Field is a decisive part of every competitive campaign, and the best field efforts are based on volunteers. Both of former President George W. Bush’s campaigns demonstrated this, the Obama campaign further underlined it in 2008, and it is shown again and again in closely fought races around the country. 

Today, most campaigns are contacting more voters in person than they have in decades—the percentage of the electorate contacted has more than doubled over the last 20 years, but volunteer mobilization has not increased to nearly the same extent. Though volunteers are better ambassadors for your candidate or cause than casual workers hired to knock on doors for a few hours a day, too many campaigns still end up relying on paid and poorly trained part-timers for field.

Even well-funded and well-run campaigns for federal office in competitive districts need outside help for their field efforts, and continue to rely on an uneven mix of allied groups and individual paid part-timers and volunteers recruited for canvassing and phone banking. 

This was evident during my many months of research on a recent project focused on personalized political communication in American campaigns. The full results are detailed in a new book titled “Ground Wars.” It’s based primarily on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork on the Democratic side in two competitive Congressional districts during the 2008 elections: Connecticut’s 4th district and New Jersey’s 7th district.

I spent hundreds of hours as a participant-observer in these two districts. One major takeaway: engaging and cultivating volunteers is critical to building an effective field operation, and it requires a serious commitment of time and the right approach from professional staffers. Only the best campaigns manage to mobilize enough volunteers to reach all of their targets. These volunteers are not leftovers from some earlier age of pre-modern campaigning. They are integral to the best campaigns in the 21st Century, and they can help your campaign win.            

We know volunteers are valuable, but they are also difficult. Structuring a field operation around volunteers means engaging in long-term planning, committing staff time and scarce resources, and of course, a candidate that people actually care about.

You can’t rely on “walk-ins.” That’s why the best field staffers actively recruit and keep people involved. Both the Bush campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008 invested heavily in volunteer organizing many months in advance, and reaped what they had sown when literally millions of volunteers made their case on the doorsteps of voters and over phone lines across the country. But even in campaigns like these—ones that carefully cultivate and understand the importance of volunteers—the interface between campaign staff and those who come to donate their time and effort is full of friction that complicates even the best laid field plans. It’s a friction campaigns must understand how to accommodate if they’re to successfully involve volunteers.

The source of the friction is essentially that staffers and volunteers have different perspectives on what a campaign is and how it’s supposed to work. Staffers, broadly speaking, have a vocational approach to politics. Politics is what they do, and doing it well is all about winning. Most volunteers have a broader, more civic and communal, approach to politics. They want to win, but it’s also about taking part.