On an unseasonably warm day in March, I met Eric at a hipster coffee shop in North Buffalo. He wasn’t hard to spot. Visibly exhausted, he half-heartedly plucked at his computer keys from behind the Hillary logo slapped across his laptop.
He stood up to shake my hand. “So, what can you tell me about Buffalo?”
For the next hour, I broke down different areas of the city and its surrounding suburbs into tiny fragments of political affiliation. We talked about Buffalo’s resurgence; its move from an economically depressed rust-belt city, to an investment region in medical tech and solar. A turnaround Hillary Clinton had a hand in when she was a Senator from New York. He said that he’d been told support for Clinton would be strong here. I warned him that Sanders could do well in a working-class area like Buffalo. Buffalo for Bernie had an office downtown for about a month already, and received at least a smattering of press over the past couple of weeks.
Buffalo wasn’t a lock for Clinton. They’d have to work for it
J. Lee the Volunteer
As much as I enjoy engaging in arguments on Facebook with my political opponents, I’m completely cognizant of the futility of Internet politics. So, when I saw an opportunity to be involved with a political campaign in my hometown, I couldn’t pass it up.
My job was fairly simple. I made phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls. Eric set me up so I could work from home on my computer. He gave me a login and password to a DNC database. He’d make a list of voters to call, give me a task, and let me work through the list on my own time. I also did the same job in the campaign office a few days every week.
I began this mission by calling potential Clinton supporters and asking them if they’d be interested in volunteering for the campaign. Working from a script, I’d ask the person on the other end if they were supporting Clinton in the primary. If they said, “yes,” I’d mark it in the drop down box, and then ask if they’d like to volunteer. If they said, “no,” I’d say, “thank you for your time,” and move on.
But isn’t campaigning all about convincing people to support your candidate, you ask?
That’s what I thought.
I thought I’d be using my powers of persuasion to convince voters that Clinton was the best choice for president. Instead, probable Hillary supporters had already been targeted by Eric using the DNC database. After a few calls, it became clear that we were aiming at a specific demographic. Democratic women over the age of 40 made up about 75% of the people on my list. I also wasn’t the first point of communication. Part of my very limited access to the database allowed me to see the contact history of every potential volunteer. Some people had been surveyed or called as early as July, some in January.
Maybe it’s because of her name recognition. Maybe it’s because the campaign understands that people are usually 99% rigid in their political choices. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: If you’re not a Democrat supporting Clinton in this primary,
Hillary’s just not that into you.
At least, not right now.
Every news outlet and pundit has remarked on the Clinton campaign’s organizational prowess, and they’re not blowing smoke.
As I continued to make calls, the events that followed focused explicitly on organizing volunteers. After I had exhausted the list of new recruits, Eric showed me how to follow-up, schedule, and confirm their appointments to phone bank or canvass. The process was simple. Find the volunteers and make sure they show up to work.
Even appearances by the two biggest names associated with the ticket were promoted as “Volunteer Organizing Events,” rather than “rallies.” Bill and Hillary made separate stops, at odd times and with very short notice. Bill arrived in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday at a small venue close to the airport. Hillary spoke to a crowd of 1,200 the following Friday afternoon, and her husband made one final appearance in the morning on the day before the Primary at volunteer headquarters.
By contrast, Bernie Sanders spoke at the University at Buffalo campus on a weekday night to a crowd of around 8,000. Outside 5,000 disappointed supporters were treated to a short appearance by the candidate before he made his way into the venue.
The significance here is that by holding events at inconvenient times, the Clinton campaign is able to identify and isolate its most ardent supporters; the people most useful to their organizational machine, and the people most likely to volunteer. Current volunteers kept busy at Bill and Hillary’s events by snaking through the crowd and signing up even more volunteers.
Slim attendance may look bad from a media standpoint, but elections are won by the numbers on the ground, not in the numbers of people at your rallies.
Another aspect of the Clinton campaign that cannot be understated is establishment support. At its inaugural organizing event, the County Executive made an impassioned speech about not taking a Clinton win in Buffalo for granted. Everyone would have to work hard to secure a victory in the Queen City. New York’s governor, the city’s mayor, council members, New York State and Congressional representatives were present at almost every event throughout the month. Obama’s Labor Secretary even showed up on the final weekend as a “private citizen” to thank volunteers for their hard work. At least four local unions worked for Clinton independent from the campaign.
Love it or hate it, having the political establishment on your side when you’re conducting a national campaign gives you a huge edge over your opponent. They know the geography. They know the people. They understand the political landscape.
One of my main criticisms of Hillary Clinton as a candidate is that she’s not particularly inspiring, and it’s a refrain echoed by her supporters. The enthusiasm gap is real — sort of. From the organizing events to the revolving door of volunteers and paid employees that flowed in and out of the campaign office, you didn’t get the sense that people were excited about Clinton’s candidacy in a the way they were about Obama eight years ago. Even at events where the candidate or her husband showed up to speak, the tenor felt noticeably subdued. Sure, people were energized, but it wasn’t an energy that gave you the chills or made your hair stand on end.
Perhaps reflecting the candidate’s message, the campaign instead draws its vigor from the feeling that there’s a job to be done. Instead of engaging in impassioned political discussions, people within the campaign put their heads down and got to work. Instead of motivational speeches about the future, establishment surrogates focused on getting out the vote. There weren’t any conversations about the latest news cycle, or what the opposition said on Fox and Friends. There was just too much to get done to care.
When I managed to pull Eric away from his computer for five minutes, he told me he had been working 12-16 hour days since Iowa. Easy to believe considering that the campaign only sent him and one other young professional to manage 100s of volunteers. I’d often leave the office around 8:30pm, tired and worn out from having my smartphone squashed against my ear for 4 hours, only to see Eric plugging in his laptop and working on canvass maps for the next day.
There’s a passion in the Clinton campaign that transcends enthusiasm, and it’s all about the grind. On his Facebook page, Eric has a picture of himself in Iowa pinned to the top of his profile. Expressionless, with his arms crossed over his chest, he stands next to the words:
Engage with purpose.
Organize with heart.
Win every day.
Exit polls have already proved what I’m about to tell you. The Clinton campaign is putting together a diverse coalition of voters that will mirror the myriad of support that elected Obama to the White House for two terms. The proportion of African-Americans backing Hillary in comparison to other campaigns is staggering. At least 50% of the volunteer force and attendance at events included people of color. A strong showing from the LGBT and Latino communities accompanied the mostly over 40 crowd of volunteers.
Absent of course, were the young people that Clinton will desperately need to win in November if she’s the nominee. Nevertheless and regardless of the disputes from Sanders’ supporters to the contrary, the difference in diversity between the two Democratic contenders is apparent and obvious.
This isn’t a full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton and her candidacy. It is a recognition of the efficacy of her campaign. What she lacks in style, she’s obviously made up for in organization, and really, it’s her campaign manager and the thousands of people working for her that deserve the credit. In hindsight, it became clear how she managed to pull ahead of Bernie Sanders by 275 pledged delegates and about 2.7 million votes. It has nothing to do with a media blackout, voter suppression, or whatever conspiracy people manage to fabricate in their imaginations. She’s winning the ground game.
There’s a process here: Identify your supporters, round up volunteers, put them to work and make sure your supporters get out to vote.
Eric made sure I knew that the most important five days in this process were the five days leading up to and including Election Day. We scheduled over 356 shifts of phone-bankers and door-to-door canvassers, not including the unions and community leaders that worked independently over the same period of time.
After all was said and done, Clinton won Erie County and the Buffalo area by a mere 812 votes. I texted Eric the next day with an attached picture of the results from a local news station.
“Well, that was close,” I wrote.
“Hahaha. A win is a win,” he texted back.
“Damn straight it is. I told you Sanders had a chance here. He blew it.”
“It was close. The mayor, the volunteers, and all these random groups coming together really secured this win.”
The truth in that statement has to be underscored. For all her negative poll ratings and likability issues, people from all over the country are coming together for Hillary Clinton and doing the work needed for her to win. I won’t dispute the fact that the same thing is happening in other campaigns. I’m sure it is. But there’s something about the Clinton campaign that’s being missed by the media narrative and her opponent’s attacks. From its diversity to its work ethic, the Clinton campaign feels representative of America in a way that doesn’t get talked about enough. It’s a shame people are more focused on where she gets her money and less so on the everyday people that made the decision to work for her.
Because that’s the tangible reality of any political operation. It takes real, hardworking people to get the job done.
My brief experience with the Clinton campaign couldn’t have been more positive. As an added bonus, I somehow managed to get in with the right people. When Bill Clinton came to town, I was given preferred seating in the front row. He shook my hand and signed his book for me. When Hillary rolled in, my wife and I were invited backstage to meet her and have our picture taken with her. These were once in a lifetime encounters I’ll never forget.
I made hundreds of calls and met probably as many volunteers. Coming together with likeminded people for a common cause was probably the most rewarding part of this experience. Instead of posting inane articles to social media that elicit eye rolls from my family members, I did something. I became a part of something bigger than myself.
No matter who you may be supporting, I’d encourage you to do the same.