Monday, February 15, 2010

How Do Volunteers Help a Campaign?

Summary: Exploring how, exactly, volunteers help win elections.

The answer to this question may seem all-too obvious for most readers, but according to a new post by our friends at Activate, it shouldn’t be.

The old-school way of viewing that question, according to them, is that “the volunteer influence merely displaces some of the phoning or canvassing that the campaign plans to outsource at the end of the campaign leading up to Election Day.”

But as many of us know, that impact is marginal. It is important in a close race, sure, but that doesn’t seem to be important enough to make it such an essential part of a campaign’s operations.

The real impact is via the “Three Degrees of Seperation.”

From the post:

“I recall my first presidential campaign in 1988 and my boss explaining to me the first tenet of my three degrees of separation theory: Every volunteer on a campaign will influence the vote of 50 voters by virtue of who they talk to in their own lives…friends, neighbors, family, co-workers. It isn’t about how many people they reached on the phone bank or at the doors. It’s all about who they come into contact with in their daily lives.

Remember, the new paradigm: Voters are primarily influenced by people around them, people they trust.

Okay, so let’s do the math. If a campaign has 1000 active volunteers and they each influence 50 voters, the first degree of separation is 50,000 votes.

So let’s say that the second degree of separation is calculated at 20% of that, so those 50,000 voters each influence 10 voters. The second degree of separation adds 500,000 voters. So now we’re at 551,000 voters.

Okay, now we’re cooking. The third degree of separation is calculated again at 20%, so those 500,000 voters will each influence 2 voters. The third degree of separation adds 1,000,000 voters.

Now we’re at 1,551,000 votes! Think about it. How many campaigns are won with 1.55 million votes?

Figuring out how many volunteers you need is rather simple. Take the expected vote and divide it by 1,551 and that will give you the number of volunteers a campaign needs to win.”

Could it be so easy?

It’s certainly an interesting concept, and it certainly falls in line with our understanding of how volunteers go about their daily lives, and how people make voting decisions.

Unfortunately, like most things in campaign politics, it is difficult to accurately measure votes based on volunteer numbers. In other words, confirming this hypothesis is a challenge.

One concern is the size of the district and location. If a volunteer lives across the street from a different district, then a good number of the people he or she talks to on a daily basis is unable to vote in that election in the first place. Relying on them for these purposes is not as beneficial as it would be in a state-wide race.

The other worry is about overlap. What if Voter A is influenced by a volunteer, he goes and influences Voter B in the Second Degree of Separation, and she then influences Voter C, who happens to have also talked to the original volunteer like Voter A did? Certainly Volunteer C would be all the more likely to support the candidate, but a potential Voter D is left out of the picture.

All-in-all, this is just some food for thought. Activate is certainly doing the world of campaigners a service by re-emphasizing the importance of volunteers. As we’ve seen time and time again, of all the aspects of a campaign that can be controlled for, volunteers are really the most critical.

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