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Reformers Try to Match Union “Ground Game”

Hillel Aron | February 22, 2013

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The Coalition for School Reform has been running TV ads and hitting voters with a blizzard of glossy flyers.  But — having closely lost 2011’s big-money campaign between Bennett Kayser and Luis Sanchez — the reform-oriented campaign committee is also taking its field organization very seriously.

Addisu Demissie

Field organizing — also sometimes called a campaign “ground game” — is the mundane but essential process of finding, creating, and then motivating supporters to vote for a candidate on election day.

“These campaigns are, in many instances, won and lost in the field,” said Sean Clegg, the Coalition’s political consultant. “And the Coalition for School Reform has put together a state-of-the-art field program that is really zeroing in on our voters with pinpoint accuracy.”

To run its 2013 field campaign, the Coalition has hired a firm called 50+1 Strategies, headed by former Obama campaign operative Addisu Demissie, who’s bringing some high-tech tools and techniques to the familiar process of walking streets, knocking on doors, and making phone calls.

“We’re really running a very data-driven, metrics-based, technologically advanced field campaign,” said Demissie, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 “get-out-the-vote” campaign in Ohio. “We’re trying to talk to the right people in the right way.”

In the months leading up to an election, field organization is about identifying which voters to talk to, and which need convincing. Then, in the final weeks, the effort shifts to getting out the vote — mobilizing the voters who are already convinced to actually get to their polling place or mail in their absentee ballot.

Traditionally, volunteers and staff will canvas areas, going door to door with a pen and paper, finding out who plans to vote and for whom.

One of takeaways from the 2011 big-money School Board race was that Luis Sanchez, the Coalition’s candidate, got beaten on the ground.

“There was just no turnout,” said Parke Skelton, who ran that year’s Coalition campaign, in an interview with News21 at the time. “So UTLA and the Associated Administrators of L.A. who were backing [Bennett] Kayser with 3,000 to 4,000 members in the district were able to win a seat that they shouldn’t have been able to win.”

The ground advantage for the union-backed candidate isn’t anything unusual. Not only do the unions raise and spend money on behalf of their candidates, but union members — classroom teachers — can function as a built-in and well-practiced get-out-the-vote campaign.

The Coalition, with a different team of consultants and an even bigger budget (thanks in part to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee) than two years ago, seems determined not to make the same mistake this time.

Volunteers for 50+1 have been in the field for the last month or two with smart phones, entering in their data electronically, saving countless hours of data entry.

Once they have the data, 50+1 uses algorithms and analytics to determine which voters are already sympathetic to the “school reform” cause, which voters need convincing, and which voters need to be motivated to actually vote.

“The use of statistical modeling and analytics, in my opinion, was the reason that Obama won the election, certainly in 2012,” said Demissie. “Because it’s all about talking to the right people.”

The approach, said Clegg, is not only “high-yield, but surgical.”

So far, the Coalition has spent $332,000 on 50+1’s services, with surely more to come as the campaign heads into the final stretch.

Perhaps the biggest race to watch will be in District 4, which pits Coalition-backed candidate Kate Anderson against Steve Zimmer, who not only enjoys the benefits of incumbency, but also the backing of three major unions — UTLA, SEIU, and the LA County Federation of Labor.
Demissie believes that the Coalition can match the union’s usual advantage when it comes to field operations.

“The Coalition has really invested in one-on-one conversations,” he said, “which is essential.”

Previous posts: Campaign Consultants Win — Either WayUpdate: Outside Spending Tops $2 Million, Grows NegativeUpdate: UTLA-PACE Spends, Bloomberg DonatesCoalition TV Ad Attacks Zimmer over Robert Kennedy School

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