A Short History of Field Operations

roykobossIt 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 city political organizations and their counterparts – local activists who saw what the “ward bosses” were doing, and thought, “we need to be as effective as they are”.

Back in the days of “Boss Tweed,” city voter turnout operations were one way 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.

Professor 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.

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.

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

Similar developments were taking place across America, with many organizers coming out of similar organizations in cities like Boston and New York.

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 campaign and the VA 2003 coordinated campaign, that dropping strangers in from out of town doesn’t always work that well. In person-to-person outreach, scripted appeals aren’t as effective as real conversation. And field operations designed for dense urban communities don’t always translate well to more dispersed rural regions.

In smaller towns or rural communities many people are wary of outsiders. Serious consideration should be given to conducting outreach through existing networks. 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.

Old hands of New Hampshire politics understand that in some areas, you will reach a lot more voters at a “Ham and Bean” dinner than trying to knock on doors that are at the end of mile long driveways and marked with “Trespassers will be Shot.”

In many rural areas, even postal and sanitation workers don’t go to people’s homes. People bring their mail and garbage to town. Stories of campaigns meeting voters at the town dump on Sundays after church are legendary enough to have made it into an episode of West Wing.

In any case, with standard canvassing, you may be able to conduct fairly effective ID and GOTV operations, but when it comes to persuasion, home-grown precinct operations can be far more effective.

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

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