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Sanders Campaign Hustling to Corral Number, Enthusiasm of Volunteers

Allegra Boverman
Sanders merchandise for sale at a campaign event this summer.

Recently, the Sanders campaign held an organizing party in Nashua.

There have been thousands of parties like these throughout the country, but in the beginning they were organized by local volunteers. 

These parties are where volunteers are forged into effective cogs in the campaign machine: they sign up for shifts of knocking on doors, making phone calls or tabulating data.

But, this event is packed with paid field organizers. They tell the dozen or so volunteers that they’re going to share their stories of how they came to support Sanders.

“When we share those stories and experiences with each other, those are the conversations that are really going to move people’s hearts and minds when they make their decision in the election,” explains Regional Field Director Kunoor Ojha.

The Sanders’ campaign wants its volunteers to contribute to the campaign in whatever way moves them, in part because they know they’ve got what is perhaps the most valuable coin of the political realm: enthusiasm.

Take Michael Watt, a student at Southern New Hampshire University. He came to this meeting wanting to know if he could get together a group to stand on a street corner waving signs once a week.

He says he’s volunteered for other campaigns that have been leery of his can-do attitude.

“You know another group would be like, you know, don’t wreck our signs, you know don’t stand in the wrong place, but these guys are like ‘You know what, you want to do it, we trust you. Go for it.’”

Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president is growing. In many of the typical measures of what makes a successful run – fundraising, polling, numbers of staff – Sanders has emerged as a serious challenge to fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton. But in New Hampshire, the central challenge for the campaign is how to keep up with the overwhelming response to his candidacy.

Turning Enthusiasm into Votes

Enthusiasm alone has its limits. A core purpose of campaigning is to engage in a dialogue that persuades those who aren’t enthusiastic.

On a Saturday, Henry Mullaney – a volunteer local leader from New Boston – is knocking on doors. He meets Maggie Flansbury in her driveway, but she’s not ready to offer her support.

“Of course, we love Bernie,” she says, “but I’m just not sure he’s electable. We’ve got that big thing in the middle of the country.”

“Well, the fact is that he’s climbing up in the polls,” counters Mullaney.

“I know and he’s holding everybody’s feet to the fire,” she replies.

"We also have a large group of people who are still doing work independently of the campaign, and so we're working every day to fold in more and more of those folks."

The conversation continues for a few minutes – Mullaney talks about Sanders’ voting record and his decision to not use a super PAC – and then it’s back to the car.

There, Gabby Teed and Barbara Barbor, two volunteers who Mullaney is training to canvass, debrief.

“I think you need an answer to that,” says Barbor, who has said she would prefer to help out by just driving.

“Well, what would you say?” Teed asks.

“I don’t know I’m not good at that,” Barbor shoots back, “but I know that when somebody says, ‘he’s not electable’ you have to have a good answer.”

I ask if the campaign has given them any guidance for how to effectively canvass, and Teed says she printed talking points off of the website, but nothing else.

Mullaney thinks this unscripted form of canvassing works better, because it allows him to speak from the heart.

This may be true, but campaigns do try to equip their canvassers with strategies they think change minds. And that’s a big part of the growing pains for the Sanders camp.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Sanders supporters at an organizing party in Nashua hear about how they fit into the campaign's architecture.

  Strapping on the Running Shoes

“We definitely have a script,” says Julia Barnes, the Sanders campaigns political director. She says they are doing trainings for canvassers and they are providing guidance, “But we also have a large group of people who are still doing work independently of the campaign, and so we’re working every day to fold in more and more of those folks, because there is definitely guidance that we want to be able to help provide.”

Barnes says the campaign started with four staff in August, but it will soon hire its fiftieth employee. “It’s been a really fast build for us, we’ve had to hire so quickly because there’s already a very high level of volunteer enthusiasm and activity before we even had staff on the ground.”

Barnes has said this campaign started to run a marathon before it got its shoes on… but she insists the shoes are on now, and tied on tight.

And back at the Nashua house party last week, the volunteers say you can tell all of these new employees are still learning where they fit in.

“The Nashua office just opened on Monday,” says Jason Rodier, laughing. The Nashau office is the ninth one the campaign has opened. “So to be honest, things are still very new there.”

While he believes the campaign will need to get more organized before the primary, there’s time. “I think this office, once it finds its core group is going to take off quite well,” Rodier says.

It could be that the Sanders campaign turns into the kind of wave where it doesn’t matter if his political machine is not quite as well-oiled as his opponents’. But if the race stays tight, the question for the Sanders campaign will be whether they can harness the enthusiasm of their most dedicated volunteers in time to capitalize on all of the other successes they amassed over the summer.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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