A Short History of Field Operations

Jim Broadbent as “Boss” Tweed in the movie Gangs of New York.

It might be romantic to think of modern field operations as having grown organically from the community organizing traditions of people like Saul Alinksy and the Farmworkers, but its origins are actually much closer to the “ward heeler” operations of the likes of Boss Tweed and the Chicago Machine.

Modern professional field operation can be traced directly back to traditional Democratic political organizations and their counterparts – urban progressives who saw what the “ward bosses” were doing, and thought, “we need to be as effective as they are, but without the leg-breaking”.

As anyone who has seen “Gangs of New York” knows, the traditional urban GOTV operations were originally how politicians collected on the favors they doled out the rest of the year in terms of patronage jobs and virtually any other form of constituency service.

Every ward had a boss, and every precinct had a captain, and those captains knew every last person in their neighborhood. They made sure people would show up on election day, even if they had to provide babysitting and rides, or beer and bribes.

A group of reform-minded Progressives in Chicago, tired of getting beaten by the dominant “Chicago Machine” year after year, set out to duplicate the process through an organization called the “Independent Precinct Operation”, which later merged with “Independent Voters of Illinois” to become IVI-IPO.

A professor named Dick Simpson at the University of Illinois at Chicago was a driving force behind this movement. Simpson ran against the legendary “machine” Congressman Dan Rostenkowski in every election for many years, making gains each time, but more importantly, learning how the machine did its work, and showing people how to execute a targeted precinct operation with unpaid volunteers and without patronage to hand out.

You can read all about how it is done in Professor Simpson’s  “Winning Elections: A Handbook in Participatory Politics“, a must-read for anyone interested in field operations.

Similar developments were taking place across America, with many organizers coming out of the strong Democratic Party communities in cities like Boston and New York.

While there have always been skilled operatives for hire, particularly those with deep ties to areas with historic precinct operations, the 1990’s brought us the growth of national consulting firms who would drop into any state or campaign and create a robust field operation, staffed by trained college students, often from out of town.

One notable example is the work of the Strategic Consulting Group, formed by Robert Creamer. Creamer and his wife, Congresswoman Jan Shakowsky are both members of Chicago’s close-knit Progressive community, as is our community-organizer-in-chief, Barack Obama.

Another prominent consulting firm is FieldWorks, founded by veteran managers of national field operations for the DNC and several presidential campaigns. (I worked for Fieldworks in the VA 2003 coordinated campaign)

These firms have developed recently to include voter file management, micro-targeting, and Internet-enabled tools like “phone-from-home”.

I was fortunate enough to study with Professor Simpson at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time I interned with the IVI-IPO.

One of the most important things I learned during that time, is that it can take a decade or more to build a really effective precinct operation, because the power to persuade and really get out the vote is in the personal relationships that your local organizers have with the people in their communities.

I also learned, working in other field operations, such as the NH 2002 coordinated and the VA 2003 coordinated, that dropping strangers in from out of town doesn’t always work that well. Scripted appeals aren’t as effective in person-to-person outreach as real conversation. And field operations designed for dense urban communities don’t always translate well to more dispersed rural regions. In all cases, while you may be able to conduct fairly effective ID and GOTV operations, you dramatically lose effectiveness when it comes to persuasion, as compared with home-grown precinct operations.

While a drop-in field operation is better than nothing, it is worth investing in the long-term development of locally grown precinct operations.

In smaller towns or rural communities, serious consideration should be given to conducting political outreach through existing networks of social interaction rather than the artificial construct of precinct organization, especially one brought in from outside. Social connections are very strong in small and rural communities, with many opportunities for interaction, and people are far more likely to be persuaded by friends and neighbors than by people from out of town.


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