All Praise the Field Campaign, Few Practice It!

New Orleans   In recent years genuflecting in the direction of the “ground war” in politics has become almost routine. Sadly, much like other religions and church attendance, a whole lot more people praise field operations as critical to winning elections, than actually walk the talk and put the program in practice. As more and more of this activist moment is focused on electoral work, it’s worth reprising lessons learned and ignored.

We’ve talked before about the uphill push that Becky Bond and Zack Exley described in their book, Rules for Revolutionaries, as they tried to get support for their field-and-phone program within the Sanders Campaign. This issue of Social Policy in the mail features a piece by Peter Haberfeld called “The Sanders Campaign: Notes from Inside Out on a Local Campaign.” He also details the tensions between campaign directors and the experienced grassroots folks in the Berkeley and Oakland area that were trying to emphasize the ground game to deliver for Sanders. They often felt the web-attention was gobbling up their strategy. Both sets of campaigns describe having to virtually go rogue in order to get the job done. Bond and Exley saw much of the millions that was spent by the Sanders Campaign the same as pouring money down a rat hole. A close look at the Clinton-Trump contest certainly shows that Trump was all-media-all-the-time, but it was also clear that Clinton could not duplicate the Obama ground game of 2008 and 2012.

All of this came rushing back at me when I opened an email from Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, sending a somewhat dated piece, two-and-a-half years old by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla who were then graduate students in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley writing in Vox. I read the piece with fresh eyes, partially because then ACORN was new to Scotland and late to the dance on the independence election, but Broockman and Kalla hit the nail on the head in pulling back the covers on the reality of the field program, where many of our leaders and organizers volunteered, and many other programs pointing out that the “arms” race to record “knocks” was obscuring the importance of non-scripted, quality conversations with voters by the doorknocking canvassers.

They cite the now famous study several decades ago by Alan Gerber and Don Green in 1998.

The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing. The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points). The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

Of course this is not as simple as “add water and stir.” Green points that out himself:

But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many “field” campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects “smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN.” But, Green went on to say, “When I’d inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision.”

So, yes, as Bond and Exley argue, with the right kind of volunteer base and training, it is physically possible to get past micro-targeting and “hit every door,” if that is the campaign plan, but it will still require people who have been to the rodeo and know how to ride.

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Action Groups are Also Seizing the Moment

actiongroup.net

New Orleans   A chain of emails and phone calls found me walking into a late Sunday afternoon meetup at a community center in New Orleans on the edge of the French Quarter. I wasn’t there to attend the group but to visit briefly with its organizer, Beau Willimon, best known currently as the writer and one of the showrunners for the dark Netflix political hit show, “House of Cards” before he ran for a plane.

Let me step back a minute, because this is an interesting story that underlines this delicate but exciting political moment. Before “House of Cards” and other works as a playwright, Willimon was a card carrying member for various political campaigns on the regular cycles. He worked on a Schumer re-elect campaign in New York. He worked in New Hampshire and several Midwestern states before the Howard Dean shout out and unraveling. He was here and there before jumping off the bus and heading for the stage.

He didn’t get a brain transplant though, so like so many others, the top of his head also exploded after the Trump election became part of everyone’s reality show. He unleashed a series of tweets to his 40,000 Twitter followers that something needed to be done, and having been part of actually doing the work in the past, he connected with others, and started to get serious about making something – hey, just about anything – happening on the spur of the moment. At least that’s the upshot of the story as it came to me as we strolled along the back streets of the French Quarter, while Beau tugged at a cup of gas station coffee we had gotten across from the community center.

The result of all of that has been meetings, both small and large, like the one I observed in its final minutes in New Orleans all of which at this point have been loosely connected and supported by a platform Beau and his allies created called the Action Group Network. The organizing model is very, very straightforward and simple much of which is built on the premise of “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” but most importantly tapping the anger that is America now and using the web platform to throw a big net out in communities throughout the country working with their website signup list and a few organizational allies, organizing meetups, and then letting the participants take the action groups, either collectively or with others they have met there, who want to join their thing with someone else doing their own thing, and make something happen. Beau has put together a small staff to operate in six regions and support the operation. The meeting in New Orleans was last minute but the 20-odd folks didn’t mind. A meeting in Oxford, Mississippi had had 200. The website counts various levels of activity in 22 states with big pockets in California and New York, not surprisingly. Beau claimed there was really something in 15 states, but is hoping for the Action Group Network to be in all 50 states by the end of the year.

Where is it all going? Hard to tell now, but the threshold for entry is very low in order to try to make something happen. If what I heard was any barometer, a core of the interest is focused on efforts like that of Indivisible and others focused on 2018 and beyond, but others were trying to connect on a wide range of issues from choice to fracking to voting rights to disability access. From talking to Beau, it’s clear the door is wide open for any and all that want to get involved and see if they can find others with a similar interest, and it’s as easy as hitting www.actiongroups.net on your web browser and clicking on JOIN, and seeing what happens next.

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Membership Proves the Value of Strong Links

New Orleans   In this moment of social network ascendancy we are being bombarded by the presumed power of even the flimsiest connections. We are asked to click a “like,” retweet a comment, get linked to various networks, hit a button for a petition, and forward an email to someone or another.  Buy something on a site, and you’re asked to trumpet it on social media presumably so your purchase for whatever reason might act as a shiny lure attracting someone you know well or marginally in their own life stream.  Meanwhile all of these actions, large or small, are packaged and sold by sundry companies trying to chart the path of our digital footprints from all of these transactions.

Decades ago my friend and colleague, Joel Rogers, professor of almost everything at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, introduced me to the political theory that focused on the strength of weak links.  I had been marveling at the way the almost tiny central body of the AFL-CIO in the smallish Plains and Panhandle city of Amarillo, Texas, was still able to speak for the working class there while commanding some capacity and political voice despite their small membership and distance, if not estrangement, from the rest of organized labor in the state and nation.  They had weak links indeed, but as the active and legitimized voice of labor, they also had strength.

The strength of weak links has always been my touchstone in understanding the influence and perhaps the power of social networks.  In the absence and alienation of other ties, these links, no matter how fragile, perform with some level of strength.

When it comes to organization though we are now more often mobilized rather than organized.  The meaning of membership even begins to be increasingly diluted in many organizations as variable donations distort the meaning of membership dues in the eyes of some organizers and activists.

All of this came to mind as I quickly flipped through the local newspaper.  While breezing through the final pages of the first section without even reading the obituaries that now find their home there, something caught my eye, long trained in an almost Pavlovian way to see  the word, “ACORN,” whenever it crops up. I stopped and focused, and, sure enough, there it was in the obit of Lemealue Lewis Robinson, celebrating her long life and mourning her passing, her family, her many activities, her church, and then in a separate paragraph saying,

“Mrs. Robinson was also a member of Louisiana ACORN (Association of  Community Organizations for Reform Now), and a helpful neighbor, seeking to encourage and assist anyone who wanted to better their situation.”

This isn’t unusual either. It shows up on my Google alerts regularly, and a month doesn’t pass by in my hometown without such a mention.  All of this serves as a reminder of the importance of ACORN in the lives of our members and more significantly the immense value of their membership to them personally as part of the highlight reel of their lives. What few understand, or perhaps resist, is coming to grips with the unique strength that an organization forges with strong ties, rather than weak ones. Maybe some leaders and organizers are intimidated about building this level of loyalty and the accountability and stewardship it demands, when the attachment and dedicated of the members goes from shallow to substantive and profound? I don’t know? I do know it’s hard to build, but I also know once those links are welded like steel, the strength those ties create surpass pushing back to allow us all to forge forward.

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Gorsuch, Like Mother, Like Son?

The chemical plant responsible for the Love Canal problem is the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, in this aerial view, which dumped toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood from 1940 until 1950 and which was investigated and exposed in 1980.

New Orleans   All heck seemed to be breaking loose in Washington. The FBI says they were investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and that there is no evidence that the Trump claim that Obama tapped his phones is true. In another hearing room, Neil Gorsuch, was being queried about a job as a Supreme Court Justice, and claiming he was “above politics.”

More disturbing to me in some ways was reading a piece in High Country News reprising his mother’s controversial stint and resignation as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Ronald Reagan. Her mission at the EPA was search-and-destroy, much like that of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who has sued the agency more than a dozen times and is now the newly confirmed department secretary. Both of them have beaten the drums on department overreach and the need to cut the budget and the staff and push more regulation – or lack of it – back to the states. Pruitt reportedly has already had to learn to be careful what he asked for and scurried, unsuccessfully, over to the White House to see if he could limit the budget reduction at the EPA to only a billion bucks, down to $7 billion. The White House instead responded by taking the EPA number down to $5.7 billion.

Anne Gorsuch Burford had been a firebrand Republican Colorado state senator before being raised up to a post in Washington to try and dismantle the EPA. Reading the article it all floods back in the memory of the hard times of the 1980s under Reagan. Gorsuch Burford was the administrator of the Superfund program, created by the EPA and Congress in the wake of the Love Canal, which, as many remember, was built to devastating effect on top of toxic wastes. Gorsuch Burford’s administrative under reach was her undoing. As High Country News reported:

“At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana…Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up underground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for underground waste. Accusations of mismanagement let to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shedding documents related to Superfund probes…Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigation. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge.”

Neil Gorsuch has been reported as upset and confused by his mother’s resignation as a teen, and arguing for her to stand and fight. Judge Gorsuch has also been noted for his decisions pushing against the so-called “administrative state,” where agencies have acted to interpret Congressional actions in accord with their regulatory authority, as well as his closeness to corporations and their interests.

None of these judicial nominees do much besides dancing at hearings of the Judiciary Committee, and certainly the anger of child is not the same as the maturity of an adult, but nonetheless it’s unsettling still because the child is still father to the man, and there are too many payback coincidences in Judge Gorsuch’s current views that seem to flow directly from those seminal experiences in the 1980s. He may have learned how to get along better than his mother, but the views seem a little too close for comfort to me.

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Where are the Citizen and Patient Protests to Protect Affordable Care?

New Orleans   In the activist moment with cries for resistance, I wonder why the healthcare issue is being left behind by many, as well as the current Obamacare beneficiaries, and why we are not all massing in protest at the threats and head fake proposals to replace care?

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m aware of the moving stories at some of the Congressional town hall meetings where some of the sick and infirm along with others have asked their electeds the hard, life-or-death questions, involved in eliminating healthcare insurance. I know the risks to the Affordable Care Act and the fear it has stirred has increased support for the Act past 50% in the polls. I know the Koch Brothers are trying to rekindle their grasstips base to demand repeal or else. I know the Freedom Caucus, concerned Republicans, and others are pointing out the costs and naked emperor-has-no-clothes aspects of Speaker Paul Ryan’s so-called secret plan demonstrating their divisions. I know the President has discovered that health care is complex. I know various sides, pro and con, are on the airwaves with video and sound bites.

What I don’t know is why we aren’t seeing people in motion in serious numbers?

With more than 20 million people on Obamacare and many of them on the highly threatened expanded Medicaid coverage the ACA triggered, that would seem a big and bad base ready for action. If our neighbors and friends in this group are just scared and confused, how about the many millions in schoolhouse door states that stubbornly refused to expand care, take Texas for example? Or, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin? Don’t tell me there aren’t millions in that number caught in the gap between low income qualification and not enough income to afford insurance. And, how about all of the service workers in nursing homes, home care, food service and elsewhere with company provided play pretend policies with $5000 and more deductibles who want reform so that they can finally have coverage?

Don’t tell me there are not millions mad and desperate for care?

Where is the campaign that moves people state to state in this fight, like the effort that helped win the fight in the first place? Where are the community organizations that are listening to their members and making this the issue they are moving on right now?

Is the issue too complex as Trump claims? The tactics are numerous, so are the targets the problem? Sure the distance is huge between us and DC, both physically and philosophically, but how about state legislators and governors, those are closer, and every report seems to say, governors are on their knees begging the White House not to cut and run on Obamacare, dumping the problem to them without enough money to fix it. How about hospitals? If we start hitting them hard on charity care that they are supposed to be providing, but aren’t and their tax exemptions, maybe they would get in gear. A couple of thousands of them according to IRS reports are making more than a million a year, so they might move to the feet and voices of patients’ protests and demands?

The problem with resistance is that it’s reactive. We need offense, not just defense. We need it now before our weaknesses devour our strengths.

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Fighting to Save Political Parties Out of Sorts with the Base

Edinburgh  Eating curry last night with leaders and organizers of ACORN in Scotland, once the usual questions about Trump were quickly exhausted, one veteran activist asked what Senator Bernie Sanders, last year’s surprisingly successful Presidential candidate, was up to and whether he was gaining ground and credibility in the current chaos. It was a good question, and my answer was that the best I knew his people where focused more on positioning in the Democratic Party than the larger issues. I told the ridiculous story of some moderate Democrats trying to convince Sanders to call off the dogs and make sure that town hall protestors only attacked Republicans, as if Sanders was pulling any strings at all in the activist moment. I found that notion among conservative Democrats as bizarre as the Republican conservative claim that poor old George Soros is paying demonstrators these days to voice their outrage.

Turns out I was either lucky or timely in my observation. Almost as soon as I logged on to the news I stumbled into a story reporting that Sanders’ operatives had been scoring some significant wins in Democratic inner party elections.

In California, supporters of the 2016 presidential contender, Barry Sanders, packed the obscure party meetings that chose delegates to the state Democratic convention, with Sanders backers grabbing more than half the slots available. They swept to power in Washington State at the Democratic state central committee, ousting a party chairman and installing one of their own in his place. Sanders acolytes have seized control of state parties in Hawaii and Nebraska and won posts throughout the party structure from coast to coast.

Presumably the agenda is to move the party in a more solidly progressive direction.

Observers in several papers noted that as miserable as the 2018 midterm elections look for the Democratic Party’s shot at control of the Senate, there’s an arguable path to pick up 24 seats in the House by targeting districts either won by Hillary Clinton by stout margins or where the demographics are heavily weighted with educated white and general Hispanic voters. Polls indicate that Trump’s slide steep has accelerated in both camps. There are fewer districts that Sanders won last year though, so that crossover is uncertain.

Others might argue that you have to be careful what you wish for though without a deeper strategy to engage the base. The Labour Party’s predicament in the United Kingdom is a case study here. Having moved in a more progressive direction as the left took control of internal elections without a program effectively responding to the working class base, right leaning pro-Brexit forces are cleaning their clock. By-elections in hard core Labour districts that they have held for more than 30 years are being watched closely to see if the party can even survive.

Sanders in some ways is well-positioned internally since Clinton is not part of the picture and a more moderate Democratic Party leader has not emerged.

Is it a winning strategy? That’s another question for sure. No lucky guesses will count on that one.

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