Lessons from a Swing District Team that Succeeded in 2016
by Ayana Haviv and Shabbir Imber Safdar
California Away Team’s Shabbir Imber Safdar talked to me about the efforts of his group, in a safely blue district in northern California, to volunteer in nearby swing districts in Sacramento (CA-07) and Reno, NV (battleground, entire state!). We discussed strategies and tactics of the effort. His team’s post-election analysis is here on medium.com, but here’s the summary:
“During the 2016 election cycle our 40 volunteers made 10 trips to Sacramento and Reno. 3,343 doors knocked on, 44 voters registered, roughly 759 hours of volunteer time given. We won the state of Nevada’s electoral votes for the Democrats, helped elect a new US Senator (Catherine Cortez Masto NV), a member of Congress (Rep. Ami Bera CA-07), and a Nevada state Assembly member by 38 votes (Skip Daly NV-31). We also passed a ballot initiative that closed the background check gun sale loophole in Nevada. Oh, and legal weed was on the ballot and passed in both CA and NV.”
Shabbir’s team is currently in the process of relaunching their project for 2018’s elections, and intends to have a presence in at least 4 locations in CA and NV, as well as start a satellite team on the East Coast. To answer your question, they are not yet ready for you to volunteer with them, but we are working together and Shabbir’s excited to see lots of other efforts get underway that he doesn’t have to lead.
ACTIONS THAT ARE HELPFUL TO FLIP/KEEP A DISTRICT BLUE:
a) Registering Democratic voters in the district, well ahead of time;
b) Canvassing in the district in the months and weeks before the election;
c) Coordinating with the local Democrats in the district to find the best places to engage in a and b, as well as to help get people to their rallies and other events and to amplify their message; and
d) Donating to and fundraising for the campaign of the Democratic candidate.
This blog post will focus on strategies a and b. Statements directly from Shabbir are in quotes (“”). Everything else is my interpretation of the conversation.
1. DO IT WITH FRIENDS.
To engage in registering voters and canvassing most effectively, start with a group of friends. Have a core of 4-5 people who are going to commit to multiple weekends. The friend group is important because you want to build camaraderie and make the experience as fun as possible. It’s possible (but not necessary) to coordinate with groups like Sister District Project , Swing Left, and Flippable, but sign up a friend or four to do it with you.
2. WORK WITH THE LOCAL DEMOCRATS ON THE GROUND.
Call the county Democratic party in the district you want to flip, and/or the precinct captains. You can also work directly with the campaign of the candidate you’re endorsing. Those organizations should provide you with suggested locations to canvass or register voters, voter registration forms, canvassing packets, etc. The local Democratic club or Indivisible group can help you think of great places to register voters or canvass, and could send volunteers to join you.
3. VALUE YOUR VOLUNTEERS.
Registering voters and canvassing is physically and emotionally draining work, and early volunteer burnout is a real danger. The more fun you can make this activity, and the more efficient you can be with your volunteers’ time, the better.
Things that don’t work:
Letting outsiders dictate your group’s volunteer parameters without thinking, “How will this make my volunteers feel?” One example is the Hillary buses in 2016 that spent more time on the road than actually working on the ground in Reno (8 hours travel, 4-6 hours canvassing). Many that went from SF to Reno burned out after one trip, and told Shabbir they felt poorly utilized.
As a comparison, Shabbir’s team drove up to Reno, NV Friday night, ate dinner together, had breakfast together on Saturday, canvassed 7-8 hours, had dinner and drinks and relaxed in their suite together. Then they repeated the same thing on Sunday, but ending around 4pm to get back to SF at 9pm. It was incredibly hard work, but there’s no doubt they did good work.
“Another thing that didn’t work was once when I brought 2 volunteers to a Congressional race after the campaign staffer told me they would be manning a voter registration table. I set the volunteers’ expectations for that. They were excited to register voters. We got there, and I went out canvassing with the rest of our crew. I found out the minute I left they got redirected to phone bank and stayed in the office doing that for 6 hours. That’s kind of a miserable 6 hour job, and they didn’t need to drive 2 hours each way to phone bank. The volunteers felt bait-and-switched, and I told the campaign staff that I couldn’t yank my volunteers’ expectations around like that, and that if they wanted us to keep coming back (we made 6 trips this cycle) that they had to treat my volunteers better. It never happened again.”
Things that worked:
Going to Reno for the entire weekend. Arranging hotel blocs to make accommodations easier and keeping people close together (always in a union hotel!). Renting out a suite together, which is always stocked with food and drinks, for breaks and for get-togethers in the evening. Going out to eat or happy hour every day with the other volunteers, who are based around a group of friends. Talking extensively on social media and in person about the friends who did this and how awesome they are – creating a kind of “in” crowd of cool volunteers – for peer pressure purposes, and to make your volunteers feel special. After all, they are! Celebrating small victories, like getting one voter registration. Making your volunteers feel rewarded at the end of every day of volunteering.
Some tried and tested preparation methods: Have a practice canvassing session for anyone who’s new at it before every volunteer day. Do your own 1-page guide on your candidate’s position on all the issues, with possible scandals/red flags that might come up on the back (and arguments to refute), and give to your canvassers as part of their training. 5. EXPERIMENT. Try voter registrations in new places that are likely to attract many Democrat-leaning voters. Some ideas: synagogues, mosques, gay bars, African-American churches, Section 8 housing, Latin-American markets, marijuana dispensaries. Some of us are planning to register voters in line at Comic-Con in San Diego! (Shabbir thinks this is brilliant, by the way) “The first time we rolled into Reno in late summer of 2016, the local Democrats informed us that the Republicans were ahead of us by 5,000 registered voters. I freaked out. Everyone in Washoe’s Democratic community (staff, volunteers, etc) pulled together to close that gap, but we still went into the election 3,800 registered voters behind. I swore that I would never fail to monitor and participate in that during the off year before the election EVER AGAIN.”
5. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ACTIVATE PEOPLE ON THE ISSUES YOU CARE ABOUT MOST.
“When we were canvassing in the 2016 election, when we met someone under 30 who seemed like they didn’t care about politics, we led with legal marijuana on the ballot. When there was a tricycle in the driveway, we led with a school bond measure. Not everyone is motivated by your issue. You have to speak to people about what’s important to them, not what’s important to you. A great opener is ‘What is the issue that’s most important for you this election?’ When you get the answer, you can think back to your your 1-pager to talk about where your candidate stands on that issue. Never use a campaign script, always talk to people in the way that you would like to be spoken to. Nobody wants to be ‘talked at from a script’. Campaigns hate that I say that, but once you’ve mastered the art of talking to people where they are comfortable, you can’t lose unless they’re a die-hard opponent, in which case you can wish them a nice day and move on. Ain’t nobody got time to try and reason with cognitively-biased Republicans.”
Good luck forming your team to flip your nearby swing district blue! Keep your eyes on the prize – winning that election.