TPMDC Exclusive: Inside DNC’s Organizing For America

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November 11, 2009 3:15 a.m.
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Nine months ago when the Democrats who ran Barack’s Obama campaign created Organizing for America, no one was sure exactly how it would work or whether it was possible to harness the enthusiasm for the new president and translate it into action.

But nearing the anniversary of Obama’s election, OFA has strengthened into a (smaller) mirror of the campaign, with volunteers in every single Congressional district and staff on the ground in every state but Oklahoma.

They also are growing the Obama donor base.

TPMDC has learned that 24.7 percent of the donations made online to OFA are new donors – people who didn’t give during the campaign. That’s a pretty striking figure give that a record 3 million people donated during 2007 and 2008.

Organizationally, the boots-on-the-ground, Washington outsider vibe has translated into real results as well. Saturday morning, an OFA volunteer in Louisiana flagged for the team that Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) might end up supporting health care.

The administration had been talking to Cao behind the scenes, but it was the volunteer who emailed OFA staffers to report that the Republican’s office wasn’t saying he was against the bill which opened the floodgates. OFA volunteers made 550 calls to the district office on Saturday in the hours before he became the lone Republican to back the bill.

In an exclusive interview with TPMDC, OFA officials laid out their metrics so far and stressed the results have exceeded expectations.

It was no surprise that Mitch Stewart, OFA’s director, and Jeremy Bird, the deputy director, remained on message at all times. They told me nearly a dozen times the OFA mission is to support the president’s agenda, and downplayed any disappointment that Obama voters couldn’t make the difference in last week’s state races in Virginia and New Jersey.

But the wide-ranging interview did lift the curtain on the organization, officially deemed a special project of the Democratic National Committee.

As I detailed earlier this year, OFA and the DNC share a building and merged finances, but keep many things separate. Among those are the list of email supporters, which stood at 13 million at the end of the long campaign. (They won’t disclose its size today.)

Campaign geeks may like the transcript of our interview, and come along after the jump to delve into how OFA is doing.Bird said the plugged-in volunteers who alerted the team to Cao being a potential “Yes” vote on health care are a great example of how “you can’t listen to Washington.”

He and Stewart said the boots on the ground are always more in tune with voters’ sentiment, just like they witnessed as top aides in the Obama campaign.

“We’re only 9 months in and we have been methodically building across the country since January,” Bird told TPMDC. “This weekend was a big deal.”

Since June 6 when the health care push began in earnest, 95 percent of OFA’s efforts have been focused on health care.

While volunteers had a good week on health care, which coincided with the anniversary of Obama’s win last year, they also suffered two major losses in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey. State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-VA) had banked his entire strategy on turning out Obama surge voters from 2008, but lost by more than 15 points.

Bird and Stewart stressed the wins in New York’s 23rd Congressional district, which hasn’t had a Democratic member of Congress since the Civil War, and in the Charlotte, NC mayor’s race, among others.

When pressed, they insisted OFA volunteers weren’t the reason for the losses.

“When you have a loss like that it doesn’t have a lot to do with field organizing on the ground,” Bird said.

In addition, OFA volunteers from 2008 and this year invested time in training new supporters, who learned community organizing techniques that will help Democrats and Obama going forward, they said.

“If you advance the president’s agenda that’s going to translate politically and help Democrats throughout the country. And frankly keeping people engaged on the issues in an off year is going to translate in a mid-term year. They are going to continue to be engaged,” said Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the DNC and OFA.

Other volunteers are seeing results and were especially cheered by the historic vote on health care Saturday night. Bird and Stewart shared several stories about OFA supporters on the ground whose calls seemed to make the difference convincing representatives in Arizona and West Virginia.

They said Obama gets renergized from these stories and from reconnecting with the grassroots group that helped him win the presidency last year. He records direct to the camera videos, did a town hall over the summer and called OFA volunteers from Air Force One just before he started his health care push.

OFA’s metrics (see them all here) show that health care remains the group’s focus.

Stewart used as an example the massive call day a few weeks ago, when OFA set a goal 100,000 calls to Congress. Some, including TPMDC, suggested the benchmark was an easy one since they blew through it midday and ultimately made more than 300,000 calls.

“Some folks thought we had artificially lowered expectations,” Stewart said, insisting that OFA based the figure “on science.”

He said the Web team had to create a new graphic that included a 200,000 goal on the fly since they were unprepared for the day to go so well. Once that was up, they had to scrap it almost immediately to make the 300,000 one, he said.

Stewart said organizers have been surprised, given the long and hard-fought primary and general election campaigns, to hear stories about volunteers who have gotten involved for the first time. “It’s inspiring,” he said.

In one case, a 2008 supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is volunteering in Colorado, knocking on doors on the health care issue. The Republican may never vote for Obama, but wanted to get involved.

The calls aren’t just to supporters, or wavering Democrats. Instead, the OFA volunteers are spread out across the country and do outreach to all 535 members of Congress. They also get involved in other issues, and organized locally to help tsunami victims in American Samoa.

OFA stays engaged with supporters who aren’t as interested in health care, sending out emails on the climate change bill that’s pending in Congress, and targeting college supporters on the issue of student loan reform.

Bird said hearing positive stories from volunteers keeps them grounded in reality.

I asked about what seems to be the latest trend of positive messages, such as the thank-you rallies at airports for members of Congress who voted for health care and the “tweet your representative” campaign.

In the transcript, which you can read here, Stewart and Bird offer a fascinating reveal about how they test volunteers when they move up in the organizations.

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