The last two cycles saw a positive shift in how Democrats organize. So-called “digital organizing” became a thing of the past as those staffers managing volunteers online were folded into standard field programs. The recognition has finally occurred that digital organizing is, in fact, just organizing, albeit modernized.
The last few cycles have, however, seen a distressing trend fall upon all campaigns. As the number of media channels and possible touch points for voters grows online, campaigns are now expected to engage in essentially an order of magnitude more mass outreach. To mail and phones we’ve added email, then digital ads, then texting, and now apps. For small campaigns, the burden can be both absurd and expensive.
Fortunately, advances in data science have made it possible to hone a solution—relational organizing. As big data has become even bigger, we’ve reached a point where national entities can now reasonably purchase the computing capacity necessary to keep accurate track of every voter, something that hasn’t been truly possible until recently. This allows campaign data teams to focus on two very important pieces of data that were too hard to track before: namely, for every voter who’s the best person in their network to contact them, and what’s the best way to do so.
The best way to contact Alice might be for Bob to call her, and the best way to contact Charlie may be for Darlene to text him. Knowing this allows campaigns to efficiently slim down mass outreach while increasing effectiveness. We know that personal recommendations carry more weight than mass, impersonal outreach. Relational targeting makes that more effective outreach even cheaper—a win-win for campaigns.
And this is far from a new idea. Relational organizing is, reductively, just retail politics—the kind of rural water district hand shaking my grandfather and his father did, but tracked online and brought into the era of big data. Already, major parties internationally, like the BJP in India, have tracked and leveraged networks at scale to great effect.
There’s now a proliferation of new tools in the Democratic tech space enabling this kind of targeted outreach. Tools like VoterCircle, OutVote, and Team App give volunteers easy-to-use access to multi-channel voter outreach. And the Dem accelerator Higher Ground Labs has been investing in more just like them.
Utilizing these tools and new frontiers in data collection and cheaper computing makes it possible to finally realize the promise of relational organizing. If Democrats can seize this opportunity in 2020, they can reclaim their tech edge for the cycle and beyond.
Dave Leichtman is the Director of Program Strategy at Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program and the Vice-chair for Technology and Communications of the Democratic Party of Virginia.