Why you should care
Because without organic enthusiasm, the nation’s first female president could struggle mightily.
Hillary Clinton may have clinched the election over Donald J. Trump following the billionaire’s crass comments released on Friday, and new allegations that he has inappropriately touched numerous women. But while the Clinton machine boasts a solid bill of health nationwide, it ails in one crucial area: unpaid volunteers. If she wins, as many expect, that reality could do more than just hamper Democratic efforts to repaint the electoral map and regain control of Congress — it could prevent the nation’s first woman president from attacking head-on the ambitious agenda she’s set for herself.
Certainly, the former secretary of state’s volunteer network seems to crush the organized following of Trump, whose campaign hasn’t released volunteer totals and didn’t respond to requests for firm numbers. (In Pennsylvania, one Republican Party member said there were more than 2,500 statewide.) But compare Clinton’s volunteer numbers to Barack Obama’s in 2012 (2.2 million) or ’08 (2 million by June and as many as 6 million by Election Day) and it’s clear that grassroots excitement around her candidacy remains low. “Obama had this kind of magic to him that drew really enthusiastic volunteers,” says Sidney Milkis, a University of Virginia political scientist who has studied extensively Obama’s grassroots operation. “Somebody once said Franklin Delano Roosevelt could make you eat bricks — Obama had that effect on people.”
Promises to redraw the electoral map the way Obama did may still be premature, despite Clinton’s large lead in the polls.
The same can’t be said for Clinton. Trump supporters in Pennsylvania brag about signs that fill their neighbors’ yards like amber waves of grain, yet there’s not a Clinton poster in sight. On the ski slopes of Colorado, the employees of a half-dozen Breckenridge pot shops warmly promise to get you sky-high, but they mellow when they say they’ll vote for Clinton — and certainly aren’t banging on doors on her behalf. And in Florida, where radio ads beg Black voters to vote, there’s a sinking feeling that young African-Americans are ambivalent about Clinton. Then there’s all the data:
- Clinton narrowed the enthusiasm gap between her and Trump only recently.
- A survey from Chegg showed that just 30 percent of Clinton-backing students were planning to volunteer — a drop of 7 percent since August.
- In early September, Clinton’s political engagement director, Marlon Marshall, reported that more than 1 million people had signed up to volunteer. But in memos obtained by OZY, the actual number of volunteers forecasted to be on the ground is much lower. (Marshall declined to comment.)
- Meanwhile, in smaller states that Democrats have publicly said could flip blue this election — including Georgia and Arizona — a campaign spokesperson told OZY that exact numbers of volunteers weren’t available because those states had “such a smaller operation.”
Clinton’s strongest volunteer organizations have been centralized in swing states, including Pennsylvania (where more than 14,000 volunteers have worked a shift) and Colorado (17,000). In Marshall’s memo, North Carolina and Florida were touted as key operations, with a total of some 130,000 volunteers who had signed up across more than 80 offices — though they didn’t all necessarily show up for a shift. But while her campaign is strong in states that are needed to win the presidency, early promises to redraw the electoral map like Obama may still be premature. During his candidacy in ’08, the junior senator from Illinois sparked volunteerism in a way that launched him to a primary win in Indiana — and then some. Afterward, his campaign mostly pulled out its paid support, considering the Hoosier State hadn’t gone blue since 1964. But by September, a groundswell was forming, and the unpaid volunteers had kept networking, building support and campaigning. “It kept a machine up and running that normally disappears — as has been the case with Clinton,” recounts Indiana political scientist Andy Downs. After internal polls showed the state was winnable, the Obama campaign reinvested modestly, and flipped Indiana blue — along with six other states.
To be sure, some don’t blame Clinton this time around, but rather a country that is “exhausted,” says Arun Chaudhary, a former Obama campaigner and Bernie Sanders creative director who supports Clinton over Trump. “The currency of volunteerism is energy,” he adds. A Pew survey showed that three-fifths of Americans said they were “worn out” by this election — back in July. Some also argue that Clinton’s legislative goals will more directly depend on whether Democrats win the Senate and the House. The mandate-of-the-people argument is “overblown,” says Drake University law professor Tony Gaughan. Clinton does hold a lead in one state Obama didn’t win: North Carolina. And, yes, some voters have signed up to volunteer out of genuine excitement, including 47-year-old Darren Shaw, a lifelong Republican who switched parties and now proudly wears a Clinton-Kaine sticker, as well as Lisa Hudson, a 25-year-old Bernie Sanders backer who was skeptical of Clinton before watching the first debate, where “her personality really shone through.”
The Clinton campaign is trying to cast its net wide while targeting certain groups who might be more prone to volunteer. Marshall’s memo outlines plans for state-specific outreach to Latinos in Arizona, African-Americans on campuses in Georgia and moderate and conservative voters turned off by Trump in Utah. In Denver, one Black senior told OZY she had planned to sit out this election but jumped in due to Trump’s divisiveness. And in Miami, many Jewish voters have turned out to volunteer, one specifically pointing to the time when Trump singled out non-Christians and asked if they should be thrown out. She didn’t find his joke all that funny. When it comes to having Clinton’s organizing apparatus versus Trump’s enthusiastic supporters, Republican Ned Ryun says it’s a no-brainer: “I’d take a better organization any day.”
It might seem that all corners of Trump’s volunteer base would shrink in light of his recently leaked comments, but Seth Weathers, a GOP strategist and former Trump state director, notes, “I’ve noticed many Trump volunteers posting on social media their continued support of Trump and his campaign after last week’s leaked tape. It seems only some of the establishment, who has long hated Trump’s desire to change the way D.C. works, have abandoned him.” Indeed, Trump still leads in states such as Arizona and Georgia. The Clinton camp has played cautiously by design — limiting its volunteer expansion outreach in nonessential states — rather than reach for home runs and risk striking out while swinging. “They’re thinking much like the way Secretary Clinton thinks about problems: logistically,” says Chaudhary. “They’re meeting the moment, not starting a movement.”