How did volunteers impact the 2016 USA Presidential election?

social cohesionIn 2012, I knew that President Obama was going to be re-elected because of the number of people volunteering for his campaign was far, far more than the Mitt Romney campaign. And I was right.

Four years later, I thought, like most everyone, that Secretary Hillary Clinton was going to win because, like President Obama, she had a far superior official deployment of volunteers, and management of such, than the Donald Trump campaign. She did, indeed, win the popular vote, garnering more than two million more votes than Trump and also receiving more votes than any person in the history of the USA for President except for President Obama. But she lost the election because of the USA’s archaic electoral college rules. Even with that popular vote win, however, the race was far, far closer than I ever expected, given the massive difference in volunteer numbers for the two campaigns.

PBS profiled the gap in the number of Trump volunteers versus those of the Clinton campaign in August, noting “the Trump campaign faces a jaw-dropping gap in the ground game: Hillary Clinton currently has more than three times the number of campaign offices in critical states than does Donald Trump.” As of Aug. 30, Clinton had 291 offices in 15 battleground states, compared to just 88 for Trump. Clinton was using a refined version of the data-driven, on-the-ground volunteering machine that won two elections for Barack Obama. “Trump, on the other hand, insists he does not need traditional campaign tactics to win the election, pointing to his overwhelming nomination victory achieved with a relatively small team and little spending.”

Then, in early November, FoxNews.com noted that, while Trump had far, far fewer official offices and official volunteers than Clinton, he had people acting entirely independently on behalf of his campaign, “an army of volunteers who began boosting his ground game, in some cases, before the professionals got heavily involved.” The outlet “talked to volunteers in five western states who were among Trump’s main source of on-the-ground support at a time when neither the Trump campaign nor the RNC had dedicated staff.” These volunteers were calling friends, hosting campaign parties, posting signs, sharing information on social media and registering voters, entirely on their own, with no official direction.

Volunteers who officially signed up for Donald Trump’s campaign, to help with phone banking, had to sign a lengthy, jargon-filled nondisclosure agreement that would prevent them from saying anything bad about the GOP nominee, his family, companies or products for the rest of their lives. You can see the entire contract here and highlights of the most outrageous parts of the agreement here. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t require phone bank volunteers to sign any sort of agreement – which was probably a big factor in her having far more official volunteers. And also by contrast, unofficial volunteers for Trump also never signed any agreement, and there was no organization counting them in the official volunteer rolls – they took their campaign action ideas from each other, not the campaign.

The reality is that this election was not won by volunteers nor volunteer management. In fact, a headline of one of my earlier blogs, Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections, has been proven wrong by this election, as my blog before the one you are reading now details. Social media DID win this election. It proved an ideal vehicle for promoting misinformation and generating fear and excitement that turned into action. As I noted in my last blog, BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And the majority of these fake news stories did NOT come from any campaign operatives; rather, they came from a man in Los Angeles who originally built fake news sites as a way to expose the extreme right, a plan that most certainly did NOT work. And these fake stories, most of which promoted Trump for President and made false claims regarding Hillary Clinton, were shared by millions of people via social media – independent, passionate volunteers who believed them.

What does this mean for the future of volunteer engagement in Presidential elections? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also see: Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

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