Let me ask you a question…  When you take out all of the people who aren’t registered to vote in a certain area, or who don’t vote, and then take out everyone who always votes for one party’s candidates, no matter who that candidate is… what percentage of the voting population are you left with?

20%?   – Way too high.
8%?     – You’re on the right track, but not there yet…
5%?     – Getting warmer!

The actual answer is: 2-3%.  Only 2-3% of the voting age population in any given area is composed of people who are registered to vote, actually do go vote, and are willing to vote for the person who appeals to them, rather than voting just for the same party year in, year out.  This 2-3% of the population controls the election.  This 2-3% of the population is (or should be) one of your campaign’s main targets.

How should you target this 2-3%?  How should you reach any of your targeted groups?  Of course these folks are going to see your TV ads and yard signs.  They may hear you on the radio or at an event.  They should probably be receiving direct mail from you.  But if your campaign is stopping at paid and earned media, or yard signs and rallies, you are missing a crucial piece of the political formula: grassroots activity… or what is sometimes called, building a “field operation.”

Dollar for dollar and hour for hour, grassroots activity is the single most effective way to reach swing voters.   Direct mail works well, broadcast media works ok, but grassroots campaigning really connects with voters.

What is grassroots activity?  Simply put, grassroots campaigning is person-to-person campaigning or person-to-small-group campaigning.  It encompasses all of your campaign activity where the candidate, his or her spouse, the campaign staff, and volunteers and other supporters are out looking for votes in person, speaking to small groups, talking to voters one-to-one.  Grassroots politics is shaking hands and kissing babies.

Why is grassroots campaigning so effective?  Because all people, including voters, like to build relationships.  They like to hear from real people.  They like to talk, go to events, ask questions, and be entertained.  People don’t like to feel sold, they like to feel like they are hashing issues out in their mind and making their own decisions.

TV ads are TV ads – whether you are selling a candy bar or showcasing a candidate, they are still advertising.  News stories are better – they’re ostensibly objective and told by a respected third party, but they’re still second hand info delivered over an impersonal medium.  Grassroots campaigning, on the other hand, that’s real. Voters can touch, taste, and smell it.  They can shake the candidate’s hand, hear her speak at an event, get a ride to the polls, meet campaign volunteers, ask real live questions of real live people.

It’s hard work (perhaps the hardest type of campaign activity there is, or at least the 2nd hardest after fundraising, depending on how your candidate feels about asking for money).  It takes time and people, long hours and lots of organization, but grassroots campaigning works.

The Grassroots Primer – How to Set Up a Strong Grassroots Operation

As we said above, setting up a grassroots field operation is essential to your success, but it can also be very time consuming.  Here are the five keys to success in working the grassroots:

#1 – Plan It – Like the rest of your activities, grassroots campaigns have to be well-planned.  Most campaigns wouldn’t think of heading into a debate or holding a fundraising event without a plan.  Many of those same campaigns, though, would just pick some houses to start door-to-door, or start a random voter registration drive outside of the local Safeway.  Grassroots campaigning is definitely part art, but is also part science.  Learn the best practices, and then plan out your effort.  Know how each tactic figures into your overall campaign strategy.

#2 – Target It – It’s easy to just hop out of a car and start shaking hands.  It’s easy for the candidate to go door-to-door in his own neighborhood.  It’s easy to hold a rally wherever you can find a place to say “yes!”  What’s harder, but more effective, is making sure that every grassroots activity you engage in is targeted. Figuring out which areas of the district to focus your activities on, and which demographic groups to spend time and money on, is extremely important for your success.  Use  targeting information to plan out the best places to engage in grassroots activity.

#3 – Prepare It – The backbone of your grassroots efforts will be people – the candidate, his/her spouse, the field staff, your volunteers, etc.  Never go into any people-driven activity without adequate preparation and training.  In politics, this means making sure your grassroots staff is well trained.

Hold a “campaign school” to teach your volunteers how to talk to voters, use walk lists, report information back to campaign HQ, and handle difficult situations.  Put together a campaign manual that your grassroots supporters can reference, which lists you stands on the issues, as well as practical information such as how to get an absentee ballot, where to register to vote, where the polling places are, etc.  Make sure your people are prepared before they go out into the district on behalf of the campaign.

#4 – Manage It – Stay on top of your grassroots organization!  On the whole, it is a huge advantage for your campaign, but some individual people in it could prove to be real pains in the neck.  Almost every large grassroots campaign faces at least one situation where a volunteer goes off track and gets into shouting matches with voters, tells people the wrong information, promises the candidate will come to an event that he really can’t attend, etc.  Manage your grassroots supporters, handle problems as they come up, make sure they are doing what you ask them to do (or fund someone else who will) and maintain control of your organization.

#5 – Win It! – Your grassroots organization will play a key role in your victory on Election Day, but only if you stick with it.  It may seem slow going at first, recruiting and training volunteers, holding rallies where 10 people show up, going door-to-door where no one ever heard of you… stay with it.  Your efforts will build upon themselves, and before you know it, your grassroots campaign will be the liveliest (and most fun) part of your effort.

If you’d like to learn more about how to run a successful grassroots operation for your campaign, with step-by-step guides on topics like building a grassroots organization, door-to-door campaigning, using volunteers, and more, check out our new book Winning Elections at the Grassroots.