Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, like those of so many Democratic candidacies before hers, hinges on getting Democrats to the polls. Democrats are often less-frequent voters, since they skew younger and less wealthy, while frequent voters are often older and richer. For cycle after cycle, Democrats have pushed to create systems that can drag those infrequent voters to the polls, with varying success.
Last week, we looked at the Republican Party’s efforts to revamp the party’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) system. The party — and its presidential nominee, Donald Trump — have trailed Clinton in setting up offices in the field that can be used as a base of operations for GOTV, but the party explained why it wasn’t worried about that. Learning lessons from President Obama’s successful campaigns in 2008 and 2012, I was told, the party was distributing its field outreach broadly using online tools. (Trump has wavered on the extent to which his own campaign will run a GOTV effort, meaning that turnout may largely be up to the GOP.)
The Republicans aren’t alone in trying to optimize their GOTV — also known as field or ground — based on what’s happened over the past two cycles. I spoke by phone with Michelle Kleppe, National Organizing Director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign last Friday, and she explained how Clinton’s team is hoping to take Obama’s success a few steps further. If you’ve ever volunteered for Hillary Clinton, some good news: You, they think, are the key to their success.
(I edited this and cleaned it up a bit, of course.)
THE FIX: Tell me a little bit about what you guys are doing along the lines of a traditional field effort — but also how you have evolved what a Democratic presidential campaign is doing since 2008, 2012.
KLEPPE: I think there are a couple of things. For one, we obviously have staff and offices across the country where we have been working with organizers. We’ve really focused them on building capacity across the course of the summer: Recruiting volunteers, retaining volunteers, making sure that they have a good experience.
One of the things I think that I would say we have focused on with our organizing program is utilizing the lessons learned and the best practices from both 2008 and 2012 and then building on them using research that allows us to better build out our program to optimize our most precious resources, which are essentially staff and volunteer time.
What I mean by that is we work with them to make sure that the types of conversations that they are having with voters — both the timing of which and the voters that they are targeting — make the most sense for the voting calendar. And so… [commotion in the background]
Sorry. There’s a singing telegram.
THE FIX: Oh. Alright.
KLEPPE: Sorry about that. OK.
THE FIX: That’s what I get for calling on a Friday afternoon. Make the most sense for the voting calendar, you were saying.
KLEPPE: We have spent the summer building up volunteer capacity and working with staff to make sure the volunteers have the best experience possible. As a national organizing director, as a field person, one of the things that is equally if not more important as the actual number of calls made or the number of doors knocked is the number of volunteers who have signed up to complete a shift and the number of volunteers that keep coming back, that are helping us build that capacity.
So this weekend as an example, we have over 55,000 volunteers that are going to come out and help us register voters and reach out to voters around committing to vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8.
THE FIX: That was fairly broad. Describe to me a little bit the actual organizational structure. What does it look like in a state? In Ohio, for example, what does your field structure look like?
KLEPPE: We have organizers on the ground who are working with volunteers and developing volunteer leadership. One of the newer aspects that we have introduced into our organizing program for the 2016 cycle is really pushing our organizers to not only recruit and engage with volunteers on the phones and in their offices and offline, but also organizing online. That’s on Twitter. That’s on Facebook.
So an organizer is working with volunteers in their offices and in homes and around kitchen tables, but they are also engaging with volunteers and supporters on Facebook and Twitter. Both in terms of getting them to come offline and actually help build our capacity and talk to additional voters and supporters but also in helping a group of people online engage with their networks. It gives us a broader reach and more opportunities for volunteers to engage in the types of activities that are best suited and that they’re most comfortable with. So organizers in Ohio and across the country and in all 50 states are both running an organizing program online and offline and really working to bridge that gap.
THE FIX: So what does that look like? When you’re engaging with someone on Facebook, how does that look?
KLEPPE: We piloted this in Iowa during the caucus. So just to use Facebook as an example, organizers set up local Facebook groups, for the communities they were organizing in. When an organizer would sit down with a volunteer for a one-on-one conversation, that organizer would also invite them to their Facebook group online and that volunteer then would invite their network of friends to this Facebook group. And on that Facebook group, they could not only post the upcoming weekend of action and volunteer opportunities to knock on doors, but they could also share articles and reach out to additional supporters and kind of build that network.
THE FIX: How does the transition work where you get them on doors talking to voters? Is that — you have them come in? You give them a voter list? What does that actually look like?
KLEPPE: One of the things that we’ve gotten better and better at as organizing programs over the last several cycles is understanding volunteers, one, have the best time but also are the most effective when they really understand what we are asking them to do and why we are asking them to do that.
So organizers and volunteers, when they train and sit down and engage with volunteers and make the ask to make phone calls or knock on doors, it’s really important and they focus a lot on making sure the volunteer understands how what we’re asking them to do fits into the larger strategy. Whether that is registering voters in Nevada or in Philadelphia, it’s making sure that they kind of see the bigger picture and know how their work is feeding into that.
THE FIX: Right. But from a literal standpoint, how do you get from your voter file to someone that you have engaged in Columbus, Ohio to actually walk and knock on the door on Main Street. Like, literally what are the mechanics of it?
KLEPPE: A volunteer comes into an office. We’ll typically launch a voter-contact activity all at the same time, so part of organizing is there’s a community aspect to it, right? So we will invite volunteers for specific shift times. There may be 5, 10 15 volunteers who come in at the same time. We’ll run through, again, not only the training but: here’s the script, here’s how the script works, here’s the list of voters, here’s who these voters are and why we’re targeting them. So if we are in a transient area, it is important that we are re-registering — we’re not only registering individual voters, but we’re re-registering voters, because that will help us build up the voter base that we need.
That will be led by a volunteer leader or an organizer or a trained fellow who will kind of walk through that discussion. There are typically blow-ups on the wall or visualizations that people can actually see so they understand, “Here’s where we write things. This is the type of information that we’re trying to get back and the data points that are really important to get back from each of these voters for us to be able to follow up with them.”
They’ll go through that conversation. They’ll walk through all of the materials that a volunteer is going to go out with so that people are familiar with them and feel comfortable with them. Have the opportunity to ask questions about them. They’ll typically do some sort of role play so that people feel comfortable and it’s demystified a little bit and it doesn’t feel as intimidating. Then we’ll team up experienced volunteers with less-experienced volunteers and they’ll go out and complete the volunteer shift.
The last piece, I would say, to that is it is also important when volunteers come back that we spend the time with them and debriefing their experience. That’s not just drop off your walk packet, thank you so much, see you next week. That’s also understanding: How did the conversation go? What did you hear? Was anything surprising? Making sure that, one, there’s the space for the volunteer to feel heard and that we care about the work that they’re doing, but it also helps us improve our training and the volunteer experience day-to-day and shift-to-shift. They may say, “I really wish I would have had the answer to X or Y,” and then we can in real-time have the conversation with them and make them feel more comfortable, and make sure they have a better experience.
THE FIX: One of the things, as I was talking to the guy from the Republican Party, is they are trying to distribute this outward, leveraging the internet and empowering people in their own neighborhoods to do it. It sounds as though it would be tricky to take the way you guys do things, that intensive an experience for a volunteer that you just described and could be handed in a kit to someone that decided they wanted to put it together in their own neighborhood. Is that fair or is that unfair?
KLEPPE: We have a national volunteer program that allows us to reach individuals who may not have an organizer down the block or within their neighborhood. We are able to — through conference calls, webinars, and online forums — be able to empower volunteers to go out and carry out the same types of message, but make sure they have a support system in place to again understand on the front end this type of work and why we’re asking them to do that and also a place for them to circle back with when they have a question and debrief their experience.
So whether you’re somebody who lives down the block from an office and pops in every Saturday or somebody who makes calls at home on their computer, we want to make sure that everybody has a point person and a support network in place to essentially walk the volunteers through the program. Because we know, time and time again research shows, that the better the volunteer experience is, the more likely they are to come back, which helps us build our capacity and reach more voters.
THE FIX: One of the other aspects here that’s interesting is that you guys are obviously building on two very successful presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 in a way that I think it’s safe to say certainly the Trump campaign is not and I think probably the Republican Party is probably not able to quite as much either. To what extent do you think it is valuable to have that data not only from the presidential race but from the off-year elections — how does that make your field program better?
KLEPPE: I think there are two points here.
One is, we’re fortunate enough to have hundreds of staff who worked on both the 2008 and the 2012 campaigns, myself included, who are able to just first-hand understand the basics of organizing and build on them.
From the data perspective, I think we have been able to build upon every cycle in not only refreshing that data but collecting additional data that allows us to better target voters. The example that I would use there is we design our program around voting patterns: How are voters most comfortable casting their ballot and making their voice heard? Is that in person early? Is that by mail? Each and every cycle, we’re able to gain additional data points that help allow us to target voters based on the method that they’re most comfortable with.
So in North Carolina, for example, more than half of our voters in North Carolina will actually vote before Election Day. In designing the program in North Carolina, the ramp in which we built the capacity and the types of conversations that our volunteers are having in North Carolina is oriented around that voting pattern.
THE FIX: Do you also use that data to extrapolate outward based on demographic trends or community trends to say, “Hey, this is a place we should really blanket with early voting, because we’ve seen a lot of people like this or a lot of people in this place have used early voting in the past”? To what extent do you use that data to anticipate where you can best use your resources?
KLEPPE: Absolutely is the short answer. We use all of the different data points that we’ve been able to gather both historically and really through the volunteer work and the data that they bring back to direct the capacity and help refine both where we’re organizing but also the types of conversations we’re having and the training that we want to provide volunteers to make sure that the conversations we’re having are the most impactful.
THE FIX: That was a very succinct answer, which I appreciate since I have to transcribe this. But there was a great article at Bloomberg which talked about how you guys have reoriented your calendar around early voting. I’d be curious — particularly since you worked on the 2008 campaign as well — to what extent has that shifted the way you guys approach GOTV and persuasion, the growth of early voting?
KLEPPE: It’s important to note that the programs that we design, if you’re in a state that has different types of voting behavior, we don’t design a program for early vote, a program for Election Day, a program for vote-by-mail. It really is all part of the overall get-out-the-vote effort. We use these different timeframes which people have to cast their ballots to create more opportunities for people and again target the individual where we know that they have voted by mail in the past, or they’ve voted in person in the past. So I think it’s more about how, to my first point in this conversation, the research and the data that we have allows us to maximize the capacity that we have in having the right kind of conversation with the right voters based on not only voting patterns but also where we are in the calendar, building up to Election Day.
I think the one thing that I would add to that is that, particularly in early vote and our vote-by-mail, orienting our programs around that allows us to make sure that we are targeting and talking to our sporadic voters during that time period. So the more sporadic voters we can get to vote early or by mail just puts us in a better position going into Election Day, but it’s all part of that overall arc, building towards Election Day.