Obama Grassroots Army to be Reborn as a Political Nonprofit: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Updated below.

So now we know — Obama For America will relaunch as a political nonprofit. People had been speculating about the future of Obama’s grassroots juggernaut for months, particularly since the campaign started surveying its supporters about their interests and wishes for the future in November. And over the past few days, we began to hear that its new course would be announced in conjunction with a big campaign gathering over inauguration weekend. Today we heard the first details:

President Barack Obama and his aides plan to keep their campaign machine running to support his second-term agenda and will relaunch it in the coming days as a tax-exempt nonprofit group, a Democratic official said.

The new organization will be separate from the Democratic National Committee, where Obama for America operated during much of the president’s first term. The president’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, will be the national chairman of the group.

Some Republicans are apparently concerned about the new development:

The prospect already is making Republicans nervous. At a House GOP retreat this week, Republican leaders discussed their concern that the OFA machine, with its large voter database and volunteer network, would be used to generate grass-roots activism for Democratic issues. OFA efforts could gain more political fuel if Congress can’t reach agreements on hot-button issues such as guns and immigration.

A robust Obama advocacy machine persisting into the distant future? That could be a powerful force in our politics. As I told Dave Nyczepir in November,

“If their intent is to broaden this into institutions that can really further a progressive movement, and not just Barack Obama the candidate, it could be a really important thing for politics in the country for years to come,” Delany says. “It could also really become an important part of President Obama’s legacy because he only has four more years at the top; he’s a young man.”

But here’s the rub:

“It’s all going to come down to how many resources they devote to keeping the structure alive and volunteers engaged,”

So let’s think for a minute about what might NOT work out, in the spirit of helping our OFA friends see the traps before they fall into them. First off, lists naturally decay over time — people switch jobs, change email addresses, get bored with the messages, die, etc. If you don’t spend money to acquire new supporters and resources on cultivating the ones who stick around, the list is going to get smaller and smaller over time. List-shrinkage is a real problem: a percentage of your followers are going to unsubscribe from your list from every message you send, and even if you keep that number low (most of us in the advocacy world aim for an unsub rate of .1% to .2% per message), the drop-offs add up over time.

Second, the Obama campaign could get away with sending a ridiculously high volume of messages in both 2008 and 2012, in part because people knew that they were all building toward election day. Advocacy is different: without the urgency of a campaign, supporters are likely to tolerate fewer emails, and they may respond to those messages at a much lower rate than they did when the White House was on the line.

Finally, what if the reborn OFA turns out to be a paper tiger? Most Republican Congressmembers are in relatively safe districts, meaning that they might can ignore a vocal (and liberal) minority in their districts with impunity. If Obama mobilizes his grassroots supporters and DOESN’T end up getting what he wants, what happens then? Will supporters stick with him for the subsequent fights, or will people drop off in droves?

Don’t get me wrong; these aren’t predictions for what I think WILL happen. In fact, I suspect that OFA could turn out to be a long-lasting actor on the political stage, and a sincerely hope that Messina and company will share the knowledge the campaign gained through hard work and extensive testing with the rest of the progressive community. Republicans will no doubt see it as a means to perpetuate an Obama cult of personality, but if it helps him push his legislative agenda, it could change the way future presidents think about mobilizing and leveraging public opinion.

Update: A couple of other questions have come up in conversation with folks in the field. First, will the list get involved in Democratic primaries? That would definitely be a change from what the situation would have been had OFA gone to the DNC, as it did after 2008. And, how will the list play with other big advocacy groups? Will we all compete for the same pool of donors? Will “favored” groups get access to list members? For instance, would Messina send a message on behalf of a group like MoveOn? If so, how will OFA’s power to reward some groups but not others distort the advocacy landscape?

Update II: Below are a couple of Epolitics.com back articles exploring the idea of what happens to a list after a campaign and the idea of an ephemeral organizing model.

Update III: the Post has more details and a Michelle Obama video about the OFA changes.

Update IV: C&E’s Dave Dave Nyczepir asks a crucial question, whether the new Obama organization will be renting or selling data. In the process, Chris Massicotte (DSPolitical), Joe Green (NationBuilder) and I get good quotes.

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