The year 2013 was peculiar for politics in the United States. Just two years away from the frenzy that accompanies a presidential election, and one year away from the midterm elections, featuring over five-hundred federal or statewide elections, the off-year elections boasted only three races that garnered national attention: governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia and a mayoral race in New York City. Living in Atlantic County on New Jersey’s southern coast, I had a unique opportunity to serve as an intern for incumbent Governor Chris Christie’s campaign against Barbara Buono, a twenty year state senator. This experience provided me with a front-row seat in America’s political arena and a vantage point from which I was able to make several important observations about the democratic process and politics in America.
Knock-Knock, Who’s There?
Despite incredible advances in technology over the last hundred years, grassroots campaigning remained largely unchanged. The process of knocking on over a half-million doors and making over three million phone phone calls requires a tremendous amount of time and effort, as well as a thick skin. As I can personally attest, most people do not enjoy having their dinner interrupted to talk politics. Yet this particular campaign strategy is still highly valued. The main purpose of door and phone canvassing is to identify supporters and to persuade undecided voters to commit to your candidate. While the idea of canvassing has its root in the election of Abraham Lincoln– possibly earlier –the Christie campaign was at the forefront of a relatively recent, at least in politics, embrace of using canvassing to micro-target. The idea is to break down the electorate into segments divided by ethnicity, gender, party affiliation, etc. Seeing this side of politics made me realize that for those looking for a career as a campaign manager, a degree in marketing or computer programming probably holds more value than your standard political science major.
One of the more discouraging experiences I had while working for the GOP campaign was coming to the realization that many in the Republican Party still do not fully appreciate the tremendous value of social media. From September 27th until the election on November 5th, a span of 40 days, the Atlantic County GOP posted on Facebook eighteen times, averaging less than a post every two days. However, even this dismal number doesn’t accurately portray just how feckless their social media use is. Eight of the eighteen posts—almost half—occurred on the day before the election in a last-minute frenzy. In total, there where 32 days where no posts where made on Facebook, a number that includes Election Day. The story is even worse on Twitter, more suited for a high volume of posts, where just fourteen tweets were posted in the 40 days before the election. I brought this issue up with my office manager at a major rally featuring Governor Christie, asking if we were live-tweeting the speech and posting on Facebook. His response was that we would post a picture later on. It turns out that “later” meant one post two days after the event.
There is an election Tuesday?
The last and most troubling insight into the political world is that voter apathy is extremely widespread. Voters beat their own record set four years ago for lowest turnout, at 38% of registered voters for a New Jersey Governor’s race. An alarming number of voters whom I talked to seemed to believe that politicians are all basically the same and that their vote doesn’t matter anyway, so why bother? This apathy is not just among low-information voters. At Governor Christie’s victory party in Asbury Park, two large projectors showed CNN’s election coverage. As the race in New Jersey was a blowout, Christie over Buono by 22 percentage points, almost all of the coverage was focused on the Governor’s race in Virginia, which turned out to be an extremely close contest. As the results came in and eventually the race was called in favor of the Democratic candidate, there was no universal sigh or widespread head-shaking among the attendees of the victory party. Mind you, these are all political junkies, but in spite of that few noticed that the race had been called and of those who did even fewer cared. Winston Churchill once quipped that, “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Regretfully my experience campaigning made me think he might be right.
Ultimately, I found this experience extremely valuable, even if only for the sake of getting to meet and talk to interesting people, and gaining a little perspective on the way. Even if like me you cannot vote, volunteering for your favorite candidate is one way you can have a big impact on your government. Getting involved and being informed are the most important things we can do to help preserve our democracy and it doesn’t hurt that the campaign trail can be a great time as well. It is never too early to reach out to your state or local party; after all, Election Day 2014 is less than twelve months away.