The Paper Tiger?

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In this week’s dead tree edition I have a story about Organizing for America, the remnants of the Obama campaign housed at the Democratic National Committee. I went canvassing on Long Island with OFA volunteers — a rather fruitless exercise as when they discovered I was with TIME they sent me door knocking to the homes of half the Democratic local committee members: folks they knew would turn out on election day. I also dug up my old notebooks and called a few of thousands of folks I met covering the Obama campaign for nearly two years. Many of their stories were the same. Some said they’re still involved but they’re dispirited at the steep drop off of volunteers. Others said they’d dropped off a while ago.

Here’s one I found particularly illustrating: In the 2008 campaign, Jen Abrams virtually put her life on hold for 10 months to work for Barack Obama. The Brooklyn choreographer, 38, who had never in her adult life volunteered for a campaign, single-handedly signed up more than 1,000 volunteers and organized bus trips most weekends to Pennsylvania to door knock, phone bank and make signs. But this time around she’s ignored the near daily email entreaties to volunteer for Democratic candidates ahead of the midterms. “I’m fired up about a lot of things but they’re not electoral politics; for example, I’ve started a non-profit. I’m on the Obama mailing list. I get a lot of stuff, but I don’t do anything with them,” she says, taking a break from home renovations in early September. “I think in many ways we were working for the dream and that’s not the same as working for the President. Presidents have to make compromises.”

In December 2009, Abrams sent her 1,000+ volunteers a survey asking them what, if anything, still engaged them about politics. Only 74 people expressed an interest in working with OFA, 51 said they would consider volunteering for candidates and just 40 said they were curious about the Democratic Party. “I don’t know if it’s the President’s fault, or OFA’s fault, that the energy has shifted,” Abrams says.

In my story, I note that OFA is spending a lot of money — $30 million, the lion’s share of the $50 million the DNC has this cycle — to turn out first time and intermittent voters that came out for Obama in 2008. “It’s a gamble,” says James Carville, a Democratic strategist. “If the drop off voters don’t come back it’ll be a giant waste of money and they’ll get criticized for it.”