Have you ever wondered what the campaigns you work on look like from the volunteer side? Or from the point of view of the paid canvassers? In 2008, I spent ten months researching two congressional races in the North East, talking to hundreds of staffers, paid part-timers, and volunteers for my book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Some of what they say will surprise you. Some of it may infuriate you. All of it can help you in your work.
Here are excerpts from conversations with two people. One, Brian, is a serial volunteer, the other, Donald, has volunteered occasionally in the past but was working as a paid canvasser on this particular campaign. (Both names are pseudonyms.)
Brian says: “I have volunteered on pretty much every Democratic campaign since McGovern in ’72,” and continues, “They are almost always like, ‘Here is what we’re going to do; now you go do it.’” He says: “Look, I really don’t mind helping out. But sometimes [the staffers] just don’t care what you think, what you would like to do, and what you have to say. And it can be somewhat off-putting, especially since sometimes the kids who run these things just have no fucking clue.” He laughs.
I ask Donald about his sense of the campaign organization, and he says “A lot of kids running something they can’t control. [...] I realize I see this from the floor up, but sometimes I wonder, is there a plan? What is it? Do they know what they are doing? Do they evaluate and learn from their mistakes? That’s not clear to me.” I press him for concrete details. He gives a few examples, then says, “In most jobs I’ve worked in, management is aiming at consistency and structure. But here we improvise. Oh, boy, do we improvise. What is the candidate’s position on abortion? Nobody knows, so we’ll make something up. Where does the candidate stand on the bailout package? Nobody knows; there we go again. [...] We are out knocking on doors every day, talking to voters, and we need answers, and we don’t get them, nor briefings, and only very little training. It does not strike me as very professional.”
Ouch. Are campaigns really run by “kids” who have “no fucking clue”? Are staffers unprofessional and not in control?
On the one hand, this is unfair. Many campaign staffers may be young, but are also talented, well-organized, and hard-working people who sincerely care, and they can often draw on specialized expertise from various D.C.-based political organizations who provide training, supervision, and infrastructural support.
On the other hand, there is also something to what Brian and Donald are saying. A field staffer with ten years under her belt is a real veteran, and most organizers have had only limited systematic training and have little previous job experience. Politics is learning-by-doing, an intensely practical craft. In contrast, many volunteers come from white collar professional backgrounds or specialized jobs in retail and manufacturing. There, ten years is only a fraction of your work life, and your job is in an organization that is much larger, more clearly structured, and often more smoothly running than most campaigns.
But from an organizing point of view, the important thing is not whether Brian and Donald are right or not, but how you deal with these kinds of sentiments. You will be younger than many of the people you work with, you won’t always know the answers to all their questions, and campaigns are fast-paced, intense, and often confusing places to work. How do you make sure that everyday churn isn’t mistaken for mere chaos?
The people I have spoken to have consistently praised those organizers who treat them as equals, engage with them, and give them honest answers. OK, someone like Brian will have his views on how things could be done. Maybe sometimes he will come across as a bit of a backseat driver. But hear him out and take the time to explain to him what could potentially be changed, what can’t, and why. He will work dozens of hours for the campaign if you do. Maybe Donald is impatient; maybe the information on various issues he was asking for was on its way in new, updated talking points. But if it is not, the man has a point! Don’t get defensive; just explain that there is a lot going on and that you are working on it. He will be a happier man and a better canvasser.
Under intense time-pressure and faced with quantitative metrics from people higher up in the organization, some organizers lose their patience with the more talkative or grumpy part-timers and volunteers. That’s understandable, but also unhelpful. Good organizers know that you can’t get away with giving orders. You need to hear people out and make them feel part of the campaign. To do that, the best field staffers emphasize with their perspectives and do not tell them simply what to do but also why they are doing and why it is done that way. Tell people who care how the campaign works. They will appreciate it. And that will work to your benefit.
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark. When he is not busy teaching or reading, he is mucking around the nearest campaign, interviewing staffers, talking to union organizers or activists, meeting with volunteers, observing people doing the hard and often unglamorous work that politics involves. His book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns has just been published by Princeton University Press. It deals with how campaign staffers, paid part-timers, and volunteers work together in field campaigns. You can read the first chapter here.