Very Special Interests

Why Clinton is courting kayakers and yogis

This illustration can only be used with the Emily Schulties story that originally ran in the 10/23/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 
Ryan Inzana
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Emily Schultheis
Oct. 23, 2015, 5 a.m.

When you ask staffers for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign to de­scribe their or­gan­iz­ing strategy, the same phrase comes up again and again: They say they aim to “meet people where they are.” This rather am­bigu­ous sen­ti­ment could, of course, refer to any num­ber of tac­tics or goals. But one thing it ap­par­ently means is that on a ran­dom Wed­nes­day even­ing, Clin­ton cam­paign chair­man John Podesta will show up in the Nevada desert in a “Hil­lary” logo T-shirt and black-and-yel­low ath­let­ic shorts to join a “Run­ners for Hil­lary” meet-up.

Run­ners for Hil­lary—which hos­ted Podesta in Au­gust—is one of nu­mer­ous activ­ity-ori­ented groups sur­round­ing the Clin­ton cam­paign. Through their on-the-ground or­gan­izers, Clin­ton staffers have put out the word that they’re very in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing out­side-the-box events—and sup­port­ers and vo­lun­teers have ris­en to the chal­lenge. On New Hamp­shire’s Sea­coast, a yoga in­struct­or who sup­ports Clin­ton offered to host yoga ses­sions fol­lowed by tra­di­tion­al vo­lun­teer activ­it­ies at a loc­al field of­fice. A sug­ges­tion from a sup­port­er in Kel­logg, Iowa, led to Kayakers for Hil­lary—which led to pro-Clin­ton pad­dlers ran­ging from high school stu­dents to middle-aged en­thu­si­asts ply­ing the wa­ters of Rock Creek State Park in Kel­logg and Rodgers Park in Vin­ton. In West Branch, Iowa, a 73-year-old Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ist’s Face­book com­ment about Clin­ton’s logo (“This would make a great quilt”) spawned the Hil­lary Quilt Pro­ject; in Nevada, there are plans for a Hikers for Hil­lary group. “It’s really been a lot of vo­lun­teers and sup­port­ers talk­ing to each oth­er and com­ing to us with these ideas,” says Pun­ya Krish­nappa, a re­gion­al or­gan­iz­ing dir­ect­or for the Clin­ton cam­paign in Iowa. “We’ve been able to help work out the lo­gist­ics.”

Cam­paigns have long tar­geted voters based on iden­tity or af­fin­ity—think gender or pro­fes­sion. Kayakers for Hil­lary and their ilk are to those groups what mi­crotar­get­ing is to old-fash­ioned polit­ic­al ads: an ef­fort to en­gage more voters, more deeply, by un­der­stand­ing more spe­cific­ally how they view them­selves. If the old-school out­reach strategy as­sumed that a fe­male high school teach­er would see her­self at a “Wo­men for Hil­lary” event or at one geared to­ward edu­cat­ors, the new mod­el re­cog­nizes that she might have an “I’d rather be golf­ing” bump­er stick­er on her car.

“It’s highly share­able, it’s in­ter­est­ing, it’s fun. Makes the cam­paign feel and look a little bit light­hearted.” 

While Clin­ton isn’t the only politi­cian to em­ploy this ap­proach, it ap­pears es­pe­cially well suited to her can­did­acy. For one thing, be­cause her com­par­at­ively large cam­paign already has dozens of or­gan­iz­ing staffers on the ground around the coun­try—es­pe­cially in Iowa, South Car­o­lina, Nevada, and New Hamp­shire—it has the band­width to set up non­tra­di­tion­al events in ad­di­tion to the ex­pec­ted ones. Second, such events fit neatly in­to her cam­paign’s broad­er im­age-mak­ing and mar­ket­ing plan, which in­cludes present­ing Clin­ton as cool and re­lat­able in such a range of ways that it some­times bor­ders on self-par­ody. In 2016, it seems, the Clin­ton cam­paign wants to be the life­style brand for every life­style.

So when one of these groups meets, the cam­paign makes sure people know it. Shots from Podesta’s run with the Ve­gas group were tweeted and retweeted by Nevada state or­gan­izers; the quilt has made more than one ap­pear­ance on the cam­paign’s Iowa Face­book page and was fea­tured on Clin­ton’s main Twit­ter ac­count; and a sim­il­ar so­cial-me­dia bar­rage has fol­lowed oth­er events. “Be­fore, it was just an or­gan­iz­ing strategy. Now you still do that piece of it, and it’s the most im­port­ant, but you can then high­light it [on so­cial me­dia] and get a lot of ex­tra value from it,” said Norm Sterzen­bach, an Iowa Demo­crat­ic strategist. “It’s highly share­able, it’s in­ter­est­ing, it’s fun. Makes the cam­paign feel and look a little bit light­hearted.”

All of this helps ex­plain why the cam­paign has seized on sug­ges­tions for events such as the “Po­etry Slam for Civic Ac­tion” at an in­de­pend­ent book­store in down­town Las Ve­gas, which saw a stream of slam­mers of vary­ing ages, genders, and races per­form po­etry in mul­tiple lan­guages. Or upon the ideas of Vic­tory Peterson, 70, a Clin­ton vo­lun­teer in Ce­dar Rap­ids, Iowa, who tells me she brain­stormed with a Clin­ton or­gan­izer about ways to in­volve new people—and came up with a big one: com­munity-ser­vice pro­jects. The cam­paign, along with Peterson and sev­er­al oth­er loc­al Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists, sub­sequently got some 25 vo­lun­teers to­geth­er to paint and garden as part of a Hab­it­at for Hu­man­ity pro­ject; oth­er activ­it­ies have in­cluded work­ing at a loc­al nature cen­ter and col­lect­ing items for a vet­er­ans’ food pantry. The group, in­form­ally known as “Hil­lary for Ser­vice,” has also star­ted a book club, with se­lec­tions in­spired by what Clin­ton is do­ing or talk­ing about on the cam­paign trail. (The book for “What would Hil­lary read while driv­ing around Iowa in a van?”: The Bridges of Madis­on County. The one for “What would Hil­lary read while think­ing about pris­on re­form?” Or­ange Is The New Black.)

Are these events ac­tu­ally bring­ing new people in­to the Clin­ton fold? The cam­paign says they are: Of the 40 people who showed up to the Nevada team’s first po­etry slam, for ex­ample, 35 had no pre­vi­ous con­tact with the cam­paign, and five are now on their way to be­com­ing pre­cinct cap­tains. “It’s been very, very suc­cess­ful in us find­ing a niche com­munity that 100 per­cent sup­ports Hil­lary, but cam­paigns don’t tra­di­tion­ally en­gage them,” says Clin­ton or­gan­izer Anatole Jen­kins, who brought the sug­ges­tion for the po­etry slam to the state cam­paign and who worked as an or­gan­izer for the Obama cam­paign in Las Ve­gas in 2012. Erika Wash­ing­ton, a loc­al Demo­crat­ic lead­er whose 16-year-old daugh­ter per­formed an ori­gin­al mono­logue at the po­etry slam, tells me she thinks that, at the very least, such events of­fer im­port­ant out­lets for those who might oth­er­wise feel dis­con­nec­ted from the polit­ic­al pro­cess. “No mat­ter how you look at it, some­times it can be in­tim­id­at­ing to think about the ins and outs of elec­tions,” she says. “This gave at least a few people the op­por­tun­ity to ex­press them­selves the way they know how, as op­posed to the way that is the norm.”

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