Yes, They Can: Volunteers of the 2012 US Election Campaign


November 20, 2012 05:40 EDT

Why volunteers have made the difference between victory and defeat for the Obama campaign.


It was perhaps only the second time that the world saw Barack Obama crying. Here was a man known for his emotional detachment being overcome by strong emotion, a man who had coolly observed the raid on Osama bin Laden wiping away tears of affection for his young campaign workers to whom he dedicated his victory.

Obama’s sudden emotional outburst might have been triggered by the end of an exhausting campaign, but it also marked the gratitude of a president who owed his victory to volunteers who enabled his victory.

Money has always been one of the key factors in the race for the White House. The most recent race is the most expensive yet with over $6 billion in costs. This includes not only expenses by the two campaigns but also cash spent by other groups. The money spent on this election could have bought a skydive for every Texan.

Election advertisements and massive public relations exercises are expensive. They call for huge fundraising. This means that the influence of money on elections continually increases. However, the role of volunteers remains critical. The majority of people involved in the campaign are volunteers who help out for free. From the $1.08 billion that the Obama campaign raised, only $95.1 million was spent on paying professionals. Romney’s team raised $1.13 billion and spent a mere $48.0 million on payroll.

Why is civic engagement relevant?

Democracy thrives because of voluntary civic engagement. This may be voting, contributing to campaigns or volunteering for a political candidate. The American non-compulsory voting system has a lot of upsides, because it does not pressure citizens to make decisions on things they do not care about. It also has its downsides, because there is a danger of the electorate turning apathetic and unwilling to decide its future. This means that political candidates have to enthuse people to come out and vote for them.

In 2008, it seemed that Obama had discovered the secret to mobilizing the masses and recruiting young new volunteers. America was excited. Suddenly, people who had never ever cast a vote spent their spare time making phone calls and going door-to-door for the campaign. This distinguished Obama’s successful 2008 campaign from Al Gore’s failure to win over the American electorate in 2000.

In 2012, however, things are different. Obama has emerged as the winner over Romney. However, the thrill of 2008 is gone and excitement has yielded to reality. The campaign was hard fought and highly expensive. Nevertheless, no amount of money can buy enthusiasm and that is what drives volunteers to election campaigns. While the president’s glamour might have diminished, there are still plenty of volunteers who have kept faith with him. It is these volunteers who have fueled Obama’s victory.

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