Influencing an Election in Which I Can’t Vote

By Jono Davis 
Undergraduate International Relations Student

Before attempting to describe the intriguing and often puzzling process of campaigning during American elections from the perspective of a Brit, I must first wholeheartedly thank three incredible people, whom, without their help, the Bernie Sanders campaign in St Andrews would genuinely have been nothing but a pipe dream. To Jacob Arnould, Nikki Stavile and Marie Davis, this is your campaign; I am merely writing about it. These three people have together worked every single day since the beginning of term to create fliers, organise meetings, sell and give away merchandise, constantly update the Facebook page as well as most importantly champion the effort to sign people up to the Global Primary, which St Andrews will have a polling station for on 5 March. If anyone wants to know how the campaign runs at the consistent pace it does, these are the people to thank.

Sitting on the first floor café of a random Paperchase in central London, surrounded by hopeful Americans of ages ranging from student to seasoned election veteran, all seeking change with that oh so American positivity, I already felt out of place. I am used to boring elections, ones where campaign adverts have set slots, and the most interesting event I can remember is when Gordon Brown accidentally leaves his microphone on and calls a constituent a bigot. American elections are not just a different kettle of fish, they are a wholly different ocean, one that requires both the political stamina and resolve to “go the whole hog” (and additionally, as demonstrated, a whole load of motivational American phrases).

American elections are not just a different kettle of fish, they are a wholly different ocean, one that requires both the political stamina and resolve.

Working for the Bernie Sanders campaign in particular, a campaign almost unique to American elections themselves, due to its extremely grassroots feel and its unashamedly championing of Democratic Socialism, created an initially much smoother transition than I expected. Sanders has often been compared to our own Jeremy Corbyn, a comparison I myself am hesitant to make for multiple reasons, but nonetheless Sanders’s stance of universal healthcare and campaign finance reform were instantly policies I could relate to. However, it quickly became apparent that unlike being involved in British politics (having campaigned for the Liberal Democrats for the 2015 election – cue the laughter), it’s not enough to be merely interested; one has to breathe and live the politics, reading every article and statistic that comes your way.

I can’t help but draw the connection between American sports and politics, for initially I thought baseball was a sport whereby a pitcher throws to a batter who hits the ball as far as he or she can, much like I initially believed American politics was a process whereby a candidate is elected when he or she gathers the most amount of votes. However, as in baseball where half the game is in fact statistics, where pitchers are tactically selected (apparently each team has three?!) based on their arm power and “outs to throws” ratio etc, campaigning in American politics relies on savvy calculations of delegates per state, as well as paying close attention to poll numbers. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of surprising elements of US elections, it’s that news networks couldn’t care less about bipartisanship; it’s not just the classic Fox News/MSNBC divide, even the Tabloid press are allowed to endorse candidates. When the New York Times and the Washington Post editorial board came out and publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton (within 48 hours of each other I might add), I had to actually check the legality of such a move.

When the New York Times and the Washington Post editorial board came out and publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton (within 48 hours of each other I might add), I had to actually check the legality of such a move.

Since this is first and foremost an article focussing on the economics of the campaign, the sheer amount of money within American politics has to be mentioned as a vast shock to the system. As previously stated, British election cycles have set advertisement slots, and, despite a dodgy donations system, the money involved is nowhere near as extravagant. However, although the now billions of dollars spent on US elections is well documented, perhaps less so is the money involved at the grassroots level, the campaigning on the ground that wins individual votes, rather than entire regions or states.

It may be hard to believe given the hype around the democratic nominee election, but Democrats Abroad, the branch of the Democratic National Congress (DNC) that oversees the Global Primary, is not wealthy; it might even be fair to say this organisation receives no funding from the DNC. Additionally, the Sander’s campaign abroad could be said to be the definition of grassroots; little money except for what individuals could spare in their pockets, but members with unlimited drive and determination. There was some respite however; the Clinton campaign abroad appeared to be non-existent, but what there was of it revealed the striking difference between the two campaigns, for in the aforementioned meeting in Paperchase to my left sat the potential First-Brother Larry Sanders, who would end up agreeing to do a speech in St Andrews for no charge (on 25 February – be there). This moment I will gleefully compare to the Clinton’s presence in London, which included a dinner at Senator Gillibrand’s house with Chelsea Clinton – for the nominal fee of $2,700. This election cycle has on numerous occasions brought up the ugly issue of what we in the UK call “cash for access,” and while I’m not suggesting the Clinton campaign does partake in such a programme, the comparisons between the two campaigns can clearly be seen from this example.

It quickly became clear that being a part of the Sanders campaign meant diversifying political tactics; when I canvassed for the Liberal Democrats for the 2015 elections (cue the insatiable laughter), it was fairly stringent; from phone banking to door to door canvassing (all of which was provided by the party), it was all modeled around the top down system. Upon being told that there were literally no other people north of Leeds that were involved in the Sanders campaign, there was both an enormous sense of liberation and fear, for while on the one hand it effectively meant there was no bureaucracy to instruct on campaign rules or regulations, it also meant having to create a campaign initially around a few measly stickers and buttons with the words “Bernie Sanders” on it.

The first step to running a successful campaign with no monetary funds is manpower, and not just any manpower; American manpower.

The first step to running a successful campaign with no monetary funds is manpower, and not just any manpower; American manpower. This is not only because Americans as a nation have an almost unrelenting enthusiasm for whatever they are tasked with, from sports to military campaigns, but also because which Americans in their right mind want to be lectured about their own country by a Brit? Having required a task force of three incredibly dedicated and brilliant minds (who cannot be thanked enough), mentioned at the beginning of the article, it was worked out that our campaign didn’t need money to be seen when it came to reaching out to students; social media, as seen in 2008 by Obama’s successful campaign, is the way to communicate with and engage young voters. A Facebook page was set up, and really from there our presence online and in St Andrews snowballed—Facebook allowed us to not only get our message to the entirety of St Andrews without having to ever physically be in St Andrews, and additionally to create events and google documents that would gather support.

bernie meeting
St Andrews students meeting to discuss their campaign.

While it is possible to continue to give a step by step process as to how the St Andrews Students for Bernie Sanders campaign ended up where it is today, I think it saves a lot of words to merely state the point I’m trying to make, for while US elections are often associated with large donations from individuals and pressure groups, the grassroots level of campaigning, be it for Clinton or Sanders (or indeed the Republican candidates), is effective almost because there is a lack of money involved. The success of a movement is in how American you want to be; before this election, I wouldn’t have dreamed of campaigning outside the library after I was told specifically not to by the staff, nor would I have commandeered the Union bar without permission in order hold meetings, I was simply too British. With the help of Nikki, Marie and Jacob, the campaign gained a new face, a face that screamed “we want Bernie to win by any means necessary.” Additionally, as a Brit, it is extremely easy to be awkward, and approaching people with a load of fliers illustrating why Bernie is the best candidate is possibly my worst nightmare—but again, you have to become American about these things, it requires you to bite your tongue and release your inhibitions.

US elections are often associated with large donations from individuals and pressure groups, the grassroots level of campaigning, be it for Clinton or Sanders (or indeed the Republican candidates), is effective almost because there is a lack of money involved.

If I have learned anything about attempting to influence an election I in reality should have little to nothing to do with, it’s that to be merely “involved” is not enough, one has to almost allow themselves to be consumed; make a tabloid your homepage, constantly update your Facebook with ever changing poll numbers that in reality are manipulated in the favour of the partisan news network’s agenda. Most importantly however, one has to become an American, from singing the national anthem every morning to genuinely believing Canada is an inferior state—that is how one truly becomes involved in the US democratic process.

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