Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's 'Grassroots Campaigns' canvassers
by greg bloom, Tue May 30, 2006 at 06:03:17 AM EDT
(This is the third in a series of posts, cross-posted from DailyKos, about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- including the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so -- that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement -- that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)
My first post described the DNC's subcontracted fundraising campaign -- originally run in the 2004 election -- which uses canvassers employed by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI). Despite its 'beat Bush' banner, this was a base-building operation, not a tactical electoral strategy -- in other words, it essentially just paid for itself. Now that the campaign has relaunched, it's important to reconsider the ongoing implications of the enterprise. In my second post, I sketched out a typical canvass interaction: the GCI canvasser does not carry voter registration forms, has no knowledge of local or state politics, and is not equipped to turn potential volunteers into active participants. In this post, I'll describe how the canvassers are recruited and trained to be effective salesmen. My question is: effective to what end?
(I know many readers here are acquainted with this world of fundraising -- much of what follows might be familiar to you.)
Let's start with the money -- a very good place to start. Most campaign recruits are first attracted to the job by ads that say something like "STOP THE BUSH AGENDA!" in large type, and "Make $300-500 a week" in smaller font. That's not bad pay to help save the world. In the interviews for the job, recruits learn that their 'base pay' is rather less than that--about $50 a day. The additional pay comes from a commission bonus for those who make over quota.
For someone with a certain amount of natural charisma, this quota is not necessarily hard to meet. Yet these canvass campaigns are open to almost anyone -- if you have the will, and you speak English, they'll send you out to canvass. People who are really not right for the job usually drop themselves out soon enough. But for everyone who shows up, the campaign does invest a considerable amount of energy into pushing them to make quota. The campaign wants its canvassers to succeed.
So every day starts off with a training session (two hours for newbies, one for regular canvassers). The canvassers practice how to greet a person as they walk down the street, or answer the door. They repeat to each other the greetings, and the scripted conversation that follows (known as 'the rap'), role-playing along with way through various scenarios.
The trainings are focused exclusively on sealing the deal. They even practice handing those clipboards back and forth; this clipboard is actually a tool, the hook on the end of their line, which puts the mark's hands literally onto the cause.
The office provides a few factoid sheets that a canvasser can take out on her clipboard. These are optional; they are filled with bits of information, but they're never really addressed in the trainings. In the 2004 campaign, I tried to use the sheets but found them ultimately to be a distraction -- much of it was dated (the sheets stayed the same throughout the campaign), and they mostly consisted of typical snipes at Bush. The people who I needed to speak with didn't need to be convinced that Bush was bad. I would have been better suited by a big goofy mugshot of Dear Leader. If someone asked me about John Kerry or the Democrats' platforms, I'd have to wing it or direct them to a web site.
Canvassers don't talk to Republicans, of course. But neither do they spend time talking with people who are willing to engage but aren't committed. Trainings make it clear: either a person considers a donation, or it's 'have a nice day.'
For those people who are receptive to the 'rap,' canvassers are instructed not to ask someone to 'be generous' (because then people tend to give a dollar). Instead, they are supposed to ask for a hundred dollars, every time, even if it seems like the person probably can't afford it. The 'veteran' canvassers -- those who've been around for a week or more -- are instructed: if you think they can afford more, ask for two hundred dollars. Ask expansively. If the person hesitates, remind them how bad the Republicans are; how much work we have to do to catch up. Remind them that every hundred dollars counts.
These are standard sales tactics -- I learned a lot through GCI's trainings about how to work a conversation. For those of us on staff who understood, to some degree, that the money we were raising was not actually going to help 'beat Bush,' we were able to justify it to ourselves by believing that these interactions were creating bonds stronger than the value of the money at hand. That the donor was making an investment in the cause, the justification goes -- they're going to be that much more committed from now on. "When I make a sale, I make a friend."
As campaign06 noted in Tuesday's comments:
engaging a lot of inexperienced people to have daily conversations with other voters is ... a noble pursuit."
Quite true -- but the content and intent of these conversations must be taken into account. Let's put it this way -- a canvasser doesn't talk to 'voters.' A canvasser isn't even equipped to speak with potential voters; in fact, she's discouraged from doing so. Voting is something that happens somewhere else, something that someone else does. This sale that's being made -- it's not selling the party. It's selling the party war.
In my last post, I suggested a scenario in which a 'bad' canvasser tells his mark that the money they raise goes directly to a 'special grassroots fund for the key battleground races.' Again, GCI does not train them to do this -- in fact, when I worked there, we had to repeatedly instruct the canvassers against it. But there was a reason it kept happening -- the canvassers, who are pressured by their quota and by their peers to perform -- over-reach for justifications as to why this money is so important. When it all comes down to it (even from the DNC's 'internal' goal of base-building) the justification isn't there.
A healthier ground campaign must give more reasons. It must be about more than fundraising -- it must be about advocacy, and true base-building, including "minor" things like voter registration -- even if this were to decrease the total amount of money raised (money that, to restate, doesn't directly help our cause).
Such a ground campaign would require an experienced, committed corps of canvassers and managers who are trained in more than just sales. It's hard work to effectively balance these conflicting priorities -- but it is the DNC's, and GCI's, responsibility to do so. In future posts, I'll talk about how GCI neglects this and other responsibilities to its campaign workers and its cause.