Field Operations are Still Key in the Land of Big Data

National Politics Organizing

maxresdefaultNew Orleans     Sitting around a barbeque grill in Missoula, Montana recently,  I found myself in a mini-debate with a former political science professor at the University there who taught Jim Messina, a former Obama campaign manager and master political consultant. My friend’s position echoed Messina’s own post-election spin about bad political polling, arguing that “Cameron was the only one who wasn’t surprised at the election results.” I took the position, based on discussions with ACORN United Kingdom organizers throughout the country who were in the streets organizing in the communities of Bristol, London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Birmingham that the extent of conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s victory might have been a surprise, but from listening to our organizers on the ground, the fact that he won over the Labour Party candidate was predictable.

My friend’s point was that the campaign mechanics had gone past “big data” allowing micro-targeting to the level that in his words the Conservatives “could count the individual votes.” My point, held with equal stubbornness undoubtedly, was that field work still mattered the most and that no one trusted polling anymore anyway. Outside of the range of the barbeque’s heat the debate is really one where there is little difference in the distinction. I would agree that the tech side of political campaigning is now off-the-chain as it has advanced over the last decade, and my friend would probably agree that the field programs have as well. Our real argument might have been how in the world could we reconcile Jim Messina, long known and admired by both of us, working for David Cameron?!?

Reading reports of the early work in Iowa, the field is still the trigger there. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 47 paid organizers already on the ground and is recruiting up to 7000 volunteers to work the caucuses more than a year away. Senator Bernie Sanders’ effort isn’t slouching on the field front either,  claiming 33 paid staff and 10 field offices. Those are small organizing armies!

Many of the organizers in both campaigns are veterans of the Obama campaigns. It is worth noting that the campaign manager for the Clinton machine is Robby Mook, who, according to the New York Times “rose through the ranks of field organizing, which has revolutionized modern campaigns.” Wish I had that quote with me in Montana!

Part of the new volunteer field methodology Mook drew from “organizing techniques of labor groups like the United Farm Workers,” according to the Times. Much of this seems to focus on the work of volunteers, using them to recruit other volunteers, and now in the Clinton campaign promoting some of the volunteers as “engagement directors” who develop the “internal organization” or “’captains’ who oversee specific tasks like canvassing.” Of course all of this is coupled with digital technology, both counting and targeting. And, of course none of this really sounds all that novel or unique, and most of it sounds like the reporter was being spun by the campaign. Other reports have already quoted Marshall Ganz, a UFW veteran, essentially prospecting for work, and we’ll be reading about “relational” organizing soon I’ll bet as well.

All of which is important for sure, but the classroom and the computer are still no substitute for hitting the doors and doing the work on the ground. Heck, the candidates – and the issues — even turn out to be important still in campaigns, which is worth remembering, too.