It’s that time in America once again as Presidential campaigns roar into life, and people young and old alike begin evaluating their choices and vocally supporting their favorite candidates.
Here at TeamTRI, we have folks from all sorts of political backgrounds, many of whom have worked for candidates both Democratic and Republican. This article describes someof the lessons I captured from my own political experience working for President Obama’s first campaign for President as a bright-eyed 20-year old entering his sophomore year of college. Whether you’re a seasoned political buff or someone looking to get into politics for the first time, hopefully you’ll find these lessons illuminating.
And, again, I wrote this when I was 20 years old, so be kind:
I started writing diaries on Daily Kos (a progressive blogging sit) during the primaries, and was planning to write a series of diaries about my experience in the Obama Organizing Fellowship program that began back in June. However, the Obama campaign had a very strict press protocol that made blogging impossible (at least if I wanted to keep my job), so I went into hibernation for the six weeks of the Fellowship.
Shortly after the Fellowship ended, the campaign began accepting applications for paid positions. I applied, and after a short period of uncertainty, I was accepted, and assigned Coos, Curry and Douglas Counties in southwestern Oregon.
For those of you unfamiliar with that area, it constitutes a pretty conservative block of Oregon. Douglas County, in particular, had the distinction of being the reddest county in Oregon with a population over 50,000 people in 2004, when it went 66%-33% for George W. Bush. With six weeks of experience, I was cast out into this little slice of red state America and told to go forth and organize.
This experience opened my eyes to the realities of campaigning in a lot of ways. The first and most obvious lesson I learned was that campaigning is hard. I’ve always been something of an overachiever, and was fully used to pushing myself to the limit in order to reach a goal or get a grade. But I had never experienced anything like being a field organizer, nor do I think that it’s likely for anything to come close.
For 99 days, my life became Barack Obama. When I woke up in the morning, I would roll out of bed, put on clothes (often not washed, since I no longer had time to do laundry), and make the commute to work. From the moment I got to work at around 9am, to the last conference call at 10pm, my life consisted of doing anything and everything to get phone calls made, voter registration cards collected, and doors knocked. After the conference calls, the job shifted to entering in data we might have left over from the day, preparing for the next day, and often undertaking any other random little projects that would often have us there until midnight or later. After that, the goal became sleep – not for enjoyment, but merely because if you didn’t sleep, the next day of work would be even harder, not to mention less productive.
Mind you, all of this is in a state that no one – from Campaign Manager David Plouffe in his strategy briefings to everyone we encountered on the ground – considered a swing state. In states like Virginia and Ohio, I imagine that the hardest part of field organizing was making sure that you had the capacity and organization to effectively coordinate the efforts of several hundred volunteers every single day (Every time I read something about a state running out of turf to canvass, I was almost sick with jealousy). In Oregon, the biggest challenge was persuading, cajoling, begging and pleading people to come in and knock on doors or make phone calls for a bit. On top of us, we had the lofty goals of the campaign, and below us we had people coming into our offices, asking for free stuff, then telling us that they couldn’t help because they were busy and because “Besides, Oregon’s in the bag anyway”. I’m sure both situations had their pros and cons, but having people imply that the central part of your life is frivolous every single day is hard as well.
There’s another more important lesson that the campaign taught me, however: In the four and a half months that I dedicated my life to electing Barack Obama President, I discovered that a tremendous amount of people don’t understand how an election’s ground game works, or why it’s important. The fact that I encountered so many people who thought that a lack of lawn signs indicated a losing campaign, or who asked me questions like “Wait, we make phone calls when people are eating dinner?” makes me realize how much of a disconnect often exists between the people who work for campaigns and the voters they’re actually trying to contact.
If more people understood some very simple ways that they could help a campaign without volunteering, and how easy it is to help the campaign WITH volunteering, I believe it would be tremendously helpful in future campaigns. I think it’s especially important because in the midst of the campaign, I realized a basic fact that took away a lot of my frustration with people incessantly asking for yard signs: Before I worked for the campaign, I probably would have done the exact same thing. That revelation opened my eyes to the intent of the folks I encountered in my time with the campaign, and made me think that it might be helpful to bridge the gap a little bit between campaign and voter.
Of course, I never finished that article, but I do still vividly remember the lesson I wanted to share: You’re probably going to be contacted be a campaign this year, and you’re probably going to hate it. It might be a phone call, it might be a door knock, it might be someone volunteering to help you register to vote. Whatever it happens to be, just remember that the person who is pestering you is poorly paid (if at all), is working hard for something they believe in, and, most importantly, is usually working for the same goal you are.
It takes a lot of courage to go out and initiate voter contact, and it’s even harder if people are short, rude, or downright mean to volunteers and campaign workers. They’re people, too, and often some of the most passionate and earnest people you’re likely to meet.
So give ’em a break. A few minutes of polite conversation, and even some helpful encouragement goes a long way toward someone breaking their back to do the best the can to change the world for the better. Even if you don’t agree with their chosen candidate or position, as Jay-Z once said, you can’t knock the hustle.
Curtis Haley is the Senior Program Manager at TeamTRI. He lives in Oregon and recently got engaged so hooray for love.
Image Credit: Indiatimes.com