I'm willing to sacrifice, but I don't know yet if I'm willing to, like, SACRIFICE.
September 22, 2008 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone done a weeks-long stretch of political volunteering? How'd it go?

I'm thinking of attending Camp Obama, which leads to a five-week assignment in a battleground state. I live in Illinois, so I'd be shipped elsewhere.

At this point, all I've done is two days of canvassing for Obama, and one day of canvassing for Kerry. I felt great about what I did, but this would be a rather radical plunge for me. (And not 'radical' in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sense. Well, perhaps.)

I'd like to know if anyone else has already gone through an experience like this and what they thought of it. How was it being away from your significant other, your home, and your stuff, and organizing canvassers 24/7 for several weeks? I'm sure it sucked in many respects, but did you feel good about it in the end? Is there anything else I should consider?
posted by ignignokt to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I did something similar for Bush-Cheney in 2000, and then for a Republican congressional candidate in 2002. These were great experiences. I met tons of interesting people, created all sorts of professional contacts and formed lots of memories. I remember staying with a nice older lady in the midwest who let me and a fellow Republican crash in her guest room -- I assume that you'll be staying with someone rather than in an expensive hotel.

I was just out of college at the time & didn't have a girlfriend, so I didn't have to give up too much. As much as it pains me to say this (as a Republican), I think you should do it. I can't imagine you regretting it, and if Obama wins, you'll have been a part of history. If he loses, at least you won't be blaming yourself for not doing your part.
posted by BobbyVan at 3:07 PM on September 22, 2008

I would at least go to Camp Obama, then see. My SO went to Camp O here in California and said it was really inspiring and informative, and at the end they did push for 5 weeks, but some people could only go to our neighboring swing state, Nevada, for 2-3 weeks, and they will be glad to have you anyway. It's not like if you go to Camp Obama you're signing up for 5 weeks OR ELSE. You're a volunteer, do what you can. They will also teach you how to phone bank, which is critical right now and can be done from anywhere. I don't have 5 weeks but I'm helping with as much of the calling as possible with my schedule. Go and see what you think, they will put you to use somehow.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:45 PM on September 22, 2008

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent me to Georgia in '04 for a week to campaign for, obviously, Democratic candidates. My experience was very positive and I loved (almost) every minute of it. The best part of it was staying with locals and bonding over issues we all cared about. I particularly enjoyed the hours-long nighttime chats about the atrociousness of Bush & Co. over bottles of wine and homemade mac 'n' cheese. If you can afford to go, I'd say go. It really will make you feel like you've invested yourself in trying to make your country better.
posted by HotPatatta at 4:00 PM on September 22, 2008

Yes, one needs adventures like this. Just go & try it.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:49 PM on September 22, 2008

If you do go, you can take with know the feeling of appreciation that so many of us will have for you.

That, and an adventure?

posted by Vaike at 6:55 PM on September 22, 2008

I GoogleChatted with a friend who spent 2 months in New Hampshire for Dean, where, among other things, he met his only really serious long-time girlfriend. Here's what he had to say:

me: What was the social life like?

friend: It is crazy. Before an election you are working your ass off. I think Dean campaign was particularly crazy, but it is quite an experience. You meet a lot of people -- tons of hookups. It even happened to me! I think 5 weeks it is worth it.

me: So, despite the fact that Dean lost, it was a good experience?

friend: Absolutely! For me, especially since whatever happened I was going back to school it made it easier. I remember that tears fell like rain that night in the office, but I was so happy it was over I was ready to leave. I was lucky too in that I was working at campaign HQ in Manchester during primary day which is like the center of the universe for a day. Tons and tons of media...wouldn't trade it for the world. One of the best things I ever did. District Office work out the boonies not so fun. Yeah. I remember our Keene office had like 3 people. That would suck. Our Manchester HQ office had like 35 staffers and about 25 interns. It was wild. I remember a couple of Smith students were ready to quit school to become full time staffers. I think one even did. I still keep in touch with my campaign buddies.

friend: You are working your ass off, and I was freezing my ass off. I have never been that cold in my life. Some of our staffers got frostbite. I didn't have a car so I had to rely on folks for rides everyday, made me have to meet people. Boy I remember so much of that campaign--I would highly reccommend a NH primary campaign to anyone.
posted by Kattullus at 7:01 PM on September 22, 2008

Seconding Kattullus... I spent about a month volunteering for Dean back in 2004, up in New Hampshire (actually, in the Claremont office, which was one of the boondock branches office of which his friend spoke). The entire operation is fueled by youthful enthusiasm, so everyone's under 30 (except for a handful of older volunteers who were mostly supplying logistical needs, like giving 6 of us a spare bedroom to sleep in, or bringing us meals late on Sundays), and there's a kind of frenetic energy you won't see anywhere else in your lifetime. When I was there, it was the month leading up to the New Hampshire primaries, and it was all-hands-on-deck; the offices were open constantly, even though the bulk of the outreach was happening weeknights and weekend days.

We were all doing 100-hour work weeks (14-hour days, 7 days a week, which, if you've never had the pleasure, creates in you an exhaustion you've also never experienced. Luckily, the constant adrenal surge never gave out for anyone I saw there), so your entire life is directed through the campaign, but that's not actually all that much of a drawback--by the time you've spent two weeks in the trenches, these will be some of the closest friends you have: everyone's passionate and focused on a central ethos, which breaks down every other wall very quickly. My cousin, who was the volunteer coordinator at the office where I worked, met her long-term boyfriend there; the energy level, with perhaps a little added alcohol, can lead to some crazy times. Our office even developed a pot-luck mentality about meals; since almost everyone is there as a volunteer, it's costing people money out-of-pocket to eat, so there were lots of bulk food made, which brought a lot of local flavor to the office (there were volunteers from every corner of the country, so it would vary from southwestern fare to mac-and-cheese to grits, depending on the night)

It sounds like you've done some work of this type before, but in case you haven't experienced the full panoply, you'll likely divide your time between a few things:

1. Visibility. This becomes especially important as the election draws near, because people on the fence actually do change their mind on poll day based on how many people they've seen holding signs in the last week. (A propos of nothing, this idea held such a perverse fascination for me that I went on to do a senior thesis on something very similar--MeMail if you're interested) Depending on where you're stationed, this can either be a pleasant afternoon of waving and congeniality, or a misery-soaked evening of frostbitten hands in 5-degree weather, punctuated by angry Republicans yelling at you to do something more productive with your life. Your mileage may vary.
2. Phone-banking. This will be your evening pasttime, since campaigns aim mostly at catching people while they're sitting down to dinner. If Obama runs his offices like Dean did, days will probably be partitioned out by the level of interest of the target households: on Monday you might get a list of people who've expressed weak Obama support in previous phone calls, and you'll get to call and see if they're still swinging blue or if they've gone over the edge into the abyss. On Tuesday, it might be weak McCain supporters, who will be much less pleasant to deal with. On Wednesday, it might be the unknowns (which are actually the worst--you'll see wild swings in mood between individual calls, and the jump from a 60-year-old woman who loves Barack and wants to talk about his health care plan could be followed up immediately by an angry lifelong Republican who wants to know why the hell you've interrupted his dinner with your goddamn liberal bullshit [I'm paraphrasing here, but rest assured that if you're in a battleground state, you'll get yelled at, a lot]). You'll get to talk to people, but most of them will not be really receptive to phone calls, because yours will be the 19th they've received since June.
3. Door-to-door visits. These are definitely the most fun; you'll be hitting everyone who hasn't identified themselves as full-on Republicans, and this is where you'll feel like you're making the most difference. People won't usually yell at you when they're looking you in the eye, so for every polite-but-firm 'we're voting for McCain and you can't change our minds,' you'll probably find someone who'll invite you in for coffee. Sitting down and talking with a swing-voter, and leaving feeling like you've swayed his opinion, is one of the most satisfying things you can do, and it will happen more often than you think, because most people's belief systems line up much closer to Democratic ideals than to Republican ones, once you turn the discussion to issues rather than talking points.

So, summarily: you should go. It might not leave you better-off financially, but you'll still be talking about it in four years, and it'll be a ton of fun while you're there. You will no longer be bothered by the prospect of being yelled at over the phone; you will be even less able to understand why anyone in his right mind would vote Republican after spending 5 weeks in an echo chamber filled with very bright and dedicated people; you will miss everyone back home for a brief period of time, but will quickly become so consumed with a project that requires literally every your waking hour that you'll probably do what I did and forget to call home for a week and a half, thus prompting your parents to think you're lying dead in a snowbank somewhere; you will probably not be dead in a snowbank, but will rather be doing something that you actually believe is socially useful, which will make the talking heads on Fox News look even more ridiculous to you.

Recommendations: get a membership in whatever bulk food store is closest to your campaign office. Make friends with someone with a car, if you don't have one; it will feel strongly like freshman year of college all over again for a short time. Bring weather-appropriate clothing; if you're headed anywhere north of Maryland, it could easily snow before the election, and you have never experienced misery like holding a campaign placard in a snowstorm with crappy gloves. If you don't know Obama's policies inside and out, it would be helpful to study, or maybe bring a crib sheet, because you'll run into single-issue voters who will want to talk over the minutiae of point 6 of his proposed stimulus plan, and that can be daunting if you're not expecting it.

Hope this helps... if you're looking for more clarification on anything, I'm happy to elaborate on anything. Good luck!
posted by Mayor West at 5:03 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks, guys. It was reassuring to hear about your specific experiences, and I think I'll at least go to the camp. Slow graffiti, it's good to know that it's not an all-or-nothing five week commitment.

I do have a new concern, which is that I'm 31, and everyone else doing this seems to be in their early twenties, but at worst, it's probably a minor annoyance.
posted by ignignokt at 11:38 AM on September 23, 2008

Don't worry about age. It may be a young group now, but you'll see all sorts coming in during October, especially once Congress recesses and staffers head out into the fray. I have several friends in their late 30s and mid 40s who were in Ohio in 2004 and will be heading off to swing states in a couple of weeks.
posted by weebil at 7:31 AM on September 24, 2008

Thanks, weebil. That's comforting to know.
posted by ignignokt at 4:23 PM on September 25, 2008

Thanks to everyone that advised me on this. I ended up doing something similar that took greater advantage of my skill set for about a month, and it was one of the best "work" experiences of my life. I worked with great people, felt like I was making a genuine, quantifiable difference, learned a lot about the campaign process, and happened to be rewarded with excellent results at the end.
posted by ignignokt at 1:46 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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