Lessons from the field: what (not to) do if you’re a smart campaigner.
Phone banks, direct mail, and campaign events are all great, but they’re supplements. The road to the White House happens one home at a time.
And that’s good news. From the top to the bottom, every one recognises the importance — indeed the supremacy of grassroots campaigning. This means that one of the most un-glamorous jobs in political campaigns is the most important.
This is the case for a number of reasons, most of which can’t be delivered by the aforementioned methods. It makes people feel targeted, but not in the creepy way that online adverts can do. That’s because as well as targeting, it makes the person feel wanted; almost selected, like the candidate — or more accurately, their team — has singled the person out and decided that person warrants face-to-face interaction.
Significantly, it can cut through the national media bullshit too. Trump is going to hit hard on his latest catch-phrase ‘Do Nothing Democrats’. If individuals are having memorable conversations with actual Democrat activists on their door steps— what becomes more believable? Massive community grassroots campaigning that communities see with their own eyes, or one of many redundant tweets from Trump accusing these very people of doing nothing?
The Democrat Party recognises this and have begun to implement programmes that capitalise on its importance. For example, the Organizing Corps 2020 programme. At the bare minimum, this is really positive. Their website states:
“To take back the White House in 2020, Democrats will need to run a strong ground game that maximizes volunteer enthusiasm and voter engagement. And to do this, we need a cadre of well-trained, local, and diverse organizers that are ready to be activated in battleground states as soon we have a nominee”
The key phrasing here is ‘well-trained’. Because unleashing raw enthusiasm on the electoral en-masse is potentially extremely damaging.
Many of the problems of an organiser and/or campaigner arise from the speed and sheer relentlessness of effective campaigning. Priorities can shift in a moment’s notice and solutions to newly-found problems don’t necessarily correlate with previous breakthroughs. It demands effective leadership, management, and diligent discipline from activists.
Here are a three rules for effective grassroots campaigning.
1. Be Relentless
We’re still over a year away from Election Day, but your shift has started now, and you won’t be able to clock off until November 4 2020.
About a year ago, AOC posted a picture of her battered shoes she wore for campaigning. It seemed a world away from the image we typically associate with our elected members — all dressed up in their sharp clothes, and no doubt shocked as many as it inspired. But anyone who has been involved in grassroots campaigning would not have been surprised. Even for low-paid or unpaid campaigners, 12–14 hour days are the norm and for a core team (which can vary in size) that includes weekends, evenings, holidays, the lot.
Just look at the hot water Bernie got himself into when his interns’ hours were increasing. It’s inevitable. For paid staff, whose future jobs are on the line, this is especially true. Unlike the party’s candidate whose defeat might be professionally embarrassing, campaigners will be hit with personal and financial ramifications that a the candidate is largely immune from. You might not love every minute of it, but the other option is to do nothing. And lose. The election, and possibly your job.
The reason why you have to be relentless goes beyond simply the threat of a Democrat lose, or even a personal job lose. The reason is because relentlessness builds relationships; the amount of relationships required to win elections.
These take time to build and there are no short cuts. Once you build a relationship and connection, it’s great news, you’ve virtually got your voter. Or more specifically, you’ve got reliable information about how your voter will vote.
But doing this once takes time. Doing it the required thousands of times takes even longer. Often, you will knock on a door and get no answer, you go back, and you go back, and you go back. Until you do get an answer (any answer: see point three).
This type of work isn’t data input, or shelf-stacking, it’s conversations and human interaction with real people where mistakes can cost you votes. It’s not for everyone.
2. Hit everywhere, at least twice
This is tough, especially if you’ve got a big patch, but a smart Director can easily cover a lot of ground while enthusiastic and committed team leaders can drive their teams to be relentless in any, and all, locations.
Aside from the basic idea that the more times you speak to someone the likely you are to get a reliable information (until the bell-curve starts to drop off), this one is as much about optics as it is about pure pragmatism.
The best campaigns go everywhere, even the most seemingly unwinnable and politically hostile areas on the map. Not because they want an afternoon of pleasant conversation, or that they believe they have the skill to convince people with the opposing view (see point 3), but because the want voters to see their candidate cares about their entire area they are seeking to represent.
Campaigns — rightly — want to avoid accusations that their approach isn’t authentic and that they’re just doing what’s politically conveniently. No, a campaign is a chance for the candidate to connect with their constituents or future constituents and demonstrate a genuine desire to do so.
Moreover, hitting everywhere, at least twice, serves as a constant reminder to the opposition that your campaign not only has the resources and capacity, but it also has the desire to be unforgiving-ly relentless. In the war of attrition, it’s morale sapping to see your opposition fight for every square inch, especially where you don’t believe they even have the right to be there.
The great news is, good optics are simply the very worst case scenario of this approach. The best case scenario of embracing this tactic is you unearth a hitherto untapped electoral base that previous campaigns haven’t dreamed of pursuing, and you win votes because of it. Beto’s 2018 Senate race is probably the best modern day example of this. Not only did he inspire voters to turn out on the day, he also identified new hot-spots of activity where his campaign could draw out new voters.
A final reason why this is important is that, put simply, it stops campaigners getting bored. It’s very difficult to keep inspired if you march the same few streets day in, day out. New areas — no matter how politically unfriendly they may appear — can have a regenerative effect on a tiring team.
3. Get the role right
This is, without doubt, the most important element of grassroots campaigning. It’s an incredibly hard thing for senior campaign leaders to get buy-in over; often because campaigners don’t immediately understand the role they have.
The one thing worse than not doing any door knocking is doing the wrong type of door knocking. Talking to people on the door is great optics (see point 2), it also makes people feel valued, but it primarily serves as an information gathering exercise for the wider campaign. Beyond that, it’s pointless. What stops progress dead in its tracks — in fact, what stops progress, slaps it into reverse, and drives it off the edge of a cliff — is losing sight of that.
Losing sign primarily manifests itself in arguing. For an enthusiastic campaigner, they may not even see this as an argument. After all, their entire life is dictated by politics, especially the politics of the person they’re campaigning for. They are used to having rich and robust conversations with friends and family about politics, but to someone who has opened their door to an unannounced visitor who they politically disagree with — it’s an argument. And it’s the death knell of campaigning.
Arguing on the door is like saying:
“I know better than you and I’ve come to your property to tell you why”
If you’re giving the campaign your absolute all, as it should indeed demand (see point 1) then it can be disheartening, bewildering and positively inconceivable that someone doesn’t share your view. But, unless your candidate is going to secure 100% of the vote, some people will disagree. That’s fine.
Even with all those miles in your feet and hours on the clock, voters don’t own you anything. And that’s also fine, because you’re not there to change hearts and minds. You need to get information, that’s all. Knowing someone is beyond convincing and is going to vote Republican whatever you say is just as valuable as knowing the opposite. You’ve been there, great, now tick them off and move on.
You may get lucky, or so it seems, and get a surprise ‘yes’ after a 10 minute back and forth (in which case you’ve already wasted valuable campaigning time anyway). You’ll probably feel proud and think your campaigning is really coming on well.
It’s not. It’s what Chris Voss — the FBI’s former chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator — calls a ‘counterfeit yes’. In plain English, that really means ‘get off my property, I am bored with talking to someone who is not listening to me’. It’s your just reward you get for wasting time.
Moreover, there is academic evidence to support to notion that while campaigners can effect turn out for their preferred candidate, it is much more likely that to achieve this, the voter will have already made their mind up about the candidate. It is, therefore, the role of the canvasser to ascertain the voter’s view. That is all.
Donald Trump will likely raise over $1 billion in the build up to next year’s election. His financing reports make for eye-watering reading; his campaign alone has raised $125,000,000 — and that’s not even accounting for the Super PACs. For their many faults (and potential crimes), his digital campaign especially has demonstrated effectiveness in using this cash to engaging and turn out voters.
For Democrats, not wanting to be out shone by their counter-parts, there is a temptation to try and fight fire with fire. To launch on to increasingly innovative and technology-led approaches to leverage every asset they think they have. This is perfectly understandable. And Democrats should be competing with Trump on every level. But there is simply nothing more effective than talking to people, face-to-face, on their door step.
Get that right, and the next door they’ll be knocking on is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.