How to Recruit a Grassroots Army
less then 1 minute
Democrats routinely field more effective volunteer armies than Republicans, largely due to the help of their allies in organized labor. But Democrats have also had more success building grassroots organizations because they’re often better at communicating with and organizing their base.
Even in the 2010 midterms, when GOP voter enthusiasm was supposed to have been at a 15-year high, campaign staffers across the country were at a loss as to how to get enough unpaid boots on the ground. As the 2016 cycle ramps up, down-ballot candidates—particularly in the early states—face the added challenge of competing for volunteers with over a half a dozen presidential campaigns.
Some campaign managers may simply throw up their hands and hire paid workers rather than recruit volunteers. But don’t put out the call for resumes before spending some real time trying to build a homegrown volunteer effort.
From my observation, volunteers tend to fall into five distinct categories, which I’ve developed into five “clinical case studies.” Using these in your volunteer recruiting process should help identify the right volunteers for your campaign and help you manage and retain them once they join your political campaign.
1 The loyal foot soldier
Diagnosis: The foot soldier is the Republican version of the Democratic union faithful. These are the tried-and-true volunteers that turn out every election cycle. Their stomping grounds are county GOP meetings, civic organizations (think Rotary, Kiwanis), VFW halls and trade associations. Common varieties include middle-aged local businessmen, grannies who could stuff envelopes with their eyes closed and wiry old veterans with their phone-dialing fingers at the ready.
Benefits: Good foot soldiers are worth their weight in gold. They’ve been there, done this, so they understand what volunteer duties consist of and won’t get bored or require constant attention.
Risks: They’ve seen campaigns, and campaign hacks, come and go, and are usually not shy about expressing their opinion of your operation. To retain these volunteers, it’s important to present a competent and professional front. Also, as they trend older, they occasionally resist new technology, so they may need some coaxing to get comfortable with innovations like VoIP phones.
Prescription: Cherish your foot soldiers. Let them do their preferred task, and rest in the knowledge that they will do it well. Use them to train other volunteers in their age range, and reward them with campaign merchandise, they probably collect it.
2 The groupie
Diagnosis: These volunteers are all about your candidate. They either have some personal connection to him or her or, on a larger race, they might just be a big fan. The thrill of being around the candidate, and the idea that they are making a difference for him or her, is the driving force behind their involvement in the campaign.
Benefits: Groupies will literally walk over hot coals for your candidate. You can’t instill that kind of devotion in anyone else, paid or volunteer. As long as these volunteers believe that what they are doing is the best way they can help the candidate, they will do just about anything.
Risks: Because they are so invested in the candidate, often on a personal level, groupies tend to rank relatively high on the high maintenance scale. They can also be fiercely critical if they feel that the campaign is putting their candidate at risk, such as by releasing a negative TV advertisement.
Prescription: You know what they want, so give it to them. These are the ideal volunteers for visibility and crowd building at events, walking in parades and handing out literature at fairs. The caveat here is that these volunteers need to be well trained, or well supervised, so they understand what they are there to do and don’t spend the entire event trying to chat up the candidate. Still, once the event is over, make sure they get rewarded with a personal thank you, and get a photo-op sometime along the campaign trail.
3 The architect (in his own mind)
Diagnosis: This Karl Rove wannabe is the consummate political junkie that desperately wants to be on the staff. He’s typically convinced himself that if he were in charge, the campaign would be on a straight path to victory.
Benefits: There aren’t many. They probably know all the insider terminology and will employ industry terms like “micro-targeting” unnecessarily in conversation. If they are local, they may have a body of knowledge on past races and major players that could be useful.
Risks: Architects view themselves as strategists, not grunt workers, so they are generally long on advice and short on actual help. Because they put themselves before the campaign, it is difficult to get them to be team players.
Prescription: Pair them up with a tolerant fellow volunteer and a GPS device and let them drive and pontificate while their partner knocks on doors.
4 The eager beaver
Diagnosis: The eager beaver is the loyal foot soldier without the experience. Generally high school or college kids, these volunteers are enthusiastic and all about helping the cause in any way they can.
Benefits: Eager beavers are energetic, personable and open to instruction. They will likely be thrilled just to be a part of the campaign and are willing to do anything asked of them.
Risks: With all teenagers, the tendency to be flaky goes with the territory. As a result, they will occasionally no-show when club meetings, sports practice and trouble borrowing the car get in the way. Eager beavers tend to glamorize the staff, so they can be pesky. But at the end of the day, it’s worth spending five minutes of your time chatting them up if it results in 500 phone calls.
Prescription: Although they require a bit more time and effort on your part, these volunteers will be among your best. Try to recruit them early by staking out local college campuses or posting on social networking sites, and then get them to recruit their friends. Eager beavers tend to be friendly and outgoing, so they’re great for direct voter contact.
5 The resume builder
Diagnosis: The resume builder is often similar in age and outward appearance to the eager beaver, but is involved with the campaign for an entirely different reason. He or she is in it primarily to pad their resume. Generally, college kids or recent graduates, resume builders are typically competent and tend to be comparatively reliable since they are looking to get a recommendation for their efforts.
Benefits: The resume builders are easy to understand because their motivation is clear. Agree with it or not, you know what they’re in it for.
Risks: Resume builders’ self-interested approach will be off-putting to true-believer types.
Prescription: Make it clear what’s in it for them, and they will do what you need to be done. Resume builders are all about the bottom line. If they seem dissatisfied with the work they’re doing, offer them a title promotion to sweeten the deal. They will generally clean toilets as long as they get to put deputy something-or-other on their resume.
Each volunteer is obviously a unique individual, but many of them can be categorized. The sooner you figure out what they’re looking to get out of the experience, the easier it will be to develop the tools to get what you need out of them. After all, if your campaign can’t motivate people who are already supporters, how can you expect to influence voters?