The good, the bad and the alien of the Clinton campaign

‘F*ck me, that was a bit sh*t,’ was the pithy text I sent to a friend on the ground elsewhere in the States immediately after spending the weekend campaigning for Hillary. By British standards, 6 hours is an awfully long way for people to drive to campaign in an election. In the States though, no one thought anything of it. Curious about the latest campaigning techniques, and concerned about what the election of Donald Trump may mean I jumped in a convoy with over 100 other Stanford students to Washoe County, Nevada. It was THE swing County in a critical swing State, I prepared myself to be wowed by a campaign machine. Instead I found a little good, a lot bad and some just truly alien.

The Good

We went to two HQs over the weekend and they were both set up to handle a lot of people. Which was good, as by 9.30am in one of them 450 had turned up already. Talking to others as we were assigned packets (canvassing packs) most seem to be coming from California, one had flown in from the East Coast and recognised some classmates. You can do a lot of stuff with that number of people.

The people greeting us and doing the initial briefing on the area were fan bloodytastic. Each day we turned up a man with a beard nearly as impressive as his energy levels would get everyone pumped with how valuable the work they were doing was and the latest information on the day. Additionally, the karaoke that was organized one night was hilarious. Turns out Democrats are big Bonnie Tyler fans, who knew?

The pre-briefing pack was thorough and detailed. It covered everything embarrassing you may need to know (how to pronounce Nevada) and the canvassing text had some excellent social proof points in it.

The bad

On the second day we turned up as arranged to help and there was nothing for people to do. Instead, we were kept hanging around waiting before finally leaving to go to another HQ. Collectively that is probably over 50 hours of time that was wasted. More than that, it leads to bored volunteers who tell others they were not made to feel useful and then people stop coming. Keeping volunteers busy is one of the first rules of election campaigns, and they broke it. Big time.

When out canvassing it was with the aim of getting out identified Democrat/Clinton supporters to vote. It was clear that a few people were wavering and considering voting for a third candidate but there was no squeeze message, no way to really record this in the feedback and no material for that situation. Given that Gary Johnson got more votes in Washoe than the margin of victory, this was a err lapse.

US presidential election campaigns normally lead to some sort of innovative leap forwards — a consequence of the money and talent involved. This time it felt like the campaign was regressing. All canvassing was done on printed sheets, not using phone apps that reduce reporting errors and save time. As teams came back in from canvassing to tally responses manually, you wondered if we’d been hauled back to the last century. I did that thinking whilst lying on the floor sorting packets for the next day, as they hadn’t been able to print them in walk order.

Washoe County is home to the University of Nevada — Reno. As you’d expect it was full of student halls of residences. Yet, despite the massive turnout from Stanford students there was no sign of a student group on campus (facebook reveals one, sort of). Instead we were left trying to sweet talk our way in to buildings to hand out generic literature. It tied to a curious lack of local campaigners and established infrastructure.

The plain alien

If you are in a marginal seat in the UK then you sure as hell know about it. It isn’t just the literature raining through letterboxes or optimized advertising; it’s the posters or candidates out and about. In Washoe County I saw not a single garden poster for either candidate, it just felt wrong.

These experiences did not augur well, and I came away for the first time thinking Clinton may not win. Yet on the night the Democrats won the Presidential and Senate race in Washoe. If you look across other areas of the States, such as the rust belt, you’ll find plenty of others surprised by the wrong headed, poor quality campaign. I was not alone in feeling uneasy and that instructions from the centre seemed detached from experiences on the ground.