For the first time in my life, I worked on a political campaign.
It wasn’t just a volunteer gig. I was named the communication director for a state senate candidate. We were the Democratic pick in a heavy, traditional Republican district. We were definitely a long shot.
Support from the local Democratic party was uneven at best. No one was confident that we could win our race. It was a classic, up hill battle. My candidate was up against a long time politician with a decent yet unspectacular record.
Meeting with the local Democratic leadership was less than inspiring. They told us unequivocally that the only way to win elections was to “canvass and call.” And, to raise a minimum of $50,000 without their help or contributions from their own war chest. Their support was going to go to races that were sure bets, not races like ours.
Determined and idealistic, we decided to soldier on and do our best with our tiny budget, tiny group of volunteers, and big plans.
We got into NGPVAN, the Democratic Party’s technology juggernaut. It’s a treasure trove of data for figuring out how to go after voters and win their hearts and mind. I learned what it mean to “cut turf.” That’s the vernacular for targeting an area of likely and lean Democratic voters so you can knock on their doors or call them. It helps to avoid the no-win situation of arguing with a hard-core Republican voter.
Armed with our turf information, our small but mighty group of mostly pissed off women set out to change the world in our neck of the woods. I knew if I could just talk with these people, I could convince them our candidate was the best person to represent them.
The problem became getting to talk with someone. Anyone.
I knocked on hundreds of doors. I made hundreds of phone calls. I walked through subdivisions, down dirt roads in rural areas, and through tiny towns. I ended up with blisters and tortured the tiny bunion on my right foot. I ended up speaking with only about 50–60 people total about my candidate.
People didn’t answer the door. If they did, they just took the information and shut the door as quickly as possible. Some said they weren’t interested. Phone calling resulted in listening to people hang up. It was depressing.
Still, I kept knocking doors. I called. I went to local trunk-or-treats, handing out candy and campaign literature. I set up at local fall farmers’ markets, trying to make people aware of my candidate and the issues that were at stake. People tried to avoid me. The only people who seemed to speak with me were people with an ax to grind, and they would talk on and on while other potential voters got away.
In spite of the few, substantial interactions, we felt like we had a chance. People couldn’t miss our signs, our cheery dispositions, our mere presence in so many communities in our district.
Maybe we could win. Maybe we would win.
We lost. By 14,000 votes. Still, 44,000 voters dug our message. I was shocked that somehow, with little support, funding, or volunteers we found ourselves with 44,000 people who were willing to give our candidate a chance. If felt like we were one of the few Democratic campaigns to lose in 2018.
It wasn’t a total lost. Learning about the inner workings of a campaign was fun, valuable experience. Understanding how the party politics work or don’t work is useful, and something I will remember when they call for more donations or membership drives.
However, I’m just not sure that canvassing and calling is the key to victory.
Let’s face it, who has time/interest/lack of fear to answer the knock of a total stranger at your door?
The whole time I was canvassing, I was never judged anyone who hid in the house and refused to answer the door. I have always been that person. Even if I love the candidate, I need to vacuum. Or watch the Food Network. I don’t want to get into a conversation about my politics. I want to live my life. If I don’t recognize the phone number, I screen phone calls.
Why do political parties think this is the key to success when we want to avoid these conversations?
There has to be a better way to reach voters than canvassing and calling. It feels so 1950s to call or visit a neighbor and have a lemonade on the porch while we talk politics. It felt like I was selling sets of encyclopedias — useful, but outdated approaches to sharing information.
So what are the answers for effective campaigning that changes hearts and minds?
I think the debate will rage on. For now, I’m still soaking my feet, contemplating bunion surgery, and getting ready for 2020. There’s too much at stake to sit out an election. We all need to get involved, and find better ways to reach voters. That is democracy in action. Join me!