Analytics for Organizing – with Andrew Claster
One of the most interesting things about organizing is the many different types of people you’ll find working by your side. Strategists generally assume most organizers are kids fresh out of college (or pulled from college—hey!), and that’s because there does seem to be a lot of young people. But as soon as you get comfortable thinking everyone else in the organizer training is just like you, you find out that guy over there is a lawyer, and the woman next to you was a contestant on The Voice, and quite a few people in the room have left their high-paying corporate jobs to join the same campaign you did.
This sort of thing happens a lot in organizing, but I suspect that everyone working on Obama’s first presidential campaign in Lebanon, Pennsylvania was still shocked to discover that their hardest working local field organizer, Andrew Claster, had a rich background in political polling, a master’s degree in economics, and the skillset that could have easily landed him on the campaign’s national analytics team.
Andrew, who now provides data and analytics consulting for political candidates and parties, non-profits, and for-profit organizations in the United States and overseas, was raised on organizing. His father, who was a civil rights worker in Kentucky in the late 1950s and early 1960s, taught Andrew to canvass from an early age. As a child, Andrew went with his father on canvasses for the Eastern Farmworkers Union in Bellport, Long Island and participated in weekly pro-choice demonstrations at a women’s health clinic nearby. He began volunteering on various campaigns in high school, and even got arrested for participating in a peaceful labor demonstration on his college campus.
All of this organizing made a career in politics an obvious choice for Andrew, despite his interest in history, economics, mathematics and physics. Andrew began working in politics because he had learned through organizing that the outcomes of political races can affect people’s lives in a very real way and that it is possible for an individual to influence those outcomes.
After graduate school, Andrew worked on political polling, doing microtargeting and developing tested talking points. But when then-Senator Obama won the general election in 2008, Andrew quit his job and joined the Obama campaign as a field organizer in Lebanon, PA—the town his father grew up in.
Andrew’s experience as a Field Organizer was similar to most organizers’ experience: incredibly tough and remarkably rewarding.
Despite being in a very red county, through the hard work of Andrew, his volunteers, and his fellow organizers, the county saw the second-largest Democratic improvement out of 67 counties in the state on election day.
Following this victory, Andrew joined Organizing for America as the deputy targeting director in 2009. There he worked with Dan Wagner to build the team that eventually expanded into the Obama for America Analytics Department. (You know the team—it’s been credited with revolutionizing the way campaigns are won.)
Working as an organizer on a historic community organizing-focused campaign in 2008 and as a leader on a groundbreaking analytics team in 2012, Andrew learned there is a lot of overlap in organizing and analytics.
The skill he cherishes most that he gained while organizing? Empowering others to lead—and in the process, helping them learn more about themselves and their own abilities. The skill he cherishes most that he gained while working on analytics teams? Developing the necessary management skills to delegate to others, to trust people to learn and make mistakes, and to train the next generation of leaders.
As someone who has worked both as an organizer and as an analyst, Andrew has learned that the skills he’s developed in each role helps him to be better in the other.
As an organizer, Andrew learned so much that made him a better analyst.
- Keep your scripts relatively short and tight. This is critical for polling, for blind IDs, and for canvass and phone scripts. You will lose volunteers and organizers if your scripts are overly complex or long.
- Scripts have to be interactive and flexible. No one wants to read or listen to a 30 second monologue on the phone or at the door and it won’t have any impact.
- You can’t run every test or experiment you would like to run. You have to prioritize based on expected vote gain per dollar or volunteer hour.
- There are many opportunities for data loss or mischaracterization. The question can be misread by the canvasser, or misunderstood by the respondent. The answer can be misrecorded by the canvasser or misstated by the respondent. The data can be read or entered incorrectly.
- Lists and models have to be updated regularly to incorporate new field data. No organizer or volunteer is going to trust a list or a model that keeps sending them back to the same Republican house every week.
As an analyst, he learned so much that would have made him a better organizer.
- There are always an infinite number of things you could be working on. (*Editor’s note- how REAL is that?) Figure out which is most likely to deliver the greatest return on investment (ROI) in terms of votes per hour or votes per dollar and do that first.
- Question assumptions and past practices. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it is right or best.
- If you have a question, figure out how to test it. For example, if you have two voter registration messages and you don’t know which is better, test them both out and see which performs better.
After all of his work in analytics, there’s a reason Andrew still calls organizing, “the toughest job [he’ll] ever love.” Being an organizer is mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding. But it’s also magical—it gave Andrew, just like it gives you, the chance to influence people’s lives on a one-on-one basis AND on a grand scale.
Next time you hit a challenge, ask yourself how the principles of analytics (or of your unique expertise) can improve your organizing, and how you might be able to incorporate best practices from other job fields to be better at yours.