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Fresh on the Trail

What Organizing for America did right and wrong in its first election.

The senate special election in Massachusetts was, for reasons that have been articulated on this site and others, a complete disaster. The Coakley campaign was hopelessly inept. The White House didn’t step in until too late. An insurgent tea party fringe was too much to beat back.

It was also, however, the first electoral test of the operation that’s designed, in part, to overcome these sorts of situations: Organizing for America, the skeleton of Barack Obama’s campaign apparatus that morphed into the Democratic National Committee’s grassroots arm. Since its debut this time last year, the group has focused almost exclusively on health care reform; it also sent out a few emails on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey.

Once Martha Coakley’s peril became apparent, OFA went into emergency rescue mode, sending many of its top operatives to Boston and mobilizing chapters across the country to place calls into the state. It wasn’t enough to save Coakley’s candidacy, but it might have saved the Democrats from an even more embarrassing defeat. And, crucially for future races, this first outing tells us a few things about what OFA is doing right, and what it’s doing wrong.

The outside game: Clearly, there’s a huge advantage in being able to marshall out-of-state manpower for a tight election. OFA sent an appeal to its 13-million-person email list, and volunteers around the country responded by calling Massachusetts two million times. (They downloaded call lists from the OFA website—if you ever gave your phone number to the Obama campaign, it’s available to anyone who signs up at One local organizer reported that they had burned through the entire voter contact list two days before the election itself.

In normal elections, there might be less remote assistance available for tight races, but presumably volunteers in safer districts could still divert their efforts to where they’d have most impact (not unlike vote-trading). Still, it doesn’t do much good if calls become duplicative—robocalls from Coakley and Barack Obama were also in the mix, and voters were starting to get annoyed. Meanwhile, all of this help was likely dwarfed by the swarms of tea party activists who actually traveled into the state, swelling rallies and canvassing neighborhoods for Scott Brown. Unlike OFA, they just didn’t have nifty web tools to quantify their “impact.”

The ground game: Having out-of-staters do the phone calls is perhaps most useful for freeing up local volunteers to canvass in person. But because of the late mobilization, precious little of this happened until the last two days of the campaign—which meant that Coakley may never have reached the independent voters who weren’t picking up their phones, or weren’t on an Obama call list (meanwhile, the Brown campaign was using a brand-new iPhone app to plan walk routes). Deep-blue Massachusetts typically exports its volunteers to swing states like New Hampshire, so the idea of knocking doors in their own backyard was not second nature for Democratic campaigners. The Coakley campaign, which had basically no field operation during the primary, was ill-equipped to organize direct voter contact—but OFA didn't remind them when it might have mattered.

Online: Micah Sifry over at TechPresident broke down Coakley vs. Brown on tools like Twitter and Facebook. Brown’s clear victory here can certainly be laid at the feet of the Coakley campaign, but again, the power of OFA’s online tools were not brought to bear. However, OFA did add numbers to some of the local phone banks by allowing activists to register their events on (or MyBO, as it’s affectionately known) and sending them out in e-mail blasts.

The state chapter: John Spears, OFA’s 29-year-old Massachusetts state director, has been praised from all quarters. But as the only paid staffer for the entire state, he has his hands full (by contrast, other states have as many as ten people on staff). And for this election, rather than working with the local volunteers whom he’s gotten to know since he was hired in August, he was delegated to manage volunteers arriving from out of state. Overall, though, the state-level strategy seems confused: Spears says he was not planning to get involved in a serious way in the race, and only did so when asked by the Coakley campaign ten days before election day. OFA’s plan for getting involved with future campaigns—namely the midterm elections—remains unclear. “We’re thinking about how to be engaged,” Spears told me. “What extent depends on what campaigns want our help.”

The grassroots: If the performance of the official OFA structure in Massachusetts is mixed, the Obama campaign’s real legacy—the networks of citizens who remain engaged in developing their own priorities—is alive and well. In the months after the 2008 election, a corps of about 25 organizers had formed Massachusetts for Change, and were coordinating events that loosely followed the OFA agenda. They’re happy to work with John Spears, but don’t need instructions from Washington. And that’s a good thing, because OFA still doesn’t know how to harness their energy with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

One of those who kept working was Harmony Wu, a 38-year-old PhD and mother of twins in Scott Brown’s home district of Needham. After the election, she helped organize a group called Yes We Can Needham, which met independently of OFA all through 2009. When the senate primary rolled around, she backed City Year founder Alan Khazei against Martha Coakley—the old Obama network went overwhelmingly for him and Michael Capuano, not the attorney general. Still, the organizers were willing to campaign for Coakley if she needed it in the general election.

As the polls started looking bad, Wu was expecting either the Coakley operation, or OFA, to ask for her help—but they didn’t, until a friend of hers told a Coakley staffer, “You need to call Harmony.” The staffer did call, but continued to blunder, directing her to a phone bank in a neighboring town. “This isn’t how we do things,” Wu said, frustrated, the morning after the election. “This isn’t how we did things on the Obama campaign. Someone would have some cookies and beer, people would come with their cell phones and fucking call people.”

The Coakley operation failed to tap into the deep well of Obama-inspired volunteerism in Massachusetts. But OFA hasn’t done a much better job of cultivating and channeling the kind of movement from which it was born—there’s a disconnect. “I think it’s not about the campaign,” says Massachusetts grassroots organizing consultant Tony Mack, who’s involved with a similar group called Cambridge-Somerville for Change. “If they were doing real organizing, which is encouraging leaders to think for themselves and developing their own priorities, then people would be ready to mobilize more when the time came.”

“The way you build up a strong leadership capacity is to give people independence and power,” Mack goes on. “They didn’t have that, and to some degree, the OFA model right now ends up being that people wait for instructions.”

Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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