Obama SC’08: Anatomy of an Election Day GOTV Operation

(Cross-posted at Off the Bus)

Mainstream coverage of electoral campaigns often focus on candidate speeches, advertising, and other mass-outreach efforts, for a myriad reasons. Where in all of this do average citizens fit in? In fact, volunteers play some of the most important roles in campaigns. Below I’ll detail one such campaign, Obama for South Carolina. It may be ancient history by now, but I want to provide a primer for anyone who wonders what they might be getting into if they answer “yes” to that time-honored phone bank question, “Would you like to volunteer with the campaign?”

To use a military analogy: If advertising represents a campaign’s “air war,” then volunteers are the ground troops — and just as in military affairs, it’s boots on the ground that capture territory. In the weeks and months leading up to election day, as Zack Exley details, a lot of work goes into persuading voters and identifying supporters (also largely by volunteers). But what happens on election day itself consummates all of this work. It’s called Get Out The Vote (GOTV), and it’s a popular way for new volunteers to get involved.


This year’s wide discrepancy between research polls and election results demonstrates that public opinion isn’t the same thing as actual votes. As anyone with a job, children, or a warm bed knows, getting to the polls isn’t always a top priority. GOTV volunteers do their best to get that guy with five errands after work to put “Vote” high up on the to-do list — that is, as long as that guy is supporting your candidate. That’s why weeks and months of work go into calling likely voters and asking them whom they plan to support. Voter IDing — another major volunteer role — provides the hit list for the GOTV crew.

South Carolina is a fraction of the size of California, but even so the task of reaching out to that many voters is enormous. The Obama campaign had settled on a total voter “universe” of over 600,000 — almost 20% of the state’s voting age population! Reaching that many people within a 12-hour window would require a massive ground operation.


Putting that operation into play requires a complex management structure capable of exploiting the narrow 12-hour voting window. If the Obama for South Carolina campaign were a small army, then the staff functioned much like commissioned officers; I counted at least three levels of hierarchy in those ranks, deployed at the main or satellite headquarters. Volunteers played front line roles, running local Staging Locations and deploying teams of Canvassers and Phone Bankers, the muscle behind the GOTV operation; and Runners and Poll Watchers, its eyes and ears. (Volunteer attorneys who watched for voting irregularities operated under a separate structure).

Below is a snapshot of the Obama for South Carolina field operations:

  1. Statewide HQ (both field and political staff)
  2. 7 Regions (staff: 7 Field Organizers, 7 Desks)
  3. 26 GOTV Regions (staff: 38 Organizers)
  4. 161 Staging Locations (volunteers: ~161 Staging Location Directors)
  5. 1610 Polling Sites (volunteers: ~500 Runners, ~450 Poll Watchers, ~650 Canvassing Teams)

OSC was a massive operation, with several staging locations managing over 100 volunteers. How well the teams played together would point the way to election day success or failure.


Nicole YoungElection day found me in the Bluff Road neighborhood in an unincorporated region of Columbia, in Lower Richland County. The campaign considered it a belwhether for both the African-American vote and the Obama vote. By whatever stastical wizardry the campaign strategists had employed, as Bluff went, so too would the state.

There was reason to be nervous. In the week before the vote, the Wall Street Journal covered the Clinton and Obama South Carolina operations and gave me some idea of what the campaign was up against. As luck would have it, the WSJ paid special attention to the Bluff Road area of Columbia, where the Clinton campaign had won the support of a powerful state senator, Rev. Darrell Jackson, who is also pastor of an 11,000-member church just a few streets over from the precinct polling site. The Clinton strategy turned largely on Rev. Jackson, who was being paid over $16K/month to deliver the vote in his area. Four years ago Jackson had helped clinch the state for John Edwards. I had no doubt that he would be working hard again this year, this time for Hillary Clinton.

On Obama’s side was Nicole Young, the organizer for this area. She had already spent many months traveling throughout Richland County to evangelize the Obama cause and cultivate local leadership. These local leaders, in turn, built their own networks who ultimately staffed the hundreds of staging location roles. Bluff Precinct had many local volunteers, but no one willing or able to manage operations, so a woman from a nearby suburb, Vernelle Graham, volunteered. Ms. Graham, a physical therapist, got involved with the campaign in part to offer her grandchildren a role model. She had never before taken a leadership role in a political campaign. Election day would offer a test of whether a grassroots campaign staffed by volunteers could hope to beat one headed by a well-funded local elite.


After setting up shop in a storefront donated by a local businessman, the staging location team got to work on three basic tasks: (1) training volunteers; (2) canvassing the neighborhood; and (3) phonebanking.

1. Training: Given the high profile and weekend date of this election, many volunteers showed up with a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily any prior experience. (I estimated over 100 volunteers passing through the Bluff precinct office that day from the neighborhood and from as far away as California). Over the day, veterans (particularly a crew from UNC-Asheville) taught the basics of door-to-door canvassing, which can be intimidating, especially to outsiders unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

2. Canvassing: Volunteers then broke out into canvassing teams, each responsible for a specific turf. Their mission was to hit every address in their turf and determine whether the identified supporters at that address had voted yet or not. If not, the volunteers would remind them that it was election day and the location of the polling site, and to encourage them to vote soon. Although turnout was the main goal, a few people did end up engaging in persuasion, since not every identified voter stuck with the candidate or with the intention of voting at all. One would-be voter, for example, hesitated because she was afraid of Obama being assassinated if he became President. The volunteer who knocked on her door believes that, through conversaton, he was ultimately successful in coaxing her to cast her ballot. Still, that level of engagement is the exception. Most voter contact was quick and efficient: a gentle reminder that their votes mattered.

3. Phone banking: There are precious few voting hours in the day, so campaigns try as many ways as possible to get voters to show up. Given a massive volunteer turnout, canvassing was certainly the most effective option (face-to-face contact is much more likely to spur an individual to go to the polls), but towards mid-day several volunteers hit the phones to call those who had not yet been positively identified as having voted.

Visibility: Visibility — holding up signs at the poll and otherwise being seen — was a lower priority. Clinton supporters had camped out at the polling site since it opened, but the Obama team did not dispatch sign-wavers until much later, after it had made sure that the canvassing and phone banking crew were fully staffed. There was some concern that a mostly white, college-aged visibility team would not go down well in this predominantly black, working-class neighborhood, but Ms. Graham made a judgment call that “Folks here need to know that all types of people are supporting Obama,” so a large and loud team went off and soon swamped the Clinton supporters late that morning. Ultimately, the Bluff Precinct staging location had so many volunteers that it eventually transferred most of its visibility teams to other areas — and was still left with 6 people at the polls when they closed.

Data and resource management: Two volunteers had particularly tasking jobs: gathering data to feed to the local team, and to HQ. Jeffrey, the poll-watcher, had a list of all identified supporters in the precinct and checked off their names as they showed up to vote. Shoshana, the runner, picked up Jeffrey’s list as well as the total voting numbers for the precinct at 10am, 1pm, and 4pm and dialed the data into HQ. Individuals who had voted were also taken off the canvassing and phone banking lists. (More on data management to come in the next article in this series).


Four weeks later, the South Carolina Democratic Primary has already been subsumed into the political narrative of this election season, but it’s important to remember that, identity politics notwithstanding, Obama’s victory in the state was by no means assured. After all, as late as December 2007 Clinton was leading in the polls. And, as the WSJ coverage pointed out, the Clinton campaign had already locked up the normal political machinery of the state. In Bluff Precinct that machine was embodied in Rev. Jackson, who showed up at the polling site around mid-morning. He wasn’t exactly campaigning — that would be illegal within a 150 foot radius of the polls — but he was certainly reminding voters through his presence whom he had publicly endorsed. Bernice Scott, a Clinton supporter and councilwoman in another part of Lower Richland, commented to the WSJ about Obama organizer Nicole Young, “They don’t know her. If you knew me, and I came to your door, who are you going to trust?”

The outcome, on January 26 2008, seemed to vindicate Ms. Young:

Obama : 688
Clinton: 191
Edwards : 26

The WSJ reported that Rev. Jackson drew $135,000 from the Clinton campaign between Feb-Sep 2007 (the latest date by which data was available at the time of the article); even without taking into account any additional consulting fees or other resources (signs, staffing, phone calls, etc), the Clinton campaign paid over $700 per voter delivered in Bluff. (Take this back-of-the-envelope calculation with a grain of salt: Rev. Jackson’s influence, and thus endorsement value, extends well beyond the precinct where he and his church are located). Of course, the Obama campaign was hardly running a shoestring operation either; Ms. Young had been on staff since summer 2007, and the quantity and quality of the campaign literature was an order of magnitude better than I saw later on in Massachusetts on Super Tuesday. Still, the difference between the two campaigns’ strategies appeared far greater than the amount of money either expended on execution.

And at the root of that difference was a vast, highly motivated, and very disciplined corps of volunteers willing to give up a Saturday to go above and beyond their civic duty. The volunteers who were out in the trenches on January 26 were, in some sense, merely reaping what the Obama campaign organizers had sown as early as spring 2007. Yet without the volunteers’ hard work, many potential votes would have been left out on the field. Organizing matters. So, too, do the volunteers on election day.

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4 thoughts on “Obama SC’08: Anatomy of an Election Day GOTV Operation

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