Op-Ed: How we won Michigan
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
- Margaret Meade
In the Michigan presidential primary that took place on March 8, there was record voter turnout. In states across the country this year, Republicans have seen record turnout, but Michigan saw an all-time high for Democrats as well. Overall, Washtenaw County saw a 77-percent higher voter turnout (as a percentage of the electorate voting) in this primary compared to 2008.
In the largest upset of this election cycle, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by just under 20,000 votes, or 1.5 percentage points. In the polling leading up to the primary, Clinton led by 22.5 percentage points on average. Pollsters including Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, were shocked at how off the polls were, saying that if Sanders wins, “it will count as among the greatest polling errors in primary history.”
I'm Shawn Danino, an LA native and master's student at the School of Information. I have a background in tech and I’m also an amateur political organizer, having worked with Black Lives Matter and JStreet in the past. I'm writing this to share my seven takeaways on how to run a successful campaign, based on what I learned as the lead organizer for Students for Sanders Ann Arbor.
1. You’re usually better off asking for forgiveness over permission. For our first event of the year, we decided to have a table on the Diag during a fellow student organization’s event. It was another progressive organization with many overlapping supporters. We did it even though we had no permission — not from the University or from any other organization. The day before the event, our president and many others in the leadership wanted to cancel the whole thing, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. What’s more, the day before, we realized no one in our group had told the fellow organization of our plans. We then received a long e-mail from their leadership demanding we cancel the event and renounce any ties to their group.
This was not a great situation. In fact, it was a little terrifying. But it made me ask a simple question: What is the worst thing that can happen? We’d pack up our table, lose an hour of our lives and end up in the exact same place we currently are.
We decided to move forward with the event anyway, and it was one of the most successful of the year. We got more than 200 new sign-ups to our club, along with signatures to bring Bernie to Michigan; we raised more than $60 (in voluntary donations), and gave away more than 800 stickers. We also had a really good time.
2. Underpromise, overdeliver and expect the opposite from everyone else. Wolverines are really smart and really busy. And while politics is exciting, there are very few incentives to devote dozens of hours a week to unpaid work that is often thankless and of dubious efficacy. The morning of that first tabling event, both the vice president of our group and the lead event organizer canceled. My takeaway was this: Never commit to more than you have time for or promise more than you can give. Underpromise, overdeliver and people will thank you for the time you put in.
3. Persevere: There will be days when you send messages out to 800-plus people about a great event and three will show up. This will undoubtedly hurt your ego, but just remember that you’re fighting for something that’s important to you.
4. Swag is your best friend, but it has no value in a box, and so much value in other people’s hands. The best thing to happen to Students for Sanders Ann Arbor was when a nurses’ union sent us almost 100 pounds of pins, laptop stickers, bumper stickers and rally signs. Getting rid of several thousand pins and rally signs is daunting, but it can also be really fun. My strategy with swag distribution was to identify leaders and influencers who supported Bernie (Greek life presidents, student organizations with similar values, etc.) and give them 10 times as much swag as they asked for, and ask them to give it to friends who support Bernie. Somehow, two weeks ago, I finally ran out of Bernie swag to give away, but there was a lot of blood, sweat and social awkwardness that went into it.
5. Never tell people who to vote for. When I registered voters, I was shocked by how many people explicitly asked me who they should vote for. It’s tempting to tell people to vote for your candidate, especially when you’re phone banking.
You'll get much better results by respecting people, their indecision and their concerns. I respond to uncertainty about who to vote for with gratitude first, followed by, “Can I tell you why I’m supporting Bernie?” Then I offer one or two compelling voter issues that are succinct and differentiable.
6. Count your victories — and celebrate them. Over the last month of the campaign, Student for Sanders Ann Arbor and its affiliated groups in Ann Arbor registered almost 600 people to vote across voter registration drives. That’s a victory worth celebrating. It can be easy to forget that when you invite 800 people to an event you work on and get three attendees. But this is the most important point for mental health and sanity, because campaign work is never easy.
7. Make a community, embrace it and contribute to it. Politics at its best is really, really fun. All of my greatest moments at Michigan have been working on this campaign. They’ve been at debate watch parties or Sunday night phonebanks, or unsponsored tables on the Diag. Creating community and enthusiasm is the very best thing we can do to help our generation stay politically engaged. And it matters a lot.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
- Helen Keller
Shawn Danino is a master's student at the School of Information.