An Interview with Marlon Marshall, Former Clinton Strategist
Marlon Marshall was the Director of State Campaigns and Political Engagement for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He previously worked on both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns and served in the administration as Deputy Director for the White House Office of Public Engagement. He also co-founded 270 Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm.
The Politic: What does your title mean, and what did you do on a day to day basis?
Marlon Marshall: My title was Director of State Campaigns and Political Engagement, so my team supported all of our operations in the states. Every state has a state director, in the battleground states we had an organizing director, a digital director, and all the organizers on the ground. We were the team in Brooklyn that was there to support that operation, as well as our political operation- our relationships with state and local elected officials and other stakeholders.
TP: I heard you mention in a past interview that the secret to on the ground work is relationships. When a canvasser knocks on a door, how they can immediately establish a relationship with the person that opens the door?
MM: That’s a great question. So I think the first thing is telling your personal story. Identifying why you’re there, asking questions about what issues matter to the voter, and relating those issues to a story. Its way more effective to have a conversation about my cousin who didn’t have healthcare due to a pre-existing condition than to list all the facts about why the ACA is good. People want to know how it affects them and what it means for them. When you are able to share personal stories, you’re connecting at a level that rises above statistics and gets to the heart of why people do this work, which is to change lives every day. We train organizers and volunteers on really telling their story and being able to have good conversations about these issues because at the end of the day, it is about more than statistics, it’s about changing lives and changing identities.
TP: So how do you form those relationships if you’re connecting with voters online?
MM: That’s another great question. I think we are just scratching the tip of that on campaigns, one of the things we did in Iowa during the primary is try and utilize online tools as a way to meet people offline. We would tweet at people we knew were Hillary Clinton supporters because they would tweet very positively about the Secretary, and ask people to meet one on one for coffee. Canvassing online is a way to communicate and engage people, but I think you have to have a good blend of connecting with people online and forming that relationship offline, to really form and strengthen that relationship. We utilize tools that folks have to reach out and connect to people in hopes that they will translate to people meeting up in person because that is really where meaningful relationships happen.
TP: When you were talking to people, what did you feel was the main message of the Hillary campaign that you were trying to get across?
MM: I think our main message was about where we could take the country, and about how she was a candidate that wanted to break down barriers and fight for people every day. What we were trying to get across was that she was someone who was going to wake up every day, keep your best interests in mind, and fight for you. The majority of the American public was in agreement with that message. That’s something we tried to think about the whole campaign. If someone who has been fighting for people her entire life runs for president, then as a voter you wake up every morning and know that someone is fighting for you.
TP: So I’m wondering if there is something the campaign could have done to change the outcome of the election, or were Republicans just bound to win certain states as a result of the political climate?
MM: I’m not a big believer in terms of saying we should have done this, we should have done that. I think everybody on the campaign and also our supporters worked as hard as possible. I think what’s important to do, you need to do this when you win or you lose, is to always look at what you did well and what you could have done better. When I was on the Obama campaign in 2012, we looked at what we did well and what we could have done better to try and help future cycles. We are still doing that, folks are still looking at what we did well and what we could have done better.
You can always second guess decisions, but at the end of the day I think that there were a myriad of factors that played into the result, I don’t think you can isolate one factor. I think something we are collectively doing is looking at how we can be better at campaigns and organizing as we move forward. We are right now doing the best we can to learn the lessons from this last cycle and incorporate those into future campaigns and continue to fight for progressive values.
TP: So along those lines, how do you think campaigning will change in the 2018 and 2020 elections?
MM: Well I think one good thing is you’re going to see more people run for office.You already have seen an outpouring of people who are not supportive of the current administration who want to take that energy and run themselves. The good thing that I’m starting to see is that the energy is happening at local levels. At the end of the day, all politics is local. That’s the same as many years ago. Making sure we have progressive mayors and elected officials is just so important and you are starting to see that happen which I think is really good. The more people, every day people, who wake up and want to change the world and make their communities better, who run for office, the better.
Like you were saying earlier, communication is important. You saw our current president really use Twitter as a way to get his message out. The media take the Tweet and that will be the news story of the day. I’m not saying anybody can just do that, but I do think that how you communicate with voters, who are now not just getting their information through just a couple of different news sources, it’s so much more spread out now, and so I think you are going to continue to see folks think about how you’re going to get your message out across all these different mediums that are available to the average voter.
TP: Switching gears a little bit to the current resistance to the Trump administration, I’m wondering how you would have organized the Women’s March, whether there is anything you would have done differently, and how you would have kept up the momentum.
MM: I actually was not in town for the Women’s March, but I do know a lot of people who were organizing it and I think they did a fantastic job of harnessing a lot of the energy that is out there. What I particularly love about it, and what I think the ultimate goal was, was that you obviously have a big weekend with inauguration weekend, and you were really able to drive a message of resistance. Resistance meaning that here are values that this country will continue to fight for, and you are going to have to work with us, because we believe in these values. I thought that message was great and the people who were organizing did a great job.
I think it resonated not only here in the country, but across the world. You saw marches happening in London, I was in London actually at the time, there was a huge march in downtown London. I think it was good. Protests in general have a place of really, one, galvanizing energy, but also driving a message. It doesn’t allow the government to just say hey, this is what’s happening. It allows the people to speak up. I think moving forward, that’s got to continue. I think you see it continue in town halls and other different things where people have made their voices rise. Then its got to continue to turn to action, where all these people who were thinking of running for office, can win. Where all this grassroots energy is starting to register voters and have those personal story conversations that we talked about early on.
I think there is an art of what is happening in the grassroots movement. I think the protests and the marches are an incredibly important piece of it because I do believe that all change in social justice in this country has happened because people have spoken up and made their government respond to their concerns. I think you will see that happen over the course of this administration and moving forward.
TP: I know you have returned to your firm, what are your other plans for the future?
MM: Well right now I’m back at 270 Strategies as you mentioned, I am an Institute of Politics fellow at Georgetown, where I lead a discussion group weekly with any student that wants to come about organizing and social justice. I really, really love it. I love working with young people who are so excited about ways that they can affect change moving forward. That’s my plan as of now- continue to try do great work and help progressive causes through our consulting firm, and where I can, particularly with your generation, on ways that they can get involved in the process and help change the process for the better. Last but certainly not least, and most importantly, spend as much time with my wife as possible, who didn’t get much time to see me over the past few years.