Val Vilott: So…honestly, what’s the deal with August recess? Why is it so important?
Bill Wasserman: It’s simple. Members of Congress are home in August. And because Congress will only have one short session left before the mid-term elections, it’s likely the last time to advocate for your cause directly. You want your cause to be top-of-mind for electeds and candidates alike. So you’ve got to get in front of them!
VV: Speaking of midterms, it seems to me like there’s a lot of extra political hubbub and noise this year because of them. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for issue campaigns?
BW: It might be harder to break through, but ultimately I think it’s a good thing. Elected officials are hypersensitive to public pressure when they’re about to face voters. The climate seems to be uncertain in light of Eric Cantor’s primary loss. There’s even a surge of attention being paid to third-party candidates! That heightened sensitivity and uncertainty can be a real boon for your issue campaigns, though – if candidates sense that an issue might become a vulnerability or liability to them, they’re more likely to be receptive to your messaging.
VV: What are some of the coolest or newest advocacy tactics you’ve seen in action recently?
BW: I think the use of social media to mobilize supporters is a relatively new development for organizers that needs more exploration. What does it mean to turn supporters from the online space into offline activists? Is it affordable and reliable? Recruitment is often an expensive, time-intensive process for campaigns. If social media can help us with that, we need to jump at the chance to try it out. A key component of organizing has always been meeting people where they’re at. If “where they’re at” is social media, then there’s no need to be snobby about it – meet them there!
VV: This definitely is a digital age! Plus, it’s really hot outside. Is it really worth it to invest in field activities during the summer, or is everything online now?
BW: C’mon…that’s an easy one! If your people don’t actually show up at meetings, town halls and events, then it’s too easy for decision makers to ignore all the “internet clutter”. Blending new and creative tactics with tried and true old-school approaches will have the greatest impact. Think of it this way: If 10 people show up to ask a question at an in-person town hall, it makes the 1,000 emails your supporters sent have a greater impact.
VV: What’s the silver bullet – quality or quantity? Should I focus on developing a few key spokespeople and voices in very targeted districts, or zoom out and focus on low-bar actions distributed over a larger number of targets?
BW: The simple answer that’s not-so-simple in practice is: do it all. Quality and quantity are super important. Having a few strong storytellers is great to move people. But at the end of the day, numbers are what can make your targets sit up and take note. I like to say that politicians can’t read but they can count. They count the number of times and ways people talk to them about a specific issue to gauge the intensity of interest in an issue.
VV: What big mistakes do you think campaigns tend to make?
BW: Not focusing on mobilizing their supporters. There aren’t many campaigns that can win the day only with a lobbying strategy or even a strong communications strategy. You’ve really got to have a ground campaign that reinforces those messages. Also, campaigns need to focus resources where it matters. I think there are some campaigns that are forgetting to ask a very important question during the planning phase — which office-holders have the greatest impact on our issue? And then they use up resources in places where they shouldn’t.
VV: Ok, let’s talk about you. Do you ever wish you had a do-over? Tell us about a campaign that didn’t quite pan out.
BW: In the mid 2000s we lost a vote in the Senate to insure that tobacco settlement funds were spent on public health. Senators from both parties said the states deserved flexibility. In the end, billions of dollars were used to plug budget holes rather than promote public health. It’s an important issue and, in retrospect, we just didn’t pick the right targets or hassle those targets hard enough.
It’s a good reminder of 2 things: 1) no matter how long you’ve been doing this stuff, you’re never perfect, and 2) never let an opportunity pass you by assuming that there will be another one down the road. It might feel quiet this August, but that’s all the more reason for you to make some noise before it’s too late.
VV: What does August recess mean for campaigns that don’t have a legislative focus? Can we pack up and hit the beach?
BW: It’s never too early to map out a plan even if you don’t have a legislative game right now – if you don’t know where you’re going you’ll likely never get there! Also, summer is the time to build your supporter base. Coming up with ways to engage people and heighten their awareness about your issue/affinity for your organization is a great thing to do during the dog days of summer. So, hit the beach if you want (be sure to wear sunscreen) but don’t write off August altogether.
VV: What’s on your reading list this summer? Our readers want a few suggestions to add to their beach read lists.
BW: The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, by Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman
VV: Sounds like a real page-turner, Bill.
To pick up more tips about what your organization or coalition should do to make the most of this August recess, read Val’s vintage Lab post: August Recess – How to Hit A Home Run for Your Cause.