Organizing Volunteers at Bernie Sanders Campaign
At Big Organizing: Digital Tools in Bernie Sanders’ Campaign, Bernie Sanders campaign representatives shared some of the process and tools the campaign has implemented for mobilizing volunteers. Zack Exley and Becky Bond, senior advisors on the campaign, identified grassroots, in-person volunteer work as the life blood of the campaign.
“A lot of what’s happened in this category of online politics is really just smoke and mirrors,” Exley said. There panel emphasized that there is only value in conversations and hype online if it shows up in the polls.
As the movement for Sanders has grown, organizers had to discover new ways to mobilize volunteers. They found that a mix of analog and digital tools worked best to achieve their desired result – real, face to face connections with voters.
The first challenge has been organizing thousands of volunteers to do something meaningful with very little supervision. Along with Coders for Sanders, an independent collective of developers dedicated to getting Sanders elected, the digital team has been able to implement digital tools in what they believe are new and innovative ways for campaign and volunteer organization.
Saikat Chakrabarti, Director of Organizing Technology for the campaign, hails from Silicon Valley and has been the driving force of the campaign’s digital efforts. Chakrabarti’s developer experience along with a hoard of volunteer coders has enabled the digital team to tweak platforms and products to work more efficiently for the unique needs of the campaign.
“It’s a very large and interesting problem,” Chakrabarti said. “It makes it really easy in some ways to get people to talk to each other, but then it’s also really hard because there’s just so many people.”
According to the Sanders team, the Obama 2008 campaign volunteer movement was largely staff driven with top-down organization. With Sanders, Chakrabarti is trying to figure out how to build tools to remove hierarchy barriers and empower a fluid movement. Try to get out of the way of the movement and let the people drive it forward.
“They needed to be able to self-organize without imposing a structure on them,” Chakrabarti said.
For having a digital team, the Sanders campaign has taken an unconventional approach to data. Rather than employing staff members dedicated to targeting voters, the campaign chose to keep the campaign staff small and instead grow the volunteer network as much as possible.
“Instead of having a big staff on data and a smaller staff on field, we asked ourselves, what if we had enough people to talk to everyone?” Bond said.
Platforms like Slack allowed volunteers to network and self-organize early on. Volunteers also receive what Bond and Exley believe is very strong support from the campaign while leaving most of the control in volunteers’ hands. Phone banking has been instrumental in turning the tides of the polls, but it took some work to figure out how to get volunteers to host their own phone banking parties.
“We needed people to be calling voters and going door to door,” Exley said. Bond and Exley wanted to move volunteers offline and into real conversations with voters. It was important to them to move people from enthusiasm on the Internet to actually being involved in voter contact and phone banks.
With a flood of sometimes inconsistent messaging on social media due to the decentralized strategy, quality control for the campaign could be a concern, but Bond says that scale trumps consistent messaging.
“We knew we couldn’t win without scale, so we had to trust the volunteers,” Bond said.