The Really Busy Person’s Guide to Political Activism

Life-hacking for partisans.

Christopher Beam chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

An Obama campaign volunteer helps to register voters in Virginia

There are 29 days left in the election. (Update: 28!) You have X hours, Y dollars, and Z calories to burn on behalf of your favorite candidate. What’s the best way to allocate these precious resources?

The campaigns will tell you every bit helps, and they’re right. But some tactics help more than others. A lot of it depends where you live and how much money you make. Say you make $10 an hour—should you donate $100 or volunteer for 10 hours? (Quick answer: If you live in Dayton, volunteer; if you live in Berkeley, donate.) For that reason, we’ve divided activism strategies into two categories: If You Have Time and If You Have Money. We then look at the best—and worst—ways to spend it before November.

If You Have Money(in descending order of usefulness)

Bundle. Not everyone has rich friends. But if you do, milk them. If they max out at $2,300, that’s enough to fly your candidate to a campaign stop, blast a mailer across a contested county, or buy ad time in a battle ground media market. “It’s a supply line,” says Allen Raymond, a former Republican operative. “If you’re in California, your job is to give resources to candidates so they can get out and win.” Some people think money matters less in the waning days of a campaign. They’re wrong. Obama spent roughly $55 million in August. In 2004, President Bush spent about $18 million from mid-October through Election Day.

Make your own Swift Boat ads. Now you can be the next T. Boone Pickens. If you’ve got cash to burn, start your own 527—just incorporate an organization, file with the IRS (and, in some cases, the FEC), hire a production company, and you’re off. If your budget is lower, there are companies that parcel out cheap air time. With Saysme.tv, you can design an ad and run it on CNN or Comedy Central or Animal Planet for as little as $6. (That’s at 3 a.m. on a weekday. For prime time, it costs more.) The company lets you pick exactly which media markets will see the spot, so you can smear McCain in Colorado Springs or ding Obama in Boulder. Even easier is to make a Web ad—quick, dirty, and just as likely to get media coverage.

Throw a party. This is bundling for people who fly commercial. Have a party, invite everyone you know, and make sure they all give money. Small-scale events are often more profitable than blow-out concerts with big-name artists. If you spend $90,000 on an event that raises $100,000, that’s a net benefit to the campaign of only $10,000. Better to keep things modest—and possibly even more lucrative, says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org. “It’s much easier to raise $20,000 with a smaller event,” he says.

Give your own cash. Small donations have become critical this election cycle, so don’t worry if you can give only $10. Obama raised a record $66 million in August and still relies on donations to push him through. McCain receives public funds but could still use your Hamiltons; just give them to the RNC instead. Plus, if you don’t have time to volunteer, giving money “helps assuage guilt,” says Louise Simmons of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.

Make your own robo-call. Sick of phone-banking? Record your own robo-call for your candidate. It’s easy to set up and can cost only a couple of cents per call. Problem is, you’ll probably end up pissing off more voters than you win over.

Buy a lawn sign. Yay. Now you have a lawn sign.

If You Have Time (in descending order of usefulness)

Knock on doors. Boring, but true. If you live in a battle ground state, the single best thing you can do is make face-to-face contact. “Personalize, personalize, personalize,” says Tracy Soska, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and a community organizer. Try to show up before dark—people hate answering the door after night falls, even if it’s only 8 p.m. Of course, door-knocking is useless if you live in a blue or red state. In that case, you should probably …

Harass your friends. Call them. E-mail them. Visit them at unexpected hours. (Since you know them, it’s OK to show up after dark.) Threaten to break off the friendship unless they vote. And tell them to do the same to their friends. People respond better to someone they know than to strangers on their doorstep. You may be preaching to the choir if your network consists of like-minded people. But that can also be helpful—it’s called getting out the base.

Register voters. Time is running out on this one—Oct. 6 was the registration deadline for many states—but canvassing is one of the most effective strategies out there. It’s also hugely frustrating. Most people know to steer clear of smiling kids with clipboards. But even if only one in 20 stops and only one in 100 registers, that still expands voter rolls. “We’re trying to find needles in a haystack,” says Pariser. But don’t just stand on the sidewalk outside Starbucks. Hit places with fewer registered voters—which tend to be schools, prisons, or community centers in low-income areas.

Drive voters to the polls. It’s the one time you’ll be proud to drive a minivan. The easier you make it for people to vote, the more likely they will. For many voters, getting to the polls is the hardest part. And not just for people with disabilities. If someone has to take two buses and a train to the polls and it’s raining on Election Day, he just might give up. “Helping get our voters to the polls is far and away the most important thing supporters can do,” says Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor. Plus, in poor communities where voter information might be scarce, you can help people get to the right place. (If you’re not sure, check here.)

Join a phone bank. If face-to-face interaction is best, phone-to-phone is a close second. But it only works if the caller and the recipient have something in common. If you’re a liberal yenta from New Jersey, you might not want to call Colorado voters to tell them all about Obama’s gun control record. In 2004, the Guardian famously asked its left-leaning readers to write to voters in Clark County, Ohio, and tell them to vote for John Kerry. The response was, er, mixed. The campaigns try to pair phone-bankers with their peers. But if someone responds negatively to your call, don’t get combative—hang up. To combat those pesky caller ID screeners, use your cell phone. And for true believers, there’s a new Obama iPhone app that organizes your contact list by who lives in battle ground states.

Wave signs. Depending where you are, this can be the most useless tactic in the world or a marginally effective one. In small towns where the race is tight, displays of enthusiasm supposedly make a difference. (Election experts call it “visibility.”) On the other hand, chanting, sign-toting, traffic-blocking activists can be just as annoying as squeegee men. “Totally overrated,” says Raymond.

Make signs. Sign-making is the child labor of campaign jobs. But it serves an important purpose: weeding out the kooks. There’s someone in every campaign office whose job it is to make sure these people—you know, the ones who mean well but whom you don’t want approaching people on the street—are occupied. “The guy with the tinfoil hat? Put him out back,” says Raymond. Just don’t let that person be you.

Crash online polls. In productivity terms, this ranks somewhere between yelling at the TV during debates and exposing yourself on the turnpike on behalf of your candidate. When PBS posted a poll online asking whether Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, partisans on the left and right swamped the site with repeat votes that totaled in the tens of millions. The practical results: PBS added cookies so you can’t vote twice. Oh, and it’s exactly tied. 

Go vigilante. No, no, no, no, no. Don’t start calling random numbers in the Boca Raton phone book. Don’t berate voters outside the polls. Don’t start a local chapter of NAMBLA for McCain. Do what the campaign tells you; it knows better. It keeps detailed records of which voters lean which way, how many times they’ve been called, and how many times their doors have been knocked on. It also knows better than you what makes a good pitch. This might make you feel like a pawn in a larger game, but face it—you are!

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Call your favorite campaign and ask how to be most useful. You might get answers like this: “The most effective use of your time is to knock on doors and call your friends,” said Vietor, the Obama spokesman. Then again, you might get answers like this: “No offense, but answering this question is probably the least effective use of time!” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.

Point taken! Now excuse me while I go make some signs.