I Volunteered For A Winning Candidate, but a Failed Campaign
As part of resisting the Trump agenda, I signed up with Sister District to help flip a nearby congressional district from red to blue. So, I canvassed and phonebanked, to out the Republican incumbent.
The candidate in question had voted with Trump 98.6% of the time.
I followed the race closely, and 3 Democrats rose as prominent challengers. However, after hearing all 3 speak and debate, I felt only one was an exceptional candidate that I felt passionate about supporting, a scientist supported by the 314 Action PAC.
The candidate had been able to get some significant national TV appearances by being part of 314 Action, a non-profit organization which recruits candidates with scientific backgrounds and helps them launch campaigns for public office.
She rose as third most prominent Democrat in a crowded field. Now, don’t get me wrong, the other Democrats were good candidates, but our scientist candidate was the only exceptional candidate. So I signed up to volunteer.
I was confident that with a great team, and my own experience in volunteering for political campaigns that we could turn the tide, and our scientist candidate could gain momentum to win the nomination, and the seat.
It was only after I joined that I learned why she was in third place.
What I encountered was a campaign that completely lacked organization and the sense of urgency that this race needed. There’s no doubt in my mind that our scientist candidate could have won if she had a better and more experienced team around her.
I tell this story, not out of some mean-spirited vengeful attack, because I do believe the people involved tried their best. I tell this story as a cautionary tale to future campaigns, to learn what to do, and what not to do.
No Experience, No Urgency
I had emailed a campaign official early on, but lost track.
It turns out that during this time, the campaign was going through several issues. One campaign staffer told me that the first campaign manager had been fired for having several problems. The same source told me that after that, virtually the entire campaign team quit because they couldn’t deal with how controlling the candidate’s husband was.
Of course I was unaware of all this, but once I had heard our scientist candidate speak at a local debate, I emailed again about how excited I was to volunteer for her. 2 weeks went by with no response. I called the campaign office and someone told me they would give my information to their volunteer coordinator. Still no response.
Finally, I signed up on the campaign’s website, and was reached out to by one of the heads of operations. What I didn’t realize was how little campaign experience the team had. The head of operations had no political experience at all. The campaign manager was a healthcare worker whose only previous experience was Spanish language translation on the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Now I’m all in favor of giving someone a chance of rising in the ranks, but the lack of experience had a palpable affect on the organization. When I showed up to a canvassing event, I was the only one who there, because the volunteers had been given 4 “options” of events instead of a clear direction, and were thus scattered across the district.
When I spoke to campaign officials, I discovered they had just begun investigating lawn signs and door hangers, 7 weeks before the primary election. What made the matter even worse was the campaign official talked about, “Getting pricing for lawn signs to boost our visibility.” as if it was a new and novel idea.
One campaign official told me, ‘I don’t know why we’re 6 months behind of where we should be.’
Volunteer Communication and Utilization
One stumbling block that arose early was that the campaign didn’t know how to rally their volunteers. In the most successful campaigns I’ve worked on, volunteers were called, informed, had their questions answered, and scheduled in shifts.
The heads of the campaign though decided to notify volunteers via email blast, with no follow through. The reason was because, “Our volunteer list is very big, and it’s just too much work.”
There were no calls, no schedules, not even clear details about meeting places. I’d like to say this was a unique experience, but from what I’ve seen and heard, the organizers out of the Bernie Sanders campaign are terrible at their jobs. They have no political experience, and they did not focus on the key activities that drive a campaign: recruiting volunteers, mobilizing boots on the ground, registering new voters, and fundraising (for lawn signs and volunteer pizza). Rather than focusing on any feasible logistics, the Bernie Sanders organizers focused on their principles, and just assumed the voting public would follow them eventually.
It was the epitome of armchair activism.
At a certain point, I begged campaign officials to let me call volunteers so I could get some firm commitments, and at first they said yes.
However, they recanted on the decision when the candidate’s husband said that he personally wanted to call every volunteer before handing off the volunteer list to someone else.
Keep in mind, this is 8 weeks before the primary, and there have been no volunteer activities to be mentioned.
A smart campaign has not just voter canvassing, but business canvassing too, in order to get endorsements. It also has voter phone banking, volunteer phone banking, fundraising calls, and fucking bake sales if necessary, in order to get the word out. They don’t have a barrier to entry, because if they do, it causes a bottleneck in operations.
Did Not Reach Out to Blue Allies
In the months that followed the 2016 election, a number of groups arose as part of the left’s resistance efforts, including: Indivisible; Swing Left; Action Group Network; Our Revolution; OFA; and others.
Dozens (if not hundreds) of those groups sprung up in Los Angeles, and especially in and around the district. However, despite the strength of those groups in volunteers and fundraising, the campaign was either unable or unwilling to reach out to them. Their efforts were more focused on in-district activities, which narrowed their potential resources.
Meanwhile, our scientist candidate’s competitors were reaching out, speaking at, and fundraising with these allied groups outside of the district.
Limited Number of Public Events
When Al Franken ran for senate, he talked about how he went to every local event, every middle school spaghetti dinner, every drama club performance, etc. This is retail politics.
Unfortunately, our scientist’s campaign was unable to match such scheduling needs. When I visited their campaign headquarters, I saw maps of the district hung up on the walls, but there seemed to be a disconnect. There was no markings on the maps, they were virtually pristine.
Nobody was actively soliciting calendars from schools and libraries in order to schedule event show ups.
No Social Media Message or Strategy
There’s something known as Moor’s law which states the capacity for technology doubles every 18 months. And since the Congressional election cycle is every two years, digital tactics must constantly be updated.
The problem was, the campaign wasn’t using social media effectively. I kept seeing the same facebook ads over and over again telling me to buy buttons from the campaign. So, below are three strategies I suggested to the campaign.
Voter Circle is a peer-to-peer e-mail service that volunteers can opt into, and has show to be very successful. A default message can be crafted that can include YouTube links of a candidate speaking, and disseminated through networks of friends.
Basically I can share my address book with the Voter Circle app, it finds my friends who are registered voters in the district, and then allows me to e-mail them a message. This can help penetrate certain groups that competing candidates have gotten endorsements from, including unions, and it’s great for grassroots campaigns.
A substantial number of volunteers had signed up as willing to help with “Online Engagement.” Now this could mean several things, but they weren’t being contacted and utilized. I recommended sending out weekly e-mail blasts to them on Mondays, and encouraging them to re-post items on multiple social platforms. I even volunteered to help with that, but the idea was not executed.
Side note, when setting up a volunteer signup page, it’s best to have a sign up form that employs automated e-mails, or “drip campaigns” as a way of getting volunteers in the door, eliminating human error, and maximizing the campaign’s efficiency.
By setting up a drip campaign, you can automate the volunteer sign up process, and keep volunteers engaged.
Streaming and Hyper-Targeting
So, this is kind of a big idea, but bear with me: We were all in agreement that our scientist candidate was her best advocate and a great public speaker. When people hear her speak, they decide to support her. Time was very limited, and there are thousands of voters who wouldn’t be able to come to an event and meet her in person.
Meanwhile, social media platforms actively promote and prioritize live streaming video. There are software and apps you can buy to stream to multiple social media sites at once. Also, spending only $1 a day on FaceBook ads can make a huge difference.
So, what if there was a videographer who recorded our scientist candidate whenever she spoke at an event, and streamed it out live to multiple platforms? The social media sites would prioritize it above everything else, even to people who had not Liked the campaign page. It would essentially be free advertising.
In addition, what if that same videographer took the best 30 seconds, and cut it into a quick social ad? This was actually done by George W. Bush and was part of the campaign that won him the nomination in 2000. However in this instance, the fast ads would be put on social media, and the keywords would be hyper-targeted to people who care passionately about the issue in that ad (Immigration, Job Growth, Union Issues, Climate Change, etc.). Keeping this up with at least one new ad a day, and $1 a day per ad would help penetrate into those circles that didn’t know about our scientist candidate yet, and the total ad-buy would be less than $3,000.
It is worth noting that all these digital campaigns would have cost money, which was one resource the campaign was dwindling on in the final weeks. As a result, they just couldn’t implement this, or any other large strategies.
After reviewing this, I want to point out that none of what I discussed was about policy. It was all about strategy and tactics, and the logistics behind them.
In order to win, we need not just great candidates, but also great campaign managers. This isn’t a time to half-ass it. The fate of our country, and its most vulnerable citizens are at risk.