Section 3: What is Grassroots Campaigning?

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

25 October 2016

What is Grassroots Campaigning? And how, exactly does grassroots work – especially as it blends with big data? These examples best demonstrate this combination:

Grassroots Campaigning, Eric’s story on voter registration:

As has already been explained, before people can actually vote in an election, they need to register with a specific address in their state. Voter registration is a non-partisan activity, and it is against the law to interfere or refuse registration based on how you suspect or know someone might vote. That said, through the use of data, campaigns and volunteers can target grassroots registration activities to locations where they are much more likely to encounter unregistered citizens that are more likely to vote favorably for their causes and candidates. For example, in the 2008 cycle, Suzi and our kids visited the Hempfest Festival in Seattle with the hope of finding younger voters who would be favorable to President Obama but who might be too lazy to remember to register and vote. To put this in perspective, “hemp” is the Cannabis plant that is used for fiber to make clothing and other organic products. The “bud” is the part that some people dry and smoke. It seemed like the perfect place to find young, potential voters who might not be focused on registering.

In 2012, when visiting the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, we engaged in an even more targeted voter registration drive. The Obama campaign at the time knew several key facts. First, they expected that about 75% of Hispanic voters nationwide would vote for President Obama. Second, they knew that approximately 3% of the voting eligible population in North Carolina was Hispanic. However, they also knew that only about 55% of those eligible voters were actually registered. Their grassroots solution was simple and effective. Over the summer of 2012, they took as many volunteers as they could find and sent them to Hispanic supermarkets (markets that sold specific products and had a very high percentage of Hispanic customers). All we had to do was stand in front of the market and, as each person came and went, in as friendly a way as possible, ask if they were a U.S. citizen and if they were registered to vote. We did not ask them how they would vote. We just offered to help them fill out the registration form and promised, by law, to promptly return the form to the proper authorities.

In a few hours, with three or four volunteers, we were able to register dozens of new voters, most of whom would be very likely to vote for President Obama. To show how meaningful this kind of effort can be,, in 2008 then Senator Obama won North Carolina by a razor-thin margin of 14,177 votes, in a state where 4.25 million total votes were cast. By systematically registering voters, a campaign is able to alter the electorate in ways that are favorable for their candidate. While this may sound cynical, keep in mind that in this case some of the targeted populations were dramatically underrepresented, so it also felt like an extremely democratic (with a lower case “d”) way to right this wrong.

Grassroots Campaigning, Eric’s Story on mobilization:

This is one of the temporary Obama field offices from 2008 - it's a converted (and well-painted) gas station!
This is one of the temporary Obama field offices from 2008 – it’s a converted (and well-painted) gas station!

In October of 2012, just two weeks before the election, our family traveled to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida to volunteer for the Obama campaign over the course of a week. We got in touch with the local campaign field office and, along with other volunteers, we met with a volunteer team leader. After a brief training session, they supplied us with a thick sheaf of paper full of names and addresses that they called a “walk list” as well as a script to use for each conversation. Rather than informing people of when and where they were supposed to vote, we were instructed to ask potential voters about what their plan was for when they would vote (e.g. before work, at lunch break, after work etc.) and also to confirm if they knew the physical location of their polling place. The Obama campaign had brilliant research showing that people were as much as 25% more likely to actually vote if you asked them in a way that let them visualize the plan for themselves rather than simply telling them where to go.

Suzi and I set out for the nearby neighborhood, divided the list between us and each started knocking on doors. As we arrived at each address on our list, we only had the name and age of an intended voter and a brief record of the elections in which they had previously voted. Campaigns have access to publicly recorded lists of registered voters and when (but not for whom) they have voted.

Here our daughter is putting signs on folks' doors to remind them of when, where, and whether to vote.
Here, our daughter is putting signs on folks’ doors to remind them of when and where to vote.

Very early on I came to a house with an Obama sign in the yard and asked for a 22-year old woman named Mary. However, instead of Mary, a roughly 50-year old man answered the door. I explained that I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign and that I wanted to get in touch with Mary to ensure that she had a plan for when and where she would be voting. The man introduced himself as her father “John” and explained that Mary was away at college. John also confirmed what my records showed, that Mary had voted for the first time in 2008 but had not voted in the 2010 mid-term elections. He also confirmed something I did not previously know, that she had voted for Obama in 2008. As indicated by the yard sign, John himself was planning to vote for Obama, and he assured me that he would make sure that Mary did not forget to vote this time.

My job was done at that door, but before I could leave John was somewhat indignant and wanted to know why his name wasn’t on my list. I had a theory starting to form, so I asked John what his own voting record was. He proudly explained that he had never missed a vote in 30 years, and that clinched my theory. Our mission was to find voters who were likely favorable to President Obama but who were not necessarily likely to vote. By turning out these less likely voters, we could quite literally alter the electorate in ways that were favorable for the President’s re-election.

This became even more obvious over the rest of the week. We often encountered volunteers from the opposing Romney campaign, and we noticed that they were consistently knocking on every single door, even those with Obama campaign signs in the yard. In contrast, our walk list appeared at first glance to be random, skipping over many doors with only about one quarter on our target list. However, out of nearly 1,000 doors we knocked on that week, a considerable majority were favorably disposed to President Obama. Very few of the voters we targeted for the Obama campaign expressed an intention to vote for Mitt Romney. In a state where the ultimate outcome was an almost 50/50 split, it was clear that our list of was not random but rather was exceptionally well targeted to potential Obama supporters.