A Familiar Face

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Amongst those who utilize political technology, there is often much talk about big data and microtargeting. Like TV and radio, online ads are often the most high-profile and commonly cited tools to engage supporters and drive the vote. However, a new article from the author of Victory Lab, Sasha Issenberg, seems to suggest that the most effective political campaigns are those that are going back to basics by successfully recruiting volunteers and mobilizing them, rather than relying on paid staff.

Proof Points

In the article, Issenberg cites a number of studies and books that seem to run counter to current conventional wisdom: that volunteers are the most effective at driving support and voter turnout. In fact, the decision to use volunteers may have been the key decision that helped George W. Bush beat opponent John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. election.

The value of volunteers is best reflected in additional studies that show that person-to-person contact is the most effective, while impersonal contact (such as direct mail) does almost nothing to increase voter turnout. In other words, the most voter intense operations (canvassing, phone banking) are also the ones that produce the biggest positive impact.

The Obama Myth

Being in the digital advocacy space, I routinely run into the myth that President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign successfully leveraged social media and technology to win decisive victories. While that is good for business (yay tech!), it is also not the entire story. As noted by Issenberg (and iterated by senior Obama personnel), the campaign had a massive volunteer organization to spread the word, ID vote and get out that vote on Election Day:

“Where possible, the campaign would aim to turn out its votes through volunteer work rather than by using paid vendors. We couldn’t have hired 2 million staffers to do the voter contact. We had to have volunteers.” — Jeremy Bird, Obama 2012 National Field Director

One key lesson of the Obama campaign is this: you don’t just need to reach voters with ads, you need to be able to utilize targeting and technology to recruit and mobilize volunteers. As Obama’s team points out, a well-funded campaign definitely provides a leg up, but money can’t solve all problems – volunteers are still a key part of the solution.

Necessary Infrastructure

While technology (data, analytics, etc) allowed the Obama campaign to optimize their efforts, it was their investment in creating the proper environment to recruit, train and empower volunteers that really allowed them to win on Election Day. This is where Canada’s political parties could stand to make the biggest change. A very close friend of mine, one who has managed large campaigns, once lamented to me that the age of the volunteer is over. No one wants to volunteer anymore; the paid staffer, phone banker or canvasser is now the norm.

While I concede that volunteers are much harder to come by, how we utilize them must change if campaigns are to be successful. That begins with the message (policy, platforms) and the messenger (leader, candidate), but a key component is how we mobilize volunteers. In this, technology can play an important role. From webinars to mobile canvassing apps to targeting data, we can use fewer volunteers to be more efficient and maximize their impact in mobilizing support.

But the proper work must be done long before an election is on the horizon. As Obama’s team did, a culture of supporting volunteers must be created right from the beginning – starting with a decision that the campaign will be powered by volunteers. Once the campaign has established volunteers as their primary renewable resource to fuel their campaign, then the necessary infrastructure will be put into place to support and maximize that resource.

Technology’s Role

It is important that technology not only be seen in terms of broadcasting information to the widest possible audience. As an example, targeted ads can also be used to identify volunteers based on data on those who currently volunteer. Investments can also be made to support volunteer activity by making it more intuitive and frictionless to become involved at any level. The technology exists to run a decentralized, yet informed campaign, where volunteers work remotely and as it makes sense to them.

But any movement on this front will take substantial effort: a shift in culture as well as a shift in resources. This is the real lesson from the Obama victories – the familiar face of a local volunteer at a door or on a phone will pay back all the investment made on it. It just takes a decision to invest in that important natural resource.

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