What's the Key to Successful Grassroots Campaigns?

While we're now more than 18 months removed from the 2016 presidential campaign, it's still fresh on the minds of most voters.  And for local politicians, there may be a sense of uneasiness and trepidation when it comes to campaigning in the wake of what was a volatile season.

What Is Grassroots Campaigning?

We've just come out of a record-shattering national campaign season in which Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump collectively raised more than $2.35 billion for their campaigns.  Roughly 60 percent of that money went to the Clinton campaign, while just under $1 billion went to the Trump campaign.

While President Trump's campaign certainly had some grassroots elements, it was far from a grassroots campaign.  Approximately 26 percent of its funds came from small donations of $200 or less (compared to 16 percent in the Clinton camp and 5 percent for the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney), but the massive payroll, full-time staff, and large scale prevented it from being a genuine grassroots campaign.

So while we may occasionally get a taste of some grassroots campaigning on a large scale, it's typically seen only in smaller, local elections.  Grassroots campaigns don't involve high budgets, fancy ad campaigns, or highly paid professionals.  Instead, they consist of volunteers passionately working together for a cause that's greater than any single person.

"If you look at a blade of grass," The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management explains, "it appears to be fairly unremarkable.  It is fragile, easily broken.  On its own, it is weak.  If you have ever tried to dig up a bunch of grass, however, you know that grass' roots are incredibly strong.  The roots use each other for strength and perseverance.  Singly, grass is ineffective; in large numbers, grass is powerful, even invasive.  This is the idea behind a grassroots campaign.  In large numbers, even individuals can affect [sic] great change."

In order for a campaign to accurately affix the "grassroots" label, it must do most (if not all) of the following:

  • Involve volunteers.  It's possible for there to be paid employees heading up a grassroots campaign, but the majority of those involved need to be volunteers who get involved because they believe in the cause and want to be involved.
  • Be outward reaching.  Grassroots campaigning is all about moving the public to action.  More specifically, it's about moving a local community to action.  Typical actions involve door-to-door canvassing, polling people on the street, setting up booths at local events, and hosting town hall meetings.
  • Have leadership.  A grassroots campaign might not have a massive payroll, but that doesn't mean it's lacking in leadership.  There needs to be some organization from the top down in order for there to be good results.
  • Establish a brand.  Finally, the hope is that a grassroots campaign creates a brand that is recognizable to the general public.  This brand lends credibility to the cause and helps create some traction.

The 5 Keys to Effective Grassroots Campaigning

If each of these factors is present, then you almost certainly have a grassroots campaign.  However, there's a major difference between a grassroots campaign and a successful grassroots campaign.  The following keys are typically the differentiating factors.

  1. The Right Volunteers

Successful grassroots campaigning is all about having the right volunteers.  While there's room for every personality type in a campaign, save your most gregarious and personable volunteers for person-to-person interactions. 

  1. Targeting the Right People

There's a misconception that the best way to reach people is to target as many voters as possible.  Unfortunately, we operate in a political climate where it's hard to change someone's mind.

Instead of going after as many people as possible, successful grassroots campaigns focus on voters who are most highly predictive of success.  One way this happens is through enlisting analytics experts and platforms.

"Prices for voter file scoring have dropped significantly, making these tools very affordable," campaigning expert Chris Turner explains.  "Great grassroots efforts knock on the doors of those voters who indicate they are most likely to actually engage, demonstrate a predisposition toward voting, and will vote your way."

  1. Listening More Than Speaking

Traditionally, campaigning is all about making your voice heard.  In other words, the information flows from the campaigner to the voter.  But listening plays an important role, too.

"Savvy campaigns invert the information flow, flipping conversation from 70 percent field rep talking to 70 percent field rep listening," Turner points out.  "Great campaigns understand that people want to be heard and validated – not verbally assaulted – when they open their doors or pick up their phones."

  1. Using Tangible Campaign Materials

There's certainly value and reach in digital campaigning.  Social media, for example, play a significant role in cost-effectively reaching the masses.  However, there's something to be said for using tangible campaign materials.

For example, many grassroots campaigns find value in printing campaign catalogs that explain the causes they're vying for.  There's something especially valuable about holding a tangible material that can be touched and felt that moves voters to action.

  1. Well Rounded Approach

"Most well-run grassroots organizations use every tool at their disposal to get their message out," Lincoln Strategy explains.  "These tools include everything from press releases, press conferences and volunteer events and activities to social media, websites, direct mailings, door-to-door canvassing and rallies.  The key is to devise a plan that utilizes a variety of these grassroots techniques to increasingly make your campaign's 'voice' heard."

Make sure your grassroots campaign is well rounded and versatile; otherwise, you risk having your message heard by only a portion of your target audience.

The Changing Face of Campaigning

Campaigning is always changing.  While it's easy to see what happens on the grand scale – as in presidential campaigns every four years – the reality is that most political campaigning happens on a much smaller scale.  Understanding the value of grassroots campaigning helps candidates and voters play a more relevant role in change.

If you've never personally been involved in a grassroots campaign, be on the lookout for ways to volunteer.  Nothing binds you more to a cause than getting personally involved.