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Engaging voters can kickstart community activism

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) shakes hands with campaign volunteers before a canvassing effort in Cornelius, N.C., on Nov. 1. (Reuters/Chris Keane)

In a recent Vox article, political scientists David Brookman and Joshua Kalla provocatively asked why campaigns invest so little in high-quality field operations. Years of research have taught us that high-quality field operations can be more effective than the billions of dollars spent on television advertising. Yet campaign leaders continue to starve their field programs, often creating lower-quality, less effective programs. How can campaigns and organizations build more effective ground games?

A small group of organizations have responded by developing what’s called an “integrated voter engagement” (IVE) program, blending the electoral work of political campaigns with the issue-based organizing that civic and advocacy organizations do year-round. Unlike traditional ground campaigns that parachute in for the two to three months before an election and — win or lose — leave when the election is over, IVE programs are integrated strategically into the ongoing base-building work.

Because IVE programs seek to build long-term civic power, they create incentives for organizations and campaigns to do the work it takes to build a high-quality ground campaign. When the election ends, they are asking not only whether they won the election, but also whether they built power that can be leveraged for future fights. The longer-time horizon incentivizes them to invest both in having deeper conversations with voters and in building the capacity of local leaders from the community.

In the 2014 election, for instance, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) undertook a nonpartisan IVE program that sought not only to turn voters out for the 2014 election but also to build OOC’s base for its many issue campaigns. In knocking on doors and talking to voters, they asked people not only about the candidates, but also about the other issues people cared about in their community. In doing so, they identified more than 8,000 new people interested in their issue-based work while having the kinds of in-depth conversations that are shown to be more effective in achieving voter turnout.

In addition, because IVE programs try to build long-term power, they can draw volunteers and staff from the community. Although much of the “science of voter turnout” examines how field programs influence voters, campaigns affect the communities in which they work in other ways, as well. Because OOC’s overall work focuses particularly on low-propensity voters who, statistically speaking, are more likely to be lower-income people of color, they recruited paid and volunteer canvassers who mirrored the constituency they were targeting. Fully 97 percent of their canvassers were African American, and 20 percent of them had never been involved in any kind of organized political activity in the past. Before joining OOC, many of the canvassers had never voted before. The OOC engaged these constituents as canvassers in the lead-up to the midterms but also plans to develop their capacity to participate in other forms of activism beyond the election.

Although it is too early to tell how the OOC’s IVE work will affect canvassers and their communities, we can learn from other campaigns that have integrated base-building with electoral work. Much ink has been spilled analyzing the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, but, as we write in our forthcoming book, one undervalued aspect of the campaign was the extent to which Obama’s ground game strategy depended on building a base of empowered volunteer leaders. As Alex Steele, a deputy field director in Colorado for Obama in 2012, said, “We’re organizing to win an election, but at the end of the day, you…want to leave behind stronger people and stronger communities than when you got there.”

To build this base, the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns focused heavily on developing leadership among its volunteer teams. Where most campaigns would task their staff with generating as much voter contact as possible before an election, the Obama campaign held staff accountable for different metrics: holding one-on-one meetings with supporters, recruiting volunteers to be neighborhood team leaders, and cultivating interdependent “neighborhood teams.” In August 2008, for example, Jeremy Bird, who was then general election director in Ohio and eventually went on to be the national field director of Obama for America 2012, held his nearly 500 organizers accountable for only two daily metrics: house meetings and the number of volunteer team leaders they confirmed. Bird wanted to give them incentives to focus less on canvassing persuadable voters, and more on turning volunteers into leaders.

If you had drawn a graph of voter contact over time in the Obama campaign, like many IVE programs, it would have looked more like a hockey stick than a steadily increasing line. This pattern could have caused alarm in a campaign that was not invested in base-building. The line was almost flat in the first few months of the campaign when the focus was on building local teams, and then grew exponentially as OFA unleashed the capacity they had built in the early phases.

The assumption behind IVE programs is that base-building and voter contact are, in the end, symbiotic: Investing in building the capacity of communities and volunteer leaders should lead to a higher-quality electoral program. Indeed, the Obama campaigns inspired higher levels of voluntarism than any other campaign that preceded them. By their own count, they engaged 2.2 million volunteers in the 2012 election who were organized into 10,000 neighborhood teams run by 30,000 volunteer leaders.

Organizations in Ohio, Florida, California, and elsewhere have thus begun to integrate electoral mobilizing into their year-round base-building efforts, bringing community organizing together with electioneering. As both Democrats and Republicans spar over who has the superior ground game, we can ask which campaigns and organizations, if any, will embrace the opportunity to incentivize ground games that not only win elections but also build durable infrastructure for ongoing power.

Hahrie Han is an associate professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of “How Organizations Develop Activists.” Elizabeth McKenna is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. They are co-authors of a forthcoming book, “Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigns in America.”

This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.

See also:

Edward Walker, How business funded the anti-soda tax coalition.