All Praise the Field Campaign, Few Practice It!

New Orleans   In recent years genuflecting in the direction of the “ground war” in politics has become almost routine. Sadly, much like other religions and church attendance, a whole lot more people praise field operations as critical to winning elections, than actually walk the talk and put the program in practice. As more and more of this activist moment is focused on electoral work, it’s worth reprising lessons learned and ignored.

We’ve talked before about the uphill push that Becky Bond and Zack Exley described in their book, Rules for Revolutionaries, as they tried to get support for their field-and-phone program within the Sanders Campaign. This issue of Social Policy in the mail features a piece by Peter Haberfeld called “The Sanders Campaign: Notes from Inside Out on a Local Campaign.” He also details the tensions between campaign directors and the experienced grassroots folks in the Berkeley and Oakland area that were trying to emphasize the ground game to deliver for Sanders. They often felt the web-attention was gobbling up their strategy. Both sets of campaigns describe having to virtually go rogue in order to get the job done. Bond and Exley saw much of the millions that was spent by the Sanders Campaign the same as pouring money down a rat hole. A close look at the Clinton-Trump contest certainly shows that Trump was all-media-all-the-time, but it was also clear that Clinton could not duplicate the Obama ground game of 2008 and 2012.

All of this came rushing back at me when I opened an email from Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, sending a somewhat dated piece, two-and-a-half years old by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla who were then graduate students in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley writing in Vox. I read the piece with fresh eyes, partially because then ACORN was new to Scotland and late to the dance on the independence election, but Broockman and Kalla hit the nail on the head in pulling back the covers on the reality of the field program, where many of our leaders and organizers volunteered, and many other programs pointing out that the “arms” race to record “knocks” was obscuring the importance of non-scripted, quality conversations with voters by the doorknocking canvassers.

They cite the now famous study several decades ago by Alan Gerber and Don Green in 1998.

The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing. The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points). The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

Of course this is not as simple as “add water and stir.” Green points that out himself:

But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many “field” campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects “smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN.” But, Green went on to say, “When I’d inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision.”

So, yes, as Bond and Exley argue, with the right kind of volunteer base and training, it is physically possible to get past micro-targeting and “hit every door,” if that is the campaign plan, but it will still require people who have been to the rodeo and know how to ride.

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There’s a Fix to the Party Primary Madness: Membership

primaryNew Orleans    It’s hard not to enjoy all of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the Republican Party “establishment” and even sometimes their counterparts on the Democratic side of the line.  The gates have been stormed.  Their castles are being overrun by hoi polloi.  The unwashed and vulgar masses are everywhere around them and demanding to be heard.  They’re white, right, and ready to fight.  They’re young, passionate, and feeling the burn.  Columnists and commentators are having a field day mourning the death of the party they loved or tying to rally the troops for one more desperate fight at the Alamo, or prattling that they told each other so and brought their own house down upon themselves.  One white head after another is fiddling with their worry beads and asking, “What’s to be done?” 

            It’s interesting to me how few in the establishment are asking the question, “Who put you in charge anyway?”  Getting invited to another panel at another hotel conference or making the rounds of the cocktail circuit in Washington DC with folks who think and look exactly like the ones they saw yesterday, today, and tomorrow might make someone a living, but doesn’t mean they could lead anyone anywhere.  As every organizer knows, your base defines whether or not you are a leader, and if your base is simply other supplicants just like you, that doesn’t convert in the political world where votes are eventually the coin of all realms.

            But even before they get to the election, the so-called “establishment” has to confront the problem of the “party.”  A party is an organization.  After countless years of eviscerating their own political organizations by allowing candidates to self-certify and money to determine who is viable, the parties have largely taken themselves out of the mainstream of the political fight. 

            It wasn’t always so in the United States.  It’s absolutely not so around the world where parliamentary systems and multi-party politics prevail.  Yes, at the end of the day they still have to face the people and win an election, but the candidates, who are the leaders of the parties, are determined almost invariably by the membership of the party.  The uproar in Britain over the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party came down to the fact that his candidacy excited segments of the British population enough that they paid a couple of quid and joined the party to have a chance to vote for him.  The Labour “establishment” of course thinks this is a disaster because they believe he can’t lead the party to an election that would allow him to be Prime Minister, but they have a clear path for all of their moaning and groaning:  organize better, enroll more members. 

            Parties have become so weak and nebulous in the United States that many primaries allow independents and members of the other party to come vote in their primary.  That’s a party without membership or even an invitation initiation procedure so much beloved by the establishment.  This is come-as-you-are, anyone can show up.  In real life it’s just a matter of time before the cops come at those kinds of parties, and that’s what the Republicans are living through now.  Trump is expanding the Republican base, but of course without any threshold, that base has just cause and grievance, but no loyalty to anything elephantine. 

            This is part of the reason that Trump is getting beaten to a pulp in caucus states by Cruz.  He has no organization, while Cruz does.  Hillary is having much the same problem in many caucus states where her machine is bending to greater enthusiasm of Sanders supportors.  Caucus states are often still states that require some minimal membership to be part of the party and participate in determining their leader.  Where that doesn’t exist, it’s still all push-and-shove but even that is different from the free-for-all of an open primary election.

            For those crying about the death of parties, the answer seems to be that the wake is past due.  Most of the establishment already buried the parties years ago in favor of their own prerogatives, money and media domination, and the hope of grabbing brass rings that they could keep out of the reach of others.  Want to do something different, then build real parties with real membership that presents a program and platform to the people, and lets them decide.  The election will still be wild and wooly, but at least the choices will be clear and consistent.

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