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Obama Campaigners Work the Switchboards

Posted on Nov 18, 2007

Working the mike is one way Obama gets his message out; his team of supporters hitting the switchboards gives him an added boost.

By Bill Boyarsky

If Barack Obama beats Hillary Clinton and the others for the Democratic presidential nomination, a good portion of credit will go to the volunteers now making phone calls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, California and other places along the campaign trail.

Such a volunteer effort seems old-fashioned, a leftover from the 1960s and ‘70s.  The speed of the Internet, the power of bloggers and the constant presence of 24-hour television news are supposed to determine elections today.  The judgment of the media horde at a televised debate is considered more important than volunteers in a Los Angeles suburb.

If such judgments were the only measure of a campaign’s success, last weekend would have been grim for Obama.  The horde panned him for his performance Thursday night at the Las Vegas Democratic debate.  Clinton, ridiculed the week before, was reborn as the star.  Such media judgments are fed by the polls.’s compilation of surveys has Clinton leading nationally at 44 percent compared with Obama’s 22 percent. In New Hampshire, where the primary will be held Jan. 8, Clinton is leading Obama 34 percent to 24 percent, with John Edwards receiving 15 percent. In Iowa, which holds its caucuses Jan. 3, Clinton is leading only slightly.

The Obama campaign hopes to counter this with volunteerism, and nowhere is the effort more intense than in California, which holds its presidential primary Feb. 5.  There, winning candidates always favor mass advertising rather than grass-roots campaigning to reach a sprawling and diverse electorate.

Other campaigns have volunteers.  But none of the other candidates are as firmly rooted as Obama in the volunteer experience. In Chicago, he worked for a group trying to restore the economy of neighborhoods battered by steel plant closings.  America’s prototype community organizer, the late Saul Alinsky, was from Chicago, and the city is famous for its contributions to the art of bringing together poor and working-class people for political action. 


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In California, the effort to organize Obama volunteers is headed by Buffy Wicks, a veteran of anti-Wal-Mart and anti-war campaigns and Howard Dean’s run for the presidency. The overall national organizing chief is Marshall Ganz,  who was with Cesar Chavez in the farm workers’ union for many years and is something of a guru to young community organizers. The goal is to contact likely Obama voters, mostly by telephone.

Wicks told me that teams of eight or nine have been organized in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts.  Each team has someone in charge of volunteers, data and technical matters.  The congressional district teams are also putting together neighborhood teams.  “We have 100,000 activists in California, and this is our strength,” she said. Wicks and six to eight other paid staff members have trained volunteers in three-day “Camp Obama” sessions, where they learn how to make the phone calls. “You do this by training,” Wicks said, “train them to talk on message.”

The volunteers begin with people they know, building their own network of campaign workers. They also learn how to use the campaign’s sophisticated communications and data system.  The volunteers access a statewide databank for names to call.

Among the resources available to them are voter profiles assembled by a firm called Strategic Telemetry, run by Ken Strasma, whose work helped John Kerry carry the Iowa caucuses in 2004.  As Ryan Lizza describes it in the Nov. 26 New Yorker, “Strasma’s firm builds profiles of voters that include more than a thousand indicators, long strings of data—everything from income to education to pet ownership—that he calls ‘demographic DNA.’ ”

Technology also permits Wicks and other staff members to check on how many phone calls volunteers make.  This is designed to solve the old problem of volunteers promising to make calls and then running off and doing something else.  “Having accountability is very important,” Wicks said.  “We pull numbers every night. ... These are quantifiable numbers.  This is every call.”

I was skeptical as I listened to Wicks.  I told her I had written many stories about grass-roots volunteer efforts that failed to elect their candidate.  “Here they go again,” I thought.  I said I felt like Charlie Brown in the “Peanuts” comic strip trying once again to kick the football that Lucy always pulls away.

No, she assured me, this year is different.

I found a piece by Ganz on the TPM Café blog that explained why.

Recent elections, he said, “have been very, very close.  The most media-oriented of political consultants recognizes that in close elections, effective grass-roots mobilization can influence outcomes.  And when conducted by people with ties to one another—as opposed to bussed-in canvassers—it is more effective. The commitments people make to people with whom they maintain relationships are far more reliable than answers given to an anonymous caller, over the phone or in person.  This is especially true of the presidential primaries in small states like New Hampshire and caucus states like Iowa.”

Another change is the Internet and its ability to bring people together.  “In the last election, opportunity created by the Internet was only intermittently translated into action because there were few organizers,” Ganz wrote.  This time, perhaps it will be different.  The ranks of young organizers have increased.  Some are veterans of union organizing campaigns in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago and other urban centers.  Others learned the trade organizing poor and working-class people to fight city hall—just as Obama did.

It sounds good. The volunteers could make a difference in a close race.  But what if their candidate disappoints them in Iowa and New Hampshire in January?  It will be a challenge to keep them fired up for days and nights of making phone calls in the big states holding their primaries Feb. 5.

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By Margaret Currey, November 22, 2007 at 3:33 am Link to this comment
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When you look at the candidates Obama talks well as does Clinton but the person who would make a good president would be Kucinich the people have to overlook the fact that he is a small man, but he does not have a small mind.

Although as a woman I would like to see a woman as president, it would have to be the right person and I think that Ms. Clinton is too much for the rich not the middle class americans, Carter sent his daughter to public school.

The Democrat ticket is not yet Clinton/Obama or Clinton/Roberts as far as I am concerned.

Another good candidate would be Joe Biden but I wonder will he wear well with the public.

This contest is still much up in the air, and Democrats must elect the person who will beat the Republicians and do not forget that they still have Karl Rove, he might be out of the spotlight but he will do something for the Republicians.

In the meantime Bush still can do a lot of damage just look at him suporting a Dictator in the middle east.

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By bymyside, November 22, 2007 at 2:33 am Link to this comment
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By Matt Brennan, November 21, 2007 at 2:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Re: Douglas Chalmers
“Anyone who thinks Hillary will be co-opted into second position on demand are just insulting her.”

Hah!  How presumptuous!  I’m very much for Obama, and very much in favor of Hillary being as far away from the white house as possible.  It’s not a “childish either/or.”  You believe in a candidate who will change the ways of washington, or you prefer to continue with the broken system.  Hillary and Obama are entirely incompatible on a general election ticket.

And to the comments on electability, I don’t think anyone is capable of energizing the right side of this country like Hillary will energize them to come out and vote against her.  Oh, unless maybe it’s Obama, who’s had hundreds of Republicans in iowa change their registration to vote for him in the primary…

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 21, 2007 at 4:01 am Link to this comment

114765 by Hammo on 11/20 at 3:16 pm: “To me, Obama is a good candidate. However, in a general election, I am concerned that his inexperience, ethnicity and other factors might prevent him from beating a Republican candidate such as Mitt Romney or John McCain….”

This is the sad consequence of insisting on childish “either-or” options in politics. Ideally, Hillary AND Obama should occupy top positions…... but you can be sure that Hillary won’t be taking up a vice presidency under an inexperienced Obama.

Obama voters need to get that clear. Anyone who thinks Hillary will be co-opted into second position on demand are just insulting her.

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By Hammo, November 20, 2007 at 4:16 pm Link to this comment

To me, Obama is a good candidate. However, in a general election, I am concerned that his inexperience, ethnicity and other factors might prevent him from beating a Republican candidate such as Mitt Romney or John McCain.

It is possible that Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson or John Edwards might have a better chance of victory in the general election.

Thoughts on this in the article ...

“Democrats risk self-sabotage in presidential race ... again”
November 5, 2007

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 20, 2007 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment

#114735 by Sharon Ash on 11/20 at 10:45 am: “You just cannot place the bar too low for some of the voters, that was proven in 2000 and 2004,and we got W…... No wonder this country is going to hell in a hand basket.  Greed and ignorance rule supreme…!”

And this in the world’s greatest superpower. No wonder that empires inevitably crumble into dust. When in Rome, check out the Romans - you’ll soon see why they lost in the end, uhh.

There is no potential in pandering to the peasants. It requires REAL LEADERSHIP to make a country great. As you say, Sharon Ash, the alternative is a one-way path to disaster.

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By Sharon Ash, November 20, 2007 at 11:45 am Link to this comment
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If Obama wins Iowa that has to be good news for Kansas as we can change the question from What’s Wrong With Kansas?  to What’s Wrong With Iowa?  Oh, I know, Obama gives such great speeches.  Did anyone in Iowa listen to him in the debates when he was asked questions?  Apparently not.  You just cannot place the bar too low for some of the voters, that was proven in 2000 and 2004,and we got W.  Let’s see, that was because he looked good in boots and could say ‘preciate your vote and flash that smile. So of course, that made him qualified to be president!  No wonder this country is going to hell in a hand basket.  Greed and ignorance rule supreme!

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By UpChukker, November 20, 2007 at 10:06 am Link to this comment
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To me, Dennis Kucinich should be the next president. This little man is all heart and guts. He is unwavering in his desire to get us out of Iraq. When he is allowed to speak, he nails the fundamental problems with clear and decisive statements.

Although he received the least amount of time of any of the seven Democratic Presidential candidates during CNN’s sponsered debate—less than six minutes of the two hours—Dennis Kucinich made the most of it with crisp answers to questions about the war in Iraq, China Trade, the Patriot Act, the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear waste dump, and other issues.

He also drew an equally enthusiastic response when he said that the President and Vice President are “out of control, and Congress isn’t doing anything. It’s called impeachment and you don’t wait. You do it now. You don’t wait.”

We are all sick and tired of EXCUSES? Kucinich is a strong man and refuses to play a game of words with other candidates and congress. Are you the voter willing to continue with the killing field in Iraq? Can you sleep nights thinking about the next 4000 young men who may die in Iraq or Iran? We need a candidate who does not work to be clever or beautifully made-up. We need a candidate who has a commitment to stop the war in Iraq and says it out loud and often!

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By bg1, November 20, 2007 at 8:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why did Obama’s presidential campaign receive its earliest substantial donations from the same people who funded the Swift Boat attack ads against Kerry? (see See NYT’s story 3/7/07: Jared Abbruzzese – supporter of Swift Boats and Obama.
Could it be that Obama has no chance in the general elections and would be an easy candidate for the GOP to beat, at least by a hair, despite their current problems in the polls?

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 20, 2007 at 1:31 am Link to this comment

“...his team of supporters hitting the switchboards…”

They still have “switchboards” in the USA? Better sell your telcos to the Chinese, uhh!

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By Frank Cajon, November 19, 2007 at 9:37 pm Link to this comment

Many will vote for Obama if Clinton is the other option of course, but BOTH of these idiots want US troops in Iraq until 2013. The one, and ONLY,  advantage I see in these candidates over Herr Bush is that they do not appear to be mentally ill, like he does. They are otherwise Bush lite, and corporate-sponsored, militaristic, elitist ‘liberals’ who have willingly been complicit in the laundering of nearly a $ one trillion into fat cat pockets and Saudi bank accounts.
Too bad Kucinich winning the nomination won’t make any corporations rich or his ending the Iraq war won’t mean billions in extra profits for the companies that are getting $50 a roll for the toilet paper the GIs use and $100 to wash a load of their laundry. Or better yet, $1,200 a day to slaughter unarmed Iraqi women and children. A vote for either Obama or Clinton is a vote for 5 more years of that and the likely completion of the ruin of our economy so effectively begun by the fascist regime in power for the last 7 years. Why bother arguing which of these clowns will get the prize? The end result is the same…

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By Margaret Currey, November 19, 2007 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Back when Kerry got the nomination early on it was Dean that looked to get the nomination and things changed on a dime.

If nominated I will vote for Hillary but for some reason I like Obama he may be young but the uoung man has been around he lived in Hawaii and Chicago and elswhere he has a lot of experience for a young person and maybe he will get the nomination but he has to contend with the south and Mississippi is still Republician and a religious state and if those who vote vote for religion will probably go Republician,although who do they have Fred Thompson what will he do, Rudy is so much into his ego and if you talk to the firefighters of New York they will tell you about a man who had the command center at the World Trade Center that had been bombed in 93 that was smart.

The only person on the Republician side would be John McCain.  Mitt Romney will have religion against him of course it could be worse you know Obama’s name will be used against him, the Reps hate machine has not warmed up yet.

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By felicity, November 19, 2007 at 4:47 pm Link to this comment

I’m with you, HAZMAC

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By hazmaq, November 19, 2007 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment

This is a great piece but I would disagree with the part about Obama supporters losing their fire if he isn’t just the perfect storm, right now. Just the opposite will and is happening. 
As a true Democrat, a Leftist believing in the Democratic party principles as defined by the likes of Dean, Feingold and Gore, and past leaders like King and the Kennedys, I was more impressed with Obama NOT shooting his mouth off first and thinking later -as Clinton famously does.  He is tough, but thankfully NOT of the loudmouth ilk Wolf Blitzer and Fox and Lou Dobbs represent.
We’ve all grown too accustomed to the game show atmosphere that drove Gore away from trying again.

But, I’ve just jumped on the Obama bandwagon not because I’m so fired up that he’s some plastic ‘ideal’ of what a candidate is suppose to be. 
But because I was already fired up without anyone in mind -and looked to the best candidate closest to fulfilling MY agenda. I think WE will fire up Obama.

As a woman I’m disgusted by how Hillary has bent over for anyone with a few buck -we have a name for that kind of a person.

She’s owned by AIPAC $$ to such a massive degree she voted with all the Republicans last summer and against most her Democratic colleagues to continue using Cluster Bombs -in civilian areas. Where’s the Democratic principles in that vote?  Where’s the balance in our foreign policy to STOP the creation of more terrorist?? 
More Joe Liebermans in power we don’t need.

I am fired up to now -STOP HILLARY CLINTON!

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