Call the most valuable piece of intellectual property in America Obama 3.0. It’s the third iteration of the Obama campaign’s cutting-edge, year-round, political apparatus that helped secure the president’s historic election and then his second term.
Again, as in four years ago, President Obama is hoping to build on his electoral success—only, this time, he has the lessons of the health care battle of 2009 and the catastrophic midterms of 2010 to draw on. Obama is using what’s known as Organizing for America to rally support behind his proposals to ward off the fiscal cliff, but the bigger question is how his team will use its reams of data about millions of voters and volunteers to help elect other Democrats. Beyond that lies the issue of who will inherit the priceless political machine after Obama leaves office.
That network’s power has been on display since the election. Less than two weeks after the Nov. 6 vote, the campaign e-mailed its massive network of supporters to survey their level of interest in staying involved. Organizing for America quickly followed up with an e-mail touting the administration’s budget plan and asking the activists to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter. And it was back this week, urging followers to “share their 2K story” about the potential impact of a $2,000 tax hike on their family if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal.
Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, said at a forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress that the campaign learned from its mistakes after Obama’s first victory, when “we weren’t communicating clearly about what was happening next, right out of the gate.” That’s when a backlash to the president’s economic-stimulus plan and health care reform threatened to derail his administration at the outset.
Still, Organizing for America’s ability to shape the outcome of the fiscal talks is limited. In the GOP-controlled House, most Republicans were reelected with bigger margins of victory than the president’s. Ensconced in districts gerrymandered by their own party, those members are much more worried about facing antitax zealots from the right in 2014 than can-do challengers from the left. Reaching a budget compromise that transcends partisan gridlock is not their mandate.
Obama’s network is better suited to propping up the Democratic nominees for governor in Virginia and New Jersey in 2013 and the handful of congressional candidates from competitive districts and battleground states in 2014—if those campaigns can pry the data from the Obama team.
Said one national Democratic official, “There’s no question there would be tremendous value to having access to that information, from the donor database to the volunteer database. They are activating the network around the fiscal cliff, which keeps the base energized, but it would be even more helpful if the data was shareable and accessible.”
Organizing for America is not about to start parceling out the info, Bird said, but he added that the Obama camp is eager for Democrats to learn from its strategies and deploy its trained army. Far from a simple mailing list, the database is a complicated set of metrics about voter preferences. This is not a turnkey operation.
In a preview of possible squabbles to come, Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Brian Moran suggested in a recent interview that the Obama campaign had already turned over its data. That is not the case, Bird said. The campaign has given the state party only voters’ presidential preferences from the November election. It’s unclear whether Virginia Democrats will ever see the rest.
“We are pleased with the ongoing conversations we’ve had with the Democratic National Committee about the future of the resources they developed for 2012,” David Mills, the state party’s executive director, said in a written statement that could have been crafted by a U.N. diplomat. “We are confident that our 2013 candidates will benefit from the hard work so many volunteers and staff did to build an unprecedented grassroots campaign.”
Even if the Obama team hands over its database, there’s no guarantee anyone else could ride it to an election win. Perhaps the biggest unknown looming over the first African-American president’s organization is whether it’s transferable from a historic figure to a mere mortal.
“Who the messenger is and who the candidate is really matters, and we shouldn’t underrate the fact that the overwhelming support for President Obama is in part because of who he is and what he represents to the communities that we all represent,” said Mee Moua, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center.
No one knows whether Obama’s massive volunteer network would come along with the data—or turn out to support other candidates in the 2014 midterms. One hurdle now facing the highly virtual Organizing for America is keeping volunteers involved, absent brick and mortar. The campaign ran more than 800 offices across the country and had twice as many as Team Romney, it boasted, in the most competitive states.
Bird acknowledged that Obama’s winning coalition of minorities and young people could be difficult to turn out between presidential elections, especially with increased voter-identification requirements in some states, and he urged Democrats to build upon what Organizing for America has established. “Hopefully, we have a legacy,” he said, “which is that we have trained a generation of organizers that know what it’s like to build something real—and they’re going to go out and be really successful.”
The fiscal impasse is the first challenge to that optimism, but the bigger tests loom in 2013 and 2014.
This article appears in the Dec. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal as Property Lines.