They come with their signs and banners on the 14th of every month to mark the shootings at Newtown, Conn.—a hundred or so protesters in front of the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, a boxy, glass-walled building surrounded by blooming trees in a suburb of Washington.
“I am here to show my senator, who has an A-rating from the NRA, that there is another voice,” says Donna Lipresti, a 60-year-old law-firm administrator from northern Virginia, who hoists a sign calling for background checks for gun buyers. Similar grassroots demonstrations, petition drives and vigils have been unfolding across the United States.
These are not just spontaneous local events. As President Barack Obama has been pushing hard for gun-control legislation, protests like these are part of an ambitious and expensive political experiment by his top campaign strategists. It is an unprecedented, and controversial, tactic that aims to convert Obama’s cutting-edge, get-out-the-vote expertise into a massive machine to grind laws through Congress.
“You can’t change Washington from the inside,” Obama proclaimed after his re-election last November. He won the White House in 2008 but promptly lost control of the Washington agenda when his health care plan ran into a buzz saw of angry town-hall meetings and Tea Party protests. In 2010, he lost the House of Representatives to Republicans and, with it, the ability to easily pass legislation.
Among the spoils of his re-election campaign was a voter-mobilization machine unlike any other in political history. After the votes were counted, Obama was left with a “grassroots army” of 2.2 million volunteers, and “social media assets” that included 33 million Facebook friends, 26 million Twitter followers and 17 million email subscribers, according to an internal memo obtained by the Washington Post. The campaign also had an in-house database containing details about his supporters compiled since 2008, and software to analyze them that had been designed by some of the most creative minds hired away from Silicon Valley.
If these millions could be called upon to vote for him, perhaps they could also be inspired to write a letter to a senator about an upcoming vote, or to sign a petition, or show up at a rally. Perhaps it could become that counterweight to the NRA and the Tea Party that he’d been missing all along.
Rather than handing this treasure chest over to the Democratic Party, Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, created a new organization that would, on paper, claim to be independent of the White House, but, in practice, would work to serve its goals.
The new group is called Organizing for Action (OFA), keeping the initials of the “Obama for America” campaign. It’s also keeping the campaign’s website, barackobama.com, because a conservative NRA supporter outsmarted the team and snapped up the OFA domain name.
OFA is run by Jon Carson, the national field director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, who worked at the White House, heading up outreach to his political base. Messina is chairman. But despite these close ties to the President and an overt focus on advocating for his agenda, the organization has been registered as a “non-profit” and “non-partisan” tax-exempt organization dedicated to the “public welfare.”
And there’s the rub. Critics say it has created a new vehicle for high-dollar donors to funnel money to the President’s interests—undermining the same campaign-finance laws the President says he supports.
By law, such non-profits can accept unlimited financial contributions, and are not required to disclose the names of donors or amounts they gave. In contrast, groups registered as “political action committees” (PACs)—groups openly dedicated to electing a candidate—are barred from accepting contributions of more than $2,600 per donor and must disclose who gives money, and how it is spent. They cannot accept money from corporations, labour unions, or foreigners.
For those concerned about unchecked flows of big money into politics, who watched as spending on November’s election reached a record $7 billion, this is the latest—and perhaps the most egregious—in a string of disappointments. As a candidate in 2008, Obama praised public campaign financing, but then opted out of the system to avoid the spending restrictions that came with it; he condemned the rise of “super PACs,” which can take unlimited contributions, but eventually blessed the creation of one for his own re-election by his former aides. And with the creation of OFA—which is neither a PAC nor a super PAC, but a non-profit advocacy group—critics say he has gone further than anyone before him. “This is a very troubling exercise that reflects that Obama has really come to embrace the wild world of unlimited money in politics, despite his populist rhetoric,” says Craig Holman, lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that advocates campaign-finance reform. “This is using non-profits to funnel all kinds of money, and unlimited sources of money, into the political process, which is very likely going to be used for electioneering purposes.” He calls the creation of OFA a means of “laundering money for political purposes,” and sees “no difference” between it and a similar group, Crossroads GPS, created by former Bush strategist Karl Rove. And, for the first time, it’s a sitting President doing it.
“If Barack Obama can do this, then everyone else should be able to do it, as well—every member of Congress, every future president. He is setting the standard for the abuse of campaign money,” says Holman.
OFA has insisted it would advocate public policy issues only, and would not be involved “in any way” in elections or partisan political activity. Common Cause, another campaign-finance watchdog group, called the claim of independence “laughable.”
On March 13, Obama spoke to donors to OFA at a founders summit at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. The purpose was to “help chart out” the issues the group would focus on, brainstorm and talk strategy. The price of admission: $50,000 per seat.
The New York Times reported that the group planned to raise $50 million, half through contributions from big-ticket donors, and that it was offering periodic meetings with the President for those who kicked in half-a-million dollars or more.
“Anyone who wants to buy something from Obama just throws in the money to this group and Obama knows it,” says Holman. “That’s the real point of these outside groups.” The potential for corruption, he said, “is exceedingly high.”
Under pressure, OFA organizers announced in March they would voluntarily disclose the names of people who paid $250 or more, although they refused to list their employers and occupations—masking whether top executives at a particular company or industry were making a collective push, for example.
The group also said it would voluntarily avoid taking money directly from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreigners—but that it would accept funds from wealthy individuals and unions. “Any notion that there is a set price for a meeting with the President of the United States is just wrong,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters when asked about OFA. Messina said: “We don’t do campaigns. We are a non-partisan organization dedicated to passing the President’s legislative agenda.”
As a non-profit, OFA is barred from running campaign commercials or “electioneering” for specific candidates; it can only advocate for issues. The hitch is that some non-profit organizations have been known to run “sham issue ads” that are campaign endorsements or attacks dressed up as advocacy. So far, OFA has focused on advocating for legislation—and the results are mixed.
In April, OFA announced it raised $4.9 million in the first quarter, from more than 100,000 donors. According to Messina, 1.5 million people got involved in the first two months of the organization. They included some of the people in front of NRA headquarters.
Organizer Joanna Simon, a 70-year-old retiree, was an Obama campaign team leader in her hometown of Reston, Va., who says she was able to use mailing lists from OFA to pull her local movement together in favour of gun control. Sue Langley, a 64-year-old business owner, who held a rally for more than 300 people in the nearby town of Vienna, said she benefited from OFA training, online issue briefings, PowerPoint materials such as statistics about gun deaths that were plastered on signs at the demonstration, and the ability to connect small local efforts with hundreds of similar events around the country. “This is what I call Obama politics,” she says. “It’s a new way of doing things.”
Ben Zuhl, a 62-year-old retired IT worker in Falls Church, Va., said OFA had helped him organize his local gun-control movement, which included amassing 3,400 signatures on a petition to present to his senator, who had an A-rating from the NRA. The group provided him with software. “It’s a nice tool that allows you to keep track of where you’ve been, print out lists of houses to go to and map the houses.” He has been focused on gun control, but is using OFA’s online briefings to learn more about the President’s agenda on immigration reform, and plans to stay involved.
Author Sasha Issenberg, who studied Obama’s high-tech voter-mobilization effort for his book Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, says OFA has in its possession an unprecedented cache of data, years of information about Obama’s supporters and their behaviour: who was most likely to donate money, in response to what kind of emails, on what subject, using which key words, sent at which particular times of day. “This soft information on your supporters and inventory of interactions is hard to build up new,” notes Issenberg.
But there is one caveat: while there is reliable research on how many volunteer phone calls and door-knocks translate into a vote on Election Day, the cause-and-effect between volunteer activism and legislation is less clear. There is no logarithm for predicting the number of petitions that will sway a particular senator’s vote; legislating is more sausage-making than science.
Whatever impact OFA has had since its launch, it wasn’t enough to overcome the gun-rights lobby when the Senate voted on several gun-control proposals on April 17. The results were a huge disappointment for Obama’s legions. The most modest of the proposals—to expand background checks to all commercial transactions, including gun shows—got 54 votes, six shy of the 60 required to overcome Republican blocking tactics. The “no” votes included four Democrats from conservative states. A ban on assault weapons drew only 40 votes; a limitation on the size of ammunition magazines drew only 47. Meanwhile, a measure to loosen gun laws by allowing a concealed-weapon permit from one state to be valid across the country got 57 votes.
It’s simply too early to tell whether OFA, over the longer term, can make a difference to the legislative process, says Norm Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “To be frank, there are not many issues where a real mobilization on its part will sway Republicans in Congress,” he said. “But they could make a difference in framing issues and putting pressure on individual senators, or making it more difficult to defy the President on an important issue.”
And what will happen to those millions of email addresses and activists after Obama leaves office? In theory, OFA could serve as a permanent institution to carry on his political vision by marshalling supporters behind causes, or even bestowing endorsements in a Democratic primary. “If the Obama Presidential Library will be the entity that protects his historical memory, then OFA will be the entity that fights its political battles in perpetuity,” predicts Issenberg.
Back in Falls Church, Ben Zuhl says the defeat of gun-control legislation was disappointing, but galvanizing. “We’ve had a lot more people come up to us and say, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’ than before.” Leaders at OFA rallied morale by holding a conference call for volunteers with Vice President Joe Biden: “He said he and the President were not giving up,” recalled Zuhl. But it was not all defeat—the Virginia senator with the A-rating from the NRA had received Zuhl’s petition and voted in favour of the background checks. “It was a big change and we thanked him for that,” says Zuhl. “It’s a first step and we’ll continue on.”