By Brent Messenger of Fiverr
Ask our sitting president or nearly anyone else interested in electoral politics and they’ll tell you: mobilizing a community of volunteers is one of the most important things you can do to win an election.
This is not a recent revelation — community building has historically been critical to winning elections. Forging a strong community of supporters allows campaigns to generate durable power on the ground — mobilizing people to attend rallies, knock on doors and make phone calls — while identifying and persuading would-be supporters. Armies of well organized grassroots volunteers working in tightly structured “get-out-the-vote” operations have often been the difference between winning or losing.
But there is no one way to build a community. Like virtually everything else in this presidential election cycle, the approaches taken by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to this critical aspect of campaign strategy are vastly different, and often telling.
Here are three major ways the Trump and Clinton campaigns diverge when it comes to community building:
In 2008, the Obama for America campaign leveraged a community organizing approach we called the Snowflake Model. The campaign created a national network of hyper-localized teams and a system for delegating tasks and sharing responsibilities. The model was wildly successful and is often heralded as an important component in Obama’s win. It would be of little surprise if it became the template for every political candidate running for office, regardless of political affiliation (many brands, such as Airbnb, now use it in their community building efforts).
With the help of former Obama campaign staffers, Hillary Clinton’s team has deployed a similar relationship-based engagement model, to great effect. Trump’s campaign, to put it mildly, has not. Trump isn’t utilizing any community organizing model that is evident, and has little or no structured grassroots strength in critical battleground states. For example, Clinton has 65 field offices in Florida. As of September 1, Trump had one. This lack of ground game reflects a deep discrepancy in approach: highly organized and… not.
Clinton began her community building and get-out-the-vote operations more than a year ago, before she became the Democratic nominee for president. This is important because community building takes time. Campaigns need to identify potential volunteer leaders, earn their trust, train them on the campaign’s internal systems, and empower them to lead. That takes a significant amount of experience and it doesn’t happen overnight.
According to one report from August, the Trump campaign asked the Republican National Committee (RNC) to open offices in all 50 states, including those he is not likely to win. With limited time to work with and a plan to use that time in states with limited strategic value, the Trump campaign is trying to effectively close a massive gap in organizational capacity with only a few months to go.
3. Tapping Into Existing Communities
Since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have relied on churches and evangelical groups to fuel their community mobilization efforts. On the strength of his personality and personal story, former President George W. Bush did this to great effect in his 2004 campaign and it carried him all the way to the White House.
Only recently has the Trump campaign followed suit, slowly and somewhat haphazardly courting national evangelical leaders. But instead of cultivating those relationships himself, as President Bush did in 2004, Trump has placed that responsibility on the somewhat faceless RNC. Time will tell how successful that effort will be. Counter the RNC and Trump’s efforts with Hillary’s, where she has worked to personally court traditional Democratic-leaning organizations, such as labor unions, to bolster her intensive on-the-ground operations.
By virtually any measure, Trump’s ground game should be considered one of worst efforts put forth by a presidential campaigns in recent memory. The real question is whether it will matter. The candidate himself doesn’t seem to think so, telling Fox News in August, “I don’t know that we need to get out the vote.” With a recent tightening in the polls, he may prove to be right, or close to it.
If that is the case, it will be a dramatic upending of everything we believed we knew about becoming president in America. Will it have a ripple effect beyond politics? Will it impact how brands think about building their communities and the approaches they take? I am dubious, as I am a big believer in the power of community building. But one way or the other, we’ll find out on November 8.
Brent Messenger is the global head of community at Fiverr and served as a battleground field director in the Obama for America campaign.
The views, opinions and positions expressed within this guest post are those of the authors alone and do not represent those of CBS Small Business Pulse or the CBS Corporation. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are verified solely by the authors.