The past summer I worked on the Obama Campaign at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in D.C. as an Obama for America Fellow. Obama for America had some strict rules, but perhaps the most important one was to never talk to the media. We were strictly forbidden from responding to press requests, commenting at events or posting our own political material on places like the Huffington Post. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts had to conform to campaign standards, especially when we were representing the campaign. In fact, we were often required to post certain statuses and tweets, the wording of which was predetermined by the campaign. These rules make sense -- you don't want a campaign to look foolish because of something a young college employee said. It also kept the message centralized and straightforward. But as a political blogger, I felt like I was ensnared in a web of red tape. I couldn't publicly comment on the health care decision, or the debates, or Nate Silver's latest graph. There was so much I couldn't say during the most exciting time to be a political blogger.
Now that the campaign's over, and the President will be inaugurated in a matter of weeks, I am no longer a representative of Obama for America. And I have a few confessions to get off my chest about this summer and the work I did as the President of the Amherst College Democrats this past fall. The first isn't easy, but I'm just going to say it: For much of this past election cycle, I was convinced that nothing we were doing really mattered. I was also convinced that it shouldn't.
Before getting to Obama for America, let me explain (for those who don't have direct experience with it) what campaign work is all about. I've worked on different campaigns since I was a freshman in high school. Campaign tasks are largely a variation on a theme. Almost all campaign work (unless you're at the top level) boils down to canvassing and phone-banking. Canvassing is when you talk to people face to face (by going to crowded areas such as shopping malls, or knocking on people's doors) encourage them to register to vote, or encourage them to vote for your candidate. Phone-banking is similar, except it involves making phone calls to get some sort of message across to people; or you could be asking for money, or just trying to identify whom they support. As a college student, almost everything you do for a campaign falls into one of these two areas.
This kind of volunteer work can feel unproductive and unrewarding. You can easily spend an entire day of canvassing to register two voters, and you won't even be sure that those people will vote for your candidate. Sometimes they will even tell you that they won't. Making phone calls was even worse. Campaigns often required attempting several hundred phone calls a day. Almost everyone was NH (Not Home), which campaigns justify by telling you that a normal contact rate is 17 percent. And even if you did manage to get someone on the phone, they normally will be some combination of disappointed (you're not Sally, I was hoping you were Sally) and angry (how dare you interrupt family dinner!). Maybe, maybe you get a couple of people who agreed to volunteer or donate. But even most of those people never do.
My work for Obama for America was no exception: I found that it didn't matter whether I was deputy this or field director of that, because even if I wasn't doing canvassing or phone banking directly, I was essentially marshaling others to do the same.
As I continued to work on the campaign, questions and self-doubt began to plague me. How many people, really, had I personally gotten to vote for the President that wouldn't have already? It's a tough number to measure. I knew roughly how many people I had registered, and how many people I talked to. Despite working my butt off, it wasn't a large number. But wouldn't many of those people have registered later? Wouldn't a lot of them have voted anyway? Had I really persuaded anyone?
But there was an even more dangerous question. If I had persuaded someone, how on earth had I done it? I had previously felt comforted by statistics (that I'm not sure about -- again, they were stats the campaign told us) that showed that hearing a human voice, talking on the phone or in person, could be very effective at actually persuading someone to vote for your candidate. But how could a two minute phone conversation, or a three minute in person conversation, possibly convey everything there was to say about this election? With all of the issues to consider, so complex, varied, and nuanced, wouldn't it be wrong for someone to change their mind just because I told them some story about health care and student loans? And if so, then what on earth was I doing?
Even though I felt a sense of futility and guilt this summer, working among colleagues who clearly didn't have the misgivings I had, experts recognize the same problem. It's the problem of high-information voters and low-information voters. Almost always at the campaign we were targeting so-called undecided voters. Very frequently, undecideds are low-information voters. They know very little about the political landscape, the issues and the candidates. (This distinguishes them from independents. Independents may not belong to a party, but they often know fairly far in advance which candidate they support for President.) We might persuade undecideds one way or another, but it would be because they didn't really care. And even if they did care, my two-minute phone call would hardly provide them the depth of information they needed to make a solid, informed decision. It seemed like a cheap-shot way to get votes, unworthy of the President and the ideals that he stands for and I endorse.
This brings me to my second confession: I have decided that I don't feel guilty about it at all.
On Election Day, I was part of a team that organized a watch party for our college. That evening we gathered together in the school student center, decked out with multiple screens and supplied with a wide selection of snacks, and watched the results come in. With my public persona I had told volunteer after volunteer to make sure they had no regrets on Election Day. Staring at the main screen, I started to wonder if I had any regrets now -- not about whether I had volunteered too little, but whether I had volunteered too much.
My college is in Massachusetts, so the Amherst College Democrats had focused largely on electing Elizabeth Warren. Specifically, one person had done an overwhelming amount of work for the campaign. She had gotten up at 5:00 am to head to faraway towns to knock on doors, raise money, and get out the vote. She had even skipped class the past few days, putting the election above all else. I had worked hard this past election cycle, but she had probably worked twice as hard.
Looking over at her when Elizabeth Warren was elected to the Senate was a moving experience. Her smile lit up the entire room, and it was one of the most genuine things I have ever seen. And I realized why a human face or a human voice can persuade an undecided voter. So much in politics is fake. The debates, the TV ads, the ten second sound bites, they might work but they also turn people off. When a real person talks to you on the phone, or knocks on your door, they have to really care. Here's another confession: Something besides internship credit has to motivate a college student to wake up early on a Saturday morning to drive four hours to the middle of Virginia and register voters. And I realized that if that's why I persuaded someone -- because my passion, my excitement, came across as genuine and trustworthy -- then that was as good a reason as any for someone to vote for a candidate.
Maybe I didn't get that many people to vote for President Obama. But I got a few. And on the aggregate, that makes a difference. And not only does it make a difference, but it makes a difference for a reason that's not so bad. Like it or not, we're in a country where many vote for a candidate just because of their religion, or one hobby-horse issue, or one theatrical debate, or one gaffe, or one sound bite. Is it so bad that perhaps someone's decision was made, or just swayed, because one young person was enthusiastic, researched, and genuinely dedicated? I think on balance, that's not a bad reason to vote for a candidate. What I and many others did this past election cycle mattered, and I'm okay with that.