If you knocked on doors in a major city 20 years ago, you were committing an offense if you didn’t ask the local committee person to introduce you around – even if they didn’t support your candidate. In recent decades, things have changed considerably. Electoral targets have shifted away from machine cities and technology has made it much easier to directly connect with voters.
Data-driven lists on palm pilots, iPods (yes, iPods) and eventually smartphones have made direct voter contact more targeted, controllable and accountable. At the same time, this technology started to replace personal contacts with larger volumes and scripted messages. The 2016 election cycle previewed another shift – this time, back toward relationship-building in organizing.
The Obama campaign won in 2008 with a wave of volunteerism — a wave nurtured, but not completely controlled. Eight years later a similar wave propelled Bernie Sanders from a candidate on the margins to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.
Post 2016, one of the critiques of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that it featured a top-down field strategy – a strategy that left the campaign without deep volunteer roots in critical states like Michigan. Minus these connections, the campaign was vulnerable: It simply didn’t have the relationships to register the alarm bells.
They were focused almost exclusively on volunteer recruitment when they needed to be talking to voters. If the DNC wants to move to a 50-state strategy that tries to build common ground with voters, it will need to to harness a wave of support and listen to their voters. Here’s how the committee and campaigns can incorporate the field lessons of 2016 to get ready for 2018.
Use the latest advances to get the most out of your programs
Although technology gets blamed for turning campaigns into an industry, technology can also be used to personalize organizing and voter contact within campaigns. Advances in targeting mean that campaigns can have fewer, but longer and more interactive, conversations with persuadable voters. This could be seen in campaigns like the Minnesotans United for all Families campaign in 2012, which connected volunteers with voters to hold longer (often up to 10 minutes) and deeper conversations about the freedom to marry.
Technology can also help organizers connect with volunteers, especially as more voters transition to mobile. Person-to-person texting systems, such as Hustle, are proving their efficacy at helping organizers efficiently reach voters. When used well, these tools can help organizers build stronger relationships with volunteers.
Moreover, conference calls and Slack channels can help volunteers feel like they are part of a community, even while they’re using an online dialer, participating in a training or door-knocking neighborhoods using tools on their phone. Technology can improve the efficiency of your programs, but it also offers resources to organizers and activists, showing them they are valued by your campaign.
Empower your staff, Empower your volunteers
Passions are running high in American politics. We don’t necessarily need to convince potential volunteers to get interested, we need to convince them that our campaigns are places where they can be valued partners in effecting change. It’s not easy to apply hard metrics to this.
Deep relationships are harder to measure than call counts, but we have to trust they still have value. It’s not something you can get if organizers’ entire days are programmed with recruitment calls and shifting goals. Although organizers and volunteers will make mistakes when left to their own devices, the benefits of them taking ownership and building strong relationships will pay dividends for campaigns, especially if campaigns invest in management and training.
In practice, this can mean campaigns asking volunteers to manage a weekly supporter conference call, to manage phone banks and to plan campaign activities. It also means giving organizers the time to go to meetings, have one on ones and spend time getting to know the community they are organizing.
It’s critical for communication to be a two-way street. Train your core volunteers on both tactics and the strategy behind them. At the same time, listen to them. If voters or volunteers, the people who know their communities best, raise concerns about tactics, it could be an early sign to explore strategy shifts or find ways to better explain strategies to your supporters. Finally, campaigns need to motivate and empower volunteers to communicate effectively with voters. That will help them craft and share their stories, and translate their passion for a campaign to other voters.
Don’t lose control
Technology has given activists the opportunity to acquire their own lists, write their own scripts, set their own events and recruit their own volunteers. Activists are now using Reddit, Slack channels, Facebook groups and Maestro conference calls to organize outside of traditional campaign structures. If campaigns don’t take time to build relationships with activists, they can lose the opportunity to bring supporters inside the tent.
Without that early groundwork, it’s challenging to enforce a program without pushing people away. Activists increasingly have more options for how to be “involved.” That’s why it's critical to have staff involved early, listening to volunteers and collaboratively building field efforts grounded in the wisdom and knowledge of people who know their communities.
Reed Millar is the founder of Bespoke Consulting, a campaign field and engagement strategy firm focused on combining proven tactics with creativity, experimentation, and innovation. He most recently served in state leadership in three states for Bernie 2016 and as a Regional GOTV lead for the DNC and HFA in Michigan.