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Build a Strong Grassroots Base

By Ron Faucheux

New candidates for public office often lack the organizational support base that incumbents often have already at their disposal. This means they have to build a grassroots activist base from scratch.

Smart campaigns focus on the integration of direct contact tools – phones, Internet, mail, door-to-door – to create a support network of activist volunteers. Such an organizational program has as its goal the building of a large, functioning grassroots organization for your campaign – be it for a candidate or an issue.

Despite the help your campaign may receive from party committees, elected officials and a variety of political committees and interest groups, smart campaigns also build organizations of their own, grassroots structures that are primarily loyal to your candidate or cause. Building such an organization takes time, money and attention. And to do it most efficiently and effectively, it requires extensive use of careful polling, targeting, Internet transactions, telephone calling, direct mail and informal person-to-person contact.

The first step in building such a grassroots support base is to identify that sliver of the electorate that has the greatest propensity to be most supportive of your candidacy or cause. For John McCain’s presidential campaign, for example, that “sliver” may include many groups, one being married Republican men over 50 with a military background. For Barrack Obama’s campaign, it may include, among other subgroups, nonmarried, college-educated white Democrats under 30 or African Americans professionals under 45. For Hillary Clinton, it may include white Democratic women over 50 or retired male labor union members, for example.

Stated another way, your first step is to target the most favorable five or ten percent of the voting population based on polling data and micro-targeting studies and, by doing so, create an enhanced voter file, which we will call the Support Universe.

The second step is to make contact with your Support Universe.

If these voters likely already know about your candidacy or cause and have a strong commitment to it, you may not need to reach these voters with extensive informational or persuasive messages. But if they are merely potential supporters – individuals with a strong, yet largely unrealized, propensity to favor your campaign – you will need to send them persuasive information; in effect, you will need to lead them to where they are likely headed anyway.

This persuasive effort may involve sending the Support Universe a personalized mail package – not just a mail piece, but a package – that could include a personal letter, candidate and issue print information, endorsements and testimonials, a 5-minute video, Web site address, volunteer card and response vehicles (business reply envelope, Web links).  Of course, moving as many of these people to a Web site is the ideal way to get it done efficiently and economically.

This mail package should be either preceded or followed up, or preferably both, by a phone call to each targeted voter. The purpose of the call is to either let them know that the mail package is being sent or to find out if it has been received. It should be a friendly call, not a high-pressure sales job.

The third step is to recruit voters to become campaign volunteers and by doing so, create an activist, grassroots base of support. To do this, you have to ask each voter for his or her help and specify what you want him or her to do for you. A personal letter from the candidate or Web message should deliver this pitch. If it’s an issue campaign, a personal letter from the committee’s chair, or identifiable notables, should be sent. In the envelope, there should be another response vehicle or Web site reference, which would allow voters to easily sign up through a postage-paid business reply envelope or an Internet transaction.

The fourth step is to have something for your new activist citizens army to do once you sign them up.  Here is a list of possible tasks you can ask of them:

Canvass their neighborhoods
This is, in essence, the classic block captain program, where individual voters take on some of the duties of the old-style precinct captain: meeting voters; identifying them as favorable, unfavorable, undecided or persuadable; distributing literature, yard signs and bumper stickers; contacting favorables on Election Day to urge them to vote.

Make phone calls
If a voter does not want to walk door to door, perhaps he or she will be willing to make phone calls from home to friends, relatives and neighbors. Periodically, the campaign may want to e-mail to these voters lists of people to be called together with suggested phone messages, tips and information. Any time volunteers are used for phone efforts, it is important to try to incorporate a data capture function into their work tasks. This gives the campaign an opportunity to follow up on the contact with either mailers (for persuadables well before Election Day; for favorables near Election Day) or subsequent phone calls. This is crucial if your canvass is used as part of your voter ID/GOTV program.

Write postcards
Almost every voter has a list of friends and family. Some of them have extensive lists of fellow club members, co-workers, business associates and party invites. Have your corps of volunteer activists send both a snail-mailed and an e-mailed postcard to everyone on his or her list. While the format of the card can be supplied by the campaign, the volunteers themselves should write messages they believe to be most effective.

Put up a yard sign
Most neighborhoods allow homeowners to put up yard signs, which are often useful indicators of grassroots support. This is an easy thing for a volunteer activist to agree to do. You may also ask them to recruit neighbors for yard signs, too. This can be done by sending them standardized forms for easy return to headquarters either by fax, mail or the Internet.

Organize a house party
A good way for candidates to meet voters is to have volunteers sponsor functions in their homes. From these get-togethers, you can often recruit new volunteers. A one-hour coffee or tea or a larger and longer cocktail reception, will usually suffice. Social peacocks will often want to do more, offering to throw lavish shindigs with flowing drink and plentiful food. (Always make sure you check applicable laws on contribution reporting and limitations as they relate to in-kind donations.)

Collect money
Ask your recruited volunteers to help finance your campaign. That can be done either through direct “asks” (via phone calls, e-mail or direct mail appeals) or through the purchase of campaign materials (hats, shirts, stickers, buttons). Sometimes a volunteer can turn a house party into a fundraiser. Perhaps it will be a $25 per person barbecue or a $200 per person cocktail soiree, whatever fits the audience. If your supporter has good contacts, and approaches friends and associates the right way, this would also be a way to engage many new, untapped donors. If a volunteer isn’t an experienced fundraiser, you may want to have someone on your finance staff or volunteer finance committee work with him or her to make sure the event isn’t a bust – which can easily happen if the host doesn’t know what he or she is doing. Fundraisers that fail to raise money are not only an embarrassment for sponsors and campaigns, but also a waste of time for candidates.

Create a neighborhood campaign headquarters
If statewide campaigns, or those that cover large geographical areas, you can ask your recruited activists to turn their houses (or at least a room, garage, storage unit or closet) into a depot for distribution of campaign materials, signs and stickers. These neighborhood campaign centers can buttress your entire organization. Some candidates in statewide races even spend the night at these “home headquarters” and coordinate stay-overs with scheduled area house parties and volunteer meetings. 

Attend rallies and public meetings
Often in campaigns, you need bodies, a show of force. Recruited volunteers can be extremely helpful here. Whether it’s populating a fundraiser, a town hall meeting, a press event or a rally, they can be your best pool from which to draw a crowd.

Comment on blogs, radio talk shows and newspaper forums
Ask volunteers to carry the message of your campaign to public forums.

A volunteer recruitment program that is based on a smart plan of action and systematically uses available direct contact tools and technologies, it can become the heart of your campaign’s grassroots voter organization. It is the way for a new candidate, a challenger or even an incumbent seeking higher office to create the kind of solid activist support base that pure media campaigns lack. It offers a way to get real people involved in your campaign to do real things. And in tough campaigns, there’s nothing better than that.

Ron Faucheux is author of Running for Office and editor of Winning
Elections, popular books on political campaigning. A political
strategist and analyst, Dr. Faucheux teaches at George
Washington University’s Graduate School of Political
Management. Ron can be reached at Click here to contact this Author

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