Broadening the Field

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 10/12/06

Part IV of a five-part series on the history and future of the blogosphere.

Matt Stoller (who apparently is a major subject of this series, though I didn’t plan it that way at all) thinks it’s time bloggers got into field organizing, and he’s got lots of ideas about how to do it.

Where are [blogs] weakest?  I would argue that our understanding of field and our ability to discuss it are lacking.  Rather than seeking to go after new voters, we discuss messaging.  I don’t think that’s bad, in fact I think new messaging and new voting pools are tied together.  But we also have to discuss new pools of voters to tap, and ways to tap them.

Over the next few years, the blogosphere will to change the dialogue even more than it already has.  My guess is that voter registration and mobilization is going to move (at least partially) online, and whole new segments of voters will respond to different messaging in somewhat unpredictable ways.  And yes, I’ve been playing around with Facebook and MySpace a lot over the past six months.  As game changing new tools, they are going to alter field programs as much as youtube has changed the medium of video and blogs have changed print.

We should get familiar with field.  There are many ways to do so, of course.  You can go phone-bank, you can canvass, and you can poll-watch.  On election day, I recommend that if you’re not heavily involved in an existing campaign that you become an actual poll worker.  You can sign up at Pollworkers for Democracy.  What I saw in the Donna Edwards campaign was a total lack of competence and ability in the Maryland Board of Elections, and I imagine that’s true across the country.

I know next to nothing about field, so I won’t presume to argue with Matt here; everything he suggests sounds good.  But I want to talk a little about the first time a candidate tried to organize a field operation through the blogs.

Anyone remember Joe Trippi?  The architect of the online Dean machine has kept a relatively low-profile since the campaign ended, writing a book and working for failed LA mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg and equally-failed DNC Chair candidate Simon Rosenberg.  But back in 2003, Trippi was responsible for two of the most unique political strategies of the new millennium.  I’m having a hard time finding the original links on Dean Nation, but this 2003 article by Baseline Magazine author Edward Cone explains things pretty well:

The Dean campaign has used the Meetup service on the Web to get local volunteers together. Campaign staffers set a meeting date and publicize it through email, list serves, and on the campaign’s weblog, called Blog for America.

Supporters then go to the Meetup page from a Dean web site (www.blogforamerica.com) and take matters into their own hands. Once they register, the volunteers choose a meeting location. They gather at the appointed time and place, with no Dean staff participation needed. Together they perform tasks suggested by headquarters, watch videos of the candidate sent by the campaign, and plot local tactics and strategy.

At one Nov. 4 Meetup event at the Green Bean coffee shop in Greensboro, NC, volunteer coordinator Abigail Seymour printed out Dean position statements from the Web and put them on tables at the back of the cafe. When volunteers showed up, they could easily review Dean’s latest policy stands as they went about the day’s work: writing personal letters to undecided voters in Iowa.

The Meetup software provided a rough headcount of expected attendees, so the Dean staff sent Seymour enough letter-writing kits to hand out as each volunteer arrived. The kits include stamps, sample letters and the name and address of an undecided Iowan that the Dean campaign hopes to sway. The campaign even sends along a box of ballpoint pens.

Simply put, Trippi’s strategy worked like this: 1) pull under the campaign umbrella the naturally-metastasizing phenomenon of Meetup, which provided an almost unending pool of volunteers; and 2) put these volunteers to work writing letters to undecided voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, creating a steady stream of free and almost surreptitious advertising that was hitting the most vulnerable voter targets in critical states.  Along with these points, Trippi interacted directly with bloggers at both the in-house campaign blog and Dean Nation, cross-posting inspirational and strategic posts and interacting with bloggers in comments.

Neither tactic worked.  In Arizona, where I was a co-founder of my local Meetup, the Clark team moved in six months before the primary with an official office and swamped us for a strong second-place showing.  The same thing happened in Iowa, where a lot of new voters brought into the caucuses by meetups seem to have been convinced by the more experienced and better-organized Kerry and Edwards camps to change their votes.  As for the letter-writing campaign, apparently Iowa and New Hampshire voters were merely offended at the idea that out-of-state voters would attempt to tell them how to vote.

But if Trippi failed in the particulars, his overall strategy was sound — and highly innovative.  By capitalizing on a movement that was already active when he found it, he created a sense of ownership for everyone who worked the campaign.  By giving every volunteer something concrete to do at every monthly meeting, he made them all feel needed by the campaign.  These two emotions — ownership and indispensability — turned the Dean candidacy into a bona fide popular movement and made its adherents into die-hard devotees.  You can’t buy the kind of loyalty Trippi got for free from these two simple techniques.

I don’t know how the blogs can be better used to help Democrats gain an edge on field operations, but I think further investigation is a worthy endeavor.  Matt’s right on this one — and if some of the real big shots would get in on the game and conduct some formal research on the matter, they would be well served.

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