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.

Staffers are part of hierarchically organized campaign organizations meant to serve only one purpose—fighting the election as effectively as practically possible. Volunteers are part of—well, what are they part of, really? They certainly consider themselves to be a part of the campaign, but they are clearly not part of the campaign organization. They don’t take orders from staff, and they come and go of their own accord.

To run an effective field effort based on volunteers, campaigns need to take these differences into account, respect them, and make room for them. Consider the two examples below—they’re both from a Congressional race in the Northeast that was part of my research for “Ground Wars.”

Example 1: The campaign manager and the canvassing director are kicking back with a late night beer and talking about the campaign’s field effort. “Like all campaigns,” the campaign manager says, “this is, in the end, an enterprise run by two or three adults and a bunch of kids.” He continues: “What you and I are doing is like industrial engineering. It’s about keeping people in line and finding ways to contact more people in less time at a lower cost, whether that means covering more turf by finding better ways to walk the streets, ways of increasing the contact rate, or whatever it takes.”

Example 2: Lucia, a woman in her early forties, has been one of the most energetic volunteers on the campaign. Initially she started volunteering because she liked Obama, but she ended up helping with the Congressional campaign instead, because it was “more fun.”

“There is more going on,” she explains. But then she shifts gears and starts complaining: “I get the sense that this is really badly organized. It’s so old-fashioned—I mean, if you compare it to my old job. That’s why I’m happy I’m a volunteer. I can do what I want and then leave when [the staffers] start fighting.” She continues: “There are so many egos in politics, and you have to stroke each and every one of them.”

It may be grating for staffers putting in 70-odd hours every week to realize that many volunteers regard campaign organizations as chaotic and poorly managed. It may be tempting to dismiss the campaign manager quoted above as unnecessarily cynical, or Lucia as insufficiently sensitive to the time pressures and resource constraints that campaigns have to operate under. But in terms of getting volunteers involved in an effective field effort, the point is not whether the campaign manager or Lucia represents a more accurate picture of what campaigns are really like. The point is realizing the actual potential of volunteer involvement. A good field campaign has to accommodate versions of both views. 

The campaign manager’s instrumental view may offend the civic sensibilities of some volunteers, but without a persistent focus on the often complex day-to-day logistics of running an effective ground game, field efforts all too easily descend into the kind of confusion that so undermined Howard Dean’s orange-hatted out-of-state volunteer effort in Iowa in 2004. But Lucia’s view, from the volunteer side, with its emphasis on things being “fun,” or the feeling of being “part of something,” while also marching to the beat of one’s own drummer is at the heart of what campaigns mean for many volunteers (infuriatingly fluffy as it may seem to a hard-nosed political operative interested in generating as many knocks and calls as possible).

Volunteers are not bound by the authority of senior staffers and bristle at being referred to casually as only so-and-so many “bodies” here to knock on doors or make calls. They see themselves as involved in relationships that are reciprocal, relationships where they contribute their time and effort and in return get to make a difference and be part of something larger and meaningful.

If campaigns do not accommodate this view, all but a hard core of regulars and fired-up partisans will drift away, leaving it for staffers and hired hands to do all the hard work of identifying voters, canvassing people by foot and by phone, and turning out the vote. Thus, ironically, a campaign that is single-minded in its instrumental pursuit of victory can thus be less effective than one that is more accommodating—a campaign that makes room for volunteers by accepting that, unlike staffers, they come to politics with a different perspective and conception of what is and ought to be going on.

When someone walks in the door of your campaign office, it is tempting to just hand him a call sheet and put him to work on the phones. That may seem like the best way to “contact more people in less time at a lower cost,” to use the words of the campaign manager quoted above. But most volunteers want more out of the experience than a few hours of making calls. It is not enough to tell them what to do. You should also tell them why. It needs to make sense to them.

The best field staffers are those who take time to explain to volunteers how field works and why it matters, those who sit down and make a few calls with them, and those who are ready and willing to shoot the breeze a bit. If the campaign makes people feel involved, it is more likely that they will stay involved. And remember: to wage a top-notch ground war, you need their help.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and assistant professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark. His book “Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns” has just been published by Princeton University Press.