Conversion Stories

by digby

As we all wait for the returns today from what is undoubtedly the most exciting, nail biter of a Super Tuesday ever, I thought I'd offer up some articles I've come across about how the candidates do what they do.

If Barack Obama wins in California today, it may be because of this:

In a storefront on Q Street in Sacramento, Kim Mack told a crowd that spilled out onto the sidewalk how she came to back Barack Obama.

With a son serving in the Iraq war, which she opposed, Mack was looking for a like-minded presidential candidate. She was impressed by the Illinois senator's books.

But the clincher came on March 17, when she met the Democratic contender face to face. She describes how he lit up the room with his wide smile, shook her hand and thanked her for volunteering.
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"He looked at me, and the look in his eyes was worth 1,000 words," said Mack, now a regional field organizer. Obama hugged her and whispered something in her ear – she was so thrilled she doesn't remember what it was.

Then Mack brought home the point of her story for the crowd of 100 or so eager volunteers, sipping coffee and watching a PowerPoint presentation in the Obama campaign office on a recent Saturday.

"Did that make more impact on you than if I had talked about his health care plan or his stance on the environment?" she asked.

On the verge of a hectic few weeks leading to Super Tuesday, the crucial Feb. 5 multistate primary including California's, Mack wanted to drill home one of the campaign's key strategies: telling potential voters personal stories of political conversion.

She urged volunteers to hone their own stories of how they came to Obama – something they could compress into 30 seconds on the phone.

"Work on that, refine that, say it in the mirror," she said. "Get it down."

She told the volunteers that potential voters would no doubt confront them with policy questions. Mack's direction: Don't go there. Refer them to Obama's Web site, which includes enough material to sate any wonk.

The idea behind the personal narratives is to reclaim "values" politics from the Republican Party, said Marshall Ganz, a one-time labor organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers who developed "Camp Obama" training sessions for volunteers.

When people tell their stories of how they made choices and what motivates them, they communicate their values, Ganz said in an interview.

"Values are not just concepts, they're feelings," Ganz said. "That's what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the '70s or '80s."

To convey these values, the Obama campaign claims to be taking grass-roots organizing to a new level, harnessing what they describe as a groundswell of enthusiasm.

In California, the campaign claims that 120,000 people have shown an interest in working for Obama. Seven thousand of those are actively involved, putting in five hours to 80 hours a week.

The campaign boasts 223 official organizing teams in all of the state's 53 congressional districts, and 700 community groups. Sacramento's was one of the first and is also one of the most active.

Statewide, 3,527 people trained as precinct captains oversee phone banking and canvassing door to door in precincts that generally include about 300 registered Democrats.


"Just follow Barack's lead and be honest with them," the Web site advises. "You don't need to debate policy or discuss the day's headlines. You have a very personal reason for investing your time and energy in this campaign – that is the most compelling story you can tell."

Indeed, participants in the Saturday morning precinct-captain training were already adept at telling their Obama-conversion stories.

Libbie Coleman, a 61-year-old microbiology teacher at McClatchy High School, read Obama's books last spring.

"I've been a voter for 40 years," she said. "I feel like I've been needing to hear these things for 40 years."

Faced with a politician who spoke to her heart, Coleman said, she had no choice but to become involved, for the first time, in a political campaign.

If Clinton wins, it may be because of this:

A little after 9:00 PM, in one nightly reporting meeting I witnessed, regional field director Ryan Donohue started with three questions for all his organizers: "Did you have a Caucus 101 meeting today?" "How many people were you expecting to show up?" "How many people did you actually have?" In the case of a discrepancy, organizers were asked to explain what happened. There was the feeling that it was better to have a small number of volunteers and to have predicted turn out correctly, than to have a big unexpected turnout. In other words, as an organizer, this campaign expected you to be in control.

The walls of Donahue's team office were covered with overlapping charts and lists of staff, their precinct captains, and other measures of their progress. But no numbers were put on the wall without a discussion of how they were achieved--and the lessons to be learned from the experience. In these nightly reporting sessions, regional directors went beyond mere numbers to debrief every conversation the organizers held that day with potential campaign workers as well as detailed plans for future recruitment, voter ID, persuasion and organization building. Each reporting session included good-natured self-critique and group-critique of team members' day-to-day efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. All meetings closed with a "role play" in which one organizer was called upon to lead a mock volunteer house meeting (the mainstay organizing tool of the campaign). The role plays too were followed by self- and group-critique.

After organizers had given their reports, they went to work inputing data from the day's work into "The Donkey," a new online volunteer management system. Regional directors then gathered in another room to report their teams' results to the statewide field director, Marlon Marshall, followed by the same process of self- and group-critique and evaluation.

In one of these upper-level meetings I visited, word was handed down by Marshall of new internal polls showing Obama surging in Nevada. And rumor had it that all bets were off, even in Iowa. No more inevitability. And intelligence about the Obama campaign pointed to massive turnout on their part.

Things are getting tougher

Marshall explained to his bleary-eyed regional directors that the vote goals for all precincts therefore had to be revised. In other words, the goal post for all organizers had suddenly moved much father away. The regional field directors looked to be in various states of anxiety. But there was no sense of depression or despair. They were part of a well functioning organization. They knew the next step. They knew exactly what they had to do the next day, because they had just detailed their plan to their field director in the meeting.

Finally, getting close to 11:00 PM, Marshall would then report the progress of the past 24 hours in detail to state director Mook.

Through that repetition of work, accountability, reflection and change, an organization was being built to accomplish a goal: victory in the Nevada Caucus on January 19. That repetition was taking place within a grand strategy that, though changing along with the conditions of the race, was understood by all staff and even all volunteers.

Mook sees that kind of big-picture strategic understanding as essential for everyone from regional field organizers down to precinct captains: "If I train someone, and hold them accountable for delivering overall goals in a precinct, they're going to work a lot harder than if I just say, 'Go find 3 supporters and then come back to me.' If I say, 'You're accountable for winning," then they're going to do whatever it takes. And also, as the definition of what it's going to take to win changes over the course of the campaign, they're going to be able to adapt to that."

Even as the clock struck midnight, staff were still buzzing around the office in a mixture of calm efficiency and adrenalin rush as the news of the new tough reality spread among the staff.

Mook and Marshall are naturally good managers. And they work at being good managers. They see it as a major ingredient to winning--something that makes campaigns work.

"I've worked for Robby before and he sets a tone of being accountable--not just in terms of numbers, but also your work ethic and how your treat people, and how you run an organization. It comes out of asking a lot of people, but respecting people too," caucus director Mara Lee told me.

"Here, people are asked to do what they can do, and a little bit more. The nice thing is that organizers know they can go to their regionals. Regionals know they can go to Robby, or myself or Marlon. So it's not just a matter of reporting up--there's actually a two way conversation. Sure, it's hierarchical because it's an organization. But everyone is helping each other to succeed."

I asked Ryan Donohue if the level of detail expected in daily reporting seemed excessive. "At first yes," he said. "But now I realize it might actually be a little under."

I assume that both campaigns feature pieces of each of those approaches, but this shows an interesting contrast that I think may illustrate what their supporters are attracted to in their chosen candidates. Inspiration vs perspiration. Broad strokes vs wonky details. Pick your poison.