Friday, February 01, 2019

Tips for volunteering in the presidential primaries

A friend recently asked me for advice on how to get on board as a volunteer with the primary campaign of one of our aspiring Democratic presidents. After all, I work on campaigns and have experience with volunteers, so I should have ideas.

And I do have some tips, though these come with a caveat: I've never actually worked in a presidential primary campaign. (I'll explain that at the end of this post.) I'm neutral about the current field.

Let's say you want to volunteer for the candidate of your choice. It's likely to be harder than it seems it should be. Aren't campaigns all about engaging masses of people? Well, sometimes.
  • You want to do more than contribute money. Unfortunately, your labor may not be what the campaign wants from you. The most urgent need, for nearly all candidates all the time, is more cash.
  • Maybe you could help in a small way by raising money. We'll assume you don't have big bucks. But you could get some friends together, maybe show a campaign video, and raise a little something. The campaign might be grateful for the resulting check. But don't count on much support in the way of materials to give away or a staff speaker, if the anticipated haul is less than perhaps $5 or $10K. And whatever you do, make sure to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws -- otherwise your small money can be more trouble than assistance.
  • Primary campaigns from within are about throwing up temporary, usually flimsy, campaign infrastructure on the fly. Staff who opened a new office a week ago aren't likely to have developed work programs to plug supportive volunteers into, even if they wish they did. Finding the right desk chairs may seem a higher priority.
  • Campaigns at the launch stage usually assume they want to collect names and contact information from potential volunteers. But they are often have little capacity to sort and contact the potential people power they harvest. You can't assume that signing a volunteer form, or returning an email petition, or messaging through Twitter will evoke any response. Keep trying these approaches and you may hit the moment when your name comes up.
  • To successfully volunteer, it helps to find someone you know or can reach out to who is closer to the campaign than you are. Your contact might be someone in local Democratic politics or a member of an organization like a professional association or union that your candidate is close to/courting.
  • Eventually institutional players will follow their own internal processes and get involved. The smoothest way to find your way into a campaign is as a member of an endorsing union or Democratic club. But that avenue won't be available until these groups conduct their own internal processes. If you are a member of something that endorses, you can help your candidate win that endorsement.
  • Understand that what campaigns may most want from volunteers is visible crowds in the right places. Being there when your person is speaking or takes part in a broader Democratic cattle call for aspirants is a form of volunteer support. The campaign should be recruiting you to these events, but keep your eyes out too. Staff are imperfect. Learn all you can about who your candidate is trying to bring over to support and get yourself to likely occasions, perhaps wearing campaign gear. You'll likely meet sympathetic people.
  • Campaigns that are taking off figure out how to use volunteers eventually. Don't give up. If your candidate is thriving, you'll find a place before the big primary election. Learn about when your state primary happens, who can vote when, and how the primary results allocate Democratic convention delegates. You'll be an expert among your friends and increase your chances of bringing them out for your person.
I'm sure that readers will have additional suggestions; please drop them in comments.

For FWIW: I've never worked in a presidential primary and will be neutral for a long time in this Democratic primary. Eventually I will vote for someone ... and I'll support whatever Democrat emerges. Tolerance for lesser evils is a necessary part of electoral politics.

My attitude to all candidates is instrumental rather than enthusiastic. Before throwing down with any candidate, I ask myself where does this individual fit in the never completed project of making the country more fair, more generous, simply a better place for us and the world. I can support and work for very flawed candidates if, in a particular place and moment, their election will advance that project. I don't have to love the individual; I just have to think they'd help or avert hurt.

In the presidential sweepstakes, a calculating attitude is certainly appropriate. Nobody at that level is going to look perfect. These champions are not yet the standard bearers. They appeal by signifying potential directions and values for the country. Because I bring pretty well articulated values to the political fray and because I have a healthy sense of what a difficult job it is to flesh out any of what I hope for in our politics, I don't tend to fall in love at the primary stage -- or ever. Let's get what we can from these people and keep holding their feet to the fire.

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