What I learned from infiltrating a Democratic campaign

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How do I begin?  I spend all my time working toward the emergence of a socialist party, consciously as an alternative to the Democrats, and then I go and campaign for a Democrat.  What the hell!

If you’ll allow me some benefit of the doubt, I actually did this to learn campaign technique so to carry that knowledge over into socialist campaigns which will someday happen.  People have an extreme anxiety about electoral tactics simply because they have zero familiarity with it.  And then of course, since I hope to be part of something which does eventually run socialist candidates, it’s good to know what you’re doing, and have the knowledge to spread to others.  This helps overcome the crisis of confidence.  So it was part reconnaissance, part Sasha Baron Cohen.

First, I have to relate the hilarious shit which occurred on the campaign.  Then I will go into the specific things I learned from the campaign.  Finally I will talk more generally about what I have learned about campaigns in general, from various sources.

 

EVER FEEL LIKE YOU DON’T BELONG SOMEWHERE?

 

I’d been toying with the sinister idea to infiltrate a Democrat campaign and learn their trade for some time.  I was almost at the point when I was going to look up my local candidate and call him myself when, lo and behold, as I was walking from my gym to the adjacent grocery store for a post-workout munchies granola bar, THERE HE IS.  As in, the candidate.  Or really as in, an incumbent, a current state senator.  In front of my grocery store, near my gym, shaking hands and kissing babies.  My fate was sealed.  We spoke.  I volunteered.  I received the ominous business card, for his campaign office.  I called the portentous number.

I go into the office for a first time, just to feel it out and learn the ropes.  It’s a small shitty rental space.  They ask my political background, not really to screen me, but just to know what I’m familiar with.  I leave out the Leninism thing, though it’s fortunate that the Leninist practice of working in single-issue campaigns gives you this long history of activist involvement which you could just pass off as being an active liberal if you don’t mention that you’re in those movements to persuade people of revolution.  I reassure them that, unlike most political noobs, I do not hinge my entire emotional outlook on how every single interaction goes.  I understand that, like grassroots organizing campaigns, many people just won’t have time for you, and you just move on to the next one.  They tell me it’s good that I understand this, because the usual successful contact rate for both phone calls and doorknocking is only 20%.

I ask them a million questions and visibly take notes in a notebook.  I often worried they thought I was a Republican infiltrator…I lazily told them that I was just a leftie activist who realized I should get involved in campaigns and knew nothing about them and wanted to learn all about them.  They didn’t even seem to care.  One of the more poli-sci oriented ones was even happy to have someone to talk to about such nuts-and-bolts technicality.  Did you know that if you put your iPhone on silent mode, no one can tell whether you’re Facebooking or taking photographs of sensitive documents?  I love technology.

So these poor campaigner souls, who were these people?  Where were these people from?  Basically poli-sci majors, some from the locality, some transplanted from the outside to work this job then get back to whatever major city or God-forsaken corner of America.  Was the place well-attended?  Not most of the time.  Toward last two weeks it definitely picked up but before that it was seriously sparse.  I ask how many people I’ll be working with.  “Our volunteer teams are sometimes two or three people.”  (Funny, at the time he said this, there were only three people in the office including myself.)  Ultimately the kid I worked with the most revealed he was working roughly 60-hour weeks for about $10/hour and sums it up by warning me, “don’t work in campaigns.”

What about the volunteers?  Local friends of the candidate, plus some low-income people trying to get extra work by doorknocking.  A pair of black women I worked with told me that the doorknocking ($11/hour) actually paid better than their regular jobs, which were near minimum wage.

One day they just dropped me off with a folder full of papers with addresses and Google maps in a neighborhood, basically implying, “figure it out for yourself.”  It took me a while but after some time I realized it pretty much just like playing World of Warcraft, except in the rain, on foot…for the Democrats.  I had to go to the bathroom but fortunately it was an area which had a lot of construction and various unattended, unlocked port-a-potties served me well.

I met some interestingly uninteresting people.  It’s like the database of doors to knock on was specifically designed to direct me towards old people – which I wouldn’t have minded, except they were old people with absolutely no personalities.

Sometimes I was just reminding people, “Hey you said you were a supporter, you still voting for him?  PS here’s your nearest polling station” but then some townie would say “Ohhh, I know that guy!  I love him!  He’s my dentist!” and want to hang on me for the next twenty minutes when I had more doors to knock.  If these people wanted to talk about the economy or their good old days of protesting in the sixties it would have been one thing, but no.  Sometimes I would just get some snippety person who would refuse to answer me; “I don’t like polls.”  Okay, well I don’t like you.  And then finally there were the unapproachable properties – do I open the gate to get to the front door?  Does this house even have a front door?  And of course the “Beware of Dog” signs which the campaign had instructed me to mark down in my paperwork and bypass.

Besides working on the Democratic campaign I also worked as a poll worker ie a vote counter.  On election day the Republican candidate came into the polls first thing in the morning right when they opened.  She dragged her kids with her.  Somehow I of all people got roped into being the official iPhone picture-taker to forward this sickening photo-op to the local press.  Her daughter literally said, in the yet-quiet building for everyone to hear, “I really do not want to be here.”  I don’t think anything could have better made my day.

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Then there was the crime lord.  Oh yes, friends and comrades, while doorknocking I met a crime lord.  He said he was a big supporter of the team I was campaigning for – specifically, the notoriously corrupt state assemblyman who did in fact end up losing the race.  This guy talked with me for a long time, and horrifically as he kept talking, his story seemed more and more realistic.  He said he oversaw providing a certain service in certain hotels in a certain seedy community near me.  He informed me of rather personal reasons why he supported the team I was working with, which he proved in front of me.  Because I want to keep my kneecaps and not be the epicenter of a scandal, I’m not going into details but let’s just say he had the look – outlandish clothing with all these Buddha necklaces and gold chains and other accoutrements, a personal chauffeur in a nice car, etc.  He looked and acted like the crime lord Kenneth Chung from The Hangover except he was white.

But that’s not the scandal, not to me.  You know what was most damning of all about my experience on the campaign trail?  The incredible lack of politics.  I met one guy who turned out to be a union official who had been campaigning for the state’s minimum wage increase.  We traded contact info.  That was it.  With everyone else it was just “Are you voting for my candidate?”  “Oh yeah he’s a good guy.”  “Maybe I don’t know.”  “This is your nearest polling station.”  “Thanks for stopping by.”  “Have a nice day.”  There was virtually no political discussion during my phase of the campaign, the reasons for which I will explain in the next section, but which still seemed completely ridiculous and disproportionate.  If you can’t have politics during campaign season, when can you have it?  There were a million times I could have started such conversations, if I wasn’t working on an unrelated campaign.  I hope that in the future that’s what a socialist party does: actually brings politics into politics.  But with the Democrats, it so happened that I never had to lie, because I was never asked to.  I never had to make an argument I didn’t believe in, because the campaign didn’t believe in anything.  It was a Big Data turnout-harassment machine, plain and simple, lacking any political soul whatsoever.

 

THE DIRT

 

One of the first days I worked on the campaign, I was given a paper list of people to call on a burner phone (apparently used also by political campaigns, not just drug dealers).

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The list looked like this, except I cut off the left hand side which had a name and an address in each one of those rows because that could be some legal confidentiality issue.

The different boxes with acronyms meant things like “Not Home” (NH), “Wrong Number” (WN), and other things I can’t remember but which were much less used.  The process was rather mechanical; f I got a family member I was not supposed to convince them to vote for my guy.  I was instead supposed to insist on asking for the specific person on the list, and if they weren’t home, say thank you and hang up.  If they were there, I was supposed to ask their voting likeliness for each name on the list.  Rather than say “1 through 5, with 1 being unlikely and 5 being very likely” I just asked them yes or no and made a subjective judgment call on the degree.  If they were strong supporters I was supposed to ask them to volunteer or put a yard sign on their lawn.

Eventually I was shown that, once someone is no longer a noob, they can use a “predictive” or automated dialing system, which does the dialing for you, and just calls numbers til you get a live person.  They said it is telemarketing software called Shoutpoint.

The educational highlight of the whole reconnaissance mission, besides working the phones, was the doorknocking.  I got to know what happens, as described above.  But I also got to know their system.

They handed me sheets like the first ones, with names and addresses and questionairre options, except according to street.  And they handed me Google maps like the ones below, except they used some program (which despite my persistent queries no one could identify, damn it) to draw many different dots on the same Google map, of all their target houses.

So I would follow my map, follow the dots, and use street signs to figure out where I was, and then the alphabetically-ordered pages sorted by street name would have the paperwork for each target individual.  Some days I was dropped off on my own in a place with targets in easy walking distance of each other.  Some days I was teamed up with others, and we’d drive around and handle things together.  Some days I drove around by myself.  The shifts were 5 hours; I did it on weekends.

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On a more serious note, one thing I really did encounter was that my candidate had a lot of support simply by being a community presence.  Whenever there was some Boy Scout event or 4H or whatever, he would be there chatting with people.  He paid close attention to state-and-local happenings.  Also he was a dentist which gave him a high degree of community visibility.  While any socialist should obviously be much more directly political than that, such things do pay off.  You could view it as using apolitical methods to “cheat” and bypass the need to directly convince people of socialism.  Or, you could view it in the exact reverse, that you are using your own character as a method for legitimizing socialism in the eyes of the community.  If they look at you and think “hey they’re a good person, they’re a neighbor,” they may vote for you just for that, but they will also take more seriously any ideas you put forward.

Finally I noticed I was not officially an employee of the campaign, which I had heard of elsewhere.  For campaign finance law purposes, campaign staff are not paid through the campaign officially.  I did receive a small amount of money for doorknocking, and my checks did not come from the candidate’s campaign but from this group that was funneling essentially Democratic Party money through non-Democrat channels.  So there it is: I was not in any official capacity as a Democratic Party staff member.  Instead my paychecks indicated I was a functionary of the faceless, shadowy Ardleigh Group Limited Liability Corporaton.

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A GENERAL MODEL OF ELECTION CAMPAIGNS

 

The first step to any election campaign is district math.  Without this, you are truly lost at sea.  Fortunately it’s pretty easy, but it can give you a brutal reality check.  District math is when you figure out the actual number of people you would need to win.  Traditionally, you figure out the number of people with a voting history in your relevant area, and shoot for 50% of them.  Since commies like us might throw the race, we might be shooting for 33%.  Or if you know you can’t win but are running to make an impression, you might set a quantitative goal of 20% or something, to show that you didn’t win this time but you are serious.

Now notice I said traditionally you get this percentage out of the number of people in your area with a voting history.  This raises a few questions: how do you find this information?  Fortunately Wikipedia and other free Internet sources often carry this precise information on every possible electoral zone.  You can also ask your local board of elections for the Orwellian “voter file,” which gives your locality’s entire voting history, sometimes even indicating people’s addresses and which way they voted, no kidding.  It exists precisely for electoral campaign purposes, for doorknocking and mailing and phonecalling, so you’d be using it for the right reasons.  In fact if you use it to doorknock for charity or business, you will face fines.

The second question is – are you going to focus on people with voting histories?  Or not?  The mainstream parties do that, but maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe we can reach people who avoid voting because they feel the two parties don’t represent them.  However this would raise some problems for us.  The parties use the voting-history-only method as a way to save crucial resources.  Often as much of 60% of a district doesn’t vote, so if we sought the disaffected, the mainstream parties would be knocking on as little as 40% (or even 20%) of the doors in a district.  We would have to knock on all 100% of them.  But we might find it to be worth it.  Maybe we could start way earlier than the normal campaign season.

Also know that there are three phases of contacting people, which would justify starting early: voter ID, persuasion, and get-out-the-vote (GOTV).  In the first phase, voter ID, you knock on every door known to man (or just the ones with voting histories) and figure out if they’re with you, against you, or borderline.  (You also learn if they just want everyone to fuck off and won’t talk to you – make sure you mark that down in your paperwork too.  Every asshole you know to avoid saves you time and resources.) Voter ID can often be done over phone, often even by independent companies if you’ve got the money.  So after voter ID, you’ve categorized people and know how to approach them in the future.  If people are on board with you, they become targets during Phase 3, Get Out the Vote (GOTV).  You can also hit them up earlier for volunteer time and donations (which you will need).  If people are borderline, you target them during Phase 2, persuasion.  Persuasion is one of the most actually political parts of the campaign.  This is where people need to be trained in talking points or whatever, though in the case of socialists it would probably be the moment of relief when politicos are actually allowed to be political.  Of course the moment of attempting to recruit people who lean supportive into actually doing something or donating is also a part which might require a political argument.  The final phase, GOTV, is really just about giving people reminders.  You find supportive people and ask them to actually go vote.  You inform them of their nearest polling station.  You offer to give them mail-in vote forms.  You ask them how they will get to their polling station, partially to provide transit for those lacking, but mainly to make people visualize the process of going to vote, a mind trick which makes them much more likely to actually go do it.

Every voter you are targeting in your district math should get something like 7 instances of contact: 2 phone calls, 2 doorknocks, 2 pieces of campaign mail, and 1 of whatever.  We socialists might involve more things like street presence, like the Sawant campaign’s “stand-outs,” or rallies and political-educational meetings.  Really any of the usual leftist political events – lectures, protests, whatever – could be seamlessly synthesized with an electoral campaign by just making an announcement or asking for donations or volunteers.  These, however, are a supplement and not a substitute for the tremendous task of individualized contact toward everyone in your district.

Don’t bother with getting TV or radio.  You can’t afford it and it actually doesn’t accomplish what you would think.  People respond best to enthusiastic volunteers, which plays in our favor since the two-party system lacks enthusiastic volunteers while having plenty of money to run attack ads.  If you have money to burn, pay your staff and doorknockers or get more campaign mail.

Then there are the unique problems of New York City.  There is no way to knock on doors, because everyone lives in skyscrapers with locked front doors, or front security desks.  That’s a problem because doorknocking is the typical entry-point for grassroots campaigns who have lots of volunteer enthusiasm but no money.  But I’ll probably write about that in some other article.

Note that these are the basics.  The more you can afford, the more sophisticated you can get with modeling people’s data and really zoning in on the right people.  Until then, lean hard on your one advantage of being a rabble-rousing socialist with lots of volunteer power.

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3 thoughts on “What I learned from infiltrating a Democratic campaign

  1. Getting to people in high-rise lockouts is actually not that difficult; just use the intercom/door buzzer. Just push as many buttons as you can, and someone will let you in. This counts as an invitation for legal purposes, and if you are invited onto the property by a resident, management has no legal authority to kick you out (and most places won’t even bother trying even if somebody who works there sees you).

    • WOW. That is stellar. I thought this was going to be a major roadblock. I guess the NYC Green Party isn’t as thug as you (definitely a compliment). Ask and you shall receive!

  2. Good work going through this and then writing up the experience. Many of these nuts and bolts experiences are outside of what comprises of much socialist activity yet knowing them, implementing them, and knowing them enough to be creative will be critical.

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