Organizing to Win

After the 2018 mid-term elections, I was talking with a consultant who had helped a Democrat win a traditionally Republican US House seat. In our exuberance about the Democratic wins that year, we both shared stories of volunteers who had knocked on doors for the very first time. “They want to keep going, but we just don’t have anything for them to do!” she said.

Oh, but you do, I thought.

So, then I got to thinking. . . these red-to-blue House seats are not ours forever. Some of those voters went blue for the first time ever. They are never going to agree with the Democrats on the issues, so there has to be some other way to authentically connect with them if we want to keep winning.

Also, there are potential progressive voters who believe that politics just isn’t about them so they don’t bother. We can show them memes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King all day, but without a relationship, they still feel in their hearts that their votes don’t matter.

Then I started thinking like an organizer. I bet we have experiences and values in common. If Democrats wanted to win again in 2020, they must start building relationships with voters. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

As it turns out, I was right. Democrats lost 11 seats that they’d flipped in 2018.

Seeing those results, a plan started to take shape in my mind: engage energized and inspired volunteers to bring people together to build relationships with Democratic leaders and potential candidates.

Step One

Train volunteers on deep canvassing techniques. This tactic involves engaging a voter in a conversation. Really. Standing on the front step talking for about 15 minutes. By itself, this conversation can open a space for people to change their opinion. When national organizing network People’s Action opened their deep canvassing results to an evaluation by data scientists, the scientists found that 3.1% of voters moved to Biden support. The conversation moved 8.5% of Independent women voters. (Read the whole 14-page report.)

Step Two

Invite those deep-canvassed voters to a community meeting. Taking the building-relationships theme up a notch, these meetings are small group conversations, not town halls. In each small group, a facilitator asks discussion questions that provide opportunities for participants to tell a story. The facilitator guides the discussion so everyone has a chance to speak and the conversation doesn’t go off the rails.

After the small groups have finished and the groups have come back together, a speaker asks for reports back from each group. In that way, that leader has an opportunity to connect with everyone in the room by telling their own story to relate to each group.

Would this plan lead to a tidal wave of support for climate change measures or abortion rights? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The point is to build relationships.

One of the most important lessons from the Georgia runoff this year is about off-year organizing. We can’t parachute into neighborhoods four months before an election and expect to keep winning. Building real strength requires investment.

If all we do is scramble to win elections every two years, that’s all we’re ever going to do. If we invest in building relationships with voters, we will not only win, but we might also win on the issues that brought us in to politics in the first place. Let’s invest in building sustainable, lasting power.

A plan for a pilot project is coming together. To get involved in building this experiment, email mira@organizingtowin.net. Or fill out the contact form.

Organizing Is Bringing People Together To Build Power

With guest co-author Ken Fujimoto

In Mira’s piece about online and IRL organizing, she referred to a difference between organizing and mobilizing and promised (threatened?) a follow-up piece.

Mobilizing is reaching out to voters, activists or volunteers to move them to do something your organization or campaign has already determined is the right course of action. Like voting for a candidate, canvassing, filling a committee room or speaking at a hearing. Your organization is probably right about that course of action and members have entrusted leadership to make those decisions. So, great work!

Organizing creates a deeper and more fundamental change. A strategic organizing campaign accomplishes several purposes all at once. Organizers not only win on an identified issue, but they also build power. 

Or as my first organizing supervisor puts it “Organizing is transformational.” 

What about social media, email, mobile, mass text and recruitment apps? They all help build the crowd, fill volunteer shifts, build a meeting, get out the vote, etc. But is that organizing? It can be. It’s only when all those people come together that they have the opportunity to share experiences, build trust and start that all-important relationship. The stronger the relationships, the deeper the transformation. 

Organizing is bringing people together to build power. That act of building power involves consent, consensus and agency. 

In the strongest organizing campaigns, the people most impacted by injustice are the leaders. Not just the face in front of the cameras, but the people who make decisions, identify the key issues, build consensus on the solution and own the campaign to win. They’re also the faces in front of the cameras because they are the subject matter experts on their own lives.

Organizing staff bring people together, provide a forum for building relationships, provide training and coaching and facilitate decision-making. They don’t determine the issues, create the strategy or tell people what to do. 

We organize so we can mobilize a constituency to take action. We cannot mobilize anyone if they were not organized previously; or in other words, if that constituency hasn’t already built power. Mobilizing is the unleashing of that power. Organizing is about building an ongoing constituency. Build power, then mobilize that power.  That’s organizing.

Co-author Ken Fujimoto is a social justice advocate who focuses on the development of people who aspire to take responsibility for a leadership role in public life. His mission is to identify, train, and develop these leaders to take on the world. His guiding question is “What is the legacy we are leaving for our children?”

What are we willing to question?

Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.

The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.

I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)

I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)

I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)

I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.

Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.

What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?

I’m a Justin Amash fan.

There. I said it. I’m not voting for him, ever. However. . .

This Politico piece, by Tim Alberta, about Amash is very insightful. For anyone who is tempted to think that he’s on your side because he’s against Donald Trump, don’t. However, he has a lot of great things to say about partisanship and economic disaster recovery. The piece is also a flash reminder of how sexist our politics are.

Amash spends four paragraphs hitting the nail squarely on the head about the similarities and differences between Biden and Trump and Democrats and Republicans. He sounds an awful lot like left-wing activists who complain that there is no difference between the parties. His comments about purity are particularly striking:

“When you get on the wrong side of people on the left, a lot of it sounds like things I hear from people on the right.”

“What they don’t recognize is that [Trump]’s a creature of this system where everyone is hyperpartisan and hates each other and where they’re told repeatedly, ‘If you don’t vote for our party nominee, you are selling out your family, your friends, your country to these people who want to destroy it.’ And that’s what both sides are told.”

Don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can this year to #VoteBlueNoMatterWho. But it has to be said: the polarization is not just their fault. We have purity tests too.

The surprising part of the interview was Amash’s advocacy for handing out cash. He has (justified) harsh criticism for the tendency of relief plans to reward giant corporations and wealthy donors of both major parties. The surprising part for a libertarian was this:

“If they did something like, let’s just send everyone some money, direct cash payments, as I suggested, universal monthly cash relief, there’s only one constituency for that. That’s the entire public. And they’re not getting much out of that in terms of politics.”

What populist, progressive, capitalism-questioning, near-socialist doesn’t love that idea?? (He lost me a little later on, with the typical ultra-conservative disparagement of the role of the federal government and the UN.)

Finally, another significant part of the piece is less about Amash and more about the sexism in politics. He spends most of a long paragraph talking about how great he is. He starts six sentences with “I am [something great about Justin Amash.]” What would we say about a woman who started six sentences in one paragraph with “I” instead of “we?” And listed all kinds of ways she’s great? Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be that she’s a great leader.

In a time when everything is us vs. them, I hardly expected to have so much in common with a libertarian, right-wing, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus true believer. But here we are.

Building Relationships from Six Feet Away

Who knew when I wrote Post It and They Will Come that a month later we’d be talking about all-virtual campaigns? (Actually, this guy knew.) Campaigns and organizations are in frantic mode, trying to figure out how to run field campaigns without being in the field.

Will canvassing become a thing of the past? Will anyone ever meet one-on-one again? Will every training be a webinar now?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that we can’t simply ignore the need for personal interaction in campaigns. We can’t just not canvass and also not come up with a replacement. So, thinking creatively, not so creatively and somewhat unrealistically, I’ve compiled a few ideas.

Immediate and Obvious Solutions (aka not so creative ideas)

Use existing social networks. I listened to a podcast the other day that was a little embarrassing for me. The main point was that field campaigns can’t just be about volunteers talking to strangers. I should have known better already! 🤦🏽 The best messengers are the people that a voter already knows. To operationalize this concept, every campaign orientation should start by asking participants to write down the names of their contacts who live in the district. Then each person tells why they support the candidate and brainstorms how they would relate that story to their friend to ask them to vote. To let volunteers know they’re serious, campaigns should then ask volunteers for the names and follow-up to see how the conversations are going.

The trendy term for it is relational organizing. Candidates often ask supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors, but they don’t always make it a systematic part of the campaign. Now’s the time.

Most campaigns couldn’t win on the family-and-friends model alone, but it’s a good start.

More phonebanking and texting. Kind of a no-brainer. Who knows? Maybe social distancing will lead more people to actually answer the phone. #SilverLining

Could Be Done Quickly, At Least for Small Campaigns

Virtual House Parties What if the phone or text script included an invitation to a small-crowd conference call or video chat with the candidate? A candidate who isn’t shaking hands has more time! Lots of big campaigns have virtual town halls but they don’t replace the personal interaction at the door. A small conference call or video chat isn’t a perfect replacement, but it could approximate some face-to-face relationship building.

Send photos of the named volunteer/texter with the message on texting apps. This idea would mean sending smaller batches of initial texts in apps like GetThru or Hustle. If the text says “Hi! It’s Mira from Michelle Obama’s campaign. Have you received your vote by mail ballot yet?” my photo — with a “Hello, my name is” sticker and Michelle Obama button — should show up too. That way, the voter knows that there is a real volunteer/organizer at the other end of that text.

Oooh, Wouldn’t That Be Cool??? (aka somewhat unrealistic ideas)

You: Mira, if they’re unrealistic, why are you even including them here?

Me: just in case some ambitious (and venture-funded) app developer reads this post 😉

Integrating video call apps into predictive dialer or virtual phonebank technology. The idea is that when a campaign calls a voter, the caller/volunteer appears on the phone in addition to the caller ID. Just like when you call your bestie overseas on WhatsApp or FaceTime with grandma. It’s still a call in the middle of dinner, but at least the voter can see that it’s a real person calling.

You: Can I video call someone who doesn’t have the video chat app installed on their phone?

Me: Probably not. But those people could stay in the traditional phone or text bank.

You: How fast do you think someone could code an app like that?

Me: I have no idea. But probably not between now and August. Look out 2022!

Someone asked if a video call might be kind of intrusive. More intrusive than a stranger knocking on the door? #NewNormal

Some of these ideas are not original. I compiled them here because most of the discussions, webinars, blog posts or other pieces I’ve seen were a little theoretical. I tried to put some specific, actionable steps together here. Let me know what you think.

Post It and They Will Come.

My first campaign was in 1988 when I might have been the only person in America who thought that Michael Dukakis could win. (Spoiler alert: he couldn’t.) When I was assured that he was pro-choice, I agreed to knock on some doors.

Since then, my understanding of campaigns and the campaigns themselves have evolved. Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] seasoned campaign person who insists that the only real organizing is in person and all that social media stuff is superficial? Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] junior organizer who insists that social is the new organizing?

Trigger warning for organizing purists (like me): For simplicity’s sake, I refer here to campaign tactics as “organizing.” In our jargon-y, insider’s club, we might be more comfortable calling them “mobilizing.” But that’s a subject for a different post. (Hint: the difference has to do with consensus and ownership.) Please feel free to disagree in the comments.

Newsflash: they’re both right. As I work to adapt my pre-Internet campaign training to the digital era, I’ve come up with four “translations” between IRL organizing and digital.

First, through campaigns with feminists, union members, teachers and a lot of candidates, I’ve learned that if something is too easy, it probably won’t work. Tacking a flyer for a meeting on a bulletin board? Anyone can do it and no one will come. Knocking on a worker’s door, asking to come in and engaging in a conversation about her work and what she would change (read: start a relationship)? That’s different. Same with social media. The easy stuff rarely moves anyone. Building two-way engagement is hard, but it’s the only thing that works. In my friend’s race for the California Assembly, he’s followed up several Instagram follows with a DM. And every one of those followers said they filled out their vote-by-mail ballot for him.

Remember that flyer on the bulletin board? It’s part of what we call “creating the environment.” Social media is a great way to create the environment. If I want someone to come to a canvass, it’s unlikely they’ll do it from a Facebook post alone. But if they see a post, plus an Instagram story from the last canvass, plus an email from an organization they trust, then get a personal text or phone call, they might do it.

Next, people take action for lots of reasons, but one of the most important is a relationship. We build relationships through stories and video is the most effective one-way medium to tell a story. It’s the closest we get to a relationship on a passive platform. Some of the presidential campaigns have learned this lesson. Think about those videos of Elizabeth Warren making phone calls on camera to a supporter or taking hundreds of selfies with supporters. Do you feel like you know her just a little bit better than you would from reading her website? (Also, remember that part about if it’s too easy, it won’t work? Good video is hard.)

Also, volume. Back in the day when the only method of recruiting volunteers was to call and ask them, we had a formula:

10 live bodies = 20 confirmed = 100 asked = list of 400 names and numbers

It’s not that different with social media, except that the ask is a lot less personal, so the volume has to be that much greater. Instead of a direct personal ask of 100 people to get 20 yeses, any kind of digital ask has to reach exponentially more people to get the same result. The 2018 midterms were a good example. Many campaigns and organizations built tremendous lists of followers. When they posted volunteer opportunities, complete strangers showed up to canvass or phonebank from social media posts alone — partly because the pool of followers was so deep. Also, remember that part about creating the environment? It really helps.

When the senior and junior campaign organizers argue over tactics, you can be the peacemaker. They are both working at similar concepts with different applications. We can’t silo the organizing and digital (or anything else for that matter). The most successful progressive campaigns are based on building relationships with a combination of online visibility and personal communication.

Organizing to Win logo
Want organizing tips every month?