Greens learn “lessons of an Obama field organizer”

Crossposted from my blog on, because it’s that damned important.

Robert Routledge / Submitted photo
Robert Routledge / Submitted photo

Robert Routledge ran his “lessons of an Obama field organizer” convention workshop in the same way that Obama campaign meetings themselves were run. “All Obama meetings start with music,” he explained, usually Waiting on the world to change by John Mayer.

From “music” the meeting then moves to “stories.” Routledge told his story of how he became a staff organizer on the campaign that changed America. It began in Milwaukee where Routledge performed the simple act of getting a computer printer to work. He then quickly discovered that on the Obama campaign, “if you were competent at anything you were promoted quickly.” It wasn’t long before a serendipitous series of events placed Routledge on the Milwaukee evening television news as a campaign spokesperson, doing his best to “stay on message” based on what he’d learned about Obama by watching CNN. Ultimately he would end up establishing the campaign office in Pittsburgh and traveling around the country from state to state as a “fixer.”

After the meeting organizer has told their story, they invite everyone in attendance to turn to someone they don’t know very well and ask them “what is your story and why are you here?” It’s a powerful question that in just one or two minutes can reveal common ground or unearth a diversity of motivations and backgrounds.

Stories are important, Routledge explained, because the Obama campaign was about Obama’s story. “We were trained in excruciating detail how to tell Barack’s story,” he said, focusing on his Harvard education and background as a community organizer from the south side of Chicago. (That discipline was effective all the way to here in London. When the room was asked, those were the first two things that people recalled about Obama’s background.) Internally, the stories of the staff and volunteers of the Obama campaign connected them to each other and built community. Externally, Obama’s story allowed the campaign to connect with people on a human level.

“What this campaign does”

Once everyone has had 60 seconds to tell their story and there’s a good vibe in the room, Routledge drops the hard truth on his group of new volunteers. “Ok,” he says, “what this campaign does is we knock on doors and make phone calls. That’s it.”

Thus he established a main theme of his message for the Green party. The organizers who were successful, he said, are the ones who could keep it simple and focused on the things that actually matter and win votes. Other organizers who got distracted by side projects and activities that weren’t a good use of time were not successful and were not given further responsibility.

That meant making phone calls non-stop from around 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then knocking on doors until it got dark, then continuing to make phone calls until 9 p.m. “If you got tired of calls, you knocked on doors. When your feet got sore, you made calls.” Each primary campaign started by making “persuasion calls” focused on convincing people to vote for Obama during early days when they needed to increase their voter base, then moved to making shorter “ID calls” in the later stage of the campaign when they were confident they had enough people persuaded and it was now just a matter of making sure they voted.

Each evening organizers would jump onto regional conference calls where they reported numbers: how many calls did your campaign make that day, how many doors did you knock on, how many voters were IDed, how many volunteers were recruited? In other words, are you doing your job? The goal was for each organizer’s office to make 1000 phone calls and knock on 250 doors per day, and Routledge said he had to “get creative” to become the only organizer to achieve that goal.

“Doing things upsets people.”

Another key lesson for Routledge is that “doing things upsets people.”

“If you’re going to be confident in what you want to do, and [Green Leader] Mike [Schreiner] and [President] Bill [Hewitt] and [Executive Director] Becky [Smit] set the direction and we start moving that way, people are going to be mad at you. They already are. And that’s OK.” An example from Routledge’s experience is that his campaign team placed no value on lawn signs, deciding to almost never give them out. “People were furious,” he said, but it allowed them to focus on other activities (you guessed it: making calls and knocking on doors) that they believed would yield greater results.

In answer to the question of how you deal with people who don’t buy in to your campaign strategy, Routledge takes a tough love approach. “People who don’t buy in to what you’re doing are going to do you more harm than good. Say goodbye to them. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to fix someone because time is valuable.” He emphasized that that doesn’t mean you don’t train volunteers and make an effort to ensure they feel comfortable, but that there’s sometimes a point where it’s better to part ways if things aren’t working out.

“The grind,” and engaging voters

For Routledge, the exciting opportunity for the Green Party of Ontario is the prospect that we can work harder than the other parties. “The other parties are better at this than we are, but we can choose to out-work them. What we’re trying to do is really really hard. It’s a grind. So we can take pride in grinding it out against the other parties.”

Just as successful organizers are able to keep things simple, Routledge had a straight-forward response to the common question about how to connect with young people. “Physically go to where they are and talk to them. This isn’t fancy.”

He also said that the under-30 crowd is a “generation of big ideas.” Tools like Facebook, Twitter,, YouTube, were great, “but they were just tools. The campaign was actually about the message. It was a language of big ideas and hope, and that’s how you connect with the under-30 crowd.” Web 2.0 tools are a way for people to connect, he said, not a reason for people to connect.

Stay on message and get emotional

“Greens like being right,” Routledge observed, “and we get frustrated when our views aren’t shared, so we want to educate people, ‘this is important and we’re right’. But as Ralph Benmergui said yesterday, politics is emotional. If we’re not connecting with people on an emotion level, inspiring people to believe that we can do better, [then we’re not succeeding]. That’s not just important for Mike and Elizabeth, that’s important for you at the door.”

Routledge shared that on the Obama campaign if anyone went off message (including if someone spoke to the media and gave a perfect message but were not authorized to have done so) they were immediately fired.

Damage control: “The world ended”

“Don’t panic. But actually, panic! Panic like your hair is on fire!” In other words, it’s important to stay calm, while also taking swift action to manage a bad situation. Things will get very bad, Routledge said. “When Reverend Wright happened and a few days later Obama made his comments about people who cling to guns and religion, the world ended.” How you then choose to deal with a bad situation is important. You have to quickly realize that “we can’t unsay what’s been said or undo what’s been done,” then start managing what happened.

Make friends

In the period of time when you’re not actively campaigning, the best thing you can do is make friends, Routledge said. Then when a campaign does come around you can use those relationships. “Don’t make it about the party or the ideas, make it about emotions and relationships.”

We can also do things with our supporters after the campaign, he said, pointing to a grassroots initiative in the U.S. made up largely of identified Obama supporters that’s now working behind the scenes to win the health care debate. “Our supporters list is a powerful, powerful thing to have.”

Routledge concluded by asking some provocative questions about where the Green party should go from here. “Do we want to make this about being right? About winning? About building community? Who are we?” For him, it comes down to choice. We get to choose what we want to do in 2011. We get to choose whether or not to work harder than the other parties, whether or not we make thousands of phone calls and knock on thousands of doors. It’s up to us, and it’s that simple.

6 thoughts on “Greens learn “lessons of an Obama field organizer”

  1. focus on obama’s story?? and omit how he was picked up by brzezinski in the 80s & set up for what brz’s superiors knew was coming (being set up)? omit how obama actually is not legally able to become president for not having been born in the right place (but why would legality get in the way)? about the strange resemblance to mussolini acolyte-ism? about the “colour revolutionary” subversion asociated with obama’s handlers? omit the contentlesness of it all, the exploitation of “feel good”-ism for a lost generation? how thinking people, essential critics, are cut out of meaningful direct political influence if they can’t go along with the stupid simplification and dumbing down to get votes?

    pretty ominous about being “off message” and firing– greens are falling right through the trapdoor looks like — and Eliz. was there to endorse this??!! With scrymgeour in the thick of it, mr colour revolutionary himself? unbelievable (actually, not, i did my bst to stave it off, so good bye, what a waste (not of my efforts))

    “When Reverend Wright happened” — what a laugh, as if his involvement with obama was not formative & with clandestine attachment (why not part of the stupid-simple “obama story”? why?) — Chris, once you spoke to me of the benefits of naivete, all this is NOT one of them

    no smiley face for you today either, Chris, sorry

  2. Goodness Daryl, why the grumpy face? We live where we live, and our democracy functions this way. We can be revolutionaries, and try to trash the system, or we can set out to acheive our goals within it. They’re both revolutionary, but the second route is winnable.
    Anyhow, I wish i had been there. Rob seems pretty talented. I certainly buy into the door knock, or telephone, or stop wasting the other good folks time message. I wish i could turn back the clock and re-run a few campaigns without the time wasters developing ass-kicking, but never implemented stratgies. There’s no substitute for direct voter contact.

  3. blue’ & chris, how good of you to completely avoid the gist of my comments — come on, you two, any fool can see what needs to be done with retail campaigning, how about some concurrent injection of content, but what’s this nonsense, the dupish appeal to obamaiacs? lack of a smiley face does not mean grumpy, i’m rather smiling myself just now, but there is not all that much to be expected from empty-headed doorknockers and speed-dialers

    green politics has apparently attracted this past decade or so a gross imbalance of people who just like the fun or mechanics of Cdn. politics, when greens are shut out as thoroughly as they are and are likely to continue to be, assimilating to those mechanics, esp. with American inspiration (woe is us that we think we need Americans so much — that includes Shreiner, no? — even Eliz. — i remember i gave him some free consultation advice (as i do for everyone, don’t you know it) many years ago about starting up in the local organic food distribution business, looks like what i said must have been of some encouragement, so when i see him resurface as a politico, i extend an online greeting and…he stays mum…that’s ok, but didn’t look too good on him — good luck with ont. greens, what a wreck in de jong’s wake); so when greens are so shut out, it is precisely NOT in an electorally assimilating vein that they should be primarily operating to get worthy attention, but, you know, those low expectations…

    but low expectations should not have to have been had for ont greens, although now it’s too late i think — i dunno, good luck, but i’m afraid i doubt it will come to much

    a bit off topic, blue’, are you at liberty to openly at least hint at whom you think might seek gpc leadership with that toronto advantage? you can email me privately if you wish

  4. @Daryl,
    sorry it took awhile to respond. I don’t agree that the green door knockers and speed diallers are empty headed. In my experience, very few people who are actively engaged in Politics, in any Party or organisation are empty headed. You must however bow to the reality that when conducting outreach, the majority of electors are pretty empty headed when it comes to exercising their sovereignty, (ie voting).
    If you follow the Obama campaign as described by Rob, the early part of the campaign was about persuasion, and convincing people. The speed dialling and door knocking has a purpose. To identify by name those people who had already decided to vote for Obama. This is to support the subsequent GOTV effort. This is the real world of politics. It is highly competetive, and with so many billions of dollars at stake, it is no surprise that it takes more than great policy, and caring patient canvassers to win elections.
    I don’t understand why you are so very critical of political mechanics like myself who genuinely care about outcomes, and want to make their desired outcome happen. It is way more fun to take a leusurely stroll down the road, and engage in deep discussion at the door step. It’s just that it gets you worse results than wearing out shoe leather, and having hurried conversation about voting intention.
    As far as the off-topic Toronto advantage, I am supporting a totally unexpected candidate, who is not Ms. Charisma, but is a very skilled and experienced manager. She will be disadvantaged by the Toronto location, unless some cheesy mechanic like myself happens to have created a great ID GOTV campaign, to go along with the field team, and persuasion campaigners. I think that Frank has simply left it too late. Being steeped in GPO infighting for over a decade can dull the knowledge that the GPC is stuffed full of people who aren’t engaged, but will become so when they are politely asked. This is a failing of 99% ( and I don’t exaggerate that number) of Green Party activists. Those with whom they are accustomed to engaging are a tiny minority of the skills, and passion that exists within the current and past party membership.
    As you have gathered by now, I cannot name names yet. Circumstances are still too fluid, and the terms of the race are nowhere near being set. Without more certainty as to timing, and the mechanical details of the race, the candidacy has to remain sub-rosa.

  5. Darryl,

    As Rob would point out. If you don’t want to phone or knock on doors, that’s fine, go somewhere else. Your energy will be much better spent working for an NGO, and there’s no shortage of them out there that you can support. If the Greens are going to get elected we need to work harder and ID voters.

    The lessons learned here are what the Greens need, strong organizational advice. We already have good policy. We have good messages and things to say to voters. Now we need to spread the word and gain as many votes as possible.

    – e

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