A fresh pair of articles is shining light back on to the Obama ground operations, which — presuming victory on November 4 — will be remembered as one of the deepest and most robust political startups in modern history. Zack Exley’s in-depth piece on “The New Organizers” in the Huffington Post goes into (excruciating) detail on Obama’s Ohio general election team, while the Washington Post finally brings some MSM coverage to Obama camp’s innovations. Common to both pieces is the role of Marshall Ganz, probably the leading theorist and practitioner of grassroots organizing in America, and the striking absence of any similar efforts by the Republicans and the McCain campaign.
Both articles describe the Obama campaign’s team structure, which marries tight grassroots networks to a more traditional campaign hierarchy. My colleague Aaron Shaw has been ruminating over the topologies of these networks take and, taking off from his thinking, I suggest that the campaign in its ideal type looks a bit like this:
The superstructure of the campaign is traditional, top-down command-and-control (with information flowing upwards, of course). At the roots the campaign — as is typical for most volunteer efforts — comprises ad hoc mesh networks. It’s in inserting strong, tightly-knit teams that the campaign has made the greatest innovation. Each team, as a whole, functions like a paid staffer, with similar responsibilities and accountability. Exley quotes a paid field organizer, “This program allows [volunteer] Glenna’s team, with just two or three weeks of [database] training… to know how to pull lists and put canvass packets together. So all that type of work that eats up so much time for organizers can be handled at the local level—at her place.”
Neighborhood teams thereby function as force multipliers for paid staff. And they work because, with extra investment into training and fusing teams together, they allow busy people with school or full-time jobs to play as big of a role as they’re capable of taking on, rather than being stuck with one-size-fits-all phonebanking just because the campaign lacks the infrastructure to recognize their unique talents.
In my diagram above, I drew a circle around the team to indicate that they can function as the equivalent of a paid staffer. What’s I didn’t quite illustrate is the fact that, as local residents, the teams also have a deeper and wider network than a paid staff parachuting in. Outsiders are more prone to be captured by local elites who may or may not have the campaign’s best interests in mind. Furthermore, the total number of solid connections that paid staffer can make locally is probably much lower than the total number of contacts that the local team, in total, already has. It’s easy to see how — with enough time and money to invest in their recruitment, training, and support — strong teams become the natural junction between a national, top-down hierarchy and a local, dispersed field of volunteers.