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The Pledge

For all of Jack Nicholson’s bombast, a little-noticed gem of a leading role was his 2001 turn as a retiring Reno cop (wearing full-length pants) trying to keep a promise in The Pledge. If you haven’t seen it, you should rent it.

This weekend, a different kind of pledge will be asked of Barack Obama’s supporters as Organizing for America applies voter registration techniques to its agenda of gathering and channeling support for Obama’s ambitious first-year legislative agenda.

The concept is fairly straightforward: many volunteers fan out into communities all across the country collecting signatures and contact data on a sheet that reads:

I support President Obama’s bold approach for renewing America’s economy

I will ask friends, family, and neighbors to pledge their support for this plan…

Energy — Transforming America’s economy to run on clean and renewable energy in order to create new American jobs and industries

Health care — Comprehensively reforming health care so that families, businesses, and government are relieved from the crushing costs that impede economic growth and prosperity

Education — Reforming and investing in America’s education system so that citizens are prepared to compete in a global economy

You’ll notice this is a blanket stamp-of-approval pledge, one that even unsettles some former Obama organizers I’ve spoken with, particularly ones on the libertarian side of the spectrum. To them, the word “pledge” feels a little too authoritarian.

For example, today Obama announced $2.4 billion in Department of Energy funding for next-generation electric vehicles. The piece of OFA’s pledge on energy would presumably cover policy choices like these, but trust is an essential part of this information exchange. Who knows what final form health care legislation will look like later this year? Support of a broad principle is asked. Obama has ruled out single payer and explicitly signaled to much of his base that they may have to swallow some disappointment. Many of these are the same voters being asked to sign the broad pledge.

Others are less concerned with implications of signing a pledge, and emphasize the larger value in seizing a particular moment to leverage a grassroots voice. The pro argument stresses that there’s nothing binding in the signature, the data isn’t being shared, and there are no consequences to “breaking” the pledge. Instead, your name just goes into a database so that OFA can send you information about locally-organizing groups that you can join or not join as your preference permits. Moreover, they argue, neighbor-to-neighbor communication on public policy during the conversation that surrounds the signature collecting has inherent value, reinforcing a sense of citizen engagement in public life.

It’s a bit of a Rorschach test on how you view it. But either way, they’re doing it.

The mechanics underscore the need for volume. Though some volunteers will go door-to-door, this is a generalized signature collection. Since volume is the key, volume is easiest in public places. We’re talking about malls, parks, fairs, grocery stores, sporting events, all the places people congregate on weekends. Door-to-door canvassers are told to concentrate their efforts in high-density housing areas, which have the convenient attribute of being in more urban areas which tend to skew strongly Democratic. It’s like a mass petition drive, most analogous to voter registration.

During the campaign, Obama organizers threw tremendous resources into collecting voter registration. Outside the campaign, this effort was not well-understood in real time. This misunderstanding underlay the substance of my critique on Michael Barone’s dismissal of early Ohio numbers. Barone and others seized on low early Ohio turnout in the September 30 to October 6 window where voter registration and early voting overlapped to argue a sign of the ineffectiveness of Obama’s organization. Barone’s embarrassing and mildly racist piece (blacks are more “susceptible” to organizing… seriously) painted the Obama organization as full of Dean-2004-esque enthusiasm and suggested Dean-Iowa results.

What was really happening, as we reported, was that rather than focusing on the opening bell for voting, Ohio organizers, like their counterparts around the nation, were focused on registering every last voter up until the October 6 deadline. It was an issue of maximization. Once that deadline passed, the campaign shifted to an early vote focus.

Jeremy Bird, Obama’s State Director in Ohio, recorded this video in his role as OFA’s Deputy Director:


In the video, Bird explains optimal techniques to generate the best response, and it’s clear that what OFA wants is data, data, data. Bird emphasizes the completeness of data collection, just as was emphasized to organizers and their volunteers during the campaign.

As Al Giordano notes, this weekend’s list building is also key as a first field effort for the 2010 midterms. That’s a key insight into what makes this different than say, the economic stimulus house parties from early February. There’s also a component of this weekend’s pledge drive that will feed into organized pressure on House members and Senators, as well as a simple education component — raising the profile of the three main pillars of Obama’s legislative agenda: energy, health care and education. Political junkies can, but not everyone can identify those three items.

Still, to be clear, this is more intake than output. Most writing about this weekend’s project, when casually referring to the “13 million” person list are glossing over the single most important principle of field:

Those databases get old fast. Field edge is gained and maintained with constantly refined lists. It may seem silly, given that the campaign only ended four and a half months ago, but keep in mind that people move, people change registration, new voters hit 18, people change their minds about who they support… you simply cannot let a list sit for any length of time or it becomes unhelpful. The Pledge is a person-to-person high value touch. There is persuasion involved in this effort, as volunteers are encouraged to share their personal stories as a way of gathering signatures.

One thing Republicans learned during the campaign that crippled their field effort is that lists age in dog years. While Obama had the chance to build lists in nearly every state during the primaries and then re-process those lists in the general election, Republicans didn’t have the manpower or resources to maintain theirs. What may have been great lists in 2000 and 2004 would have been a nightmare by 2008 without maintenance. Robocalls are an abysmally poor substitute for the high-quality voter contact exemplified by the face-to-face neighbor persuasion effort OFA plans for this weekend.

Here’s a link to this weekend’s activities.

And check out a brilliant little role for Benicio del Toro in The Pledge.