Three Degrees of Separation: How a Big Volunteer Operation Wins by Mark Sump

By at June 2, 2011 | 5:06 pm | Print

Three Degrees of Separation: How a Big Volunteer Operation Wins by Mark Sump

Twenty-five years ago when I was just out of college, I was sitting with a friend, Amy, bemoaning my life. “What do I want to be when I grow up” as is the common refrain for a twenty-something waiting tables and biding time. Amy asked me what I enjoy. I said I like politics. She said, “Then do that.” Not knowing what she meant I shrugged my shoulders and said “yeah that’s a good idea.” “No,” she said, “pick two campaigns that interest you, call them and volunteer”.

Amy handed me the phone and that’s when my life took one of those proverbial forks in the road. I was living in Kansas City, right on the border between Kansas and Missouri. The first campaign I chose to call was Kit Bond’s campaign for Senate in Missouri…a Republican. I didn’t know much about him, but I thought anyone named Kit Bond had to be cool. I called the campaign, no one was there, left a message.

The second campaign was for Tom Docking running for Governor in Kansas…a Democrat. Again, didn’t know much about him except that his dad was Governor and my dad always said good things about him. I called the campaign, no one was there, left a message.

My choices were virtually random. The Bond and Docking campaigns were simply the only ones that came to mind at that very moment. I didn’t know who was the Democrat or who was the Republican and I didn’t much care.

Here’s the punch line: The Bond campaign never called me back. The Docking campaign did. That’s how I became a Democrat. I started volunteering that next week and a week after that they hired me.

Today I am surrounded by other Democrats. My clients are all Democrats.  My progression in political thinking did not come about based in any way on what I saw on television. My core beliefs are very clearly formed by the people who surround my daily life; my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors.

The point is that the most powerful source of information for voters is other voters. The best way to affect a voter is a friend’s recommendation. The bigger your army of volunteers, the more votes you’ll get. This year the winning campaigns are going to have a new player in their inner circle; a consultant whose job it is to keep the campaign focused on a single mantra: Volunteers are back and they’re winning campaigns again.

One of the lasting affects of the old political paradigm is that volunteer activities are free or cheap ways to marginally influence an election. It follows the old school thinking that it’s the number of phone calls made or the number of doors knocked that are the real influence volunteers can deliver. By that thinking, the volunteer influence merely displaces some of the phoning or canvassing that the campaign plans to outsource at the end of the campaign leading up to Election Day.

On its face one would think that this form of stressing volunteer activity fits with the new paradigm. Let’s review the most essential element of the paradigm: Television now reinforces opinions voters form by virtue of recommendations from people around them, friends, neighbors, co-workers…etc.

Voter contact activities from volunteers in a campaign do have more impact than a telemarketing company or paid canvassers. This impact is still only marginal. So, how do volunteers substantially impact a campaign if not through direct voter contact?

Three degrees of separation!!

When I started working on campaigns 25 years ago, we had no email, no cell phones, no computers, no internet, no telemarketing centers, no mail houses. We had volunteers and we depended on those volunteers for nearly every element of voter contact.

I recall my first presidential campaign in 1988 and my boss explaining to me the first tenet of my three degrees of separation theory: Every volunteer on a campaign will influence the vote of 50 voters by virtue of  who they talk to in their own lives…friends, neighbors, family, co-workers. It isn’t about how many people they reached on the phone bank or at the doors. It’s all about who they come into contact with in their daily lives.

Remember, the new paradigm: Voters are primarily influenced by people around them, people they trust.

Okay, so lets do the math. If a campaign has 1000 active volunteers and they each influence 50 voters, the first degree of separation is 50,000 votes.

So lets say that the second degree of separation is calculated at 20% of that, so those 50,000 voters each influence 10 voters. The second degree of separation adds 500,000 voters. So now we’re at 551,000 voters.

Okay, now we’re cooking. The third degree of separation is calculated again at 20%, so those 500,000 voters will each influence 2 voters. The third degree of separation adds 1,000,000 voters.

Now we’re at 1,551,000 votes! Think about it. How many campaigns are won with 1.55 million votes?

Figuring out how many volunteers you need is rather simple. Take the expected vote and divide it by 1,551 and that will give you the number of volunteers a campaign needs to win.

This is the crux of the new paradigm…people win campaigns.

Mark Sump is Founder and CEO of Activate, a DC based phone consulting firm.

Management & Strategy

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