An 18-year-old high school student in the Bay Area was playing Assassin — a kind of long-term, citywide game of tag using Nerf guns — when he noticed the signs: “Vote Mike Bloomberg.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Why is Bloomberg in a pro-Sanders district?’” said James, who asked us not to use his real name because he is not authorized to discuss his campaign work.
He pulled his car into the parking lot of the local campaign office and walked inside. A week later, he was collecting his first paycheck for his work on the campaign.
Throughout Bloomberg’s 101-day campaign for president, the former New York mayor spent more than $500 million. Part of that money was spent paying a campaign outreach firm, Grindstone Field Solutions, to hire hundreds of “deputy field organizers” (DFO) to campaign through phone calls, texts and social media posts, many of them teenagers like James.
The money was good: On average, James said he did about 10 hours of work a week, and on some days he wouldn’t do any work at all. But he got paid $83 per day regardless of how much work he did, which he said surprised him.
“I also work as a tutor and I get paid minimum wage, so I’m used to long hours and low pay,” he said. “I was severely overpaid for what I actually did. Maybe I just don’t understand how adult work culture works.”
FiveThirtyEight reached out to the Bloomberg campaign and Grindstone to discuss its DFO operation, but did not receive a response.
Hiring staff to do outreach is standard behavior for any political campaign, but James’s experience and documents he shared with FiveThirtyEight show how Bloomberg’s effort was unique. Other campaigns rely on volunteers and paid staff to do outreach over many months, tapping into their personal network to build relationships, according to Joshua Darr, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and political scientist.
“Bloomberg didn’t really have that option because he got in so late,” Darr said. “It’s true he had the money to get paid staffers to make these contacts, but he didn’t have the time really to do anything else.”
The Bloomberg campaign’s approach — hiring staffers to meet outreach quotas — is a more old-fashioned strategy, Darr said, but it only really works if there is strict accountability and oversight, which James said there was not.
“I actually did work but I think I could have, honestly, done no work and still gotten paid for this campaign,” James said. “They had no way of tracking. There was no enforcement system. They said, ‘This is your quota and we might call you if you don’t do your work.’ I never got called and I certainly didn’t meet all my quotas.”
In a Slack chat shared with FiveThirtyEight from February 27, campaign directors pleaded with a group of DFOs to meet their quotas.
“Reminder that we need to be on the phone for at least 1 hour everyday to make the impact we need to win Super Tuesday,” a Bloomberg campaign official wrote. “We are currently averaging 9 minutes a day – which is not enough.”
Grindstone had James set up accounts with campaign outreach tools like Hustle, a mass texting platform and Outvote, which compares a user’s personal contact list to registered voter databases. DFOs were required to send a text “blast” to their entire personal contact list using Outvote at least once a week, according to documents James shared with FiveThirtyEight, but James said he was never reprimanded for failing to meet those quotas.
Though James said he regularly called and texted registered voters, he rarely bothered to reach out to his personal contacts or leverage his social media. He said he was encouraged to use social media, but that it wasn’t part of the job quotas. In one of the few tweets he posted, James wrote simply “I like Mike,” along with a screenshot of him replying to a text from a Pete Buttigieg canvasser with a photo of Mike Bloomberg’s face on a meatball. (Such is politics in 2020.)
“No one was telling me, ‘Post that meme and we’ll pay you,’” James said. When he did post on social media, he would then make fun of the posts on his finsta account (or “fake Instagram,” a secondary Instagram account that’s usually only visible to close friends). “On my finsta I would often post about how I’m selling my soul to the Bloomberg campaign.”
Other Bloomberg DFOs followed the suggested social media language so closely — copy and pasting the exact same tweet — that their accounts were flagged and suspended by Twitter.
Darr said James’s experience highlights the limits of this kind of outreach strategy, as well as the limits of what money can buy a campaign.
“The old saying in the field is ‘yard signs don’t vote,’ but it seems like in Bloomberg’s case, it’s ‘office space doesn’t vote,’” Darr said. “Just because he had the office space, which he undoubtedly did, doesn’t mean it’s a bustling center of volunteers making valuable connections with voters.”
James said he has put the money he earned in savings so he can either buy textbooks at college, or maybe “a plane ticket somewhere.”