Ok, ok…I know you’re tired of talk about the election but I’ve got to put a big ol’ cherry on top of this sundae.
This campaign was the first time I ever participated in any sort of organized political activity and it looks like if I was only going to volunteer for one election this was the one to get involved with. That being said, here are my impressions of the working for the Obama campaign in one of those ‘battleground counties’ in suburban Philadelphia.
In August an Obama satellite office (really just a local business that donated some space) opened up close to my home and so I ‘transferred’ there. We had a new ‘official’ Obama campaign organizer (I assume he was paid) who was charged with staffing an area that had been rather neglected during the primaries. I started phone banking (calling potential voters to find out how they were leaning and trying to convince those not already supporting Obama) one night a week.
Within a month or so, one of the real strengths of the campaign came out. As the campaign began to make more administrative demands on the official organizer, he began to push responsibility down to us volunteers. Some people became responsible for coordinating other volunteers to come in, some people worked donations, I was assigned responsibility for the Monday night phone banking. My understanding is that in other campaigns, volunteers were basically treated like toadies to do the grunt work and kept in the dark. Here, the campaign seemed to understand a couple of important lessons.
- If you give your volunteers responsibility (real or perceived) for something they consider important, they will often exceed expectations. It also seemed to create a sort of feedback loop where the more asked of volunteers, the more they wanted to work (except for me, of course. I may be dedicated but I’m still a slacker)
- Giving volunteers information (real or perceived) makes them feel like they have a stake in the process, increasing cohesion.
In fact, the whole process really reminded me of being in a TOC during military exercises. It had (particularly on Election Day and the day before) very much the same sort of vibe. So much so, in fact, that all day on the 3rd I kept catching myself using military time instead of civilian time, something I never do when I’m not in uniform. I also had the urge to pepper my speech with totally unneeded expletives. Thank goodness I managed to keep that in check.
The practice of giving volunteers responsibility created some interesting exchanges. I can’t tell you how many times volunteers, some who had come to the campaign weeks or days after me just assumed that I (and others in similar positions) were full time/paid campaign members. It was also nice (although I don’t know if this was unique to this campaign) to not see any sort of divide between full time staff and volunteers. The operation was able to be both inclusive and professional which is impressive.
The campaign seemed totally comfortable accepting the risk of loosening control on volunteers (and thereby their behavior) in exchange for greater levels of cohesion. It seems like a big risk and, I’m sure, there were people who volunteered who went ‘off message’ or may have done or said things that would not have been approved of by the campaign but I’m guessing that was more than offset by attracting and keeping bright, mature people who enjoyed the idea of being able to use their own initiative without being smothered.
What was particularly impressive was the sheer number of volunteers that were coming in. I was tasked with managing the phone calls on the day before Election Day and at one point, had too many volunteers and not enough phone numbers to call.
On Election Day itself, I was signed up to drop off literature in various neighborhoods. I committed to working a full day but, again, there were so many volunteers that there was only about a half day of work to be done.
By comparison, I didn’t see one piece of McCain literature throughout my entire time volunteering. I didn’t see one person walking around neighborhoods talking to voters from the McCain camp. One day, while calling, I spoke to a woman who laughed as soon as I identified myself. She told me that I was the fourth person from the Obama campaign to call her and inquire how she’d vote on Election Day. After I apologized for the inconvenience, she said she didn’t mind but that her husband, a registered Republican, hadn’t heard anything from his party.
And this was in in critical county in a state the McCain campaign said they ‘had to win’.