WASHINGTON – Barack Obama launched his long-shot presidential bid in 2007 with a rallying pledge to build “a more hopeful America,” then pulled off an historic victory by expanding the Democratic base with large numbers of young people, white voters from the North, and minorities.
It was a new road map for success for the party and in 2020, all the top candidates in the Democratic race tried to follow it. Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, has come closest to reassembling that uncommon coalition, even though his campaign hasn’t had the money to pull together the organization most assumed was necessary to do it.
Boosted largely by overwhelming support from one key component of the coalition — Black voters — Biden in recent weeks pulled off a stunning turnaround from disappointing candidate to surging front-runner. But veteran political operatives warn he has much more to do, particularly in bringing in young and Latino voters, if he wants to follow the Obama road map, not just to the nomination but to the Oval Office.
“Biden has a lot of work ahead,” said Michael Ceraso, who worked on campaigns for Obama and for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016. “Obama had a way of breaking ceilings because of the Obama machine way of organizing and because of how Obama inspired people.”
Biden’s primary victories have been powered by a multiracial swath of Black and suburban voters, women, and Republicans disenchanted with President Trump. Yet the wins also were fueled by Democrats’ willingness to see him as the best candidate to defeat Trump, despite his stumbles on the stump and sometimes uninspiring performances.
Largely missing from his campaign was something at the core of the Obama coalition: intensive organizing efforts with deep roots in the civil rights and California farmworkers’ labor movements that drew in young people and expanded the campaign’s ground game. That model will be more difficult to deploy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Biden to hold tele-town halls and streamed speeches in lieu of live events.
Those organizing strategies, which rely on volunteers connecting with voters through personal stories and appeals to their values, was influenced by Marshall Ganz, now a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. A legendary activist, Ganz dropped out of Harvard in the 1960s to register Black voters in the South with the Mississippi Freedom Fighters. He would return to his alma mater nearly 30 years later to develop new forms of campaign organizing based on years as a confidant of Cesar Chavez, the late leader of the United Farm Workers.
The first political campaign Ganz helped shape was the 1968 presidential bid of New York Senator Bobby Kennedy. Ganz and Latino farmworkers helped turn out enough voters across the San Gabriel Valley for Kennedy to win the California Democratic primary.
On that triumphant election night, Ganz was about to take Kennedy to meet some of the farmworkers who volunteered on his campaign when the candidate was assassinated at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Ganz said that work laid the foundation for what would become the Obama organizing model.
“In essence, it is not that different,” Ganz said in an interview. “The question is how deeply motivated are you and how deeply can you motivate the people you work with?”
Traditional campaigns usually have a small core group of paid staffers, and then volunteers who take on the thankless work of knocking on doors and calling voters.
Ganz instead taught organizers and operatives to connect with volunteers, not simply through their appreciation of the candidate, but through a shared set of values — discovered through telling their own personal stories. Feeling invested, people are willing to commit more of their own free time, take on leadership roles, and hold team members accountable when failing to reach goals, such as the number of blocks canvassed or phone numbers called.
“Marshall developed this all into his own kind of language,” said Pat DeTemple, a political consultant who worked with Ganz and the farmworkers’ union in the 1970s.
Ganz calls it the language of empathy and cognition. “Music, poetry speak the language of emotion and so does public narrative,” he said.
The strategies were critical to the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean, an insurgent liberal from Vermont who rocked the Democratic establishment with a campaign that combined online fund-raising with Ganz’s organizing methods. Senator John Kerry defeated Dean in the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the nomination, but Ganz’s students learned from the loss and went on to other campaigns. Some veterans of that Dean campaign would form the brain trust that unfurled versions of Obama’s organizing model in California and South Carolina and later expanded on it through the general election.
“There was a tiny cohort within the campaign who all by and large never worked together before, but had that deep movement organizing approach to things,” DeTemple said.
Obama was a former community organizer himself, and campaign organizers, strategists, and pollsters said they felt a synergy with him as they learned the craft of one-on-one interactions with volunteers and launched online tools to reach more voters. The approach drew more people willing to do more work. “People began to own the campaign, began to see their own stories. That was something that was really important,” Ganz said.
One exemplar of the approach was California Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Dean campaign veteran who developed Obama’s organizing model in California and oversaw teams in 14 western states. She shared her own story as an anti-Iraq War protester galvanized to push for better health care after a close friend was diagnosed with HIV. She had a staff of just six in California, but some 500 volunteers, each in turn responsible for their own teams.
“Prior to Obama, I don’t think we as a Democratic Party valued organizing in the same kind of way,” she said. “We began realizing that organizing can be a tool for winning.”
Wicks and others also helped put together a series of “Camp Obama” training sessions nationwide, and Ganz was brought in to lead discussions on personal narrative and leadership. Several took place in minority communities, where many volunteers didn’t have the luxury of volunteering their time while juggling work, children, and other responsibilities.
“Part of what we did was create these Latino ‘Camp Obamas’ in the heart of our communities to show there was a way in,” said Stephanie Valencia, who served as special assistant to Obama. The Obama campaign “created community, it created ownership over your stake in the campaign.”
More than anything, their efforts were patient and organic. “I don’t think the Obama coalition set out to campaign for this group, that group, and that group and put them all together,” Obama pollster David Brink said. “It was more this grass-roots style, neighbor-to-neighbor way of doing it, and since Obama himself was an organizer from his days in Chicago, there was a natural synchronization between his style and the campaign style.”
The Obama coalition was supposed to, many had hoped, propel Democratic presidential victories for years to come. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton struggled to recruit white, working-class voters, for reasons that analysts are still parsing today. Likely reasons include sexism, intensified political polarization, and missteps by her campaign.
In the 2020 presidential race,some candidates who invested heavily made some gains but also faced other limits. Enthusiastic supporters of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., threw house parties modeled after those of the Obama campaign, and their surrogates were among the most compelling speakers on the campaign trail. Prior to his run, Buttigieg even took in a workshop for US mayors on personal narrative that was led by Ganz.
Sanders had the advantage of lessons learned from his 2016 presidential run against Clinton; he hired Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser deeply instilled with Ganz’s teachings.
More than 20 years ago, Rocha took part in a union leadership training program at Harvard — “the only time I ever attended college," he says — as a member of a United Steelworkers union in Texas. Ganz was one of his instructors. Sanders staffers led training sessions “almost verbatim” based on Ganz’s teachings, Rocha said, and integrated his model of organizing into events that resonated with Latinos and young people across the West. That helped Sanders win Nevada’s caucuses and the California primary this year.
But similar efforts didn’t work in South Carolina, where Biden held strong ties to the Black community and gained momentum with the coveted endorsement of South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn.
“At a certain point, it stops being about how much you are investing in the community, and it starts being about momentum,” Rocha said.
Cristóbal Alex, a Biden senior adviser, said the campaign has tried to infuse some of Ganz’s ideals and approaches into their work, particularly in battleground states such as Arizona and Florida, with the scant resources it had before Biden’s primary wins led to a surge in fund-raising.
But Biden did not have to rely as much as other candidates on introducing himself to voters or building relationships after serving as Obama’s vice president for eight years. And his success so far may owe as much to his own persona and reminding people of his character and experience. The former vice president also could still reach out to some of Ganz’s top acolytes who worked for other 2020 Democratic candidates to bring more of that approach into his campaign.
Alex expects the Biden campaign to do more Ganz-style organizing in the months ahead as it devotes more effort to Latino and youth outreach.
“It is indisputable that other campaigns had more money,” he said. Of Sanders’ strength with Latino voters, Alex said, “You are going to see the narrative starting to shift.”
“Organizing is critical,” he said. “We have a great organizing team, it’s scale-able, and should we be in the general election, it will be critical.”