Far from the pundits and polls, the sweaty, unsung field organizers are the real epicenter of a presidential race. Take it from me—I was one.
When I signed up to work for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, standing in the parking lot of the North Trail Winn-Dixie pestering shoppers like a sweaty, deranged street preacher with a clipboard wasn't what I had in mind.
Most folks politely declined my invitation to help them fill out the voter registration forms I had stacked up; several rushed past me in annoyance; a few actually took me up on my offer. And when I say "a few," I'm not kidding. As anyone who's done ad hoc on-the-street voter registration knows, if you're signing up one new voter per hour, you are absolutely killing it.
So when someone would pause and register with me, I felt elated, savoring the chance to interact with a human, any human, in the scorched concrete hell-scape that is a Sarasota supermarket parking lot in summertime. I'd help the registrants figure out the form, review their paperwork to make sure it would fly with the supervisor of elections and bid them adieu. And then I'd start heckling more folks who were innocently stopping by to pick up a gallon of milk on their lunch break.
Not exactly what they make presidential campaigns look like on TV. But I was to learn that presidential campaigns look a lot different when you're actually standing at the epicenter of where much of the real work happens: the streets and shopping centers of an American town. And though I worked for the Democrats, the lessons I learned hold true for the armies of Republican workers and volunteers who were canvassing our cities as well.
I had nothing in the way of qualifications when I was first hired. I had never worked for anyone running for political office; I had never been on staff with an elected official; I had never volunteered for any political organization in any way.
But I did have the one thing that matters for those doing field work: enthusiasm.
For those unfamiliar with the campaign world, the field department is all about voter contact. Let the other guys worry about sculpting talking points and raising cash; all field organizers care about are three things: registering new voters (lots of new voters), knocking on people's doors (lots of doors) and making phone calls (lots and lots of phone calls).
Not glamorous, but it's the stuff that has to get done to win. And it's the stuff nobody who's paid to be Really Smart About Politics on TV or in your daily newspaper ever talks or writes about. It's the invisible campaign. And with another presidential election looming, it's happening right now, in your neighborhood. Probably on your block.
To be good at field work, you have to be able to put your civilian life on pause. Fourteen-hour days were the norm (when things were slow), and no, we didn't get weekends off, mostly because you, the voter, are home on the weekends—and that's when we want to bug you. To grind out those long days, field organizers need unflagging energy and the self-delusion necessary to believe that what they're doing, no matter how trivial it may seem at the time, is essential to the salvation of democracy.
You also need thick skin—because you will get yelled at a lot. I was screamed at regularly by supporters who were furious we didn't have stacks of free yard signs to hand out (experts say yard signs are absolutely worthless for presidential campaigns) or by volunteers who thought I had a direct line to Obama and could get him to go after this Sarah Palin woman, already! And those were the people who were on our side.
Canvassing voters door to door put me face to face with a whole different set of angry folks. Residents physically threatened staffers and volunteers. Several told me directly that they wouldn't vote for Obama because of his race—or because of his "background."
You're also bound to have some ugly interactions with neighborhood security forces. Canvassing is political speech protected by law (i.e., it's not considered soliciting), but try explaining that constitutional nuance to the overzealous uniformed officers keeping The Meadows safe from hooligans.
Odds are, you're still getting kicked out.
While such encounters were jarring, they fed the us-against-the-world mentality that any unpopular, ambitious, tightly knit group needs to survive.
When my colleagues and I set up shop in Sarasota in early July, our team of about a half-dozen had nothing but each other. No office. No Internet service. No phones. The message from headquarters: Figure it out. We spent our early days working out of the dining room of a staffer's mom—driving around looking at empty commercial space, talking to landlords and turning coffee shops into our own personal workstations the rest of the time.
We also started doing voter registration. Along parade routes, out on Siesta Key and yes, in front of the North Trail Winn-Dixie, which I made my personal stomping ground. Not by choice. Most other commercial enterprises are surprisingly hostile to voter registration happening on their property. We were rejected at Walmart, Publix, Whole Foods, Home Depot, BJ's and a host of other big-name stores. (There's a thesis waiting to be written about how American companies actively discourage political participation by banning voter registration and even the distribution of neutral election information.)
Some places eventually came around, if we agreed to register voters only during specific hours, and some warnings we just ignored, hanging outside until someone inside would get annoyed enough to chase us off. The Obama campaign was so good at voter registration that the Republican-led Florida Legislature passed a law in 2011 making it more difficult for independent groups to run voter registration drives. One local Republican state senator, Mike Bennett, now Manatee County Supervisor of Elections, said voting "shouldn't be easy" and that he supported "making it harder" for Floridians to cast their ballots.
Despite being yelled at on a daily basis, I began to love those hours in parking lots and those hikes down Sarasota streets. There's an intimacy you forge with a city when you're on foot that you can never earn by zooming by in your car. And let's be honest, Sarasota is not a place most of us stroll through often.
Before the campaign, I had never walked all the beautiful twisting streets of McClellan Park—one of Sarasota's oldest platted subdivisions—or explored the sprawling pseudo-farms of DeSoto Acres. I had never seen Newtown up close, or felt confident enough to cruise through public housing projects. Only by walking our streets can you see how people here really live. The diversity of Sarasota's geography and its startling wealth inequality both put the lie to the city's reputation as a sleepy, homogenous slice of paradise.
By October, when most of my work consisted of sitting in an office, I found myself perversely longing for a free few hours to go hit some doors. Our team of staffers—nickname: The Knockerz—had ballooned to more than a dozen by then, but our real force came from the waves of volunteers who surrendered evenings and weekends to walk neighborhoods and host call-a-thons. I'm amazed that some of them still talk to me after how hard we pushed them that summer and fall. The volunteers' days were long, stressful and intense, but they believed in the mission.
That belief became contagious. Out of the blue, a Sarasota man who had never volunteered before showed up at a team meeting. When asked what made him decide to join, he pointed to a handful of passionate New College volunteers in the room and said that when they rang his doorbell he knew he had to put in his time, too.
For many of our volunteers, the campaign became a full-time job. One woman, when handed a list of tasks and asked which she was willing to take on, circled the entire list, and spent every waking moment of the final two weeks working alongside the staff. More than one volunteer came from out of state, because they knew they could have their biggest impact in Florida. One high schooler traveled to Sarasota from England, just to put in some hours during the final Get Out the Vote push.
It's easy to get cynical about how our government operates and how our elections are won, but 2008 showed the enduring power of the people, if the people are willing to get up off the couch and participate. The volunteers—not huge fund-raising numbers or fancy TV ads or anything the staff ever did—were the reason that Obama came within 211 votes of becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Sarasota County since FDR in 1944. If field work is the invisible campaign, they were the invisible army, working block by block to turn out as many Obama supporters as we could identify. I've never looked at politics the same way since. I used to scream in rage at cable TV, but it became much harder to pin the blame for our country's problems on one person or one party once I saw what motivated, inspired citizens can do.
Would I have given as much as they did if I hadn't been getting paid to do the work? I doubt it.
Would I do what I did again? My heart's there, for sure. I haven't joined the Tea Party. But I was 28 in 2008; I'm 32 now. In 2008, my wife was unstintingly supportive (and personally helped me hit canvass goals every week). I doubt she'd feel the same now that we have a newborn son. There's a reason most field organizers are 25 or younger.
Plus, they tore down my beloved Winn-Dixie. I'd have to find somewhere entirely new to harangue you. And that just wouldn't feel right. But do me a favor: The next time someone harasses you in a parking lot, knocks on your door or calls you during dinnertime, please be nice. The person bugging you really just wants you to participate in your country's government, no matter how deranged he or she might seem.
If you'd like to put your politics into action during this election year, Sarasota offers all sorts of volunteer opportunities for both Republicans and Democrats. You can make phone calls, pound the pavement, wave signs, host fund raisers, put your social media skills to work and perform many other useful tasks. To learn more about Republican volunteer opportunities, go to sarasotagop.nationbuilder.com/volunteer or call (941) 677-8683. To volunteer for the Democrats, go to sarasotadems.org/volunteer or call (941) 330-9400.