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The importance of volunteers and getting out the vote

A former Obama campaign staffer asks if Clinton has the right strategy. Obama made organizing on the ground part of the DNA of his campaign. The Clinton campaign on the other hand is all about large fundraisers and TV commercials.
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In 2012, Alfred R. Fuente served as a Field Organizer for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. A Cuban American attorney in New York, he is currently volunteering for Hillary Clinton's campaign at its headquarters in Brooklyn.
2016-10-12T15:31:49-04:00
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“Fat pig,” “Dog,” “Slob,” “Look at that face,” “Grab her by the. . . .”

How does an issues-oriented presidential candidate – or even a Category 4 hurricane devastating Haiti – compete with that for news coverage?

It’s no wonder voters, Democratic and Republican alike, have lamented that this year’s presidential elections have been anything but presidential. Complaints that there is nothing to reflect upon or celebrate may depress voter turnout this year. In fairness, however, it is challenging for Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, or anybody else to get air time when competing with a human Chernobyl.

If voters aren’t inspired, or even moved by candidates, then a campaign cannot recruit volunteers. Without volunteers, a campaign cannot get out the vote. If you cannot get out the vote, the candidate will lose the election.

In 2012, I organized the Little Havana neighborhood for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. When I was first approached to manage the campaign office there, I blanched. There was no way the President could win Little Havana, with its large Cuban and Central American population, I thought. Yet the overwhelming adoration for the President by local residents washed away any doubts. On Election Day, President Obama won Florida by a whisker, and was the first Democrat to win the Little Havana congressional district for the first time since 1996.

In 2012, voters were “for” the President, not just against Mitt Romney. But we also organized, a lot. And then we organized some more. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Obama campaign registered some 375,000 voters in Florida in that year. We knocked on a lot more doors and made a lot more phone calls than the number of voters we registered. This took time and training. We methodically (and relentlessly) pursued our goals. Even though the Little Havana campaign office opened on August 1, 2012, my volunteers and I started registering voters in late April/early May.

This is because the President made organizing part of the DNA of the campaign. The Clinton campaign on the other hand is somewhat of a throwback to the 1990’s – large fundraisers and TV commercials. I volunteered at the Brooklyn campaign headquarters recently, and while there was enthusiasm from my fellow phone bankers, organizing efforts need to be more aggressive and experienced organizers should have been recruited. When I left no one even tried to sign me up for another shift.

There is a lot of debate inside campaigns and among strategists about what is more important. TV attack ads or a solid, door-to-door ground game. In 2008 and 2012 even some Democrats questioned Obama's focus on a recruiting volunteers for the ground game. The answer was clear by the end. You need both. You have to contest on the air-waves, but you have to be on the ground as well.

TV ads, whether political or commercial, have an unquantifiable impact. Field operations, on the other hand, have a direct correlation between “investment”, or donations/contributions, and voter turnout. The volunteers knock on doors, register voters, and most importantly, make sure a person votes. In this way, a candidate can systematically engineer a victory because they know how many votes are needed to win a given district, state, etc. Plus, field operations are much cheaper. A field organizer is paid roughly $1,000 per week, which translates to zero air time anywhere in the country.

With 31 days left until Election Day and the beginning of early voting underway, it is probably too late to mount an effective get out the vote operation. But there is an upside. Historically, Republicans have scoffed at organizing. Indeed, in 2012, over a period of three months, our volunteers encountered one, solitary canvasser knocking on doors for Mitt Romney. Donald Trump has an even dimmer view of organizing volunteers and getting out the vote. An absence of any organizing efforts on the GOP side could offset whatever shortcomings the Clinton campaign may have.

But the Clinton campaign shouldn’t be heartened by this vulnerability. Candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will peel away voters. Poor organizing could potentially result in the loss of thousands of votes, denying Secretary Clinton a mandate. Most importantly, in the state of Florida, we all know that history can turn on only 537 votes.

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