Saturday, September 20, 2008


Climbing inside an historic Presidential campaign begins with Camp Obama, where 150 of us are being trained to be Deputy Field Organizers, going out into districts in battleground states to recruit and manage volunteers, canvassing and phone-banking and getting out the vote... being the ground game that has carried Barack Obama to the cusp of the Presidency.

Camp Obama is taking place at the IBEW hall west of downtown Chicago.  Walking into this room, I am reminded only of a game-faced Michael Keaton rallying angry auto workers in western Pennsylvania in Gung Ho.  I am reminded of this largely because this movie is pretty much all I know of union halls, and this room is sufficiently dull, with a large rostrum in front.

Our emcee for the day is Melissa, a bespectacled abstractly girl-next-door-cute former elementary school music teacher, right down to the chipper bearing and talking with her hands.  One of the first things that strikes me about Melissa's message is that she is fairly certain we're going to win this thing.  I expected to hear a rallying cry of just how tight the race is and how this is a climactic battle between good and evil, and only those of us in the room stand between America and Armageddon.  Yet Melissa makes a point of announcing that we aren't planning for November 4th, but rather, planning for January 20th, to do the work that the country needs to do.  I find this equal parts inspiring and disturbing.  It's inspiring in the sense that the endgame is not the dismissal of John McCain... it really is change.  Yes, we can, indeed.  But I am viscerally disturbed because this is like a football team looking ahead a week to the big rivalry game, yet their mind is not fully on the winnable game in front of them.  You never want to do that!  How about we talk about January on November 5th, god willing...

Melissa's story is rather cute, as well.  When she was teaching, she asked her students to list their heroes.  One said firefighters.  One said her dad.  And another said the President of the United States.  Melissa could not bring herself to write "George W. Bush" on a list of heroes and, like a true politician emerging, pivoted the conversation to Abraham Lincoln and talked about POTUS in the abstract.  So disturbed that young people would only know W when it came to Presidents, she volunteered to work on Obama's campaign the next summer, and quickly made herself indispensable.

The stories of those at my table this morning were varied.  Nick and Don saw polling after the GOP convention, in the midst of the Palin bubble, that showed the candidates dead even and were scared and angry that America might really consider voting for the same policies that have left us in such a world of hurt.  Chad, a quiet and thoughtful 26 year-old bicycle messenger from Pennsylvania who didn't finish college at Penn State, voted for Nader in 2004 and has found himself now truly fired up about politics for the first time.  Harriette, a pastor, flunked out of Northwestern University and lived in a homeless shelter for nine months and now likes being involved in politics at the grassroots level.  Emma is the daughter of civil rights activists, grew up under segregation, and on many occasions spoke with Martin Luther King.  

Emma made perhaps the most profound statement of the day:

Rosa Parks opportunities don't manifest often.

Not only that, but you probably don't even know it's a Rosa Parks moment when you're in it.  What bound all of us together, I found, was a personal desire to not just get Obama elected for what it would mean for the country, but for ourselves to make a mark... what that would mean for us, individually. I have spent a great deal of time reading and watching MSNBC and debating with my friends and evangelizing to pretty much anyone who will listen, but as Melissa said: watching CNN will not get Barack Obama elected.

For myself, I reached a point where it was crystal clear to me that if John McCain were to win, I would have nothing to complain about if I didn't stand up and get in the game.  And should Obama win, likewise I could claim little sense of ownership in this historic development.

My own path to political activism began on 9/11.  I became a news junkie after that, my eyes suddenly open to world events and politics.  It had never mattered to me before, but this shocked my brain into sharp focus.  In the coming months and years, I became a devotee of Meet The Press and a great admirer of Tim Russert and the indispensable role I saw him playing in the American political discourse.  Always a voracious reader, I found myself reading less fiction and sports and more history, politics, economics and current events.  I was suddenly determined to be an informed citizen.  When I studied economics in graduate school, my opinions on issues began to crystallize.  I began to believe that America needed both the liberal and conservative viewpoints represented, and that a desire for the smallest government possible, the lowest taxes possible and fiscal responsibility were not incompatible with the notion that government, rather than a necessary evil, could be a place where the nation could come together as a community to serve the common  good and that it's not acceptable to leave anyone behind.

But what cemented my current party affiliation was what I began to understand about the Republican Party as an organization.  Dating back to Bob Haldeman and Chuck Colson in the Nixon White House, to Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr's Clinton witch hunt, to the Swift Boat Veterans for (cough) Truth, and finally to the utter inability of John McCain and Sarah Palin to tell the truth about anything and the inability of the Republican PR firm, Fox News, to make an intellectually honest argument rather than spew propaganda, I began to recognize a hardwired propensity for hypocrisy, outright dishonesty and dirty politics that went far beyond the typical level of spin one would expect from politics as usual.  The GOP had ceased to represent the honorable conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, hijacked by the religious right and lobbyists, ceasing to stand for anything but the quest for power at any price... P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores.  And the politicization of 9/11 and their own bungling of the Katrina disaster continues to be just galling.

The country needs these people to take a seat on the bench for a term or two while they figure out who they are trying to be, and I needed to get involved in making sure it happens.  I'm inspired by Obama as much as the next guy, and I do believe he has the ability to be one of our great Presidents- something I have never believed in any of the previous elections in which I have voted.  But as we explored our stories, I did come to realize that my motivation was much stronger on the side of defeating McCain, who I once admired and have come to loathe as much as I do his party at large.

So, we spent the entire session up until lunch time exploring our respective stories of self, on the premise that we all needed to truly understand what we were doing here in order to bring the message to others... a reasonable enough approach.  But that message took a strange form after lunch. 

Melissa explained the campaign's philosophy of respect:  respecting each other, those to whom we evangelize, even our opponents.  Mudslinging would not be tolerated.  So in the spirit of respecting even our opponent, the next hour of policy review was essentially an exercise in painting John McCain as the antichrist while avoiding saying the the name John McCain whenever possible.  The resonant dichotomy between McCain and the messianic Obama was working the crowd into a mild lather.  This was programming (with a healthy does of group self-congratulation), turning 150 volunteer organizers with varying command of the complexities of public policy into political Marines in 90 minutes. Semper Politicus.

What we began to see was a laundry list of the most extreme possible takes on everyone's positions.   And after each one, the applause in the room intensified.  This was becoming more pep rally than training session.  I didn't even know if we were cheering the mildly bastardized policies themselves or the participants' ham-handed attempts to elucidate them.

They only care about the rich.  (applause)

Barack Obama wants everyone to have health care and they don't.  (applause)

John McCain wants America to be in Iraq for 100 years.  (The crowd goes wild.)

Barack Obama will eliminate income taxes for seniors making under $50,000.

OK, this one is just what it is, but Chad wryly adds, "while John McCain will not rest until we have more seniors living in poverty!"

My favorite was one participant who referred to our "service economy" thusly:

90% of people serve the 10% with wealth.

Somewhere John Edwards smiled.

Before we got into the 45 minutes of actual training for the day, we were paid a surprise visit by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  Approximately the same age as Sarah Palin, Madigan is a true politician, and she delivered a motivational address at a blood-quickening pace in a style polished to such a sheen that you can see your reflection in it.

We are energized to get Barack Obama elected as the next President of the United States! 


Madigan then launched into what was essentially a stump speech for Obama.  She served in the State Senate with him, and touted his legislative accomplishments such as an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), ethics reform, and a crackdown on racial profiling which presumably forced the Highland Park police to stop pulling people over for Driving While Black... and he did this all within the constraints of a Republican-controlled state senate.  She called Obama a new Kennedy (hardly a novel comparison but somehow more impactful now) and "our friend", saying "you KNOW Barack Obama!"   I'm not sure what to make of this as I, like the vast majority of the thousands of people working around the country for him, have in fact never met the man.

You are following in Barack Obama's footsteps.  You are community organizers!



(Community organizer!!!!)

We're going to win Illinois...


... and Indiana...


... and Iowa...

(louder applause)

... and Michigan and Wisconsin!!!

(applause rising to a crescendo)

You are making history in the race of a lifetime!!!

(riotous applause)
All that was missing was Howard Dean screaming like a banshee.

So now that the room got a collective shot of adrenalin, it's time to get down to brass tacks.

It's easy to see how Obama's ground game has been so effective, and how the bean counters in his camp have tended to be a step ahead of even the best of political analysts on the national scene.

Volunteers, be they phone bankers or canvassers, fill out tally sheets of how many contacts they made on their lists, and each contact is rated 1-5 on the "Obameter".  1 is someone who is solidly in Obama's camp.  2 is someone leaning in Obama's direction.  3 is undecided.  4 is leaning towards McCain.  And 5 is a McCainiac.

As this data gets pushed back up through the field organization, the campaign gets a very detailed precinct-by-precinct readout on how well they are doing.  National pollsters do not get nearly this granular.

And this is where an enthusiasm gap can really make a difference.  It is easy to get sucked into the national media punditocracy and a handful of bluntly-measured polls and think you're actually getting the picture.  But an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, strategically and comprehensively organized, using classical approaches as well as sophisticated online social networking techniques to reach younger voters, can push those 3's to 2's, those 2's to 1's, and those 1's to being part of the corps of volunteers.  Hillary Clinton had name recognition coming in, but she didn't (or couldn't) build this kind of ground organization and discovered the internet in February.  John McCain doesn't have the means to build such a ground organization, and despite inventing the Blackberry, can't even use a computer.    So the result is the Obama campaign not only getting hands-on in influencing people, but they also have a more comprehensive view of how well they're doing and thus can get much more strategic on the allocation of resources.

Of course, as this was all explained, I wondered aloud if perhaps the most strategic approach with the 4's might not be to encourage them to vote for Bob Barr.  Just as anti-establishment votes that went to Ralph Nader in 2004 were virtual votes for George Bush because they were votes that would have otherwise gone to John Kerry, a vote for Bob Barr in 2008 is a conservative vote siphoned right out of McCain's tank.  It seems to me like it would be easier to convince a McCain lean to vote for Barr than to come over to the, ahem, dark side.

I got nowhere with this.  I'll try again tomorrow.

We closed out the day with the actual mechanics of organizing a canvass or running a phone bank... mostly common sense, but at least getting everyone on the same page.

Before we broke, we got a visit from US Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL 7th), who gruffly and inarticulately commended us all for getting involved, bragged about how great the politics are in his district (given the history of Chicago politics, I'm not sure if this is a good thing), and generally displayed slightly less polish the the remnants of a 1977 Ford Pinto in a red state back yard.

I don't know what I think of any of this yet, but I do like not having to take Chuck Todd's word for it.

See you tomorrow,


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