Monday, April 06, 2009

Why Obama's "Grassroots Army" isn't Working (and How it Can be More Effecitve!)

The Washington Post had an article today titled "Obama's Grassroots Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget." It's an interesting look at the difficulties "Organizing for America" is having in translating the power of the citizen-based movement that lead to Obama's election into legislative victories.

Now first off, I think it's important to cut them some slack. No one has ever really tried to utilize campaign supporters in this way before and I applaud them for doing it. Nevertheless, it appears in this case that they did not have much of an impact on the budget debate, which was passed through the Congress using the same old partisan techniques that are always used.

Why didn't they succeed? In my opinion, Organizing for America failed to recognize a fundamental truth about legislative advocacy, as opposed to electoral advocacy. When trying to get individuals to ultimately vote for a specific candidate (i.e., electoral advocacy), asking them to sign a petition can go a long way toward achieving you goal. Once someone has signed a petition they are generally far more likely to walk in to the ballot booth and support that candidate.

However, in legislative advocacy the role of the citizen is slightly different. In this case, citizens must encourage legislators to vote a certain way on legislation. Organizing for America chose to demonstrate citizen support through petitions. However, recent evidence shows that names on a petition really aren't that influential with members of Congress. In fact, personalized, thoughtful and relevant communications are what can make a true difference in this environment. The organizers of the effort could have been far more effective if they had targeted a few key areas and worked to get a few members of the grassroots army making a more personalized pitch to their legislators as opposed to getting thousands of people to sign petitions.

I think, though, that Thomas Mann's assertion that "...the petition drive was "a pretty lame start to the effort, and largely inconsequential to the outcome,"" and that "... the hard politics of policymaking are still driven by partisanship, by public opinion polls, by the roles of interest groups and all the other things that have always mattered in Washington" was a bit overstated. One thing that ALWAYS matters in Washington, especially to members of Congress, is what real, live, thoughtful constituents think about the issues. Any effort that focuses the energy and resources of these individuals in a meaningful way will, over time, be successful.