Barack Obama for America Campaign Office Volunteers


This case concerns an Obama for America satellite campaign office volunteer base in Iowa in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election.

During the 2008 election cycle, then-Senator Obama’s campaign operated a headquarters office in downtown Des Moines and over 50 satellite offices spread across Iowa. Each office was designated as a local hub for all election activities in specific areas, also called ‘turfs’. These offices were managed by one to several ‘field organizers’, each responsible for organizing and mobilizing the voters in a specific turf they had been assigned to. While the organizing system that is a political campaign office can be looked at through a variety of different scopes, involving a large combination of types of resources, this case study will specifically examine the organizing activities undertaken by a field organizer related to recruitment and management of their office’s volunteer base.

What resources are being organized?

This case study will consider the volunteers within a field organizer’s turf as the resources being organized.

Technically in this organizing system, it is true that a field organizer is managing many classes of resource types, from volunteer snacks to paper clips. However, the volunteers themselves represent an invaluable and more cardinal set of resources to their field organizer.

Because volunteers have agency, they each have a nearly infinite assortment of affordances that could be associated with them and are essentially immune to the concept of effectivity. This means the supported interactions are potentially infinite though in practice limited to a specific set of desired interactions with voters and other volunteers.

In every case, the selection step is self-executing: once an individual expresses that they would like to be a volunteer, they automatically become a volunteer resource for a field organizer. Once an individual has become a volunteer, they may undergo additional training in order to take on new responsibilities to better assist their field organizer. This could mean everything from becoming ‘Intern Supervisor’ to ‘Neighborhood Team Leader’, meaning that some resources in this system may come to utilize their agency to help organize sub-sets of the system itself.

Why are the resources organized?

After advertising, having active volunteers is the next most effective way for a Presidential campaign team to drive more supporters to the voting booth on election day. Volunteers can make personal connections with voters and supporters over the phone and face-to-face, and have a much more measurable impact on an election than ordering up robo-calls.

However, modern American elections are often decided by the voting decisions of as little as 1% of the voting electorate. Effectively organizing volunteers at the campaign office level according to the imposed policies and organizing principles of the managing authority that is the campaign headquarters, is therefore an extremely important consideration for all Presidential Campaigns.

How much are the resources organized?

The structure of the organizing system for the 2008 election established volunteers as active resources that were to be managed as closely as was possible without reducing overall effectiveness.

This emphasis on high efficiency was specifically designed to enable a field organizer to activate volunteer resources on the fly depending on an office’s daily needs. However, such efficiencies often led to a field organizer creating ad hoc and implicit classification schemes, with highly precise faceted terms used to organize their volunteer resource descriptions. This could create problems if an organizer shifted to a different town mid-cycle, or if their organizing schema was to be shared with a different organizer (if both had highly ad-hoc methods of arranging their resource descriptions, this created problems for any kind of cross-walk evaluation).

Volunteers themselves were assigned to within various levels of a faceted ‘team’ classification scheme, based mostly around collocation. Volunteers could be assigned as part of one or many of a neighborhood team, a university student group or some other grouping along a distinguishing characteristic (this could be say, a shared interest or cultural self-identification like a ‘Moms for Obama’ team). Once in a team, members of a team might be reached out to at once to accomplish shared tasks, instead of having to recall them each individually.

In addition to being assigned a ‘team’, volunteers’ resource descriptions will often come to be tagged using a property-based categorization. ‘Phone-banking’, ‘Door-to-door canvassing’ are each examples of tags a volunteer might receive depending on the properties they display.

  • When are the resources organized?

The field organizer is continually reorganizing the volunteers from his or her turf according to any changes to a near infinite set of variables. 100 new volunteers being identified in a turf might cause the total reevaluation of an existing team structure, with ripple effects throughout the rest of the system. Or a set of volunteers’ class might start up again. Or a volunteer might drop out. Because of the need to continually reevaluate the current organization, a field organizer must ensure that their system is highly flexible and able to accession new volunteers seamlessly.

  • Who does the organizing?

The field organizer is responsible for developing and maintaining his or her system of volunteers. The organizer is also responsible for continually shaping and reshaping the classification of volunteers within their system to maximize the number of volunteer interactions. This can mean completely reassigning volunteers to new teams, promoting or demoting volunteers out of certain roles, as well as offering training seminars in order to enable volunteers to support new property-based interactions.

  • Other considerations

In order to maximize the value derived from a volunteer base, a field organizer must pay special care to maintaining these resources. This could mean anything from paying them visits when they’re ill, to providing them with coffee when they show up to make calls at 9am on a Monday, to providing remedial phone call training. While the prior questions might not elucidate this sufficiently, it is important to underline that in this organizing system, maintenance is the most important activity that can be undertaken by the organizer to sustain the number of resources in the system, as well as ensure its health and longevity. A poorly maintained volunteer base is an obsolescent volunteer base.