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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s ‘Secret Sauce’

Dan Ancona, whose article on “Power to the Edge” we excerpted almost in toto yesterday, has another interesting post he brought to our attention in response to TDS’s request for strategic analysis. Ancona’s “Echoes of the Future” at Calitics emphasizes the importance of reaching out to diverse constituencies, running a vigorous field campaign and being bold about “dimension three,” — “shifting worldviews, ideologies, values, common sense and assumptions.” (More on ‘dimension three’ at Mark Schmitt’s American Prospect Post on “Big Picture Power.”)
Ancona then reveals what he calls “Obama’s Secret Sauce,” and describes the ingredients this way:

The first ingredient is to get the overall strategy right. OFA built a highly distributed, social network-oriented operation built on trust. The best phrase I’ve seen to describe this is “Empowered Accountability.” The one social network we all have is our neighborhood, and that’s where it starts, but they were also very savvy about getting people to tap whatever networks they had. This part has to come from the top, from the campaign leadership and the candidate. As a complex system, a good field campaign is very sensitive to initial conditions. The reason Barack’s campaign was so good had a lot to do with Barack. We have to figure out how to build this kind of leadership at the state and local level, but my guess is we’ve already started.
The second ingredient is training. The way the Camp Obamas were set up was key in getting folks not just to do useful work, but to feel like they were a real part of the campaign. This sense of ownership then drove people to make bigger and bigger commitments in both time and in small donations. Whether it was a 2 hour, all day or two-day training, the format was built around three main components: Cesar Chavez/Marshall Ganz-style storytelling, a campaign update, and then training on tools and techniques. All of these components were designed to be scaled up or scaled down to fit the available amount of time; this flexibility made it possible for the California primary campaign to hook and train hundreds of people at a time the few weekends before February 5th.
The third ingredient is having the right tools. (the usual full disclosure here: I’m going to say nice things about the VAN, which my organization, CA VoterConnect, offers to campaigns of all sizes on a sliding scale.) Coming out of our experience in the 2004 primary, we knew that the main web-based toolset a campaign would need included first, a social networking system of some kind to enable meetups and self-organization, and second, an easy-enough to use voter file to turn that self-organization into a usable electoral force. The tools are important, because if they’re designed and deployed right, they help give activists an upward path towards becoming ever more effective and more involved. [Update: I forgot better targeting, somehow. Better targeting tools, including reiterative targeting that could be used as a force multiplier for a field campaign, are absolutely crucial. Improvement in this area probably would have won us the three close races we’re losing by under 1% handily.]

Ancona names some of the specific tools that can add proficiency to 21st century campaigns:

On the social networking side, a local organization can use a mishmash of the DNC’s PartyBuilder or the Courage Campaign‘s social network, as well as tools like Google Groups & Google Docs, and to some degree Facebook (although sometimes it seems like Facebook has gone out of their way to make it impossible to use it to organize). On the voter file side, while of course I’m a big proponent of the VAN (the Voter Activation Network, a web-based voter file tool), as long as the system has fresh, high-quality baseline data, supports local control, local ownership and ongoing storage of the contact data, and can be used for social-network and neighborhood organizing, it will do. This may be the direction that Political Data, Inc. OnlineCampaignCenter and MOE tools that the CDP uses are going. My feeling is that the VAN is still superior and will become more so over the next few cycles, but all that’s required of a tool is for it to meet those basic requirements. There will also likely be new tools and new innovations in this area that campaigns and organizations can and should experiment with as they’re developed and released.

But the secret sauce is not all wonk and no heart. Ancona conveys an infectious spirit of inclusiveness that sets a tone all campaigns should emulate:

People want to get involved, and if we can create satisfying roles for them and walk them along a path of deepening commitment, they will get involved and stay involved… If we can show people how their efforts are effective, how they are helping to build the functional and participatory next version of our democracy, they’ll build it. It gets easier to imagine that future every year: for the first time, we have a big, national campaign (and a glorious victory) to point to as an example.

It’s the TLC in the secret sauce that brings it all together.

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