Ben Cohen (left) and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, scoop ice cream before a campaign event for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Raymond, New Hampshire, Sunday, September 1.
KEENE, NEW HAMPSHIRE – Tie-dyes, ice cream socials, and movie nights were once the stuff of sleepaway camps, local neighborhood associations, and community churches.
But in the Granite State this August, each of these activities was organized not by a 20-something counselor at Cabin Five, but by a staffer, likely around the same age, for one of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates looking to break out in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on February 11.
Mamas4Kamala, a subgroup of Kamala Harris’s campaign in New Hampshire, organized the tie-dye event one Saturday afternoon in the campaign’s Nashua office. “We will be tie-dying shirts using Team Kamala colors. Bring your friends, family, kids, Mamas and more!” the event description read.
Accompanied by the real-life Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame, Bernie Sanders has appeared at a smattering of ice cream socials for his campaign across the state. Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden have gotten in on the ice cream game too.
At a “Sundaes for Pete” event held at a Buttigieg supporter’s house one Sunday afternoon, campaign organizers passed out ice cream inspired by the flavor (Michigan cherries, Indiana honey, chocolate, and whiskey) served at Pete and Chasten’s wedding.
Perhaps the most creative campaign in the state in terms of events, Buttigieg’s New Hampshire team has also organized a screening of the movie Thor, weekly morning coffee “Pete-Ups,” and a “Pups for Pete Up!” activity this summer.
At any point in August, a quick skim of the campaign events for the candidates polling in the top five—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg—showed these kinds of summer camp activities were not an aberration from typical campaign events but rather the norm.
In a field that peaked this summer at 25 candidates, several campaigns said these events are in part attempts to attract voters not yet committed to a particular candidate, or nonpolitical people who may not show up to traditional campaign events, such as a phone-banking or canvassing.
“I think the focus right now is on building a community of volunteers and supporters and also inviting people’s neighbors or undecided voters who are still shopping around into homes to talk to each other about why they’re supporting Pete,” said Buttigieg’s New Hampshire Communications Director Kevin Donohoe at a “Sundaes for Pete” event on August 18.
In the small living room of Kathy O’Donnell’s Keene home, over 20 people gathered for the early Sunday afternoon event. A family lawyer active in local Democratic politics, O’Donnell, 56, had already opened her home for two other Buttigieg house parties this summer and, at the request of a friend, one party for Marianne Williamson, who needed a place to speak with interested New Hampshirites when she came to town.
O’Donnell’s daughter, 22-year-old Colleen Willis, became such a Buttigieg “super-volunteer” that the campaign brought her on staff as an organizer, Donohoe said. “This is really not a super formal event. We just want to get people talking and getting to know each other,” Willis said in opening the event, after which she turned her attention to scooping ice cream.
Peter Starkey, 27, was among those at the event and said he came because he knows Willis and, while still undecided, appreciates that Buttigieg’s supporters are not trying to push a certain agenda on him. “It felt like the conversation was just about getting to know each other,” Starkey said.
Across town later that afternoon, about 15 Kamala Harris staff and supporters trickled in and out of the campaign’s new Keene headquarters for an office-decorating party. Josh Given, 26, has been volunteering for the campaign for two months He stood on a ladder painting Harris’s name in orange onto the white wall alongside Hannah Clark, the sister of one of his friends whom Given invited because he said he knew she was a good artist.
“I didn’t know much about Kamala before Josh called and then I looked her up more,” Clark said. Although Clark had never volunteered for a political candidate before the office-decorating event, she said she wants to volunteer for the Harris campaign again.
Community building has long been a central component of modern social movements and political campaigns, for reasons other than simply competing with other candidates for people’s attention.
In response to critiques that discussion groups were merely “therapy,” and not productive for the women’s movement, feminist Carol Hanisch wrote the groundbreaking 1969 essay “The Personal is Political.” When women discuss their personal struggles, they discover common challenges that then spur them to political action, Hanisch argued.
Several campaign events held this summer bear a striking resemblance to the women’s consciousness-raising groups Hanisch defended. In a series of #BigStructuralChange meetups, Warren’s New Hampshire campaign invited people to gather and discuss a variety of topics, from the shortage of affordable housing to the opioid crisis to issues facing young people.
“New Hampshire for Warren is meeting people where they are, pulling neighbors together to hear from one another, hosting house parties to bring new people into the process, and empowering people to organize their communities,” a representative from the Warren campaign told the Prospect.
Buttigieg has employed a similar strategy of “Policy Pete-Ups” to prompt discussion about topics such as the rural economy, said Donohoe.
The therapeutic subtext of community-building events in social and political movements is important not only because they engender political action, however, as Jonathan Smucker pointed out his 2017 book, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. Social alienation and psychological strain are endemic to late-stage capitalist societies, and campaigns serve as a place where people can combat rampant isolation.
“We can find community—a sense of sanity and belonging—by coming together with like-minded people to express our alternative values boldly, loudly, and most importantly, collectively,” Smucker writes.
The resonance of community-centered campaigns is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the surprisingly large movement that has grown behind New Age guru and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who argues that love can defeat Trump, climate change, poverty, the immigration crisis, and a host of other social and political ills. In a similar vein, the Sanders campaign has taken on some characteristics of a social movement, inspiring art, music, and memes.
Buttigieg’s pledged “Rules of the Road” also speak to the changing role of campaigns as almost religious-style organizations where people can find a community based in shared values. The Rules, which Buttigieg announced in May will guide his campaign’s work, include respect, belonging, truth, teamwork, boldness, responsibility, substance, discipline, excellence, and joy. This bears a resemblance to Barack Obama’s field team slogan of “respect, empower, include.”
Buttigieg’s inclusion of “belonging” as a central tenet of his campaign is a particularly potent sign of the collective desire for community, but at the same time the need for belonging reveals a pitfall for community-based campaigns of which Smucker forewarns.
Through the example of Occupy Wall Street, Smucker argues that when movements, political or social, became too insular and focused on the internal group dynamics, they lose the ability to look outward and build an “inclusive we” needed to sustain a social movement and achieve political gains.
Community building and outreach are both necessary for an effective campaign, although they can often be in conflict with one another, Smucker writes. “A group that focuses only on instrumental goals and neglects the well-being of its members will likely burn out its core while repelling potential newcomers. The opposite problem is when groups become content to functionally operate as little more than therapy, losing interest in questions of political efficacy and strategy.” A successful presidential campaign, therefore, will not only build a strong community of volunteers but also mobilize those bonds to amass more supporters.
In Wisconsin, a state Trump won by less than 23,000 votes and the place many Democrats consider the key to victory in 2020, Democrats are already employing a strategy of joint community building and mass mobilization.
New research from the progressive super PAC For Our Future gave early results for the effectiveness of “relational organizing,” in which volunteers reach out to people they already know instead of strangers. Progressives in Wisconsin put the strategy to use in 2018 and more than doubled their volunteers.
Some of the methods for joining community building and outreach were seen during the Obama campaign, and its formation of neighborhood field programs that enabled people to knock doors in their own communities. Collectively these teams helped Obama twice assemble a winning coalition, but afterward his victories were left to wither, only to be built back up by the Wisconsin Democratic Party in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory.
With the fall stretch to the primary off and running, campaigns are now working to retain their summer communities while mobilizing more supporters. The task is a challenging one and perhaps no better outlined than in Buttigieg’s description of “Belonging”:
We seek to serve and unify a diverse nation. Let us build a campaign team and a coalition of supporters that kindly embraces and reflects the increasingly diverse party and country to which we belong.
These are Buttigieg’s words, but whoever wins the Democratic nomination will do best to heed the call.