From Organized Chaos to Paid Trips

Lilly Maier
Aug 15, 2016 · 11 min read

On the Ground with New Yorkers Volunteering for Clinton, Trump and Sanders

“The thing that’s special about Hillary volunteers, they are seasoned, they are experienced, they have been through the trenches of this before.” — Richard Merritt, Hillary for America

“Ultimately, we all want Bernie to win. But we wanna have control of how we want our message to get out right now.” — Mindy Rosier, People for Bernie, three months before Sanders suspended

“Communication is hard sometimes with people who don’t have that much experience. Trump being a non-politician, it’s all very new for him and his team.” — Jul Thompson, New Yorkers for Trump

After months of preparation and a three-week spree of intense campaigning, a radiant Hillary Clinton took to the stage in the ballroom of the Sheraton on Times Square. “There’s no place like home,” she told an energized crowd that repeatedly interrupted her with chants of “Hil-la-ry, Hil-la-ry.” In her New York primary victory speech, Clinton thanked all “the volunteers who have worked their hearts out” and encouraged others to sign up: “Be part of this campaign.”

Any presidential campaign needs volunteers, tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters who give up their free time (and often their money) to champion their candidates. That’s no different in New York, where volunteers scoured the state going from door to door, making phone calls or organizing events.

And yet, volunteering varies — as a look at the Clinton, Trump and the suspended Sanders campaigns shows. Clinton’s volunteers are the most experienced and the most loyal, they are also closely tied to the offical campaign; Sanders’ were highly motivated, but loudly and vehemently demanded their independence, and Trump’s are few, and just as as outspoken and spur of the moment as the real estate mogul himself (shouting matches between volunteers and staffers included).

In that sense, the volunteers are a reflection of the candidates themselves.

Hillary for America

Monday, April 4, 15 days until the New York primary. Walking into Clinton’s Manhattan phone bank felt like walking into a beehive, where the overlapping phone conversations created a constant humming noise in the background.

“Hi this is Betsy. I am calling with Hillary for New York and we have this listed as.” — “May I ask who you are voting for? (pause) Fantastic. — “Hi, I volunteer with Hillary — oh, wrong number. ”

“Phone banking is hard,” said Betsy Steinman, 66, whose cobalt blue sweater matched the Hillary logo. “But I don’t want to wake up in November and think I should have done more.” The retired psychologist was one of thirty volunteers working on this rainy day in Clinton’s Manhattan offices. They are located in the heart of the Financial District, only a block away from the Wall Street bull, and are furnished minimally — grey tables with laptops and beige landline phones — but the walls are decorated with campaign slogans and an array of colorful children’s drawings championing Clinton.

By early April, the Clinton campaign had spent over 145,000 hours talking on the phone with voters, according to a fundraising email. “I could be making phone calls from home, but I like to meet people,” said Steinman, while she peeled a mandarin. That day, it sometimes took up to an hour to actually reach a person, but that didn’t hurt the spirit of the volunteers, who shared “war stories” while they waited for the next call to connect. In New Hampshire, a man threatened to “set his dogs” on the next Hillary supporter knocking on his door. Another volunteer had a gun pulled on him while canvassing in Florida.

Campaigning can be “emotionally draining,” said Steinman, who has been to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — all on her own dime. But the positive experiences much outweighed the difficulties for her: “I had a 100-year-old woman in New Hampshire who said she had waited all these years to vote for a woman. I almost cried.”

Like Steinman, many Clinton volunteers — as well as 60 percent of all contributors — are women, according to the campaign. And many of them already volunteered for Clinton eight years ago. “The thing that makes our volunteers a gem is that they are experienced,” said Richard Merritt, 28, a staffer responsible for organizing the Brooklyn volunteers. “They have gone through this before.”

The Clinton campaign started building their volunteer base in the spring of 2015, and they value close contact with them. Compared with the Sanders and Trump operations, Clinton’s supporters work in a clearly defined framework and have a much higher probability of interacting with the official staff — either in one of the well-equipped offices or out on the streets. This was illustrated by the fact that I ran into Richard Merritt every single time I saw volunteers in Brooklyn — he brought flyers to street corners, collected signatures at bar nights and organized a mini-rally outside the Brooklyn Democratic Debate. Merrit was never there for long, but he (and through him the official campaign) was always a presence.

Volunteers outside the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, at a Millenials for Hillary bar night, at the New York Primary victory party.

Speaking of presence: One thing Clinton volunteers are not, is visible. In fact, until about two weeks before the New York primary, I had never consciously seen a single Hillary supporter. Even Hillary-stickers were rare, while it was inevitable to run across some for Bernie. And yet, Clinton won the Democratic primary by 16 percent.

Hillary fans may be just as passionate about their candidate, but they are not as (aggressively) outspoken as Sanders supporters, a common theme that was discussed by a group of twenty-year-olds handing out Hillary flyers in Park Slope at the beginning of April. “It’s almost like a personality thing,” said Stephanie Israelson, 25, an actress. “Bernie supporters — in our age group — are so loud, and the problem is that a lot of millennials for Hillary are just not as vocal about it.”

Bernie Sanders for President

Saturday, April 9, ten days until the New York primary; three months before Sanders will suspend his campaign. About 20 people assembled in a classroom at the CUNY Graduate Center; their colorful t-shirts — Bernie as a Sesame Street character, Bernie’s silhouette on a blue background — a nice contrast to the rain pouring down the windows. The meeting had the atmosphere of a motivated support group — a round of “Hi, my name is…” and spontaneous applause included.

A group of “People for Bernie” volunteers at a planning meeting for a New York rally. Mindy Rosier (right) spend most of the afternoon firing the group up.

“Damn it, let’s make some heroes and take New York,” said Mindy Rosier, 41, a red-haired special education teacher who lead the meeting. Rosier is one of the original organizers of People for Bernie, a nation-wide grassroots group that grew out of the Occupy movement. Back in January, they hosted the first “March For Bernie” in New York, and now they were busy preparing for another one. The group does have connections with the official campaign — for example, Sanders’ team happily embraced the popular hashtag #FeelTheBern, that was created by the group’s co-founder Winnie Wong — but during the 90 minute meeting, People for Bernie-leaders repeatedly emphasized their independence. “Even though this is a Bernie Sanders rally, this is our rally. It’s the rally for the people,” Rosier told the group, her loud teacher’s voice resonating through the room.

A week later, about 15,000 people marched from Foley Park to Union Square on a warm spring day. A low-level staffer on stage and a sign-up table was the sole participation of the Sander’s campaign. It was — after all — a march by People for Bernie and not an official Sanders rally.

A large group of Bernie Sanders supporters assemble on Union Square in Manhattan.

During his primary campaign, Sanders had been extremely successful in harnessing the power of independent grassroots groups. “The volunteer campaign in the Sanders campaign is unprecedented in its scope and scale and impact,” said Tad Divine, Sanders’ chief strategist, in the spring. The campaign outraised Clinton several months in a row, and by early April they had made over 47 million phone calls, creating “a volunteer army that surpasses anything seen in presidential politics” according to Politico.

Much of the volunteer organization happened online: Supporters were invited to “virtual barnstorm” conference calls and there was frequent use of the chat-app Slack. This digital operation was one of the pillars of Sanders’ strength, but as a result volunteers had little contact with each other or the campaign staff in real life.

This became more than obvious when I visited Sanders’ New York headquarters in Gowanus a week after it opened in early April. There was no one greeting visitors, so I could freely roam around the sparsely decorated warehouse, take pictures and even look at voter information — simply because the handful of people present had never seen each other and just assumed I was allowed to be there. Two weeks later this had changed somewhat: The office was decorated with Bernie artwork and volunteers manned an entrance table, but there still wasn’t much (personal) interaction between supporters and paid staff.

Sanders’ volunteers were (and at times still are) much more visible and vocal than those supporting Clinton or Trump, proudly presenting their paraphernalia and flocking to his events in the thousands. But as much success as the Sanders campaign has had with grassroots groups, there are times when it felt like these groups were just using Bernie as a vessel for their own individual political agenda, as if they don’t even care who the candidate was.

Sanders supporters show their creativity — all the way from the Sesame Street to Pokémon.

Charles Lenchner, the co-founder of People for Bernie, for example, initially founded a group called Ready for Warren. And there are even moments when the grassroots groups seemed to be in a competition with the official Sanders campaign, like when they put on big events instead of sending their members out to canvass. “Obviously they [the campaign] want Bernie to win, like we do,” said Mindy Rosier at the March for Bernie planning meeting. Obviously.

Donald J. Trump for President

Saturday, February 6, 73 days until the New York primary. Half a dozen people in winter jackets stood around a grey folding table in an almost empty storefront office in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We probably could have phone-banked from New York, but we love it here,” said Kevin Bartholomew, 61. “It’s the first time I am a part of a presidential campaign.”

Bartholomew — called “Santa” because of his long white beard — was part of a group of 50 volunteers from upstate New York who drove more than 10 hours to help mobilize voters. The trip — and similar ones to Ohio and South Carolina — was organized by a group called New York for Trump that was founded by Carl Paladino, 69, a real estate developer and member of the Buffalo school board, who has supported Trump since a personal meeting last fall.

Out-of-state volunteers are common among presidential campaigns, but there is one big difference here: The New Yorkers didn’t have to pay for the trips. Instead the Trump campaign and Carl Paladino split the bill. Neither the Sanders nor the Clinton campaign pay for travel expenses — but then Trump has far less volunteers to take care of. In New Hampshire, Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks told me, “we have hundreds of volunteers” in an e-mail. For a campaign prone to hyperbole this doesn’t sound like much, especially compared to the tens of thousands of volunteers working for other candidates.

But not everybody believes that the ground-game is this small. “Mr. Trump is a generous guy. He has more volunteers than you think,” said Patrick Delaney, 27, a regular canvasser from Cheektowaga, NY. “You don’t win […] just by being a big personality. If you have a big personality, you also have unfavorable. So you need people on the ground combating that.”

If the media has indeed a wrong idea of the size of Trump’s volunteer operation, then it’s a self-made problem. Trump volunteers are told not to talk to the press. And supporters in Trump’s Manhattan headquarters even have to sign a non-disclosure agreement that also forbids them to criticize Trump or his family. (According to experts, it isn’t legally enforceable, because unpaid volunteers get nothing in return.)

There is a stark contrast between the Trump campaign and the volunteers in their approach to the media. I experienced an example of this firsthand in New Hampshire, where the group of New Yorkers welcomed me warmly and even let me film them. “You are not part of the media they told us to stay away from,” said Michael Machnica, 56, a retired laboratory technician, referencing my status as a journalism student.

It wasn’t until Madonna Priorie, a red-haired woman with Italian roots, showed me another room when trouble started. A young staffer, who refused to give me his name, immediately spotted the press pass dangling around my neck and threw me out of the building. To my surprise, the volunteers wouldn’t have any of it. Priorie got in a full-blown shouting match with the campaign operative and some of her colleagues walked out with me and apologized for his behavior. In emails afterwards they described him as “suit boy” and complained that they had to deal with him in other states as well.

This was not the only topic where the volunteers didn’t see eye-to-eye with Trump’s staff: “It was hard at times, because we couldn’t do things that we wanted without the campaign,” said Jul Thompson, a businesswoman in her fifties, who organized these trips. Thompson is an experienced political volunteer and at times she felt it obvious that it was “all very new” for Trump and his people. “We could have been a little bit more prepared,” she said.

Primary Day. Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only one celebrating in New York on April 19. A subway stop away, Donald Trump addressed a cheerful crowd in front of an indoor waterfall in his golden and marble Trump Tower. After celebrating his big win, Trump turned his attention to the future: “Tomorrow morning, we go back to work.”

And so do the thousands of volunteers all over the country who will continue to knock on doors and make phone calls all the way until November 8.

All photos © Lilly Maier.

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