If there’s one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that grassroots movements are alive and well in the United States.  From the grassroots organization that helped elect Barack Obama to the tea parties that are protesting his policies to the local groups lining up on both sides of the health care debate, there’s never been a better time to link your campaign with a grassroots movement.

The Pros and Cons

Of course, there are pros and cons to hitching your political wagon to a major grassroots effort:

On the positive side, grassroots organizations can provide huge boosts in fundraising and volunteer manpower; provide a great opportunity to take your message and candidate viral; are great ways to get lots of free press coverage; and often allow campaigns to communicate with the public at large far more cheaply than standard political media.

On the other hand the dangers of linking to a grassroots movement are manifold.  Campaigns that get too close to their activist counterparts risk being blamed when the grassroots organizations make missteps (which they often do); candidates can be seen as pawns of the grassroots leadership, or at least as overly deferential to their wishes; and if the grassroots effort is simply the “flavor of the day,” the campaign may fade into memory at the same time that the movement does.

Each campaign should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of linking closely with a grassroots movement, and should evaluate how the move will generate votes and impact the overall campaign plan.  If your campaign decides that a partnership would be beneficial, here are some tips on getting the most out of your relationship:

1.   Keep it Legal – Be sure to follow all campaign finance and election laws in dealing with the grassroots organizations, and be sure to remember that you are two (or more) separate groups, and that only you can be responsible for your own campaign.  Talk to an election lawyer to learn the rules in your area.

2.  Define Your Relationship – Meet with the leaders of the movement and define what your working relationship will look like.  Appoint staff members who are responsible for serving as liaisons with the grassroots effort and keep your new partners informed and engaged.

3.   Mobilize Your Forces – Grassroots movements can provide a great source of volunteers, precinct canvassers, poll workers, etc.  Often, these volunteers will not have any experience working on campaigns, and instead will have been attracted to your candidacy because of a common belief in a cause that is important to them.  Hold a campaign school, train these new volunteers, and get them out working on your behalf.

4.  Respond to Problems Quickly and Clearly – If a problem arises involving the grassroots movement, be prepared to respond quickly and clearly, and don’t be afraid to distance yourself from your partner organizations if the need arises.  Always be willing to reevaluate the relationship based on current issues, needs, and circumstances.

In many ways, linking with a popular grassroots movement is similar to building political coalitions.  For more information, read Local Victory’s How to Build Political Coalitions.