A political campaign is not only a contest of ideas but also a business-building exercise
What I learned as an early volunteer for the Yang 2020 presidential campaign
Aside from helping out with a few small city council races I am typically apolitical. I had never volunteered for or donated to a national or even statewide candidate before.
But starting in April 2019, I supported Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign as a volunteer leader.
My Yang2020 Timeline
- Volunteering at an early but crucial rally for the campaign in May
- Meeting Andrew Yang and his campaign manager & pitching myself for a staff position
- Helping to build the volunteer fundraising and voter ID volunteer calling program and scaling from a handful of folks operating out of HQ in NYC to hundreds of volunteers nationwide.
- Creating and leading a calling program support team of 20 volunteers charged with recruiting, onboarding, and supporting volunteers during their call shifts.
- Playing the role of Sen. Michael Bennet in a debate prep dry-run of the third DNC debate in September
- Data entry and analysis for organizing in early stages
- Email support team helping to reply to the hundreds of emails that came in each day
- Recruited dozens of people to join volunteer teams
- Helping to reboot the calling program
In ten months’ time I witnessed a groundswell of support that catapulted the “longer than a longshot” candidate and polling below 1% nationally to around 10%. He made all but one of the eight DNC debate stages despite a constantly rising polling threshold. There was a great deal that drew me to the campaign, including: Universal healthcare as a mechanism for driving mobility and happiness I have long held the belief that the lack of universal healthcare stifles new venture creation in our country and across the globe and there is starting to be some data to support it. It is quite hard to strive for your special north star unicorn unique purpose if you are worried about your health or of your loved ones’ while absolutely terrified about the associated costs. Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson is known for saying “We don’t have a health care system in the United States, we have a sickness care system” and she is right. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure we would see tremendous savings by enabling preventative instead of reactionary care. A modern economy and government I could list a dozen of policies that seem to nest under “our government is operating on Windows 95” concerns.
- Value Added Tax 160 of 193 global nations use the VAT and we are the only “developed” nation that doesn’t. Our current tax system struggles to adequately value and tax technology which is disrupting all industries. With taxes at every stop of the journey evasion becomes harder and is adequately assessed across the board.
- The Freedom Dividend Similar to having guaranteed healthcare, knowing that you have enough money in your pocket makes you act more rationally. A Princeton study found that a person preoccupied with money problems experienced a cognitive drop equivalent to a 13 point drop in IQ. An oft-cited argument against the Freedom Dividend is that it’s simply a wealth transfer from the rich to the poor but a far better take on it is that, as citizens, we are all equal shareholders in the United States economy.
- Combating Climate Change: I don’t think shaming or doom and gloom scenarios ever fully motivate action. I always enjoyed how Tom Steyer frames climate change as the greatest economic opportunity of our time. If we do it right not only do we save families and communities but our entire planet as well.
- Improving the American Scorecard – Simply put our economy is set to value profits over people. The measuring stick needs needs adjustment and modernization.
- Ranked Choice Voting – American politics by its nature is a lesser of two evils battle that pushes contests to the fringe instead of common ground. By implementing ranked choice voting, our democratic system would fare better in giving voice to the people.
Money is speech and largely corrosive to politics
If you are not a billionaire or an oligarch there is this pesky little problem of paying for the business underlying your campaign.
Politics is especially interesting because donations are the only thing that can fund a candidate’s efforts outside of their personal assets. Unlike for profit entities, raising money for a political campaign is restricted by federal regulation, limiting its funds pipeline and operating budget, both factoring into the campaign’s popularity and coverage.
The need to fundraise takes away from the real work of politics. Instead of building a community around the vision the forcing function instead becomes money raised. Without money there is no campaign, it can’t exist. In July 2019 I subscribed to email updates from every single presidential campaign. For the past eight months I received on average15 emails a day, roughly one for each campaign, and nearly all of them calling for donations.
In the end of the primary cycle I was asked for money 3,400 times, once a day by each campaign for eight months.
I worry that money is a fundamental threat to our democracy, that participation–and success–in elections can be purchased. Which is why I support publicly funded elections to bring dignity back to politics.
Success is managing for exponential growth
A political campaign is not only a contest of ideas but also an exercise in building an enterprise. In less than a year, the Yang campaign went from a handful of staff to 230 people on payroll at the end of 2019.
When I joined the campaign’s volunteer channel on Slack in May 2019 there were around 1,000 of us , and in the end of February 2020 the channel boasted around 20,000 members. That is 20x growth in 7 months. As with any enterprise, and certainly one with such exponential growth, leveling up brings necessary changes. It can no longer be business as usual when your organization is 100 people deep up from 10 in less than six months. You can’t manage 100 people the same way you managed 10.
At every step along the journey, campaigns need to adjust how it operates and changes with growth.
Being an outsider removes you from the expectations game
Most of the narrative for the 2020 democratic presidential primary was effectively about how one candidate was outperforming expectations and another was underperforming. But your performance can only be measured if you’ve been in the arena before. Like Donald Trump in 2016, Andrew Yang stood out as he bypassed the expectations game and was allowed to write much of the narrative around his campaign. Nobody was constantly holding them up to a measuring stick based on past performance or prior comps. By bypassing the expectations game you can focus on what really matters and avoid riding the “pollercoaster”.
Shared humanity is an incredibly powerful motivator
With politics the volunteer wrinkle is particularly interesting. Just by nature of being a citizen and human being in America we are all brought into the stakes of the game. For many volunteers the drive to improve our collective circumstance takes them to make it their full time jobs. I met more than a handful of volunteers that had stopped their vocational work to campaign full time for free. I met a new mom who did Voter ID calling for the campaign who regularly logged a 40+ hour work week just as a volunteer. That rarely happens in other industries.
The best thing about my time in the Yang Gang has been the people. Every staff and volunteer member I met was both earnest and kind and genuinely wonderful.
I expect to be involved and update this post at the 2024 election.