ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. — Sam Aleman handed out fliers and talking points to his troops in this upscale Detroit suburb on a recent afternoon, reminding fellow Democratic organizers of what was at stake in their canvassing.
“We lost the White House by two votes per precinct in Michigan,” Aleman said. “That’s very upsetting, but it’s also a very close margin, so we’re out here today to hopefully undo that.”
Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because the party and her campaign had a weak ground game in critical areas, and failed especially to mobilize minority voters who had turned out at high levels for former President Barack Obama, party strategists believe.
The Democratic National Committee is hoping that a small army of mostly minority college students — including two cohorts in Pennsylvania — can help defeat President Donald Trump with a focus on field operations in key communities.
Organizing Corps, the DNC’s new field operations training program, teaches college-age students from battleground states successful strategies for door-knocking, phone-banking, and volunteer recruitment. The idea is to prepare a cadre of staffers with the tools they’ll need for paid jobs with the general election campaign once the Democrats pick a nominee. It’s also an attempt to avoid the concern among some that if the party prioritizes white swing voters over its base — typically people of color, young people, and women — it will lose again.
Meanwhile, Republicans have the benefit of a known candidate in Trump: The national party has raised $62 million for outreach and training efforts.
“Trump is not waiting for us to have a nominee,” said Rachel Haltom-Irwin, Organizing Corps’ executive director. “He’s starting it now — and so are we; that’s why we’re building the organizing power.”
The DNC-funded program (all students are paid $15 an hour for eight weeks of training) is in 10 cities across seven battleground states.
“In 2016 we lost really small, a few thousand votes here and there, and we realized those could be made up in the field,” said Brittany Albaugh, who helps lead the Philadelphia corps. She noted that a typical national campaign has about 300 staffers during a primary but that the party needs upward of 2,700 more for the general election.
The first wave of corps members is 77 percent people of color and 25 percent LGBTQ. In cities with high black voter populations, like Philadelphia and Detroit, Clinton won by much slimmer margins than Obama did in 2008 or 2012.
In Philadelphia, which is 45 percent black, Clinton won 84 percent of the vote, but her margin was 17,000 votes smaller than Obama’s in 2012. Clinton won Detroit’s Wayne County by 288,709 votes — a drop of more than 93,000 votes from Obama’s win there four years earlier.
The field office effect
Joshua Darr, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, compared Clinton’s field strategy with Obama’s and concluded that a lack of local campaign offices likely hurt her.
Clinton’s team had 400 fewer field offices than Obama had in 2008, and 200 fewer than he had in 2012. In key states like Wisconsin and Ohio, the differences were more stark.
Certain things have rendered brick-and-mortar offices or door-knocking unnecessary: texting campaigns, phone calls, Facebook advertising. Even the lack of frequency with which people open their doors can make door-to-door canvassing less effective.
But on the whole, Darr, who has studied the effect of campaign offices for Democrats in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, found a 1-percent increase in vote share in counties with a campaign office.
“I’m not surprised we see a reinvestment in the field,” he said. “I think knowing what states you need to win and going into them is probably the way to go, and research shows that local people are best at mobilizing other people in the area.”
Students mobilizing students
All corps members took a neutrality pledge — no showing favorites, even when the candidates come to their hometown for a debate (as occurred in Detroit). A few students, though, did say that they’d only return to work for the party in 2020 if they believed in the nominee.
Danielle Foltz, 20, cast her first vote in a presidential election for Hillary Clinton in 2016. A Harvard freshman who grew up in Ardmore, Foltz heard about the opportunity on Pod Save America, a politics podcast hosted by former Obama staffers. When she learned Philadelphia would have a corps, she applied immediately.
“Seeing Pennsylvania, specifically, go Republican was really sad and hard,” Foltz said. “Knowing how many people didn’t vote — some of my classmates who I felt like I’d agreed with on so many issues, but they weren’t inspired to vote — made me feel like we really had to do something.”
On the cobblestone streets of Old City, Foltz buzzed front doors carefully mapped out for her by the DNC’s voter activation network app on her phone.
Each corps works with a state Democratic Party to determine what type of early canvassing can best benefit them now. In Philadelphia, Foltz canvassed for Democrats running for judge. In Delaware County, students are campaigning for Democrats trying to take control of the county for the first time since the Civil War.
In Michigan, the students went door-to-door in the crucial Detroit suburbs — which, like Philadelphia’s, have mostly turned bluer — to tell voters about changes in the state’s election laws. People no longer need a reason to cast an absentee ballot, so the party wants to gather names of voters who may be interested. The state also approved same-day voter registration.
Hannah Katz, 20, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, said she applied for the program because she wanted to know she did her part. “Generations are going to look back ... and see what a catalyzing inflection point this was in our nation’s history. So I think I’m here, I don’t want to say, like, to save the day, but to deflect as much damage as we can.”
She canvassed with Jacob Sugarman, a senior at Michigan. There’s cynicism, Sugarman said, about whether politics can actually change anything. He sees this organization as an access point into a system that had seemed to be “all people with money and power.” He also thinks there is a youth movement in the party. In the 2018 midterms, 31 percent of eligible people age 18 to 29 voted, 10 points higher than in 2014.
“For me, we’re kind of at this generational change point where a younger generation of people are finally, actually getting involved in the political process and I feel like it’s a very critical time to define what this younger generation stands for.”
At one door, Sugarman found Dan Martini, longtime Democrat, who was not interested in signing up to vote absentee.
“We’ll be going to the polls,” Martini said. “This election? You wanna be part of the process.”