A life-sized cardboard cutout of John McCain is strewn on the carpet in the middle of the headquarters for youth voting group the Oregon Bus Project, right next to old tubes of 80-SPF sunblock and a red plastic devil's trident. This is the group's "what the fuck pile": everything that wasn't thrown away or moved into a storage unit when the Bus Project cleaned a year's worth of campaign materials out of its office last week.
"So many campaigns shut down after the election," says Bus Project Managing Director Garrett Downen, leaning on 14 cases of donated Red Bull that somehow survived the season. "All of these millions of dollars and all this energy going toward a one-day fire sale."
The election cycle has always been a boom-bust business, but after arguably the biggest boom in American history, Oregon political groups have an enormous opportunity. They sweated all year to forge a strong campaign infrastructure, roping in thousands of volunteers and a record number of new voters. The question now is whether the political groups will utilize their momentum or if, like most years, the campaign season energy will fizzle.
Over the summer, the Bus Project's headquarters bustled with 30 staff members who wrangled hundreds of volunteers. Now, the group has scaled back to 10 employees. Many of the hyper-involved individuals have returned to day jobs, taken much-needed vacations, or in one case, returned to high school.
"Civic engagement shouldn't be something that happens once every four years," says Downen. His challenge is figuring out how to keep the Bus Project's now giant volunteer network still interested. That involves changing gears from canvassing to policy work.
"There won't be as much Gore-Tex. We're buckling down and figuring out what policies to pursue," says Downen. The group is hosting a volunteer retreat this weekend to discuss that policy work.
At the frenzied height of the campaign season, the Democratic Party of Oregon had 100 people on staff; mostly get-out-the-vote organizers for left-leaning candidates across the state. By the end of November, party spokesman Marc Siegel estimates they will be down to five employees.
"It's definitely not stable work; it's short term, high intensity, high return," says Jon Isaacs, US Senator-Elect Jeff Merkley's former campaign manager turned transition director. "Frankly, most people are ready for it to be done when it's over."
For the last year, Isaacs worked 80- to 100-hour weeks helping to coordinate 22 staff members and hundreds of volunteers. In the meantime, he welcomed a newborn son and had an appendix removed.
"I've never worked on a campaign staff that's become so close," says Isaacs, from Washington, DC, where he and Merkley's one other remaining staff member were tagging along to new-senator orientation.
While they were a tight-knit group during the campaign, Merkley's team has already dispersed around the country. Many ex-Merkley campaigners returned to day jobs after the election or applied for jobs in Salem or DC, says Isaacs. Three campaign junkies immediately flew to Georgia to help Democrat Jim Martin in his Senate run-off race there. While the staff plans to keep in touch via email, the once-busy office has already shut its doors.
"It's seasonal work, when it comes down to it," says Scott Moore via phone as he drove to a much-needed vacation in Seattle. During the campaign season, he was the communications director of ballot measure-fighting group Defend Oregon. Now he'll return to his regular job, doing communications for the nonprofit Our Oregon (Moore used to write for the Mercury).
"There are a lot of people who have been through this before, so they're used to the cyclical nature of it," Moore says. To campaign against nine measures on the November ballot, Defend Oregon hired between 30 and 40 people.
Campaigns get so big during election seasons thanks to a flood of funding and support from outside individuals and organizations. Moore explained that many staffers for perennial groups like his are "on loan" from other progressive organizations. In other words, while Moore's colleagues hit the streets with Defend Oregon clipboards, it's actually often the local Service Employees International Union or American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations chapters who write their paychecks.
While he agrees that some political groups go into hibernation between elections, Moore says he's found Oregon politics are less boom-bust than some states'.
"Oregon is unique in that there is an ongoing collaboration environment. All the organizations that make up Defend Oregon come together often," says Moore, who attributes Oregon's more collaborative culture to good leadership. Also, after a decade of campaigning to defeat Oregon's infamously numerous measures, there is a history (and expectation) that groups will come together again to pool resources for a united election agenda. Again and again.