Having worked on the Biden-Harris campaign as a battleground state Organizing Director, I’m a firm believer in the power of volunteers talking to voters to help win elections. That said, I’m also of the mind that our cyclical system of electoral organizing is fundamentally flawed and is losing Democrats seats in the long-run.
Cycle after cycle, most Democratic organizing programs start from scratch. Field teams are hired over a few months, starting off their outreach with new online signups, some legacy volunteer data, and a whole lot of introduction 1:1 meetings. Pair this inefficient time spent with the exodus of talented staffers from campaigns’ seasonal unemployment cycle, and the need for more sustained engagement becomes clear.
If Chairman Harrison and the DNC are serious about expanding Democrats’ map into more competitive parts of the country, we have to move past the boom/bust cycles of electoral organizing and embrace what has clearly worked in states like Georgia and Wisconsin — a culture of “forever-organizing.” These are two large-scale examples, but it’d be a mistake to limit your thinking of this kind of effort to exclusively presidential battleground states.
As a party, we can’t just talk about our organizing — we have to build these programs in the states. From the New Georgia Project to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, there are a lot of shapes your state’s forever-organizing can take. To me, a DNC-led nationwide forever-organizing looks like:
- State or district-wide voter-contact operations that continue to knock doors and make calls about important issues both in-advance of and after a GOTV / Election Day;
- A volunteer-engagement machine that privileges building a bench of new activists over appeasing existing local party stalwarts;
- Retaining a meaningful number of in-turf field staff to sustain relationships and bring more community members into the voter-contact infrastructure, thus building a pipeline for professional development for local political staffers.
We don’t have to look far for examples of successful forever-organizing programs; the #Resist activism of early 2017 is an example of how the Democratic Party can better support long-term organizing efforts.
This time four years ago, I joined US Senator Chris Murphy’s team to help kick-off a long-term organizing effort in Connecticut called “Fight Back CT.” This early organizing investment, which Senator Murphy decided to create and run, was born out of the groundswell of activism that followed the 2016 election, including the Women’s March and the emergence of local resistance groups. The idea was to sustain this activism to strengthen Democratic organizing across the state.
Connecticut wasn’t unique in 2017; newly engaged activists across the country didn’t just show up to a meeting of their local Democratic Party, they created their own teams to resist President Trump and the Republican agenda. Senator Murphy wanted to help support these new groups by introducing a voter-contact opportunity for any interested party. The thinking was that we couldn’t assume this newfound enthusiasm would stick around through the midterms; we needed to help sustain it!
Most of the grassroots groups, from your local Indivisibles to multiple Pantsuit Nation chapters, incorporated talking to voters in their organizing early on, knowing that it would become such an important focus as we got closer to the municipal elections in 2017, and the eventual midterm elections. Plenty of good Democrats in Connecticut are used to boarding Greyhound buses and knocking doors in New Hampshire or Pennsylvania during banner election years. There’s absolutely a time and place for this kind of export! In 2017, our early start was partially a sales pitch to stick with in-state engagement ahead of the midterms, at a time where Pod Save America and the DNC were funneling every active Democrat into helping with the Virginia governor’s race.
We ran Fight Back CT as its own operation for a year before merging with the Connecticut Democratic Party in a coordinated campaign for the 2018 midterms. Our small team engaged volunteers all across the state months earlier than other battleground state programs, in an organizing model not previously seen in Connecticut. I’m proud to say it paid off! Fight Back CT is still organizing, and is just one example of how forever-organizing can work out in the long run.
Here are some of the things we learned in the “off-year” of 2017 that I think can help any Democratic state/district starting their own forever-organizing program in 2021:
#1. Good organizing never changes; it’s about leveraging real relationships into action.
Whatever you do, whenever you’re doing it, the heart of a good organizing program is about building quality relationships and leveraging them into some kind of action in service of your shared goal. I don’t think this ever changes, it’s just about the tactics you employ in that aim.
I’m not originally from Connecticut, so I spent the first months of Fight Back CT holding the same kinds of meetings I did as an organizer in Iowa! I met with longtime and new activists alike, learning about their communities and organizations, and inviting them to be part of the campaign. Those relationships weren’t exclusively valuable in how they translated into volunteer shifts; these conversations informed the metrics we tracked, the expectations we set, the districts and communities we emphasized, and so much more.
Some of the earliest conversations our team had turned into volunteer leaders, but that wasn’t always the action leveraged by the relationship. Some became infrequent volunteers, some people were most helpful as community validators, and then a handful of folks decided to run for office themselves! Now-State Representatives Stephanie Thomas and Anne Hughes were some of our first ever Fight Back CT event leaders! Some relationships, like with State Representative Gary Turco and State Senator Will Haskell, become collaborators for effective Get Out The Vote’s in their critical swing districts.
One of the biggest mental shifts to make from an in-cycle organizing program into a forever-organizing program is to change your perspective of escalating action between volunteers and your campaign. It will require more frequent strategic check-ins with leadership because the program will be more dynamic as you figure out what is working with your organization. That is okay! As long as you’re building more relationships that you can leverage into direct action at the right moment, the work will pay off.
#2. Yes, forever-organizing pays off in close elections! But that’s just the floor.
We knew that 2018 would be a big milestone when we kicked-off Fight Back CT, because it was still a question at that point whether voters would support the entire Democratic ticket on Election Day. Senator Murphy wanted to sustain the grassroots activism long-term, but also took his role as the top-of-the-ticket seriously, and ensuring a successful ticket-wide turnout was critical.
Ultimately the voters did support the entire ticket in 2018! Ned Lamont’s race for governor ended up being one of the closest gubernatorial contests in the country in 2018, with a margin of victory of about 3.2%. State legislative races across the state collaborated with the coordinated campaign as they could, resulting in five flipped State Senate seats and returned control of the state legislature to Democrats. It was a massive volunteer-led mobilization effort that would never have been able to be as well orchestrated without organizers having been on the ground for as long as they were.
It’s not shocking that forever-organizing programs mostly spring up out of necessity. From Wisconsin’s recall efforts for Scott Walker to Stacey Abrams’ fight against racist, anti-Black voter suppression efforts, the states that have embraced forever-organizing did not do so out of the softness of a liberal halcyon. Democrats cannot keep waiting for things to get so bad that we are forced to invest only as a strategic last resort, because that ignores all of the potential organizing moments that passed us by when we didn’t have any infrastructure to activate.
#3. Retaining staff talent makes a critical down-payment on our party’s future success.
Fight Back CT cemented a belief that I’ve taken to every statewide organizing program since; hiring the right people early is the most critical step as a manager, because they are the bedrock on which you will build everything about your program. From team culture and internal communication norms, to the way volunteers feel valued by the campaign, the first-wave organizing staff set the tone. This is also true in retaining organizers long-term!
Every year, in every state, there are so many talented staffers who would love to keep organizing past an Election Day. Maybe they’re already local, maybe they grew to love a community’s volunteer leaders — we are losing out by not having this employment opportunity for folks to maintain employment and, eventually, rise through the ranks of our Party. Talented organizers should not be pushed out of an industry because they can’t afford months of seasonal unemployment between cycles — the DNC can choose to cut off that exit ramp.
Senator Murphy’s team is defined by its loyalty — folks stay on his staff because they know they are part of a great organization. That felt true on Fight Back CT as well — many of our organizers and interns have stayed involved in Connecticut; we have organizers who joined Senator Murphy’s outreach staff, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes’ office, are working in the state legislature, and even keeping Fight Back CT going! When organizers feel invested in, they continue to invest themselves.
The 2020 cycle mostly consisted of remote organizing work, with many lessons our industry can and should heed. This was the first presidential election where the majority of states had unionized field-organizing teams. Plus, without requiring non-local organizers to be physically in-turf, the barrier of relocation was a non-factor for seeking employment on a campaign. Yet, many of the existing barriers, especially the short timeframe and work/life balance, remained. If the DNC chose to retain even a fraction of its organizers past the on-year, this industry could be far more inclusive and maintain opportunity for more passionate people.
#4. It’s OK if your off-year engagement tactics look different than an on-cycle electoral program, as long as you communicate context as to what is coming down the line.
By the summer of 2017 our volunteers were hosting their own weekends of action, and I remember not wanting to set any kind of precedent in the off-year that could come back to bite an organizer in the butt down the line. Things like VAN permissions, email access, script changes, SMS lists; it all had this weight of “but what will it need to look like next year” to it.
Forever-organizing programs have to internalize that volunteers will understand the different needs of an off-year and an on-year. So, host your block-parties and invest in those community events! Do the fun stuff while you have time, paired with your voter contact. Looking back, my thinking on the engagement tactics we employed was far too limited in the off-year. Just because you wouldn’t employ a certain tactic the August before an election doesn’t mean it has no organizing-potential — paint with all of the colors on your palette, as it were.
I think the main thrust of an off-year should be bringing in more folks through any means necessary so that they feel more prepared to communicate with voters at the critical moment ahead of an Election Day. In being conservative around engagement tactics, we probably didn’t keep up relationships with folks not ready to do direct voter contact in that moment, but who could have been activated later on.
#5. The off-year is a great time to learn from presidential primaries and implement some of their best practices on a smaller scale.
Fight Back CT was influenced in every possible way by the Bernie 2016 model of distributed organizing. We defined it based on Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s book Rules for Revolutionaries, where “distributed organizing” is an organizing tactic of allowing your supporters to self-select into leadership positions, not limited to hosting their own voter-contact events, with just enough staff capacity to keep them supported and scaling rapidly. Full disclosure; I organized on Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign, so a lot of this was new to me in 2017!
In 2021, the hot new thing is “relational organizing;” a voter-contact method where volunteers communicate directly with existing contacts in their network, thus serving as a more effective campaign messenger because of their prior relationship. Many presidential primary campaigns and general election states incorporated this into their voter contact, and the Ossoff team’s community mobilizer program further scaled this kind of organizing in the Georgia Senate runoff.
This tactic is, of course, not actually new, but the systematizing of it is exciting! Folks who ran voter-contact programs in the past would tell you this kind of communication works best with voters when it’s built up over time, and so benefits from an off-year/forever-organizing program. The off-year is a great time to practice and test out how to best implement new tactics from presidential campaigns for your in-state context/goals.
#6. If you’re doing it right, you’re growing past existing party networks.
Connecticut is not a perennial presidential battleground that learned Obama for America neighborhood-team style organizing, and so the traditional model there is usually to wait until September for most voter-contact. These operations are run through a Democratic Town Committee (DTC), and the local candidates bear the brunt of door-knocking ownership. Introducing a distributed organizing program, where hosting canvasses and phone-banks wasn’t owned by a local party, ruffled some feathers! It all worked out just fine — it was important to us to be inclusive and give more folks the opportunity to be leaders in our campaign.
State parties are oftentimes forced to funnel their limited resources into existing local parties, but forever-organizing can’t be relegated to forever-party building. Of the local party leaders I talked to, they either enjoyed the power-trip of being Democratic gatekeepers or were burnt out from all of the work they knew needed to be done.
We’re expecting too much of the local parties here. By not retaining organizers on-staff after elections, the Democratic Party is setting local party infrastructure up to fail. With too-few workers and too-vague priorities after an election, groups are inclined to take on well-intentioned projects that might not contribute to forever-organizing.
Keeping talented field staff on payroll is the best way to maintain engagement with local volunteers outside of the party network, especially people activated during a high-profile election and more likely to drop-off, ensure folks keep getting trained, and prevent campaigns having to start from scratch on training activists when the next cycle starts up.
#7. Volunteers have time to solidify new skills and maintain learned ones.
By the time we reached spring of 2018, our volunteers had already been leading direct-voter-contact events with Fight Back CT for almost 12 full months of organizing. Instead of dropping in and having to start training from scratch, our volunteers’ had built a baseline of hard skills over that time — they were comfortable training other volunteers, leading demonstrations for new canvassers, modeling correct conversations at the doors, and making proper confirmation/flake calls! Having the space to develop these skills over time allowed our coordinated campaign to level up in the summer of 2018!
#8. Forever-organizing should focus on building community trust and instilling collaboration between your team and local stakeholders.
At the start of 2018, almost a year after we launched Fight Back CT, there was a special election for the 120th legislative district, in the town of Stratford, Connecticut — a small town outside of Bridgeport. The open seat had been held by Republicans for 44 years. Three of our organizers deployed to Stratford full-time in the month leading up to the special election, working directly alongside the campaign and DTC to get the job done. When the dust settled, Democrat Phil Young won that special election — by just 63 votes.
The point here is not just that good field programs can make the difference in close elections, but that collaboration with strong-minded local campaigns is possible when you have had time to generate good-will. Too often, campaign field organizers are not afforded that time to showcase their commitment to a common goal, and it can cause unnecessary friction with local Democratic infrastructure. Stratford’s Fight Back CT volunteers and Democratic Town Committee had already been working directly with our organizers for about eight months by the time the special election got started!
This is also true in building relationships with communities not often included in electoral organizing programs, like communities of color, less-wealthy communities, and young people. If you have organizers on the ground, you can better show up for communities that you want to show up come Election Day.
#9. Don’t expect everyone to be on-board from the start!
Getting into a forever-organizing mentality is going to be a culture change, for sure, especially if your state just came off of an intense general election. Plenty of folks across Connecticut were confused when we launched an organizing program so early, especially from a popular sitting US Senator. I remember going into a meeting with some long-time activists and supporters of Senator Murphy’s who told me that there was no chance this would work in Connecticut.
Our team’s focus wasn’t solely on elections, obviously, and it required some imagination on our supporters’ part to envision what this kind of program could be. We weren’t really even ID’ing voters in our early canvases, so much as getting a sense as to what issues really mattered to them. Obviously those conversations were important, but it wasn’t the same scale of impact on a voter we know comes closer to an Election Day.
Communicating the long-term benefits of canvassing that early, like the relationships we were building and the practice the volunteers were getting, was something most folks got bought into. Shifting people’s ideas into a forever-organizing mindset is a process, especially if they think you’re asking them to go full-speed ahead, like a GOTV, at all times.
#10. Escalating your volunteers’ involvement is less linear in the off-year, and that’s good!
Our motto on Fight Back CT was “volunteers are everything,” showcasing both our commitment to delivering a quality volunteer experience as well as the centrality their leadership held in our campaign. There is absolutely a balance between jobs that staffers need to own and roles volunteers can take over, but I wish we had been more intentional earlier about expanding the role of what a volunteer leader could be in our campaign.
Traditional electoral organizing programs have focused on neighborhood teams, having volunteers own a geographic voter-contact operation in conjunction with a staff organizer responsible for that area. What that has led to, I think, is a redundant volunteer leadership experience, and a missed opportunity to grow our campaigns to new heights.
Volunteering with a campaign isn’t all-consuming for every activist, and part of the strength of forever-organizing is that it allows a moving target for people to determine when/where volunteers’ effort is best spent. Think of this as the Parent/Teacher Association (PTA) rule of organizing. Parents are juggling a lot, but will step up and bring in baked goods when they know it’s needed! Showing up for a school play opening night, like GOTV, is vital; the off-year might not be vital in that volunteer’s eyes, but keeping them informed helps escalate better when it becomes critical.
As a program manager, ask yourself what the next avenue for volunteer ownership of a campaign can and should look like, and explore that in your off-year so it can be ready to go by the time you need it to work perfectly. Everything can and should still lead to a GOTV effort but the ladder of engagement you’re used to doesn’t have to have the same route for every volunteer — maybe think of it as a volunteer game of chutes and ladders. Is it an entirely volunteer-owned community Slack; a statewide Help Desk email system; a specific volunteer leader training curriculum? You decide.
The list could go on and on, but I’ll stop there for now!
From an organizing perspective, 2017 and 2021 feel more similar than you might expect — people are invested in Democrats’ success and want to organize towards meaningful change in our country. Tapping into that energy should absolutely be a strategic imperative for Democrats to boost our relationships with the volunteers who power our campaigns year-in and year-out, whether our party holds the White House or not. That’s what a national forever-organizing program could accomplish.
Right now, it feels like we’re missing an opportunity to leverage our energized base into forward momentum for the Biden-Harris agenda. Investing in a forever-organizing program doesn’t have to match the scale of field efforts we see in a presidential year, but I think it warrants far more support than it typically receives from the national party.
I hope that Chairman Harrison and the DNC help instill cultures of forever-organizing in more states, and that we can start living in a world where Democrats don’t believe in off-years!