OFA and Democrats.org in 2010 – What Could Have Been

After President Obama was elected in 2008, I had the highest hopes for OFA and Democrats.org. They talked a big game about using these organizing tools to help enact the Democratic agenda. And they were right – If Democrats could harness the technology that helped the President’s revolutionary campaign and modify it to work at the state and local levels, we’d have a set of tools to help us win future elections and build a sustainable political movement dedicated to helping the middle class.

Imagine the innovative tools from Obama 2008 being brought to campaigns of every level. Revolutionizing phone-banking, outreach, engagement, etc. Of course, they didn’t do that, and instead the technology and organizing tools stayed dormant while we got trounced in the 2010 midterms. Here are a few things that could have made a difference:

Centralized supporter database. Democrats.org could have become the hub of activity for millions of party supporters across the country and connected them with local candidates. It should have been as easy as a user saying “Yes, I support Dem Candidate X” to opt-in and receive local information. And for volunteers, as easy as “Send Dem Candidate X my information and what I’m good at,” which would send the campaign a list of activities that the volunteer likes best and is most effective at, based on the info on MyBarackObama. Over time, we’d have very robust profiles of our best volunteers and supporters.

Standardized local canvassing tools. We re-invent the wheel every year on this front. Are you using paper lists, spreadsheets, etc? Whose maps are you using? Which walk-lists are most effective? This is data we KNOW, and the parts we don’t know can be created and standardized for future efforts. Why shouldn’t a local mayoral or statehouse candidate have access to the same data as a congressional candidate? Why shouldn’t a congressional candidate have access to the same data as a Senate candidate? When we fracture, we fail.

Social media and information distribution tools. The Obama campaign was incredibly smart about using text messaging to reach out and excite supporters at key times during the campaign, drawing them back to the website and increasing participation. That’s a really tough thing for a local campaign to do for various reasons. It could have been huge in educating people about their local congressional candidates in 2010.

Fundraising. If you’ve read some of my other work, you know I think that technology will cause a tipping point that makes organizing more important than fundraising, but I’d be a fool to say it’s not important. It’s still vitally important, and standardizing it can help campaigns raise more money.

Enhanced engagement mechanics and reward strategy. MyBO was revolutionary in large part because it significantly lowered the barriers to participation. You didn’t have to know your local precinct captain or party chairman – you just had to sign on and see what you could do to help. It encouraged you to get to know them, but it also gave you feedback and challenged you to do more to help the campaign. Every campaign I can think of could benefit from that, and could have helped us be better organized in 2010.

Election Day GOTV. Who is most likely to vote? How can we convince them to do so? Can we give them a ride (for seniors and the disabled)? Can we get people to tell us when they vote so we don’t focus effort on them? Again, all things campaigns unequivocally want to know and act on, but rebuild from the ground up every year.

Shared services and tools reduce operational burdens and allow campaigns to focus on what they are best at. Data has become cheap to collect, analyze, and reuse. Some creativity could have revolutionized the Democratic Party in 2010, and possibly changed some election outcomes.

But instead what we got was a voter drive and a generic site about how voting is important. It was a huge disappointment to me and many other digital campaign/new media professionals. Will 2012 be any different? How can we look beyond that and see the potential of a sustained effort to excited our supporters and keep them involved?

The implications couldn’t be more vital to our party and our beliefs. Technology and online organizing aren’t exclusive to Democrats, and if we lose our lead, we’ll start losing elections as well.

6 thoughts on “OFA and Democrats.org in 2010 – What Could Have Been

  1. Greg,

    I was quite disappointed in what happened with OFA and the infrastructure that was built during the Obama ’08 campaign. I truly felt that the Obama organization had built an organization that had the ability to communicate with citizens, engage them, and to bounce off from a moment when engagement and activism were at an all time high.

    Unfortunately, that was never the case. I’ve been an organizer for the last 10 years, easy….putting together rallies or events focusing on homelessness, housing, health care, and other things. And, the fact that some of the greatest organizing tools in history were allowed to wither and go unused was just perplexing to me.

    But, I do think that as progressives and liberals, we can take a couple of huge lessons from 2008, 2010, and all of the years prior:

    1. Effective organizing can’t be the sole purvey of a party. The Democrats have proven, as an organization, to be extremely ineffective at any number of things, maintaining a message platform that they are able to motivate and engage is just one of them. So the opportunity is there for someone to step in and come up with a platform that can instigate and engage all of the various constituencies and/or can be a one stop shop that allows for a bit more consistency of activism and messaging.

    2. If a void in messaging exists, that void will be filled by people’s fears and anxiety. So don’t allow a void to exist if you can, maintain a communication platform that actively makes supporters feel engaged and lets them know ways that they can voice their concerns, participate and engage. This would go a long way to helping fill any void.

    3. It is still vital to have a grassroots that never rests. As we have seen repeatedly, the grassroots are the ones that get people elected, and as soon as they aren’t fully engaged, its back to business as usual for most Democrats as they return to rolling around with the bankers, big businesses, and other pocket padders.

    That’s really all I’ve got on the topic of organization and the Democrats today.

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    1. I’m with you on this. I think this contributed a great deal to our losses in 2010. We could have taken those tools, spent some time and money expanding them, and given our congressional candidates something GREAT to work with, but didn’t.

      I also agree that this doesn’t necessarily need to be, and maybe shouldn’t be, the purview of the party. The reason I think it *should* be is that campaigns are even more ephemeral, while the party remains. That said, party leadership and priorities change, and that’s dangerous when looking at this sort of thing.

      From an external perspective, how do you structure making/maintaining these tools and data in a way that isn’t seeking to be a super-profitable entity? That’s an important point, as I’ve seen lots of people and tools go down because they took large investments and essentially sold out.

      I’ve been pondering that question for years.

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  2. I think each one of these is a good, straightforward, concise idea and I hope to see them implemented.

    Constructive (or in some cases, not so constructive) criticism of the interface between people and information systems could be an entire subgenre of the blogosphere. However, a lot of times these critiques, while thoughtful, don’t recognize the reality that sometimes an interface — be it a webpage layout or an e-ticket or whatever — is ugly or of limited usefulness not because of a lack of care or insight by the provider, but due to limits of technology or legal issues. The guy who complained about American Airlines’ website sucking got a thoughtful response from a site maintainer pointing out how the difficulty in changing the look of the site wasn’t a lack of creativity but the amount of institutional inertia and un-related corporate fiefdoms responsible for the site’s content. When I retweeted a blogpost recommended by none other than Erik Spiekermann on how the NYT should refactor its paywalled content, their senior software architect tweeted back, mentioning potential content-licensing issues.

    Not having ever worked for a campaign or party apparatus, I have no idea as to how much of these sort of hidden issues would actually exist. But I have the feeling that they wouldn’t nearly be as staggering to innovation as they would be for a business with similar levels public exposure. And, as Dave points out, it doesn’t even have to be the party apparatus that is doing this, so that’s even fewer hurdles!

    Although, if as an organization the Democrats are failing to “motivate and engage”, and someone else must step in, then that someone else ought to start calling itself the Democratic Party instead, since that should be the core competency of a political party as far as I’m concerned.

    But back to the point: who is the person that will actualize these ideas? Whoever he is or she is, that person is out there. Maybe it’s you!

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    1. I’ve been in a lot of situations where it wasn’t the web/communications team that was holding back progress. It usually is the more entrenched departments who, rightly or not, see technological progress as scary and as a threat to their power/livelihood. So the issues you mentioned definitely exist.

      The biggest hurdle to something like this, like it or not, is money. That’s why I’ve been singling out big campaigns, movements, and the Democratic Party. Because I’ve been there and watched this stuff for years, and it’s not the type of thing that I expect will be built by a startup team, mostly because it would be tough to get a large enough adoption by users to make it worthwhile.

      (PS I’d love to read that blog post about the Times if you can find it.)

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  3. Would it be off the subject here if I brought up messaging and message control? If so, bear with me for a moment because I think it streamlines into the topic at hand.

    I am an author and political blogger, and one of the things that has driven me mad for the past 20 years or more is the ability of the Republican Party to seize the headlines, stake out the agenda for a day, week, or even legislative session–and send the Democrats into a defensive crouch. First with talk radio in the ’90’s, then with Fox News this past decade, now combined with Internet bloggers and websites, they spell out the meme for each day and the rallying cry goes out to the Party faithful, who raise it to a fevered pitch. It gets picked up by a compliant media, and then you have “Death Panels.”

    Now, granted, conservatives do tend to march in lock-step, and Democrats are known for their diversity of thought as well as Party make-up, but honestly, for a Party that values thoughtful debate and good ideas, why IS it that they cannot seem to control message, in the media or anywhere else?

    My point is that I don’t see why text-messaging, for instance–as well as e-mail–could not be used to alert volunteers as to the direction the campaign wishes to go, and we bloggers can take up the cry, phone volunteers can repeat it when questioned, and so on. What I’m saying is that these outstanding organizing tools could also be used to streamline and forcefully repeat our own ideas AHEAD of whatever sludge is getting peddled on their side.

    I am really ready for Democrats to seize the message dominance and put the Republicans on the defensive, especially considering the damaging budget votes they’ve got on the record re Medicare, Social Security, and so forth.

    Deanie Mills

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