Obama’s Grassroots Ground Game
Community organizing experience fuels his presidential campaign
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s path to the White House is being created out of his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, a nontraditional route to power that harnesses the grassroots, empowers individuals to find their strengths and builds communities around attainable goals.
Obama developed this presidential campaign strategy long before the first vote was cast in the Iowa caucus in December, which he won handily thanks to his committed, organized volunteers. In fact, his decisive win in Wisconsin’s
Feb. 19 primary, where he beat Sen. Hillary Clinton 58%-41% in a state
long friendly to the Clintons, was grounded in his year-long,
volunteer-based presence in Milwaukee built on general community
The victory in Wisconsin helped Obama to secure the nomination and prove that he could compete in supposed Clinton strongholds. In April 2007, Obama spoke to a crowd of supporters at the Milwaukee Theatre, an event that made headlines for his comments about the then-recent shooting at Virginia Tech.
But more important for his campaign was the attendance of 4,000 Milwaukeeans who paid a modest $25 each to hear Obama; high-profile endorsements from Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and other civic leaders; and the meeting of Obama and Gov. Jim Doyle for the first time at a private event. Doyle later endorsed Obama and became an enthusiastic supporter.
Tangibly, the fledgling Obama campaign raised $250,000 at the Milwaukee events, built a network of solid supporters at a time when the New York senator was thought to be the inevitable nominee. “And they did it all with volunteers,” said Paul Schmitz, a volunteer leader with the campaign.
The Ground Game
Flash-forward a year and Obama is the likely Democratic nominee who could take the White House with a strategy rooted in community organizing principles, something that hasn’t been done in recent history. Instead of relying on to-the-limit donations from wealthy party insiders and appealing to the Democratic base in safely Democratic states, Obama’s campaign is applying classic organizing methods to a national presidential campaign.
Empowering individuals—the grassroots—to act for the greater good Mobilizing large numbers of people to challenge entrenched, moneyed interests Identifying leaders in communities and the talents of those who are often overlooked Aiming for a concrete goal instead of just “fighting the good fight” Finding issues of consensus to build a majority coalition that can work together on important issues Sharlen Moore, co-founder of Urban Underground, said that community organizers are able to network creatively and stretch their limited funds and resources to achieve their larger goals.
“We do a lot with very little,” she said. Like the Obama campaign, Urban Underground finds youth leaders via social networking sites, word of mouth and in other organizations and schools. Moore said she isn’t surprised that young people are so engaged in this year’s presidential campaign.
“It’s absolutely a result of the grassroots efforts,” Moore said. “And young people are looking for something different that appeals to their concerns about their future.” Jeff Eagan, former executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said that personal relationships are at the heart of any successful community-based effort, something Obama has done so well in small towns and large urban areas around the country by generating enthusiasm and encouraging new voters to get involved. Going negative and only appealing to the elite just isn’t Obama’s style, Eagan said.
“Community organizing is all about building relationships and developing leaders so that average people can have the capacity to do great things,” Eagan said.
Larry Marx, also a former executive director Citizen Action of Wisconsin,
said Obama’s intensely local focus during the primaries will serve him
well the general election campaign. The long primary fight between
Obama and Clinton provided Obama with opportunity to build a campaign
structure in all states, an important goal for Democratic Party Chair
“Even in states Obama lost, he has a grassroots network from the primaries,” Marx said. “And he’s done that in state after state.” Schmitz, who worked at Public Allies in the early 1990s with both Barack and Michelle Obama, said that all Obama supporters—even those in solidly Republican states—are important to the campaign.
“He is not ceding anything,” Schmitz said. “He doesn’t believe in red or blue. He wants the 40% people who vote for him in Idaho to feel engaged and empowered, and we hope that we get 50%.” Eagan said this inclusive philosophy allows Obama to challenge likely Republican nominee John McCain in Republican states—such as Alaska—and areas Wisconsin, such as the Fox Valley, where he can appeal to the concerns of moderates and independents.
“His campaign went well beyond the traditional sources of strength for Democrats in Wisconsin,” Eagan said. “There are huge numbers of working people who can make a difference if you mobilize them. His campaign knows the turf well, and didn’t just parachute in before the election.”
Obama is shifting his ground game from winning Democratic primaries to running against McCain, he’s still building on his community organizing background. The campaign just trained 3,600 volunteer leaders one day who will work in 17 states—including Wisconsin—this summer. The campaign selected these leaders as part of its “Obama Organizing Fellowships,” which drew more than 10,000 applicants who were willing to devote six weeks to building grassroots support for Obama’s candidacy. An estimated 120 will grounded in Wisconsin, with 20 in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee office will open shortly.
The McCain camp has attempted to build a “Citizens for McCain” coalition of Reagan Democrats and Clinton supporters, but the effort has paled in comparison to Obama’s grassroots efforts. McCain has resorted to speaking to the party faithful in small, tightly controlled town hall meetings to shore up Republican voting base.
Observers are predicting various ways that Obama’s grassroots network can be engaged if it achieves ultimate goal and sends Obama to the White House. Eagan said Obama can mobilize his individual supporters to help push for solutions to difficult problems—such as health care reform, the struggling economy, ending the war and addressing climate change— and to put pressure on legislators who are dragging their feet.
“You will see him work very hard to build a majority,” Eagan predicted. “We may not get everything want, but we can move toward a goal by taking incremental steps.” Marx warned that a grassroots effort that’s organized to elect Obama must stay involved in the political process even after the election.
“My hope is that all of the new voters who have gotten involved will stay involved,” Marx said. What’s your take? Write: email@example.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.