Lesson for Chapter Structure in Obama’s Campaign

There are many lessons from our elections and one may well be classified as a great aha for national associations and their geographic components.

The October 12 headline read “Obama Camp Relying Heavily on Ground Effort.” The article by Alec MacGillis writing in the Washington Post described the Obama campaign organization as one that might possibly become a model for future campaigns. In any case, it may be a model worth exploring for chapter or local components.

The model builds on Karl Rove’s successful concept for President Bush. It goes one step further by opening more than 700 offices in more than a dozen battleground states, paying several thousand organizers and managing tens of thousands more volunteers.  The emphasis is clearly on the ground effort. With good reason. They have to reach every undecided and first-time voter then can possibly meet.

Look at how they are doing this.

  • The structure is built around neighborhood team leaders who control eight to 12 precincts around their own neighborhoods, buttressed by four “coordinators” who help oversee team members, usually numbering in the dozens.
  • The neighborhood leaders attend at least one training session and all have clearly defined goals: they know exactly how many votes their territory must produce.
  • The training sessions for volunteers and organizers instruct them on how to recruit volunteers as well as how to persuade voters. The primary strategy they learn: motivate others by speaking about their experiences and their reasons for supporting Obama. In other words, share their story.
  • The campaign says it encourages volunteers to take initiative to come up with their own ways to recruit others and approach voters. But – and this part of the success of the model – they are hardly freelancers. As MacGillis reported, field organizers and those higher up the ranks closely track volunteers’ contact with voters using a central database, to make sure they are meeting weekly goals. In addition, volunteers receive instructions on the basic message of the month to deliver (along with their own stories) and on how to respond to questions about some of the false rumors about Obama’s religion and patriotism.

As Minnesota director Jeff Blodgett said in the Washington Post article, “It’s decentralized, but that there’s a control point around the message and around data and accountability.”

So, can our chapters follow a similar model?

What’s the ROI for the national office? Well consider that after decades in which campaigns spent mostly on television ads and direct mail, recognition in the power of person-to-person contact has increased over the past dozen years.