What I Learned Working On Political Campaigns
Last year, I quit my job as a Library Director to work on a state representative campaign. I love state politics and my dream job is to work in Lansing as a staffer on public policy and different mentors of mine have said that working on a campaign that wins is how you get a job like that. I gained a lot of wisdom on politics and campaigning and wanted to share some of what I learned.
- Knocking on doors makes a difference, though not that much — a few people asked me, “what is the best way to make a difference in politics?”, and my response was always “knock on doors or call voters”. Dollars and doors is all that matters on campaigns. While working or volunteering on campaigns, most people that you speak to have likely not heard of your candidate so you should spend a majority of your time making either direct voter contact (phone calls, knocking doors) or raising money to do indirect voter contact (TV, mail, and radio ads). Even though knocking doors is supposedly the best way to make a difference, you don’t make that much of a difference. Optimistic estimates on how many votes you pick up while knocking doors is about 5%, so for every 100 doors you knock, you pick up 5 votes for your candidate. Even though it feels futile sometimes, it’s still the best way to make a difference and you have to do it.
- Although initially scary, knocking doors isn’t that bad — It sounds scary, going up to every single door in a town and asking complete strangers to talk about politics, but this is an exaggeration that a lot of people share. You don’t knock every door in town, campaign staffers give you a set of people to talk to that have been targeted as potential voters. If you’re a Democrat, you don’t talk to that many Republicans and vice versa. Technology and market research helps campaigns target potentially persuadable voters and these lists of voters also tend to be reasonable, like 20–50 people in a day. Speaking of which…
- Most people are actually pretty nice or will try to be polite to you — out of 2,000 doors, 2 people got mad at me and one of them had a good reason since apparently I wasn’t supposed to be in their building. Also, most of the people you’re supposed to talk to won’t be home which is something not a lot of people realize. A good day is talking to about 30% of a list of 50 people. The most common rude thing that people do is say they don’t want to talk about politics and slowly close the door. Most folks that do answer the door will listen for a few minutes, ask your candidate’s political party, and either agree or disagree to vote for that person. Easy come, easy go. I think two probably had intense policy related questions like “where does your candidate stand on keeping the solvency of teacher pensions”?
- The average person has no clue what’s going on in state politics — I love state politics. I find it more fascinating than local and more wonky than federal politics. State politicians actually do quite a bit, but people don’t pay attention to them because the issues aren’t as flashy, state politicians don’t make the prime time news that often, and the war over our attention is getting worse and worse every day. I don’t know how many people asked my candidate’s stance on immigration, if he would support Bernie Sanders in Congress, if he was running against a federal candidate, or if he would vote against Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. I did have one Republican tell me he would vote for my candidate when I told him “No, even though my candidate is a Democrat, he will not be working with Nancy Pelosi or Maxine Waters”.
- Most folks that you do talk to have already made up their minds (and you won’t persuade them otherwise), but talk to them anyway. First off, it’s good to get the data so that these people aren’t contacted over and over again. If you get a good answer of how they are going to vote, then they won’t be contacted again by the campaign if they’re not going to vote for your candidate. Secondly, even if they don’t normally vote your way, they might this time around. For example, I had a good conversation with a “constitutional conservative” about education. He that said he would be voting Democrat for this year in state races because his daughter was recently diagnosed with autism and he liked Democratic views on education.
- Hot calls are still good — Campaigns live for good data and can’t target everyone. If you have 50 people you can call in a district and get a firm “yes I will vote for your candidate”, that information is still useful to campaigns. A campaign’s goal early on is to come up with a “win number”, the number of people who have confirmed that they will vote for your person and your campaign needs to win the election. Asking your friend who just moved to town or your grandma who splits her ticket who they are voting for is still good information.
- It’s not that bad and you get a lot of exercise — I loved canvassing when I was working on the campaign. Lots of exercise, time outdoors, and most of my time was spent talking to nice people. Although it seemed futile and depressing at times, when I was done for the year I actually felt hopeful for the future. It helped me see that most people are pretty good individuals and the world isn’t as scary as one might think.