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Poli-tech and Organizing: An Interview with Michael Moschella

Michael Moschella knows how to organize - that’s one thing you can be sure of. The CEO of Organizing.Center and former Vice President of Organizing, Politics & Advocacy at NationBuilder, he has been at the forefront of the leadership development and civic engagement community for over a decade.

Prior to joining the team at NationBuilder, Michael served as Chief Organizer and Political Director for the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy. At Ecanvasser, we were lucky to get the opportunity to get Michael’s insight into the world of campaigns and the way in which partisanship can work in poli-tech. We also discussed the similarities between start-ups and campaigns and the need for leadership in organizing.

What campaign has really impressed you in recent times and what were they doing different, if anything?

Mike: There are four main functions in any campaign: fundraising, organizing people, communications, and policy. I like to think about innovation in each zone. In the fundraising world, the DCCC has been a real leader by building a tremendous online raising operation, supported by great data and targeting efforts. They've crushed their counterpart (NRCC) in this zone and kept the DCCC afloat while the NRCC has seized many other advantages. In the people organizing zone, I was really impressed with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's effort. He faced a city-wide elected official who had support from both labor and business, and he won by engaging more people, faster, and built a sense of real community. Here's an example: to this day I can still go on his site, LAmayor.org, and see everyone in his community to whom I'm connected on Facebook and Twitter. In the communications world, I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is textbook. His voter file was fully targeted by issue and connected to every platform to communicate with voters, including Facebook and Twitter buttressing standard phone, doors, and email strategies. He used tailored and smart communications to drive a big policy wedge and post a stunning landslide victory against an opponent who Democrats saw as a gold standard. Lastly, in the policy zone, I'd point to Obama. Weird, right? I don't mean his administration, I mean his campaign, and here's why: the Obama campaign (especially in '08) turned policy engagement into a way to gain many more volunteers and donors too. He built big, open, functional policy adviser teams and brought those well-connected, well-heeled people deep into the campaign's other functions. It was a brilliant structure that 2016 GOP challengers should copy.

NationBuilder is a good example of non-partisan poli-tech, are we destined to always have technology divided along partisan lines in the US?

Mike: Every technology used by every political campaign is 100% non-partisan. What we have are partisan middlemen who are trusted to implement nonpartisan tech stacks. For example, take the Democratic NGPVAN platform. They build websites using nonpartisan CMS systems. They enhance data from nonpartisan corporate data partners. They send emails through nonpartisan email server companies. Their coding is nonpartisan language. Their donations flow through nonpartisan merchant accounts and banks. Phone calls made from NGPVAN are made through nonpartisan telecom lines. And they sell it to nonpartisan groups like the Realtors (who spend a ton of money fighting Democrats). However, they have built a genius system of selling through state party chairs and training through the DNC, essentially in a partisan conglomerate of middlemen. Likewise, I think NationBuilder is also best executed through partisan consultants who have the trust of campaigns and can really put the technology to use because they have the incentive of an enemy to defeat. NationBuilder's message is an opportunity for everyone regardless of party, but this is just lip service in the political world because the platform's best use is partisan competition.

It seems the intersection between a grassroots organization and social media is only just being explored. Can you see ways in which these two modes can be used by campaigns to build better communities?

Mike: I agree 100%. Right now there's a huge divide between people who know the nuts and bolts of digital marketing and people who know the nuts and bolts of grassroots organizing. They're really good at their particular thing (and make money), so they have little incentive learn the culture, values, and goals of the other. But eventually, we won't be able to call landlines anymore, and will need to ID voters mostly through social media conversations. And eventually, people will have completely tuned out of saturated online ads, and we'll need to use ad dollars to capture contact info and build communities. Each side will need to learn the tactics of the other. Firms that do this first will win. I'm happy to help.

Start-up culture, from which campaigns are meant to learn so much, often use the Lean Startup Method, ie, Build-Measure-Learn. How can campaigns apply this to their messaging?

Mike: Campaigns are the best startups in the world. They have a fixed end-date, a clear way to win, and a whole new product to launch every time. They're also some of the worst-managed startups. This is why you see professional managers who've built a real manual of how to execute (like Robbie Mook of Clinton fame and Scott Fairchild of Rahm Emanuel fame) become so valuable. The problem isn't the application of Build-Measure-Learn as much as it is ownership. These managers can elect a President, but they don't get to keep 1-2% of the oval office like they would if they were Head of Sales for a tech startup. As a result, there's a big financial incentive to build a system and execute it repeatedly as a startup exec, but almost zero incentive to do so as a campaign manager. They get their win and then take lucrative corporate government relations contracts so they can be invested.

You’re clearly passionate about building leaders in communities, what do you think it takes to become a great leader?

Mike: Most great leaders are never really recognized as such and wouldn't call themselves great. (I often catch people off guard by calling myself a mediocre campaign manager.) That's because great leaders do 100 things behind the scenes every day and sacrifice to make everyone around them better. In our culture we often find the publicity hog and say, "look at this amazing leader!" Those people are usually actually usually just OK leaders - and you can usually find out by asking the people who work for them. I love Jim Collins' five levels of leadership in the book Good to Great as a way to view this. Follow the pathway Collins lays out.

*Photo courtesy of Mike Blevis

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