On a chilly May evening, a handful of President Barack Obama's campaign volunteers gathered in a narrow office space in south Minneapolis.
They weren't there to rehash stories from last year's election. Rather, the Minneapolis-based group would spend the next few hours calling Obama supporters in the 3rd Congressional District, and asking them to show up at a gun violence prevention rally at Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen's office later in the week.
The event was part of a national day of action targeting U.S. House members on background checks for gun sales organized by Organizing for Action (OFA), the 4.0 version of Obama's campaign infrastructure.
"We are focusing on a district where there is a possibility to persuade a representative," said southwest Minneapolis resident Jean Ross, who was the chief organizer of the event, where Paulsen was given a petition to support stricter gun rules. A similar event was held at 2nd Congressional District Rep. John Kline's office.
Using a national network of volunteers who worked to elect Obama in 2008 and 2012, OFA is aimed at advancing Obama's agenda in Washington. Minnesota is one of 19 states where a paid coordinator is working with volunteers to drum up support for some of the promises Obama made on the campaign trail, including immigration reform and climate change mitigation.
"The election is only part of it," said Minneapolis resident Steve Lelchuk, who was working the phones. "My recollection is that Obama himself pointed out that 'you've got to make me do this. Sometimes on some things, you've got to show me that there's backing there.' "
The question is whether Obama's base can translate into a grassroots movement. Skeptics say that a similar venture during Obama's first administration fell flat.
ALL ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY
The OFA volunteers had a busy night ahead of them. Each had a few hours to contact as many people as they could on a thick list of past Obama supporters living in Edina, Eden Prairie and Bloomington.
The midweek phone bank was one of several held that week, and it offered a peek into the Obama machine that's twice elected him, one that is fueled by small teams of volunteers and an email list of millions of supporters.
It's a system that's all about accountability. Paid coordinators like Iowan Blair Lawton, who was recently recruited to work with volunteer chapter leaders in Minnesota, help bring the national goals of OFA to the local level. Meanwhile, chapter leaders keep tabs on a handful of volunteers who each have tasks to complete.
The idea is that volunteers are more likely to show up to phone bank, for instance, if they are accountable to a group of people that they know and have worked with before.
But showing up is just half the battle. These volunteers have to pique the interest of Minnesota's network of Obama supporters and donors. In addition to phone banks, OFA uses social media to connect with supporters. It aims to make an even bigger impact through earned media — for instance, a local television station that shows up at a rally such as the one planned at the Paulsen office.
Flipping through a stack of phone numbers and names, local OFA chapter leader Eva Maile-Ichkhanian said the list of supporters gathered and organized by OFA is so fine-tuned that the group rarely has trouble getting people to show up for events.
"A person who may be interested in gun violence prevention may not necessarily be interested in environmental stuff," said Eva Maile-Ichkhanian. "Everybody has their own pet peeve and their own priorities; there are so many different issues, so you don't necessarily have the same group of people. But you surprisingly will always find enough people to generate some action."
The Paulsen and Kline events brought out about 20 people each, according to Lawton. Still, some third district residents were unsure about OFA's efforts.
During the phone bank, Lelchuk spoke with a woman he described as "sympathetic but skeptical of the enterprise" because Paulsen is a Republican.
Indeed, Paulsen's district voted for Obama in 2012. But it was a narrow victory with Obama winning by less than one percentage point. Paulsen voted with his party 93 percent of the time in the last Congress, making him one of the more conservative members of the party. And even if Paulsen agreed to back a bill to stem gun violence, the Republican controlled House hasn't planned a vote on the issue.
A SECOND CHANCE FOR OFA
This isn't the first time Obama's base has regrouped to advance his agenda. During his first administration, Obama's campaign infrastructure morphed into Organizing for America.
But Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School who launched the "Camp Obama" community organizing training camps during Obama's first campaign, said Obama's highly motivated campaign volunteers were never put to good use.
Ganz points to the debate over health care reform as an example. Rather than task his supporters with generating grassroots support for the legislation, Obama negotiated with the pharmaceutical and insurance companies behind closed doors, Ganz said.
"They had this army mobilized out there, but they weren't ready to do battle," Ganz said. "So it atrophied and they couldn't put it to work. They weren't ready to do battle because it didn't fit their strategic objectives to do battle. It wilted. And it was tragic, many of us thought."
Jeremy Bird, who was a key field organizer during Obama's 2008 and 2012 bids and served as National Deputy Director of Organizing for America, said Obama's supporters were integral to passing the health care law. They called their lawmakers at precisely the right moment during the debate to move the bill forward.
"For 100 years, this country has tried to get health reform passed, and we got it passed," Bird said.
Ganz also believes that one of Organizing for America's biggest problems was that it was housed within the Democratic National Committee, which is focused on electing and protecting Democrats rather than advancing issues regardless of who supports them.
That "meant that they couldn't pressure Democrats," Ganz said. "And some of the big problems in the health care issue were people like [Montana Sen.] Max Baucus who were Democrats."
This time around, Organizing for Action, with its new name, is a non-partisan issue advocacy group based in Chicago, not Washington.
And that means OFA has more latitude in its actions. For instance, it organized an event in front of Republican Sen. John McCain's office in Arizona to thank him for voting for expanded background checks for gun purchases. At the same time, OFA has targeted Senate Democrats who voted against the bill. And it has purchased online ads to pressure GOP lawmakers, including Kline, to support stricter gun control.
Bird said that this time around, there's no campaign looming, which means Obama supporters can focus on issues rather than reelection prospects.
Another challenge is motivation. Organizing around issues is very different from organizing around Election Day.
Loralee DiLorenzo of Marine-on-St. Croix worked on Obama's 2012 election as part of a six-person team of weekly phone bank volunteers. She said she continues to donate money, but says she's "not that gun-ho about any particular issue."
"I feel that the urgency is off," DiLorenzo said. "And even though I agree that the issues are important, I'm letting the political process handle itself."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Most of the time OFA volunteers will be working to advance issues at the core of Obama's national agenda.
But local issues aren't out of the question. For instance, OFA pushed to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois earlier this year.
OFA also has the long-term in mind. In June, OFA will host a Minnesota-wide planning and training conference.
Still, it's not clear what the organization will be once Obama leaves office. Bird said that many of the participants will likely go on to run for office or become community leaders in their own right.
Maile-Ichkhanian said she hopes the training she and her peers have received from OFA will help them turn the group into something long-lasting.
"We are a different organization now," she said. "You try something. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, you shift gears. I'm hoping that we will be solid enough that this will turn into some permanent issue organizing group."