Do Grassroots Volunteers Make a Difference?

I was still in bed last Friday morning when Joe Biden finally overtook Donald Trump in the Pennsylvania vote count, all but ensuring that he would win the state, and thus the Presidency. I was still catching up on my sleep after a two-day excursion to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to do some last-minute canvassing for Democratic votes. I guess I should have taken some satisfaction that my efforts helped, at least a tiny bit, in making that victory happen.  

But I doubt it.  

I was part of the vast army of newly energized campaign volunteers, who stepped up to help get out the vote for Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates in swing states across the nation. Egged on by the excellent Vote Save America project (spearheaded by Jon Favreau and his Obama-era cohorts on the Pod Save America podcast), I did phone- and text banking in my “adopted” state of Florida, plus a little bit in neighboring Georgia. Then, realizing I was just a couple of hours away from an even more crucial swing state, I made the drive to New Hope, Pa., for two shifts of door-to-door canvassing, one on election eve and the other on election morning.  

It was hard, cold work. After a Zoom training session, mainly in how to use the slick new app that supplies the list of target homes (as well as strict guidance on Covid safety measures), I set out shortly after 5 p.m. on Monday afternoon. This first thing I realized was that, shortly after 5 p.m.. it is dark. Searching for addresses, with a cellphone flashlight in 40-degree cold, was more daunting than I imagined. Odd numbers on one side of the street, and even numbers on the other side? Not in this townhouse-strewn neighborhood in New Hope, Pa. My two-hour shift stretched to nearly four hours — and even then I couldn’t finish my list. 

The next morning went more smoothly. The sun was shining; I was more familiar with the app; and the addresses in the suburban development I was assigned actually made some logical sense. No more than half the respondents were home; but the ones who did answer the door were mostly friendly, politically sympathetic — and in no apparent need of my help. They had already voted, or assured me they were just about to. Did the arrival of a stranger at the door, standing six feet away with a blue mask and a handful of campaign literature, convince even one voter to go to the polls who wouldn’t have otherwise? I fear I’d be giving myself too much credit. 

Don’t get me wrong: I was proud to be involved, gratified to get a taste of grassroots campaigning, happy to do my bit, however small, in the battle to preserve democracy and end the Trump nightmare. I was impressed with the dedication, enthusiasm and hard work of all the local organizers. (And the requests are still coming in, for volunteers in the two Georgia Senate runoff elections.) But I wonder whether it’s time to reexamine some old campaign traditions. 

Take phone banking. In an era when we are inundated with phone solicitations, scams and sales pitches virtually every waking hour, is cold-calling still the most effective way to reach and convince voters? Volunteers typically get an elaborate script to follow, which assumes you can keep someone on the phone long enough to elicit everything from their opinion of down-ballot candidates to their willingness to become volunteers themselves. 

But who even picks up the phone these days from any number you don’t recognize from your contact list? And for the few who do answer (and who don’t hang up instantly), the idea of keeping them on the phone for more than 30 seconds is about as realistic as expecting Donald Trump to read a 30-page briefing paper on wind turbines. 

Getting an answering machine, I soon decided, was actually the best outcome. I could craft my own succinct, informational, maybe a bit personalized message. (“Early voting starts this weekend. We have a President who is trying to suppress the vote. So I hope you’ll get out and help show that we still believe in the democratic process. Thanks, and have a great day.”) People at least listen to their voicemail. 

Yet the phone-bank trainers at times seemed a little disconnected from reality. Before one session we got a five-minute tutorial on how to politely get off the phone, in the event of a respondent who babbles on too long. (In what world is this a common problem?) Worse, on my last day of phone banking, we were instructed to not leave any voicemail messages; just hang up and move on to the next call. (And the next answering machine.)  

As a longtime kibitzer, first-time canvasser, I certainly have no right to give advice to the pros who have been doing this for years. But just as the pollsters need to go back to the drawing board and learn something from their 2020 mistakes, it might be time — in our new era of high-tech, multimedia political bombardment — to rethink some of the old tactics of grassroots campaigning. Kudos to the Democrats for motivating tens of thousands of new political activists. Now maybe there’s something to learn from them. 

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