Relationships key for successful campaigns

A campaign manager for Amy McGrath, running for U.S. Senate against Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), was in town visiting family. Taking some time from their visit, Scott Johnson and his father, Steve, stopped by the Charlotte Dems office to chat about Scott’s experiences with McGrath’s 2018 Congressional campaign.

Like many of us, Scott had no previous political or campaigning experience when he decided to help the McGrath Congressional campaign. He was given tasks such as canvassing or phone banking without much guidance or training. Like many newbies, Johnson felt unprepared. He noticed that many new volunteers had difficulties and wouldn’t return after the first several days. Johnson said, “The campaign was too rigid and concentrated on phone banking and canvassing”. He had ideas about how he could be more effective with the campaign but found the manager was too overworked and stressed to consider making changes.

So Johnson campaigned in his own style. Living in Lexington, Johnson found he could canvass much quicker by bicycle. He knocked on 3000 doors while he also worked a full-time job. He then organized a group, “Bicyclists for McGrath” which was not officially part of the McGrath campaign but helped to get votes. “I wanted to increase the impact and optimize the experiences of the volunteers. How can I make this easier for canvassers?” said Johnson.

Find a way to bring volunteers back

Rather than having a volunteer become discouraged after one day of canvassing or phone banking, Johnson said, “I wanted to find a way to bring volunteers back”. To do that, campaigns should help create relationships with volunteers. Johnson calls these relationships “social glue”. “Campaigns are not equipped or trained on being the ‘social glue.'”

Johnson has several methods to make campaigning more enjoyable. Training new volunteers is critical. Johnson described role-playing and mock canvassing sessions in which volunteers could practice talking to voters. He also stressed pairing new canvassers with seasoned canvassers when they go out in the streets.

In addition to the “Bicyclists for McGrath” group, Johnson helped create other groups, such as “Moms for McGrath”. The groups use social media to build and grow. After the election, most campaign volunteers don’t continue with their political involvement. But because of the “social glue” of the groups, they still continue and are active in McGrath’s Senate campaign against Mitch McConnell, Johnson said.

The voter outreach had a significant impact on the election.

McGrath, a Democrat, was a novice going after an experienced politician in a deep red state who had strong help from President Trump. But McGrath came within 2 percent of winning.

Johnson’s advice for canvassers is to think of canvassing as “an excuse to enter people’s lives and to be good to them”. When approaching the voter, “Look them in the eye and shake their hand. Start a conversation with them and be good-natured.” He said it is o.k. to be open and allow yourself to be vulnerable. “Be open, humans talking to humans. Treat each other as people”.

For more information about Amy McGrath’s senate campaign, visit

Standing from left to right: Ruth Volpe, Paul Anarumo, Jane Merriam, Patrick Hurley, Nancy Razvoza, Scott Johnson, and Steve Johnson.