Show Me State
(Note: This edition is over three pages because I did not have time to write while in Missouri.)
After Super Tuesday, my role as Lead for Hillary’s Upper Middle Tennessee region ended. So, where next? I updated my bio for the campaign, contacted Southern Regional Directors concerning my availability, and reviewed the upcoming primaries for possibilities. North Carolina and Missouri both held their primaries on March 15, and both intrigued me (and both are considered swing states this fall). North Carolina offered home stays with friends in Asheville and Raleigh, and may be where I work the general election. Missouri offered my previous home in St. Louis with many friends and family to host me, and appeared to be the closest race. After speaking to the St. Louis campaign coordinator, I was off to St. Louis. I called my previous neighbors, and they graciously offered a place to stay. Two hours into my drive, North Carolina texted me to help its campaign.
What a difference a state makes. As are baseball’s minor leagues to the major leagues, so was Nashville to St. Louis, as far as a field organization is concerned. St. Louis HQs was a large union hall with a working room 100’ square. Twenty tables with chairs and varying number of volunteers reminded me of a large bullpen of workers, without the cubicles. After introducing myself to the three staffers and their boss, I immediately was given access to the Missouri Voter Activation Network (VAN) to begin phone banking. For nine days, I worked twelve hours shifts and some days more. Many volunteers became friends, working side-by-side, all offering diverse reasons why they also supported Hillary. The teamwork was palpable, heart-warming, and meaningful. This was truly a political field organization at its roots.
By the second day, the staff concluded that I was there to stay and started training me to perform some of their tasks. I started greeting volunteers as they entered and training them on the phone bank. These volunteers sometimes arrived daily in groups, for instance: Planned Parenthood had five volunteers, American Federation of Teachers twelve, National Education Association five, and a neighborhood association had six canvassers. And, these were just the regulars. Other individuals wandered in different numbers and on different days. One under-graduate student arrived after classes daily. All of us thrown together for this cause quickly knew each other by first names.
Four events were held during the campaign: President Clinton spoke on Tuesday, Hillary came on Saturday, Senator Corey Booker on Sunday, and Chelsea visited campaign HQs on Monday. Each event required different preparations. All events included constant phone calls followed up with re-confirmed calls to supporters to drum up excitement and crowd numbers. A volunteer staff for each event included greeters, sign-in-table workers, canvassers, and ushers. I was in charge of the ushers who directed the general public, escorted the VIPs to their section, escorted the press, and escorted those who needed to sit in the ADA section. I coordinated with the Secret Service and the local police department on protocol for possible unruly attendees if they disrupted the speakers. I was designated the first to address the unruly person(s): to them, I was their last chance to stay for the event before being shepherded out by law enforcement, if I gave the signal. Nothing happened, and the events went smoothly and were well-attended. That was just one sign of an effective field organization.
The campaign lingo at HQs quickly became apparent. The phones used are called burners. These flip phones obviously don’t last long because boxes of used ones and new ones ready for volunteers were readily available. GOTV means Get Out The Vote methods, such as canvassing or phone calls (compared to some methods to ensure people attend campaign events or to increase the number of volunteers). Lit drop means taking the campaign leaflets and placards out to the poll workers on Election Day. The staff tolerated my persistent questions on why and when we performed certain activities using this lingo.
The three staffers became my co-workers, teachers, and compadres. One, from Utah, previously worked the Nevada caucus; the second, from Minnesota worked his home state caucus; and, the third, from Tulsa, worked the Iowa caucus for ten months. Their supervisor worked the New Hampshire primary for ten months. All of them were under 25 years of age thrown together for the first time, all with college degrees, and worked from 9:00 a.m. to 12 midnight (two events required them (and me) to be at the site at 5:30 a.m.) two weeks straight with no days off. They took no lunch breaks because their supervisor would provide some meals: pizza, Chick-Filet sandwiches, burritos, Subway sandwiches, or a volunteer would be sent out for special orders. I was amazed at the hours these young people worked. I compared them to the burner phones. How long could they sustain this pace?
Knowing I was from Nashville, one of the staffers quietly asked me what prompted me to be there volunteering for ten days. My full reason would take a couple of beers to describe, I said, so I gave a short version described in my first blog. He appeared very respectful and sincere. Thirty minutes later I asked him the same question. He confided that his uneducated father told him that if he ever wanted to change the system, he would have to learn it, be inside it. He felt that by learning this election system would help him work in Tulsa building community systems. Being African American, his ancestors had experienced the Tulsa riots of 1921. (In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report indicating that historians now believe close to 300 people died in the riot.)
Despite available public polls in states, the national campaigns conduct their own polling. This dictates where best to leverage their resources, in what state and in what quantities. March 15 featured four other states holding primaries: North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and neighboring Illinois. HRC’s polling suggested double digit leads in North Carolina and Florida, while her lead in Ohio and Illinois seemed to be in single digits.
Obviously, Missouri appeared to be a toss-up; but how close, and what strategies should the campaign use and when? The National HQs conferred numerous times daily with our supervisor concerning polling and subsequent helpful resources. On Wednesday we received two pallets of campaign material, including various hand and yard signs, leaflets, buttons, and bumper stickers. After the Michigan primary loss on Tuesday, March 8, two more Michigan staffers joined our crew on Thursday. As mentioned earlier, the events planned resulted from the tight race: Bill on Tuesday, Hillary on Saturday, Senator Booker on Sunday (on Sunday morning, all volunteers handled leaflets at predominately African-American churches), and Chelsea on Monday. Also on Monday, some of the local Leadership Council members for Hillary participated on the phone bank, including the St. Louis mayor and several aldermen and women (Rebecca and my former alderwoman participated – she even remembered our house and where I worked while in St. Louis! Even though we had moved in 2003! That is one sign of a good policy maker.).
The most impressive resource National HQs provided was the Hub Dialer. The other phone bank provided call lists on paper generated from the VAN. Volunteers called each person using the burner phones and noted on the call lists the results. Success rate for speaking with a live person is generally 15-20%. Afterward, all the call lists have to be manually entered into the VAN, usually late at night after all volunteers have left. At best, volunteers make 100 phone calls hourly. In contrast, the Hub Dialer (which is very expensive for the campaign) generates 500 calls hourly. The volunteer makes one phone call to the Hub Dialer which then calls VAN numbers until a voice answers, either a message machine or a real person. The volunteer does not hear the voice say hello, just a beep and should immediately start talking: “Hello, this is John with the Hillary campaign…” After the completed call, the volunteer enters the results on the phone keypad; and once completed, Hub Dialer begins calling again. This resource re-enforced to us that the race was close.
On Election Day, we started at 5:30 with polling sites opening at 6:00. I volunteered for a lit drop in North St. Louis. I stood at an intersection with a stop light 25’ from the polling site waving my Hillary placard at cars and distributing campaign leaflets to voters as they entered. The vast majority of voters and people in passing cars (honking and waving) supported Hillary and me being there. There were a few who drove by with thumbs down, holding their noses, or shaking their head. One stopped at the light and yelled, “F— white people!” I realized all those voting were African-Americans and that I was not too far from Ferguson; but again, the vast majority of voters were enjoying the pageantry of Election Day with me. Although, I did have the thought that I was probably the only farmer from Tennessee working the polls that day in St. Louis! I left the polling site at 9:00 after the morning rush.
After returning to campaign HQs, the staff told me that the campaign’s emphasis on Election Day was GOTV. As such, every able volunteer received a canvassing packet to go knock on doors. It was 80° and sunny so a perfect day to be outside. My packet was a subdivision in North St. Louis, which reminded me of mail carrying days with the Postal Service. I sorted my packet to create loops of addresses that would bring me back to my car where I would load up again. This also minimized moving my car. I enjoyed many pleasant conversations with voters and found this method very productive. First, it was more personal than phone calls, one could distribute campaign material, and I estimated that at least 10 people I contacted voted for Hillary who had forgotten that it was Election Day. Multiply that times 100 volunteers, and the impact could be significant. Decisions are made by those who show up!
Election Day ended with a Watch Party at HQs on a big screen. More pizza appeared to accompany the constant food on a designated table brought by volunteers (I gained 5 pounds in 10 days!). Hillary was the projected winner in North Carolina and Florida early as expected. Surprisingly, Ohio was called early for her, also. As I said goodbyes to all the volunteers and staff, Illinois (she was up three) and Missouri (she was down four) were too early to call before I left. We made a concerted effort, together, to make a difference, but we would not know the impact of our efforts until the next morning.
The staff explained that a good state field organization was worth only three percent swing in final votes, maximum. The next morning I discovered Missouri went for Hillary 49.6 percent to 49.4 percent – a mere 1,500 votes of 630,000 cast. I cried. One often never knows the full impact of one’s actions, but all the volunteers and the staff’s efforts, undoubtedly, made the difference in this election. Grass roots at its best. What impact the Missouri’s win has on the rest of the nomination process, on the general election, on the ensuing administration, and on our future remains to be seen. I think, in general, most of us do not make huge positive impacts with our lives, but when combined with others, subtle shifts can occur. Over time, these shifts hopefully offer future generations a chance at a more livable world. It’s called by the campaign “moving the needle.”
So, where next? The campaign has not contacted me for a job, yet, so I scoped future primaries where I could afford to work – Maryland on April 26 is a possibility. Until then, I’m tending my blueberries and chickens, getting the farm in shape for the growing season (catching up with Rebecca), when I may be gone. Next blog will describe the delegate process to the Democratic National Convention. Thanks for reading and stay tuned…