July is the month when voter contact and door-to-door canvassing shifts into high gear in preparation for the election just four months away. But the biggest mistake Democrats continually make in their political campaigns is to focus only on the immediate election and not on what happens the day after.
Every election cycle, the day after the voting ends the campaign offices of Democratic candidates are closed, volunteers are disbanded and, aside from being used to send out an occasional e-mail message, supporters contact information is stored away in file cabinets and hard drives until the next election.
This is a huge mistake.
Democrats should think about ways to insure that the organizing they do during the campaign will be carried on after Election Day and form a solid and ongoing foundation for future campaigns–either by the candidate or by other Democrats who follow in his or her footsteps.
As historian-activist Lara Putnam said in a recent article in Democracy Journal:
The short-sightedness baked into current Democratic Party strategy means that even when campaigns get the canvassing right, they miss the chance to build. [Conor] Lamb volunteers had tens of thousands of conversations with potential voters in southwest Penn this winter. None of these conversations ended with “there’s a group of us meeting monthly down at the library. We’d love to see you there.
Here Are the Steps Candidates Should Take
- Tell the volunteers and door-knockers that the network of volunteers and supporters that is being built up will not disappear after November–and have them pass that message to all the people that they talk to. Let people know that the campaign is seriously committed to the long haul. You yourself might not run again but someone else will and the organizing you do in your campaign can be the vital and essential foundation for their later run.
2. Find a person who wants to continue to be active after November and designate them as a point person for after Election Day activities. Whenever someone wants to know what will be going on after the election, you should be able to say “Go talk to Jane or to Joe. They’ll know”. Give the person you select a campaign social media account or phone number so people seeking post-election activities can get in touch with them. Preserve and modify the campaign website and Facebook page for post-election messaging.
3. Start now to identify community gathering points where supporters and volunteers can meet and plan continuing activities after the election. A real-world “clubhouse” is the anchor that holds a community of organizers together. All sorts of places can play this role–restaurants, bars, bookstores, libraries, churches, community centers and often people’s living rooms. The fundamental fact to keep in mind is that keeping grass roots political networks alive and growing requires regular personal contact and socializing. It is the friendships that are made during activities and the connections and camaraderie that results that creates the bonds that cement and holds together a grass roots campaign organization after an election is over.
In fact, in the past the Democratic Party also understood the importance of regular social events. Consider this description of the early 20th century Democratic “machine”:
Politics under the machine was an urban festival, with picnics and chowders, boat rides, excursions to the country or the new amusement parks, balls and cotillions, block dances, and “beefsteaks,” atavistic rituals in which men donned aprons and devoured endless amounts of buttered steak with their teeth and hands.
5. One important approach that can very effectively expand the reach and influence of a political campaign organization is participating in local community volunteer activities. These can range from cleaning up a stream to planting trees or gardens, helping the homebound elderly or tutoring elementary school kids. This kind of activity need not, and indeed should not, be limited to projects conducted jointly with traditional Democratic allies like environmental groups or low income advocacy organizations. There are many neighborhood problems that are not usually associated with Democrats but where a campaign can participate like assisting in the organization of neighborhood watch programs in areas where car break-ins and mailbox theft are common. Modern neighborhood websites like Nextdoor.com can provide an up to the minute picture of local neighborhood issues and concerns.
Above all, however, outreach should be firmly based on the principle that it is the real needs of the community, not any preselected menu of options that should determine the kinds of activities that campaign organizations should try to engage in.
6. Campaign organizations should also pay particular attention to working with churches and other religious institutions. These have been major centers of support and recruitment for conservatives and the GOP since the 1980’s, even though many of their members are not genuinely committed Republicans or conservatives and many of their community activities have a firmly non- partisan flavor. Don’t view them solely as places to push a Democratic or a candidate centered message. Have campaign members’ support and join in their community activities as neighbors and friends rather than political activists and let political influence develop naturally and organically out of shared activity.
7. Finally, after the elections candidates should take the time to establish working relationships between their post-campaign organizations and the local and state Democratic party, existing progressive grass roots groups (such as labor unions like SIEU) and with the campaign supporters of other Democratic candidates. The nature of these relationships will vary in different districts and at different levels of politics but in all cases democratic campaigns should seek to avoid allowing their supporters to become isolated after the election from other pro-Democratic groups and campaigns that are also engaging in ongoing organizing.