A recent study by the Keller Fay Group showed that 83 percent of all conversations in America about politics are taking place face to face.
With the Democrats continuing to emphasize the value of long-term, embedded field organizers and the Republicans adopting many of the lessons from the book “Groundbreakers,” it’s clear that 2016 will be the year of grassroots.
Political campaigns are taking cues from the private sector and adopting best practices when it comes to their relationship marketing capabilities, across all direct marketing channels: digital, phones, mail, and door-to-door.
It’s an exciting time and it means that there’s going to be a lot of competition for ground game professionals, who know what they’re doing and can be counted on to deliver. But how will you know which person or company should lead your grassroots effort?
Here are a few questions you can ask potential grassroots vendors before you make your choice:
1. Are walkers being paid as employees?
If Uber drivers can’t be independent contractors then there’s no way your door-to-door and phone-banking crews can be. Treating grassroots team members as independent contractors is a clear violation of labor laws, and it’s also tax fraud.
Although Uber is the most popular example of the independent contractor violation, they're not the only one. Companies like FedEx are being popped for literally hundreds of millions for being found to have misclassified employees as something other than W2s to avoid the tax consequences and labor law requirements.
And there’s no more “unpaid internship” loophole, either. Sorry everyone. A judge in New York ruled this summer that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal minimum wage laws by not paying interns, who were serving as de facto employees, meaning that they were doing something (getting coffee, making copies, carrying things) to benefit the workings of a production.
Now, that interpretation is everywhere. So for you to not be breaking the law and for you not to be handing your opponent’s op research team an easy hit on you for committing tax fraud and violating labor laws (something that’s easy to check on campaign finance reports), your vendor needs to have everyone onboard as a W2. Period.
2. Can your field staff pass a basic background check?
Here’s a call you don’t want to get: “Hey, uh (insert your name here), we just got a call about (insert field rep name here) and apparently his wife, I mean ex-wife, saw on Facebook that he was working for the campaign, and apparently he’s over one year in arrears on his child support. She called the authorities. And the news media. Do you have a minute to talk with them on camera?”
Campaigns are fast and furious. And it's easy for things like criminal background checks and E-Verify checks to get left off of the list of things that get done. Your grassroots vendor should guarantee that they are checking everyone before they are hired to knock doors for your candidate or cause.
3. Does your vendor call references or previous employers before hiring?
Here’s another one for you: “Uh (insert your name here and imagine it’s the last three weeks of the campaign when you’re kind of busy), we just found out that the guy we hired to run our field effort—and we didn’t know this—but apparently he was fired from his last job for pretending to knock on doors and faking answers to survey questions. I think we’ve caught him doing it again. What should we do? Now I’m afraid our GOTV program is totally off.”
According to a 2014 CareerBuilder survey, 58 percent of hiring managers “spotted exaggerations or outright fabrications on resumes.” Interestingly, while they did not have a breakout for “political professionals,” the sectors that were worst included financial services with 73 percent of resumes containing some form of falsehood, followed by leisure and hospitality at 71 percent. Information technology and health care, both at 63 percent, tied for third.
Make sure your grassroots vendor is checking references on all field staff before hiring. Believe it or not, this is not common and you should insist on it.
4. What's their performance guarantee?
There’s a great quote from the movie "Tommy Boy" about guarantees: “I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I’d rather take a butcher’s word for it.”
Too often in grassroots, the customer gets neither the “look up the bull’s ass” nor does he or she get the “butcher’s word for it”—at least not in writing.
Campaigns that outsource field ops place their trust and hope in their vendors, who generally will be geographically distant and consequently pretty darn independent or immune from “over the shoulder” monitoring. This set-up makes it easy for customer-vendor interests to become misaligned. It’s why questioning them about their performance guarantee is crucial. No guarantee means no service, or at least not service up to your expectations. And no guarantee means there’s no skin in the game for the vendor. It means the customer takes 100 percent of the risk.
5. Is grassroots what they do, or just what they are doing for you?
You may not be one of them, but a lot of people in politics have gotten where they are by being a “Swiss Army knife”. Meaning that their answer when asked if they could perform a job in exchange for some sum of money has always been, “Uh, yes, absolutely.”
There’s some “Swiss Army knife” in all of us in politics for sure. The question for you the customer is, will this project be a central focus of what my vendor is doing and be part of their “core competency” or is grassroots something they’ve “done in the past” as young campaign staff, but is something they’ve moved on from.
Is it something they "can do,” or is it something they love and have dedicated their lives to do? These are two very different things and the results between the two are very different. You can go either way with your choice, but you should have your eyes wide open about this as a customer because how you manage these will look very different.