How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics

How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics

How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics

The watchword is no longer Big Data but Big Organizing, in which thousands of volunteers play a leadership role in the campaign.


Ever since the Bernie Sanders campaign gathered more than 100,000 supporters in 3,500 events on one night in July 2015, it’s been clear that the senator from Vermont was building a massive base for his upstart push for the presidency. By the end of the year, it had generated more than 2.5 million contributions to his campaign, topping the 2.1 million tallied at the same point by incumbent President Barack Obama during his re-election bid. That juggernaut has continued to expand, with another 2.5 million contributions since the beginning of 2016.

Both the Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns are organizing in a context that has never existed before in American politics: Close to 70 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, and two-thirds of all adults and a whopping 90 percent of young adults use social networking sites like Facebook. Both are experiencing massive amounts of online engagement outside traditional campaign structures. For example, Sanders has about 165 Facebook pages with 7.3 million likes, and nearly 200 Facebook groups with more than 358,000 members; Clinton’s numbers are roughly half that.

The question for campaigns today: how to rapidly absorb and deploy the energy of volunteers as effectively as possible. As senior advisers to the Sanders campaign, Zack Exley and Becky Bond bring a unique degree of wisdom to that challenge. Exley was MoveOn’s first organizing director, an adviser to the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, John Kerry’s director of online organizing and communications, and worked on field organizing technology with Obama’s 2008 general election campaign. Bond has been the political director of CREDO Mobile since 2004, where she most notably built the group’s 2012 campaign that successfully defeated several Tea Party members of Congress with intensive field operations. In the following exclusive interview, they explain how the Sanders campaign is evolving a new model of tech-powered organizing.

Micah L. Sifry: What are your roles on the Sanders campaign? How long have you been there? And what’s the team you work with?

Becky Bond: Zack and I are senior advisers on the Bernie Sanders campaign, who work full time as organizers on the national team. Bernie’s call for a political revolution has lit a fire underneath millions of folks nationwide. Our job is to help Bernie supporters around the country turn that grassroots energy into effective voter-contact work that helps Bernie actually win. Because we organize people all over the country and not just in one place, we rely on technology as well as a lot of in-person and on-the-phone organizing to do our part to help Bernie win.

Zack Exley: Claire Sandberg, who is our director of digital organizing, and I joined the campaign in the first week of July. For a few months, just the two of us had 46 states, DC, and the territories on our plate. Eventually, we were able to hire Corbin Trent, who was a great volunteer leader from the movement in Tennessee, and Saikat Chakrabarti, who had just started volunteering as a software developer. And that was the start of our “distributed organizing” team. Then Becky shocked us by telling us she wanted to take a leave from CREDO Mobile to help Bernie. That’s when I knew we actually had a chance to win this thing! We’ve grown the team since then by drawing from the Bernie volunteer movement and also people with campaign experience. And all along, our real team has been made up of dozens of critical full-time leaders in the movement who work virtually as though they’re part of our staff.

MLS: So what is going on out there? Can you say a bit about the overall size of Sanders’s grassroots? How many house parties have been hosted? How many volunteer leaders would you say you have? This is the first election where a distributed organizing model like yours is being tried in an environment where most, if not all, American adults are socially networked. How important is that to what you’re doing?

ZE: The movement is huge, and it’s still growing fast. When we started organizing for Bernie, we had a short window to catch the wave that was sweeping the country. Our task was to turn massive amounts of enthusiasm into disciplined volunteer teams capable of accomplishing real objectives set forward by the campaign. And we had to do this before a field structure was put in place that was based on the old, less scalable model! The remarkable thing is the complexity of organization of what’s been built around the campaign. Volunteers are running complex teams, filling specialized work roles, just like professional organizers. Some numbers to illustrate:

  • Nearly 60,000 total campaign events run by volunteers posted on—everything from phone-banking house parties to visibility events to organizational meetings of local groups.
  • Nearly 22,000 phone banks run by volunteers, with more than 80,000 attendees.
  • More than 36 million calls made as of March 13—the vast bulk in just the past several weeks.
  • More than 600 “Barnstorm” events, which we will tell you more about, with more than 60,000 attendees—including more than 250 volunteer-led Barnstorms.
  • Volunteers are meeting and coordinating on hundreds of Slack teams, Facebook pages and groups, weekly meetings, grassroots HQs, and other online and offline spaces.
  • Several thousand volunteers are active on Bernie Builders, our central Slack team, who are filling specific leadership roles on specialized national teams that power this campaign.

If you ask me, the most innovative thing to talk about here is the way we’re setting volunteers up to make commitments to each other instead of to paid staff, in ways that ensure follow-through on hard, scary things like hosting phone banks and leading canvasses—and all the tools and techniques that allow for all this to scale massively. Decoupling paid staff from the organizing process allows virtually unlimited scaling in a movement like this because of the vast ocean of volunteers to draw from.

BB: The question about volunteer leaders is a good one. We’ve been working to redefine what it means when a campaign asks a supporter to step up as a leader. Instead of naming folks to lead geographic fiefdoms, we’ve tried to open-source our campaign strategy and actually share work that need to be accomplished. That’s everything from answering emails that pour in each day to and running volunteer phone banks and canvasses, to hosting a debate-watch event or doing the daily uploads of files necessary to keep our volunteer, peer-to-peer texting program operating at full capacity. So in addition to traditional campaign roles offered to volunteers such as precinct captains or election-protection legal observers that you typically only see during GOTV, we have dozens of jobs filled by thousands of people playing a persistent leadership role with others on the campaign. Part of what makes this campaign scale so phenomenally is that the structure we’ve created for volunteers allows someone to be a leader for a day—even a couple hours—or every day for months at a time.

MLS: How much of this movement sprang to life on its own, versus how much was directed and organized by the campaign?

ZE: When Claire and I first arrived at the campaign, we knew that a movement was already way out ahead of the campaign. We believed it was our job to set up structures and tools to not only help grow the movement, but also to enable Bernie’s supporters to avoid many of the pitfalls that can sabotage Internet-coordinated movements. Which is mainly that Internet-based campaigns tend to fail to achieve their objectives when they can’t leverage the full capacity of all the people who raise their hands and say I want to be involved. It’s one thing to crowdsource funding for movement organizing. It’s another thing to crowdsource the organizing itself and have valuable work get done at scale by tens of thousands of committed volunteers.

After Bernie announced, people poured out for his rallies, gathered on Facebook and Reddit, and began organizing their own tabling and leafleting events in hundreds of cities and towns. Rather than try to absorb all this organizing into the official campaign, we created a central clearinghouse on—especially on, created by volunteer software developers. And as fast as we could, we created specialized national volunteer teams to provide support for organizing. Eventually, we got the tools to allow volunteers to do direct voter-contact work into the early states. It all has added up to a massive volunteer organization that’s making more than 1 million calls every day right now, knocking on countless doors and doing so much more.

BB: Today, there’s way more going on out there than we’re even able to track. Local individuals and groups are still free to organize whatever kinds of events they want. We focus on providing tools, support, and structure that local teams run with if they want to do what our field leaders say is the most valuable work they can be doing: direct voter contact. Teams take on these tasks with a high degree of independence and bottom-up creativity, but they are working toward voter-contact goals set by our national field leaders.

MLS: In 2003-4, we saw how the Internet could lower the barrier to entry for political activists who wanted to help influence the presidential selection process, both for good—in the sense of raising lots of money and volunteers for candidates like Howard Dean—but also for the bad, in not really being strategically organized for victory. That led people like Joe Rospars, who worked on the Dean campaign and then went on to lead Obama’s digital organizing efforts, to argue that a more top-down approach was “Dean done right.” And in 2007-8, the Obama campaign took sophisticated steps to use technology to channel their volunteers’ enthusiasm in more tailored directions, along with steps that Zack praised back then, like their intensive training of thousands of grassroots field organizers. But by 2012, the use of technology in campaigns was much more about collecting and analyzing all kinds of data to optimize how a campaign uses its resources. The disruptive moment, when technology seemed to be opening up the political process to more grassroots activism, appeared to be over, replaced by a new kind of expensive and hard-to-master data-driven campaigning. Where do you see the 2015-16 Sanders campaign in that context?

BB: The approaches to using technology to help candidates win presidential campaigns have definitely changed from cycle to cycle. If the media framed the 2012 campaign as being about “Big Data,” the 2015-2016 Bernie campaign is driven by “Big Organizing.” We’re shifting the focus away from a small number of sophisticated data and technologists engaged in a kind of Election Day arbitrage that ekes out incremental advantages by using micro-targeting algorithms to identify and turn out voters based on a model. Instead, we’re putting hundreds of thousands of volunteers to work, and in some states have literally called every single voter who will pick up the phone to identify everyone who supports Bernie or is undecided. Then we have other volunteers persuade the undecideds and turn out those who indicated support.

In Big Organizing, we ask volunteers to do something big, and we put big goals in reach. Like making a million phone calls per day, and of course making Bernie Sanders president of the United States. In the example of the Sanders campaign, Big Organizing’s emphasis is on growing a self-replicating volunteer base that does the work of the campaign. In Big Organizing, scale is limited only by the appeal of your ideas and not the number of staff the campaign can deploy. Big Data is about narrowing down the possibilities and minimizing the work necessary to meet goals at the lowest cost. So in some ways Big Data is about the small campaign. In a Big Organizing model where volunteers manage and grow the volunteer base, we’re building the big campaign. The campaign focuses on sharing strategic goals and the technology necessary to help a massive number of volunteers do the work to achieve those goals. That’s very different from a command-and-control, top-down campaign that allows volunteers to do some basic tasks but always under the supervision of paid staff. This difference is exactly what makes it possible to break free from the limits of incremental change and do big things.

ZE: I don’t think “bottom-up versus top down” is the key distinction here. We do have an open structure in which local groups can do whatever they want. So there’s no limit to the amount of bottom-up activity that can happen—and it is happening! We don’t control local groups or individual volunteers and we don’t try to. But we do have a very disciplined and structured voter-contact program that we invite groups and volunteers into. Anyone can participate. And we believe this will really help make Bernie the next president. We empower teams to push that program forward by giving them the tools. And though there is leadership and well-defined roles, 99 percent of that leadership is by volunteers and is peer-to-peer in nature. Volunteers succeed in moving votes when they both follow the leadership of the campaign on certain tactics and methods and improvise in all sorts of unique, bottom-up ways to bring in more people and get the job done.

BB: I think we’ve hit the sweet spot where the technology is enabling a lot of people to be highly disruptive and incredibly disciplined at the same time. What’s more, everyone’s also having so much fun!

MLS: Let’s get a little more tactical, if that’s OK. Do you think the suite of tools that people now have—from email to social media to some of the newer coordination apps like Slack—are making organizing easier? Are you finding that more grassroots political activists know how to use these tools well? What have you done to adapt?

BB: For sure. Email overload is making email less of a good way to get people’s attention. And collaborating on work via email leads to long and convoluted chains. Slack, a popular commercial platform that allows for real-time collaboration among teams using either a smartphone app or an app on your computer, has been crucial. Our “Bernie Builders” Slack team is where thousands of volunteers coordinate with each other in Slack channels that campaign staff also hang out in. Volunteers carry the load of countless tasks, and when they get stuck they can just tag a key volunteer or Bernie staffer who weighs in on questions big and small. Facebook isn’t new, but the scale at which Bernie groups have set up on Facebook is impressive. Hector Sigala, who is the social media director on the campaign, is doing amazing work that’s then been scaled exponentially by independent groups. It’s been an essential way to help spread the word about events both official and volunteer-created. And we’re using peer-to-peer text messaging and a Web tool we built for volunteer-to-volunteer phone calls to recruit Bernie supporters to attend phone banks and canvasses where valuable voter contact happens.

The impact on the proliferation of smartphones also shouldn’t be overlooked. We have volunteers who tell us they log in and do voter-contact calls while stuck in traffic or while waiting at appointments! They are plugged into Slack 24/7 whether they are at home, at work, or running errands, because they have the app on their phone. With all of this technology, we’re finding out that if it’s core to our work, even volunteers who are not tech savvy will do what it takes to learn how to use it. They want to help Bernie win, whether that means knocking on doors or downloading and using a Slack app. We even added live chat to to help phone bankers who couldn’t figure out how to log on and use the Bernie Web-based dialer for phone banking.

ZE: And of course all these new commercial tools and platforms cry out for a whole new generation of organizing tools by pointing the way to new possibilities. We’ve been able to build some new tools that work directly to empower organizers to do volunteer management at greater scale. Saikat joining our team made a huge difference. As well as others from Coders for Sanders on Reddit like Zach Schneider, Jon Culver, and far too many to mention. But we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s needed. The good news is that all the new stuff is free and open source, so progress can continue when Bernie’s in the White House instead of getting stuck inside of product companies, as we’ve seen happen in past cycles!

MLS: Explain the evolution of the “barnstorming” model. Why is this so important to what’s going on?

BB: To be honest, in the beginning I thought it would never work, but it’s probably the contribution to the campaign and to organizing that I’m proudest of. It was Zack’s idea. We were having trouble way back in October getting volunteers to create phone banks by sending them email. And Zack went way outside of the box and said instead of sending more and more emails, why not have national staff go to cities where we have volunteers and explain to them in person how important the shift from fliering to voter contact was to the campaign? So instead of emailing people to create phone banks, we emailed them to ask them to come and meet a member of the national Bernie staff (someone they had never even heard of) to learn about campaign strategy and what we needed them to do locally.

Shockingly, in city after city, hundreds of people showed up every time. Bernie supporters who attended these meetings literally built out most of our national voter-contact infrastructure—some of them by stepping up to host weekly and or biweekly voter contact events in their communities, others by agreeing on the spot to volunteer to call voters or knock on doors at these events. And still others stepped up to scale the operation further by agreeing to go to remote corners of their state to hold more Barnstorm meetings and create even more phone banks and canvasses. As odd as this sounds, one of the most important innovations was the iteration of the paper sign-up form that has a whole calendar to fill in for event hosts to create events—and that we use to get sign-ups at the actual meeting itself and not wait until everything was posted online. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that we discovered that starting with people making mutual commitments in person as they formed teams was far more effective than trying to connect people online who had never met each other. Also important to the scalability of these meetings is how easy it’s been to replicate them. Cesar Vargas, Lilia Villa, and Masha Mendieta from the National Latino Outreach team have been using Barnstorms to build bilingual volunteer teams. Our field staff in all the later states have been running them as a rapid way to create phone banks and door-to-door canvasses. And now Claire [Sandberg] and Zack Malitz on the team are driving a program of volunteers running Barnstorms by themselves all over the country.

MLS: You’ve described an incredibly complex machine that you’ve been able to scale quickly to take advantage of the surge of interest and enthusiasm Sanders has generated, especially in the last few weeks and months. Does any part of that machine enable Sanders volunteers to give feedback to the national campaign? Do you think people want a voice in the strategy? Should they have one? I ask this not just because it’s a measure of how much the campaign is empowering its volunteers but also because a lot of people wonder what will happen to this structure after November. A lot of us remember how the 2008 Obama organizing machine was demobilized, after all.

BB: That’s a great question. Claire Sandberg, the director of digital organizing, and Kenneth Pennington, our digital director, are strong voices for our volunteers at the senior level. We tell volunteers all the time that “you are the campaign staff,” and that’s really true. The national campaign staff is constantly monitoring feedback via social-media channels, questions on Slack, and the distillation of feedback that gets pushed up the chain by the volunteers who are answering hundreds of thousands of emails coming in to [email protected]. As to what happens next with this organizing machine, we’re working exclusively right now on giving volunteers meaningful opportunities to help Bernie win the Democratic nomination for president. That’s what the volunteers are focused on and it’s what we’re focused on.

MLS: Final question: Whether Sanders wins the nomination or not (and the election or not), what do you think this year of intensive grassroots organizing will mean for the future of American politics?

BB: First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that the movement to defend black lives is fundamentally changing the terrain of social-change organizing. After recognizing that, yes, the young people and working-class folks, many of whom are from communities of color, who are leading the movement behind Bernie Sanders as volunteers on the ground are changing American politics. They have a renewed sense of what’s possible when you set big goals and then work together to achieve them. They get that real change won’t be won with Facebook posts but instead by growing teams and teams of volunteers who work together both in online networks as well as in person to achieve tangible campaign goals. Huge numbers of people, many of them under 30, are not going to wait for permission or a paycheck to pursue the change they know this country needs. There is no doubt in my mind that the future of American politics will be changed for the better, and that the gatekeepers—whether they work in Congress or for legacy advocacy organizations—will be facing the choice of getting on board or getting out of the way.

ZE: This campaign is changing people’s lives and changing everyone’s idea of what’s possible. No matter what happens, people are going to keep fighting for the political revolution that Bernie helped all of us start. What’s more, these organizing teams, structures, and processes won’t have to be reinvented. They will live on thanks to being rooted on local Slacks, Facebook pages, subreddits, websites, and in thousands of groups, relationships, and recurring meetings and events. This revolution is only just getting started, and it’s going to be beautiful!

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