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Campaigns Without a Human Face; Once There Were Volunteers and Door-Knockers; Now Only Money Matters

As a former campaign organizer, I recently appeared on some radio call-in shows to talk about political financing. The shows aired a common complaint—that politicians have become slaves to fund-raising and TV advertising.

Published: October 27, 1996

Washington Post
October 27, 1996

Campaigns Without a Human Face; Once There Were Volunteers and Door-Knockers; Now Only Money Matters
By Kenneth N. Weine

As a former campaign organizer, I recently appeared on some radio call-in shows to talk about political financing. The shows aired a common complaint—that politicians have become slaves to fund-raising and TV advertising. Two callers told stories that nicely explained why voters are so disillusioned—and also captured why I’m not on the campaign trail in ‘96.

A woman in Connecticut said she’d sent a check to the Democratic Party with a note asking how she could volunteer. She received lots more solicitations, but never was asked to volunteer—and her own efforts to find a local campaign were unsuccessful. The next call was from a New York woman who’d built a volunteer operation for a local candidate, but party organizers ignored her effort.

If you wonder why so many Americans feel distant from politics and view politicians as out of touch with the public, these callers offer a simple answer. It’s because the great American tradition of rallying volunteers—the legions who get out the vote, neighbor-to-neighbor, face-to-face—is dying. Forget building a volunteer army, as many candidates once did; today’s candidate uses a pollster, an ad-man, a direct mail designer and a phone bank vendor.

Journalists focus on the shady foreign money stories, the huge campaign war chests and the attack commercials. But what about the people story? In a million-dollar U.S. Senate race a few years ago, the candidate couldn’t find 15 volunteers to stuff envelopes 10 days before the general election. Steve Forbes didn’t gain instant legitimacy thanks to the support of human beings—it took the largest TV buy New Hampshire and Iowa had ever seen.

I asked a political consultant friend about why campaigns are depending more on paid phone banks than on volunteers. Her sarcastic response: “You want to know why campaign managers would rather use an efficient, controlled means where they can track call progress?”

The political pros will tell you there’s a big difference between campaigns that run volunteer phone banks after hours at the local travel agency and those that contract for 30,000 calls from an out-of-state vendor using a pre-tested script. Simply put, the mom-and-pop callers, who happen to believe in their candidate, aren’t slick enough.

The pros are right. But I think our nation is losing something vital to democracy when we allow the grass roots to wither.

I was a victim of a classic seduction: Undergrad discovers campus politics and is ecstatic to learn upon graduation that campaigns will actually pay you to talk politics all day and listen to political war stories over warm pitchers of beer at night.

Recruited by a Democratic Party political action committee, I was sent to campaign boot camp. I learned, for example, it isn’t enough to have volunteers litter state fairs with fliers. Campaigns design get-out-the-vote (GOTV) programs, aiming for specific turnout and partisan goals in each district precinct.

A congressional race in Ann Arbor, Mich., in fall 1988 was my campaign kickoff. I engineered a voter-registration drive that put more than 5,000 new Democrats on the rolls. I made sure that volunteers in my assigned precincts knocked on every door three times. This volunteer legion built my credibility with the campaign manager—by October she asked for help scheduling the candidate on election eve.

The GOTV rally I organized stands as my most fulfilling political moment. More than 100 volunteers (I knew them all) arrived at a supporter’s tavern to pick up thousands of “door-knocker” leaflets to distribute throughout town. The candidate inspired the troops, the press awarded us a front-page picture and when I arrived home well after midnight I was thrilled to find a door-knocker hanging from my apartment’s not-so-visible entrance.

We lost. But I wasn’t discouraged, because knocking off an incumbent congressman is near impossible. For three more years I worked for candidates, unions and organizations—the travel and collection of my own campaign war stories outweighed the unreliable paydays and periodic losses.

Ready to manage a race on my own, I traveled to Washington last winter for a five-day Democratic training session. I was quarantined with 20 other aspiring campaign managers in a Holiday Inn conference center. Some of the nation’s leading political consultants lectured during the day; we spent nights competing in a campaign simulation game.

It was graduate school for campaigners—reading a poll’s “cross tabs” to identify where Catholic women under 55 stand; crafting messages to persuade “swing” voters; deciding how many “points” to put behind radio and television ads; collecting tips on fund-raising and strategic scheduling.

What about convincing citizens to make the commitment to actually vote? On the final day, here’s how the seminar leader introduced the topic: “GOTV equals Go TV.”

Laughs ensued, but no one missed the larger point. Running someone’s campaign is too serious a business to depend on door-knocking and volunteers. A community leader who has built a 30-year career is trusting you, an outsider usually 20 years his junior, with his personal and professional reputation. It’s not the time for virtue. “We’re going wholesale, not retail,” is how a veteran party activist summarized the strategy.

The cost-benefit decisions for a manager are simple. Say you have with 30,000 extra dollars but not enough volunteers five days before election day. You can easily ask the national party to find a phone vendor who’ll place 40,000 phone calls at 75 cents each. But if you end up with 700 volunteers but no money to spend with five days to go, you can station people at every mall, automatic teller machine and video store and pray that voters will read your fliers—while your opponent owns the radio and television airwaves.

Still, efficiency has a real cost. My last field job was Lana Pollack’s 1994 Senate campaign in Michigan. After directing the state’s nominating petition drive I was asked to switch to fund-raising, to bring in the PAC money. The campaign manager’s political pitch was simple: Cash was short, the field program was expendable and, aside from press, all efforts needed to focus on building our advertising bank account.

Then came the personal pitch: “Ken, money is where the action is on campaigns,” he said, adding that it was time I found a stable place in the political community. Not short on ambition, I began my first round of PAC calls two hours later.

My rise within campaign ranks was immediate: a better office, entry into the campaign’s inner circle and constant access to the candidate. And the campaign manager was right. When the campaign was over I received plenty of job offers, almost doubled my salary, and was meeting the cadre of national money movers necessary for lifelong employment.

My complaint? This wasn’t the hard work. Where were the money and accolades during my field organizing years? Schmoozing with a PAC director about poll numbers is easy. Try teaching 200 volunteers around the state how to stop busy moms at the Wal-Mart to sign a nominating position for a Democratic primary six months away. (“Body language counts.” “Tell them it doesn’t mean they’ll cast their vote for us.” “No, they need not be Democrats.”)

The nation is losing a generation of grass-roots organizers. A friend I made at the winter campaign training called in early May, ready to be shipped to a “battleground” state to run the party’s effort to mobilize the women’s vote. She’s a great organizer. I asked what she would be doing—building a committee of local women leaders, running phone banks?

No, she responded, her job was administering the money from Washington—securing phone bank vendors, approving scripts and reviewing direct mail texts. Another friend was recruited by an environmental group to spend three months out West. His principal job? Creating “earned media hits” to keep the environment high profile in the news and illustrate the differences between the candidates.

There’s one pragmatic drawback to relying on Washington’s message wizards: They may not know whom they’re talking to. In 1994, James Jeffords, a two-term Republican senator from Vermont, faced a tough reelection battle. Polls said his female opponent, Jan Backus, was vulnerable to “soft on crime” attacks, so Jeffords’s Washington political consultants wrote a glossy mailing for voters throughout the state. A masked gunman glared at readers, and the text warned voters of the consequences of his opponent’s weak voting record on crime.

Only one problem: This kind of crime wasn’t a Vermont issue. Masked gunmen don’t frequent Brattleboro, Burlington and White River Junction. The press knew it, voters complained, and the day after it arrived in mailboxes Jeffords apologized, blaming his Washington consultants.

What would Alexis de Tocqueville think? His 19th century travels left him in awe of America’s participatory democracy: “Men have the opportunity of seeing one another . . . . [P]olitical life makes the love and practice of association more general; it imparts a desire of union and teaches the means of combination to numbers of men who otherwise would have always lived apart.”

Voters’ lifestyles have changed since de Tocqueville visited. And political candidates have found lots of efficient ways to reach them. But neighbors who knock on doors for candidates make a profound contribution to our democracy and our sense of community. Too bad they’re not more efficient.

Kenneth Weine is an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.