Tag Archives: volunteers

“Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Mitt Romney campaign, calling you from my computer…”

So Mitt Romney won what the Washington Post calls a “decisive victory” in Florida yesterday, and while the Republican presidential primary isn’t quite over (a majority of the votes still went to his three remaining rivals, donations keep coming in to Newt Gingrich especially), the former Massachusetts governor is now well-positioned to lock up the nomination on “Super Tuesday,” March 6, where people in eleven states cast their votes.

If Romney becomes the candidate, a closer look at his current campaign can help us understand how he will fight the general election. In past cycles, most recently of course in 2008, the way candidates fought their primary gave many clues to how they ended up fighting the general election—in terms of their stage persona and their main message, yes, but also in terms of how their effort was organized in a more practical sense.

Building a campaign organization, mobilizing allies around it, and recruiting thousands of low-level staffers and volunteers is not something that is easily done overnight, and the wider campaign build around a particular candidacy will have its own internal inertia and idiosyncrasies, traits that often reflect decisions made months or even years before Election Day on the basis of a combination of received wisdom and the priorities of individual people involved. Once things are done in a particular way, unless something is clearly dysfunctional, intense time pressure and the multiple concerns always calling for the attention of the candidate and senior staff generally mean they continue to be done that way.

Take the 2008 Obama campaign as an example—the kernel was assembled from early 2007 onwards, with staffers plotting strategy and tactics, technologists developing the tools and infrastructures for an extensive, nation-wide effort, and organizers connecting with the multitudes of willing volunteers who helped power Obama to victory in both the primary and the general election. As for example David Plouffe, the campaign manager, has made clear, even as the campaign (both the formal organization and the wider network of allies and volunteers around it) grew and grew, senior staffers were working hard to maintain a basic set of organizing principles and a certain internal ethos that had worked well in the primary. (Sometimes dealing with enthusiastic groundswells of support from people unaccustomed to how campaigns are usually run in a pretty top-down fashion was in fact something of a challenge, as David Axelrod himself has noted.) As my friend Daniel Kreiss shows in his very interesting forthcoming book on the development of the campaign and the technologies and tools it relied on, many of the innovations we today associate with the 2008 Obama campaign where in fact pioneered, tested, and refined in the years before. (Just as the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns built on years of experimentation in local and state-level races, orchestrated by Karl Rove.)

On this basis, let’s have a look at just two features of the Romney primary campaign that it will be interesting to follow as we move forward—

  • How much volunteer support does Romney actually have? Many commentators have made much of how parts of the Republican base have yet to warm to his candidacy, but beyond a general “mood” amongst the party faithful, can he draw substantial numbers of people to his campaign? Beyond the raw numbers, can his campaign work constructively with these people to make sure that they feel involved and continue to contribute their time and effort?  Volunteers have generally been found to be more effective ambassadors for campaigns on the doorstep and over the phone than paid casual workers, so whoever builds the best volunteer operation will have an edge over his rival. (Turnout in US presidential elections has been increasing every cycle since 1996, in part due to increased emphasis on field campaigns. Given the current economic climate and a certain sense of disillusionment, in the absence of major get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides, 2012 may see the first fall in popular participation in sixteen years.)
  • How will his campaign work with the volunteers who do come? Throughout the primary, Romney’s campaign has made a priority of having a physical presence on the ground, opening campaign offices and posting contact details in relevant states to make sure people have somewhere to go. His campaign has also embraced the various online-enabled forms of “distributed phone banking” pioneered by MoveOn and others, where supporters can log on via a campaign website and make calls directly to target voters in relevant states from their own smart phone or computer. In both cases, the campaign has quite sensibly been platform agnostic, deciding to make as many different forms of engagement possible and to meet potential volunteers where ever they may come from. In both cases, the campaign has also prioritized channelling people’s time and energy into phone banking, a demonstrably effective way of trying to sway people and turn out voters.

At a general level, coverage of the primary will often stress how Romney’s campaign is well-funded and professionally run. But money and hard-nosed expertise is not all an effective campaign needs. The interface between campaign staffers in it to win it and volunteers with a much wider and mixed set of motivations can generate considerable friction and requires mutual empathy and a practical sense for making people work together that is sometimes lacking from political campaigns. And it matters. Volunteer mobilization and the translation of volunteers’ time and effort into instrumentally useful activities may sound dry and dull in comparison to the more immediately exciting speculation about what the next campaign advertisement will highlight or how the candidate will perform in the next debate. But both are crucial parts of a competitive campaign and shape how it is possible for ordinary people to take part in the electoral process beyond casting their vote. That’s why it will be interesting to see how the eventual Republican nominee ends up organizing his effort to challenge Obama’s re-election campaign.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

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Gingrich needs an organization (and fast)

Newt Gingrich’s clear come-from-behind victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary has made the Republican Presidential Primary a lot more exciting than it looked after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Clearly, many Republicans remain reluctant to embrace Romney. If the opposition coalesce around Gingrich, the not-Romney of the moment, the party is in for a long grind of a primary.

One question right now is whether Gingrich has the organization to make the most of his momentum.

Florida, January 31, is the first test. Romney has been ahead in the polls there lately, but his support is eroding and as recently as December, Gingrich had a solid lead. The political climate in the sunshine state can be fickle and is prone to dramatic changes. It serves one well to be well prepared.

In South Carolina, Gingrich was able to build on his strong debate performances, “earned media”, i.e. news coverage playing up alternatives to the front-runner, and the self-reinforcing momentum generated as more and more people came to see him as the most credible challenger to rally a plurality of the non-Romney vote around him. If Santorum drops out now or his supporters begin to think that a vote for him is a vote wasted, Gingrich has the potential to be a considerable challenge for Romney.

But “the Mitt” seems better equipped for the tough grind ahead. While he continues to have a “base problem”, he does better than anyone else in hypothetical match-ups against President Obama, lending credence to his argument he is best positioned to do well in the November general election.

Romney also has a much stronger operation in place to fight for the margins in every upcoming state. Consider just money, organization, and organized support–

Money. A long multi-state primary is expensive. Romney has raised much more money than Gingrich. In the last quarter of 2011, he raised $24 million, compared to Gingrich’s $9 million.

Organization. A long multi-state primary is also complicated to coordinate and involves a lot of hard work on the ground. Romney has his organization, data infrastructure, web presence etc in place nationally. He is very active in states like Florida, where his campaign has been working for months, both on the air and on the ground (Gingrich opened his office there January  13). Romney also already has an office in Nevada (caucuses February 4). It is not clear that the Gingrich campaign has any real presence there. In December, a local operative working with his campaign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there were no immediate plans to open an office in the state. (That is bound to change after his South Carolina win.)

Organized support. A long multi-state primary is not something you want to fight on your own. Romney is not only racking up endorsements, fundraising contacts, inside advice etc from establishment Republicans afraid Gingrich just might win and wreck the party in the process. He also enjoys greater Super PAC/ “outside” support. Even after Sheldon Adelson’s headline-grabbing $5 million donation to the pro-Gingrich-though-in-no-way-coordinating-with-his-campaign “Winning Our Future” super PAC, Romney continues to enjoy more support. The pro-Romney group “Restore Our Future,” run by two key staffers from his 2008 campaign, has spent more than double the amount of “Winning our Future” so far. It will provide a handy vehicle for people keen to stop Gingrich but reluctant to back Romney directly.

Where does that leave Gingrich? Can he build on yesterday’s result? Here is what Mac Stipanovich, a GOP strategist in Florida, had to say to the LA Times:

“Romney has worked the state continuously, one way or another, for the last six years. …  Gingrich lacks both the organization and the financial resources to capitalize on a win in South Carolina.”

That may just be true of the February states Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan too.

Good organization does not guarantee victory, but it sure helps. If Gingrich is to compete in the long run, he and his supporters need to build a stronger and more resourceful campaign now to capitalize on the anti-Romney sentiment. Otherwise, “the Mitt” will grind them down.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

After the debates, a turn to the ground?

Now that the final debate before the Iowa caucus is over and till voting begins January 3, the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination will have to rely on advertising, direct mail, and field operations more than the media coverage each debate has generated. Two more debates are crammed in in the few days between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, and more are to come, but for a few weeks, there will be more action on the ground than in the television studios.

With Newt Gingrich’s having surged in recent weeks as the latest in a succession of “not-Mitt-Romney”-candidates, Romney, for a long time the front-runner and likely nominee, has a few decisive weeks ahead of him. Real Clear Politics’ poll averages suggest Gingrich could win both Iowa (January 3) and South Carolina (January 21) while Romney remain ahead in New Hampshire (January 10).

With the race still very fluid and Gingrich’s support in the polls showing some signs of weakness, things are still very much up in the air, but as he faces all the challenges ahead, Romney seems to have one clear operational advantage that is rarely mentioned in the news–his organization on the ground. The Financial Times is one of the few news organizations that have paid much attention to this side of the contest, and as their reporters note, “Mr Gingrich has little grassroots organisation to replace the platform the debates have given him.”

Especially in low-turnout, high-stakes contests like the early caucuses and primaries, literally every vote counts, and Romney, in contrast to the recently revived Gingrich, has for months been building an organization on the ground in several states to gather information about supporters and swing voters and to court voters in a personal fashion.

Here is how one Romney adviser is spinning the difference in New Hampshire (from the FT):

Staffers at Mr Romney’s office brush off Mr Gingrich’s recent gains in the polls, saying he has neither the ground operation to compete nor the volunteers who are the lifeblood of a state primary campaign. “In three days, we can turn out people for a big rally. Newt can’t do that stuff,” said one of Mr Romney’s advisers. “It’s not rocket science; it’s about old-fashioned shoe leather. We have identified 20,000 or 30,000 people who like Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich has no idea who likes Newt Gingrich.”

In a time of social media and 24/7 rolling news, canvassing and phone banking can seem hopelessly old-fashioned, frustratingly slow, and to small-scale to make much of a difference, but campaigns are increasingly orchestrating personalized contacts on a very large scale and research gives us good reason to think that a knock on the door or a call from an enthusiastic and/or well-trained person represent some of the most effective ways of swaying people politically.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the Republican primaries remain very much in flux. Especially in a potentially drawn-out and close contest, hard work by people on the ground may produce a surprise or two along the way as the nomination is decided over the next months–as it did in the Obama/Clinton contest in 2008.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.