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Organizing For America Ramps Up For November

Last week I interviewed Organizing for America director Mitch Stewart and deputy director Jeremy Bird. (Thanks to Lynda Tran of the Democratic National Committee, who helped set up the phone interview and who participated as well.) We covered a range of subjects, but mostly focused on OFA’s efforts to mobilize supporters during the healthcare reform debates and the organization’s plans for the upcoming 2010 cycle.

Following is the first half of the interview, which began with Stewart and Bird asking if they could give opening statements about what OFA is doing right now in advance of the midterm elections now just five months away:

MITCH STEWART: Just as a real general overview, both Jeremy and I worked on the campaign for a long time. And during that process we brought in a lot of these new, first-time voters in 2008. And as we have worked in a lot of elections and special elections since then, we are looking at a group of voters that, one, could be pivotal in turning an election, you know the electoral success or failure for the president and his allies in Washington and across the country; but two, also looking to make sure that as Organizing for America, the president’s field team, who are at the universe of voters who are most responsive to our message? Looking at the data, there were 15 million first-time voters in 2008, both who registered after 2006 and voted for the first time in 2008, and the president won them in 2008 with about 70 or 71 percent, 72 percent, depending on how you look at it.

If you look across the country at congressional races and statewide races, these voters are viable. In Ohio, you’re talking about a little over 700,000 [of them]. In a lot of these bellwether congressional races you’re looking at a universe in the tens of thousands of first-time 2008 voters. And we are uniquely positioned to reach out and talk to them—not only because of the messenger, and continuing the conversation between first-time voters and the president—but also because these voters got engaged and involved because they really supported the president’s change agenda. And we’re uniquely positioned to reach out and talk to those folks.

And in general what Jeremy did in South Carolina and I did in Iowa is get these folks to pledge that they’ll vote in 2010—just like I did in the caucuses in Iowa in 2008 and Jeremy did in the South Carolina primary—as a way to keep this new generation of voters engaged in our process. So we’ve been busy planning that, and we’re in the beginning phases of implementing that, which will start on June 5.

JEREMY BIRD: I would just add one thing. I think the last piece of the strategy is that we go to hundreds of strategy meetings in local communities across the country. I’ve been out to many of them–in Indianapolis, South Carolina, a bunch of places in Ohio and a bunch of places in Arizona–and the overwhelming response from our volunteer base, from the people are that most engaged, is that they are really focused heavily on [the 2010 midterms].

538: Before we get to 2010, I just want you to clarify for our readers, and for me as well, as Mybarackobama transitioned to OFA, what is its relationship is functionally or legally to the DNC?

MS: The OFA is a part of the DNC. There’s no legal separation between the two. So if you are looking for an exact legal definition we can certainly pass that down to you, but there’s no separation between the OFA and the DNC.

538: The reason I ask, Mitch, is because the names that you have, candidates can’t really get access to that list but they can maybe mail out to it or solicit fund from people or contact them passively—in other words, does the DNC have propriety control over those names or are they really the property of the president?

MS: The email list is housed at the DNC. So those 13 million names, roughly 13 million names, are housed by the DNC. That’s information that we don’t share with anyone outside the DNC.

Now, there are a couple different layers underneath that. The voter file that we used in 2008 is owned by the state parties. So they have information basically on all of the candidate IDs from 2008. There’s a different, a separate entity of volunteers. And we are in the process of getting our volunteers—one of challenges, not challenges, but one of things we’re going to be focused on—is connecting these volunteers to different candidates around the country so that not only do they feel close to the president, but they have a relationship with their local candidates.

538: So the volunteer base is 13 million and you consider those things identical lists, I mean in terms of the total head count?

MS: The email list?

538: Yea, I want to know how many total names you have and in what form or function they exist.

LYNDRA TRAN: Tom, we’ve never actually publicly said the size of our list. It’s been reported at 13 million and we don’t contradict that.

JB: I think one way to look at it is that we have sort of our big community of people that we communicate with via email. And then we have appropriate information in each state for staffers because we have staffers in every state. Our whole goal as organizers is to take those people—both those people for whom we have email information for, and for those that we don’t, because we do have a lot of volunteers who aren’t online or we connected with during the campaign but they’re not on the internet as much, but they may text message or have some relationship with our staff—and our whole goal in 2010 is to connect as many of those people as we possibly can to get them to communicate with us every day.

And then we want to bring other people in that aren’t on that list. A big part of it is to get information from people that we’re going to find in the community and bring them into that online universe, and get those people in the offline universe to become active volunteers that we can schedule to get involved.

MS: There’s a big overlap from our online volunteers and the email addresses that we have from those volunteers. But we do have some extremely active volunteers that just don’t use the online tools that we have available.

538: I see. And then you have people who are very tech savvy but not participating so much. So it’s like a Venn diagram, with some people who are both very active and online-savvy, but some who are in one category or the other.

MS: Right. That’s exactly right.

538: Can you at least tell me, without giving me a specific number, the total list of names has grown since the inauguration, right?

MS: Yes.

538: Is there any attrition? Are there people who sort of have fallen away, or you lost their contact information? You can’t have every name you had on Election Day 2008, right?

MS: It’s almost like a floating, living organism. You have folks coming in, and folks sort of taking a break. It’s in constant flux. But we feel extremely good about the vitality of it, if that makes sense.

538: One of things I wanted to ask you, Mitch, since you were there from day one [at OFA], and both you guys worked on the campaign, is that mobilizing people in an electoral context is a little different from mobilizing people for a policy campaign. I’m wondering—since there were critics in the first year, including myself to a certain degree—if OFA was going to be able to duplicate when it comes to policy or legislation or action items the kind of verve and intensity of an election cycle. So I’m wondering what lessons you guys learned in the first year or so about getting people who could vote or participate or even write a check to do things in the policy arena?

MS: Well, let me preface the lessons that we learned a couple different ways. The first is we’re extremely proud of the work that our organizers and volunteers did during 2009 and 2010, and specifically with health insurance reform. It was a long, long fight, but if you look at the totality of the work, it’s really impressive: Over three million folks have taken action; millions of folks have sent letters or called Congress or done a host of things to stay active and stay engaged in support of the president’s agenda.

But you’re right to say that it is a different animal. There are a couple different really broad distinctions we saw right away. I don’t know if you were involved right away in the healthcare debate, but there were a number of different deadlines that we were all working backwards from. In legislation the deadlines are extremely fluid, but in elections they are not: You know when the finish line is 99 percent of the time unless there’s a recount or something along those lines. You have November 2 and you basically are able to work backwards. You know how many voters you need to be successful. You know how many volunteers you need to touch those voters so that you get that 51 percent of the vote on November 2, and you can work backwards from that.

From a legislative perspective or from a policy perspective that deadline is much more fluid. The other thing that…

538: So wait, what you’re saying is that in a campaign you have a vote goal, which is something you compute one year out, and you have a strategy to get there. What your saying is that it’s a little different when you’re trying to get a participation goal or mobilization goal, it’s a little more nebulous to do because you don’t know exactly what the date or moment or vote is around which you’re trying to mobilize people?

MS: Not only that, but you know exactly how many votes you need, or have a very, very, very good estimate, of exactly how many votes you need to win on election day. The difference with policy advocacy is you have a lot of different arrows in your quiver—you can have calls to members, you can have letters to the editor, you can have press events, you can do a whole host of different things, letters to your member, calling into radio shows, etc., etc., etc. But with an electoral campaign you know that if you have 10 volunteers, and they’re going to knock on 50 doors apiece, that’s 500 attempts, and if they contact 30 percent of those 500 attempts, that’s 150 conversations. Basically, you have a lot of math to work backwards from, or you have much more certainty that the work you’re doing will provide you with 51 percent on election day.

The difference with policy advocacy is, if we’re making calls to a member’s office, then we are able to work backwards from that. Or if we know there’s 10,000 letters to the editor, or whatever that number is. But there isn’t sort of that finite—as you said, it’s more nebulous. We have a lot of arrows in our quiver, and we’re constantly using all of them to try to get that next vote or support for the president’s agenda, but it’s different. It’s very challenging and I think we did a great job, but it is different than electoral work.

538: Let’s take an example. You recently had a “Wall Street Day of Action” that was obviously organized around the notion of financial and regulatory reform. Give me a sense of what your roll out was for that, what happened, and what metrics or results you can point to.

JB: Tom, if I could say one last thing on that last point.

538: Sure, go ahead.

JB: The other thing that’s very different is that when you’re doing a thing like health care it’s not always a choice between A and B. It’s not like in an election in 2008, or elections generally, where it becomes very much a choice between two different outcomes. There are lots of people that have different views because of one piece of it they don’t like, or one piece of it they do like. So I think it’s a lot more complicated when you get into issues in terms of volunteers and voters and how much you have to do to make connections.

But in terms of your question about Wall Street Reform Day of Action, that’s where it’s a different campaign in the sense that our goal in terms of that day of action was making sure that we were continually getting out the message to the American people through earned media events in their communities. So it was less a targeted, neighbor-to-neighbor canvas, and it was much more focused on how do we highlight the issues and make this real for people via our media. Our message on that would be, how many different media markets are we having events in, and how many people are we communicating with? So it’s all rolled up in a package of not just those events, but a strategy of new media. Part of the approach is to have a conversation with folks to get out our message via earned media and paid media as well.