Yay, August in DC! Congress is home, the streets are quiet, and we’re even enjoying a burst of Spring-like weather. But if you’re a political advocate, your life probably isn’t as slow as it would have been in past years:
At town hall meetings, lawmakers will face activists calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. On walks in local neighborhoods, they could run into gun-control advocates, who plan to blanket key districts with fliers. During visits to the county fair, they are likely to encounter voters demanding defunding of President Obama’s signature health-care law.
Liberal groups are organizing hard in part because they took such a beating in the 2009 congressional recess (most notably in “town hall” meetings that turned into viral-video-ready Tea Party rallies), but both sides are cranking up their efforts to reach congressmembers while they’re home in their districts: witness Heritage Action’s nine-stop rally tour, featuring Ted Cruz. In response, don’t forget to join the President’s Truth Team!
Of course, a congressional recess advocacy push wasn’t new in 2009 any more than it is now, but with grassroots-organizing technology in everyone’s hands, it’s no longer the preserve of lobbyists able to take congressmembers on elaborate (and expensive) “fact-finding” tours over the break. So, what’s YOUR recess strategy?
Here’s the thing: recess presents a rare opportunity to catch congressmembers at home, where they’re less insulated by busy schedules, Hill security and a cocoon of staffers. And while many of our advocacy tools (think: mass emails to the Hill) work best when the targets are concentrated, we can still use them to create constituent connections close to home. One useful framework: think like the Obamacare advocates who are marrying a national campaign with intensive local education work in the states.
But most organizations will have to make a choice about where to concentrate, and here’s why: most of our organizing tools aren’t so great at targeting congressional district offices, where local voices can stand out. Emails route through the Hill offices, for example, and the Capitol Hill switchboard (whose number we usually include in “call asks”) is going to send callers to the same place. So, mass emails that can direct supporters to 435 Hill offices are pretty much useless at sending people to district offices…unless you spend the time to segment you list by district and send each member’s constituents a separate communication that includes an address and/or phone number.
Some larger organizations have invested in technology that will do just that, and more power to them: it’s granularity in action. The rest of us will likely need a combined approach that encourages national action where possible and local action where we have the resources to arrange it. Here are a few options to think about:
Targeted district office calls and meetings. Pick your targets (either members deemed persuadable or people you want to beat up on) and send messages district-by-district as described above. Include instructions for calling/visiting their congressmember’s office along with talking points. Encourage them to try to get a meeting with the member if at all possible, though of course this is one of those cases where you’ll really need to trust your members to represent you well.
Op Eds and LTEs. I get the feeling the elected officials are just about the only people who pay attention to Letters to the Editor in the local newspaper, so let’s give ’em something to chew on. Most online advocacy providers (Convio, Salsa, et al) include an LTE module that your supporters can use to contact local media, but be careful — if a publisher gets a flood of identical letters, they’re likely to ignore them all. So you might segment your list, perhaps sending only to activists who’ve taken a certain number of actions in the past, so that each paper gets a trickle, not a flood.
Op Ed columns are also useful, but they need to be highly targeted to the district: i.e., they should be from someone IN the district, or at least the state. And with every editorial board able to use Google, if you’re shopping the same Op Ed column to different papers, they’ll find out fast if it’s already run somewhere else under a different author’s name. So write and target your Op Eds carefully, and be sure to have a local ally in the byline.
Rallies and Events. Rallies are fun! Everybody loves a party…and every party host has thrown one that no one’s shown up to. Rallies, town halls, house parties and other events can be great ways to show public support for your issues, and particularly if they’re in a public place (for instance, in front of a congressmember’s district office) they can get valuable local media attention. But every event runs the risk of falling flat, deflating activists in the process — and news coverage of a failed event is just sad. So be careful to turn people out, if you don’t want to turn them off.
Tapping local networks. Even if you don’t have a robust nation-wide grassroots base or the funds to launch a multi-city rally tour, you can still make a difference locally, if you’re tied to smaller organizations via coalition or other relationships.
Think about the content you could generate around your issues, which local groups could use in THEIR outreach work. What about social media content? Could you create (visual-heavy) Facebook posts that allies could share with their members and advocacy targets? What about email templates, or Op Ed templates? White papers that groups could drop off with district staff? Talking points for meetings with members? Plenty of local organizations would love to advocate more, but they don’t know where to get started. Why not amplify your own work by helping your allies do their jobs better?
Get ‘Em While You Can
September’s looking grim in DC, with a dysfunctional Republican caucus running the House and a (manufactured) government-funding crisis on the winds. Things are going to get ugly once Congress gets back to the lovely tree-shaded avenues of D.C., and it’s going to be damn hard for advocates of all stripes to cut through the cacophony. August recess might not be the quite time of legend, but it’s still a unique moment to catch a lot of congressmembers at home. Go get ’em while you can.