The SMITH Diaries Project

The Foley Comes Home to Roost

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

By Tate Hausman

Twenty days until the election. They call this the homestretch, but since I’ve been sprinting since May, its hard to imagine running any faster.

After our overwhelming victory in the primary, national attention on our race has ratcheted up steadily. It helped that my surviving candidate of the two whose campaigns I’ve been working on (click here for the fate of the one that didn’t make it) blew away our primary opponents — in a four-way race, we won almost 50 percent of the vote; our closest opponent racked up just 26 percent (two lesser candidates split the rest). That’s a blowout.

It also helps that FoleyGate has landed on the incumbent’s doorstep like a stinking pile of poop. Turns out she was the chair of the Congressional Page Board when Foley’s harassment was first reported. So either she knew about it and did nothing, or she grossly neglected her duties. Pick your poison, either way spells S-C-A-N-D-A-L.

(Not that Democrats haven’t had their own page scandals. Democrat Barney Frank, long the only openly gay Congressman, had a relationship with a page in the 80s, prompting this joke from Darcy, our field organizer/ex-stand-up comedian:

“What did Mark Foley say to Barney Frank?”
“I dunno, what?”
“We may be on different sides of the aisle, but at least we’re on the same page.”

But I digress…)

More than sex scandals, our chances to beat the Republican incumbent seem bright because our primary turnout was double that of the last equivalent one. Translation: this bodes extremely well for Dems in November.

Nobody likes a campaign consultant to toot his own horn, but indulge me just a little. Our tremendous victory could not have happened without our volunteers. Almost 200 of them hit the ground and the phones on primary day, pulling out our voters and getting them to the polls. And our volunteer program was greatly facilitated by Web-based systems that I set up.

The central system I’ve written about before was the Home Team, an experiment in “distributed volunteerism” that enlisted geographically spread out supporters to make voter-to-voter calls. I spent hours upon hours getting it up and running. I wish I could brag that this technology was the key to our victory. It wasn’t. Only about one-tenth of our Primary Day calls were made by Home Teamers.

So what value did it have? The Home Team was an excellent gateway drug. It got some really good people hooked on calling, and invested in the campaign. Almost 80 percent of people trained on the Home Team worked for us on Primary Day. Remember Iris and Dot? Neither of them made Home Team calls on Primary Day. Instead, they both came in to the district and joined one of our 12 centralized phone banks. Iris started dialing at 10 am and didn’t stop until the polls closed at 9. That’s one dedicated activist — and her entry to the campaign was the Web.

Dot and Iris live fairly close to the district, but we had activists come from as far away as Washington, DC. One of my most dedicated Home Teamers, Mike Furlong, came all the way in from Boston for the whole primary weekend. He recruited his brothers Dan and Bob, and the three of them spent days plastering the district with lawn signs. That’s online-turned-offline activism at its best. Ironically, Mike’s long-distance enthusiasm for the campaign has infected his local brother, Dan, who has become a complete campaigning machine. In Mike’s words, “If we can get Dan out of the barn, we’ll never get him back in.” Hundreds of volunteer hours later, Dan has proven Mike right.

The Home Team was also an effective training mechanism. Making voter-to-voter calls isn’t easy for everyone. The wrong numbers, hang-ups and the occasional “you-Democrats-are-all-America-hating-commie-fuckers-
get-a-job” response can take their toll on sensitive callers. Even tough cookies need time getting used to the scripts and interrupting a stranger’s afternoon. The Home Team helped hone those skills. And quite frankly, it also weeded out some of the very sensitive callers we wouldn’t have wanted to rely on on game day.

Now, with the primary behind us and the general heating up, we’re back to heavy Home Team recruitment. I train between one and three new Home Teamers a day. More than 150 callers have been trained, logged on and made at least one call. It’s a steady trickle. And they are finding us; we do little more than hang our online shingle and wait for new volunteers to knock.

Unfortunately, we face the age-old problem of every volunteer organizer in history — attrition. Without any real accountability to a campaign (i.e. no paycheck), volunteers always leave in droves. Rule of thumb is 40 percent attrition with new volunteers. That attrition is dramatically worse with online volunteers. When you can’t shake someone’s hand or look them in the eye, the human connection and camaraderie that attracts many volunteers has much a weaker hold. Many well intentioned new volunteers sign up, make a night of calls, and then life happens — work gets busy, a parent gets sick, the roof springs a leak — and the weak bond established by the Net is easily forgotten.

So now the challenge is keeping this legion of trained volunteers engaged. I end up making lots of calls to “sleeping” volunteers, trying to wake them back up. Occasionally it works; they were just away for a short vacation, or they lost their login information. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Instead of 40 percent attrition, I’m looking at 80-85. The lesson is obvious and clear: the loose ties of online connections are indeed the weakest.

Ultimately, all our work comes down to building an activist base come election day. Our volunteers will need to make 60,000 calls on November 7. Yes, with four zeros. In campaign parlance, we call that a “whole fuckload of calls.” Even if everyone I’ve trained made four hours of election day calls, we wouldn’t even hit half that target. That’s okay, though. As with any election, there will be an exponential spike in the final days. Two weeks before every E-day, you freak out that you don’t have enough bodies. But two days before E-day, you can’t cram everyone in.

It’s a classic scaling issue, and it happens literally every time. This year, the Home Team will hopefully help us avoid the problem. It’s nature as a Web-based, infinitely scalable program should absorb exponential growth. Should being the operative word. Like every campaign with too little money, too much work and too many moving parts, there will be cracks in the system. My job in the next three weeks is to keep the cracks from becoming valleys.

Coming Next: E-Day Arrives

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