Grassroots Political Campaigning - Substituting People for Cash

Grassroots campaigning is as old as American democracy.  Grassroots political campaigning was the driving force in America’s first contested presidential race, the 1800 match between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. 

Partisans on both sides started newspapers to attack their opponents, influence uncommitted voters and mobilize their supporters.   Since that era’s culture prohibited candidates from campaigning for office, each candidate’s supporters enlisted thousands of regular citizens to do voter contact work.

Campaigns had rallies, parades and other activities that involved the general public in the process.   American grassroots campaigning took another step in sophistication during the 1828 race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson – a campaign that literally lasted four years and had one of the highest voter participation rates in our history. 

More than 15,000 campaign workers stormed the White House on Jackson’s inauguration day because they felt they had more to do with Old Hickory’s win than he did.

In the Tammany Hall and big city machine era, grassroots campaigning evolved into “ward politics” as parties organized down to the street block level to ensure every voter turned out.

In an age of paid media, Internet communications, political consultants and high-tech campaign strategies, grassroots campaigning is becoming a lost art.   But, low budget campaigns – particularly municipal and legislative candidates - can tear a page from history and create a real advantage against even a well-financed opponent with a well-organized grassroots effort.

Essentially, using Twitter™, Facebook™, MySpace™ and other social networks for voter contact is simply applying new technology to old campaign tactics.

Campaign consultants typically hate grassroots campaigns.  They want candidates raising money to fund more mail and paid media.  However, some campaigns – particularly challengers – simply lack access to big bucks and we’ve had success using grassroots tactics in low budget campaigns.  

Recently, we used modified grassroots tactics in a statewide challenger’s race to take down a well-entrenched, well-financed incumbent.   It was the only successful statewide challenger race in that cycle.

Grassroots campaigns replace cash with people-power.

The first thing a grassroots campaign needs is a plan and a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.  After all, time is a precious commodity in a grassroots effort – particularly when dollars are scarce.   

Each second of campaign time must focus on maximum voter contact and the plan outlines how it that occur.  It will outline very precise tasks and the timeline for completing each one.


Start by determining how many votes you need to win. If a district has 150,000 voters and it typically has a 60 percent turnout rate, you need 45,001 votes to win (150,000*60%/50%+1).   Your plan should analyze past district voting history at least on a precinct basis so you can focus you efforts on areas where you are most likely to get those 45,001 voters.   


Next, people are the most valuable resource in a grassroots campaign - particularly volunteers.   The more the better, but you don’t necessarily need a cast of thousands.   Successful grassroots campaigns in small districts sometimes involve a dedicated, focused candidate’s family.

Of course, family and friends make great volunteers as do properly motivated party activists.    So, to attract volunteers, a good grassroots campaign must understand what motivates people to get involved.  

Some people are motivated by ideology.  These are typically the party faithful.   Others are motivated by issues, such as the environment, guns, abortion and local issues affecting their neighborhood.  

Identify groups in the district who support your issue positions and work to mobilize them. For instance, if education is a big issue, local PTAs may offer a great volunteer pool.  If neighborhood protection or property taxes are key issues, seek out homeowner associations or local taxpayer groups.

Others are attracted to campaigns as a social outlet.  Many people like the excitement of campaigns or the opportunity to meet new people.   This is typically a good way to get young people involved.

Some people get involved because they aspire to a career themselves in government or politics. Just remember, if you win – these volunteers expect help from you with their own aspirations.

In developing a volunteer base, there are two ways to go – top down or bottom up.   Top down approaches involve going to an organization’s leadership to seek help.  This includes asking for lists, invitations to meetings and other ways to enmesh your campaign with the targeted organizations.

The primary downside is you become associated with these groups in the public mind, so pick your groups wisely.  Yet, a grassroots campaign’s primary goal is to assemble a coalition that can generate the 45,001 votes you need.

If you want to avoid being beholden to a group’s leadership, you can always go “bottom up.”   Bottom up approaches require much more work.  You must rely on a few key members to help build lists and it involves significant follow up. 

Bottom up approaches also help if the leadership isn’t particularly keen on your campaign.   You can bring pressure on a group’s leadership from the rank & file.   Also, bottom up approaches allow you more control over the information going to the membership.

The biggest mistake a grassroots campaign makes is failing to ask people for help and not getting a specific commitment.  Your requests for help must be very specific.  Can you be at the headquarters at 6 p.m.?  Can you put up these 100 signs at the following addresses?   Can you call these 50 people and ask them these questions.   

You must also match the job to the volunteer’s skills and interests.   If they volunteered to put up signs and you have them making fund raising calls, your volunteer may disappear.  That doesn’t mean volunteers can’t multi-task, but not every volunteer can – or will.

Another mistake is not asking for enough.  Always ask for more and people will feel relieved if they opt for less.  But worst is not getting everything a volunteer is willing to give.   Make the tasks as simple as possible and ensure volunteers have everything they need for the job.

Also, volunteers want access to the candidate and they need to feel their work is meaningful.  So, don’t assign tasks and leave.   Spend time working with the volunteers.  If they see you stuffing envelopes, going door-to-door and making voter contact calls, they will sense you have assigned them a meaningful job instead of scud work.

Before sending volunteers out for door-to-door work, check out the targeted neighborhood to ensure it is safe and appropriate for door-to-door activities.

Finally, verify that tasks are done.  Tasks you thought were finished, but that are uncompleted will kill a grassroots campaign.   If a volunteer isn’t performing, give the job to a proven performer.   As Reagan would say, trust but verify.

In an upcoming edition, we’ll cover the activities that make a grassroots campaign successful.

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