don’t know what the word to use is here—profile your members? This is person who will call her member of Congress, and this is a person who won’t do that but will show up for a local organizational meeting, and this is a person who will write a letter to the editor, and this is a person who will do all of those.

Mitch Stewart: That’s exactly right. We do a ton of list segmentation, both online and offline, based off of what a volunteer’s most comfortable action is. So we definitely we have folks who love to host candidates and phone banks and house parties, and we have a strong sense of who those people. We have folks who show up but maybe not host, and we have a strong sense of who they are. We know made phone calls to Congress, we know who wrote letters to the editor, we know who wrote letters to their members.

So the long answer to that question is yes. We try to tailor our communication with these volunteers in a way that will allow them to get involved and engaged in the actions we’re doing.

Lynda Tran: And Tom, that actually gets to the earlier point about what does translate from the legislative organizing to the electoral organizing. We have spent the last 14 months on this, the last year or so, identifying activists and building these team structures and having in place the largest field structure the party has ever had in an off-presidential year. So that definitely is going to translate into the work we are doing this year for the midterm.

538: In terms of the midterms, shifting more into gear on that, to me—and I may be wrong about this—the most important question is the degree to which the so-called “Obama surge” voters—first-time voters as you mentioned, younger voters, non-white voters–these people who turned in waves or for the first time in 2008. We’re not expecting all of these people to turn out, but the question is how many of those people will turn out or how few. So I’m wondering what you guys are doing to identify, target, communicate with and mobilize the so-called surge electorate.

MS: It’s true that we’ll use a lot of the same tactics that we did during in 2008 and, frankly, 2009. We know who these folks are, we know where they live, we have their phone numbers. What we continue to believe that the most powerful way to reach out and talk to these voters is to have a friend or neighbor, someone that they know from their community, reach out and engage them and talk to them about why it’s so important [to turn out in 2010].

The key is that once we explain the stakes and what election day could look like, good or bad, these folks will get motivated. They don’t follow the back-and-forth of what happens here in Washington like some other voters do in this country. So a bit part of what we’re going to have to do is get out there and have conversations. That’s through phone calls, that’s through door knocks, that’s through public events, and using our online tools.

It seems to me that the more that technology advances the more that the bread-and-butter is the backbone of any strong organization. You just can’t replace those personal, face-to-face or over the phone conversation. And that’s something we’re uniquely positioned to do.

538: Are there any new social media or technological developments since 2008 I should know about that you guys are tinkering with?

LT: We definitely have some things in the works, and you’re going to hear more about it in the coming weeks. I think it’s safe to say we’re looking at some of the newer ways that people are getting their info, like iPads.

538: Anything else? Why can’t I know now?

JB: Yeah, I think there will be some interesting things we’ll be doing, and I think we’ll be advancing some of the technology. But I think also now, with some distance from the 2008 campaign, we are having an opportunity to make those things that we already had better—to make the data integration better, to make sure we moving quicker from an online interest to an offline volunteer. I know that’s not very exciting, I know that’s not very sexy for reporting. But we’ve done a lot around those upgrades. And we will have some press-worthy things to talk about.

538: I’m wondering if, either in-house or through Ken Strasma or one of your number wizards or consultants, going back to this surge voter, have you guys been able to model what kinds of people you expect to drop off and not turn out in 2010 versus which kinds of surge or first-time voters you do think will turn out? In other words, can you figure out or are you starting to figure out where your best rate of return is, in terms of contacting certain people who are likely to show up for the midterms and other people who may be less or unlikely to?

MS: Tom, that’s a spot-on question. Ken worked with me in Iowa during the caucuses. I think there are actually three stories from 2008, one that did not get told and two others that did. The two that got told were the unprecedented volunteer effort and voter contact that happened across the country, and I think the second that got told was the online effort that the [Obama] campaign had.

But the third story that really didn’t get told was the data analysis that we did in 2008 and we’re building upon it in 2010. And the regression analysis that we do, not only for candidates but also for likely participation, is something that will be the driving force for our resource allocation both with volunteer time, as far as who we talk at the door and on the phone, but also as you look at paid communications and the best way to allocate those resources.

The second thing, though, that were focused on is not just looking at candidate support and participation and an undecided score—the folks that are most persuadable—but also looking at things like who is most likely to answer the phone and who is most likely to answer their door. We are an organization driven by data. We were in 2008, but in 2010 we will become even more so. And we’ll continue to look at ways to become more efficient and data is basically the driving force in that.

538: We talked about having a vote goal and end date. It was kind of a short time line, but you did have a deadline in January special election [in Massachusetts]. And the Politico and others reported that you were going all-out, or you’re all in or whatever. So what happened there, and what lessons did you learn from that loss in the Teddy Kennedy seat race?

MS: The biggest lesson that we took away from that is that you can’t manufacture an organization in-state behind a specific candidate in three weeks or two weeks—that it takes more time than that. Part of the reason that we started this [2010 midterm] process quite a while ago, and on June 5 will be the official kickoff and will provide us the opportunity to build that volunteer capacity.

But the one caveat I’ll add to that is that we as an organization were able to generate 2.4 million phone calls in the closing days of that [Massachusetts] election. So the work that we did we fell very good about. But each campaign will be unique; each candidate will be unique. And the biggest takeaway for us is that we need to make sure we get in early.

JS: I think the lessons that we learned from NY-23, PA-12, or even places like FL-19, were also lessons about how do we engage our volunteers, how do we connect them better with candidates in a way that they can get excited about it and motivated. You need the time to do the work and get them to do the work and get engaged earlier. Those are the lessons we learned in the last year and half.

538: Tell me, now that David Plouffe coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally, came back a week after the Massachusetts special election, can you tell me a sense of what he’s doing, what his role is on a day-to-day basis? What’s changed since he came back?

MS: We actually have to get off the phone with you because we have a meeting with him in a couple of minutes. He’s somebody that we constantly talk to. He’s somebody who is still the driving force in this organization. He’s someone that looks over emails. He’s someone that’s still heavily involved in the strategic direction that this organization is heading in, and that will only continue to deepen as we get closer to 2010. And, again, I don’t think this is super interesting for what you’re writing about, but he’s the smartest person I’ve ever dealt with.