It seems like ancient history now, but there were three weeks in March after Super Tuesday when the Democratic presidential primary was still competitive. That period is illustrative of how campaigns should adapt as we move into the general.
As public officials began ratcheting up stay-at-home orders across the country, I was part of the Bernie Sanders campaign’s organizing team trying to win the remaining primaries. Though now working remotely, I was tasked with organizing New York voters.
We experimented within a new framework of voter contact and volunteer recruitment that was run completely online or over the phone. Here are some of the key takeaways I had from this short time, based on assumptions, reapplied best practices, and most importantly, flat-out mistakes.
Acknowledge the situation, message with empathy.
There’s no avoiding the reality of COVID-19 upending the field playbook we followed in California during the Golden State primary. With all in-person events canceled, we encouraged volunteers to convert their canvasses into phonebanks — and later held them virtually — and had little-to-no staff on the ground in New York. This pandemic was on the mind of every voter and volunteer and we needed to respond accordingly.
At the national level for the campaign, Bernie hosted nearly a dozen livestreamed virtual roundtables to millions of viewers with surrogates, experts, and musicians to advocate for worker-focused funding in the legislative relief package and uplift those on the frontlines, such as nurses, grocery store clerks, and delivery drivers.
In New York, we directed volunteers to show empathy and understanding that we may be calling voters who are weathering incredible hardships. Rather than asking if people planned to vote or which candidate they support, our first question was always “How are you doing?”
This simple question was highly effective in opening a dialogue and continuing voter contact without sounding disconnected from reality. It also wasn’t an empty question – we directed volunteers to share coronavirus resources with voters who needed assistance. These calls went beyond basic voter contact. They were meant to provide support and comfort in a scary time.
For our texting operation, we sent recruitment invitations to volunteers which specified the event would be held virtually and they would participate from home.
Generally, the low-pressure nature of the calls made volunteers feel comfortable reaching out to voters, and voters appreciated hearing from someone calling to check-in, even a stranger. People who would generally dismiss a campaign call were now engaged in a conversation. Since we didn’t make it to the New York primary, we have no data on the effectiveness of this as a tool to gain votes. But with the short-term anecdotal feedback we received from volunteers and voters, it felt like the best way to approach the situation.
Create a personal space, even if it’s virtual.
Without a traditional field office to engage and train volunteers, we could anticipate that recruitment and retention would be much harder. Volunteers typically first get involved with a campaign or candidate because they’re drawn to a larger message but will be motivated to keep coming back because of personal connections made within the campaign. Those connections generally happen through in-person events and activities. How do you recreate that experience when everyone’s behind a computer?
We had used video conferencing to great success in California to onboard new volunteers once every two weeks, but it did not prepare us for going fully virtual at a moment’s notice. Every single event we wanted to hold in New York now had to be conducted over a video conference. These virtual events provided us the ability to create personal moments with volunteers, hear their stories, and build the relationships that are necessary for a field operation to flourish.
Still, video conference calls provided us the opportunity to communicate en masse with volunteers in a way we never had before. The first new way we applied this was for training volunteers to use our dialer system for phone banking.
We originally had a schedule of Monday, Thursday, and Friday evenings and weekend afternoons that featured a live training webinar before each shift started. After the first week, we expanded the video chat and training webinars to all hours that our phone bank was operational (Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.), and restructured phone banking shifts to start each day at 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.
Each shift would have a training, which came out to three trainings per day, and the video chat would run continuously throughout the day. We weren’t sure what would happen next, but to our surprise, people signed up and logged on.
As a result, the “Virtual Field Office” was born, which was to my knowledge the first of its kind. It gave us the ability to connect with volunteers “face to face,” take questions, and provide training and troubleshooting while people were making calls.
We were now able to engage with volunteers as if we were in the same room despite being hundreds, if not thousands, of miles apart. A casual volunteer who found their way to the phone bank webpage could decide to make calls and hop into virtual field office at any point to get clarification on the script or meet staff and other volunteers. Rather than risking losing a volunteer like that due to lack of follow-up, it was easier to stay connected.
Know your tech
For the many positives our campaign experienced from virtual events, we experience a learning curve in others. If you’ve already been holding video conferences, you may be familiar with the unfortunate trend of “zoombombing.”
During virtual events, internet trolls would disrupt our video conferences by shouting obscenities and broadcasting graphic images. Our campaign got a crash course in how to deal with these after a virtual event with 200 attendees was subject to graphic imagery from a troll using the screen share function, and another troll played loud noises so that we couldn’t hear each other speak. This was tame compared to what other meetings have gone through.
If you’re going to host these virtual meetings, knowing the settings and capabilities of the platform you’re using can protect yourself and the participants. Choosing the right platform can also go a long way. For instance, we started off using Google Hangouts Meet due to convenience but ultimately moved all meetings to Zoom because the host controls for moderating are stronger.
By the time we held a union members’ virtual meeting, featuring Amazon warehouse organizer Christian Smalls, we were moderating the chat, creating a “waiting room” before people entered so after we kicked someone out we wouldn’t let them back in, muting all attendees microphones, and disabling screen sharing by attendees. More than 100 union members from New York got to hear from labor leaders on the frontline with no disruptions.
We also sought to keep links to these meetings semi-private by distributing through email to those that signed up and directing staff not to post links publicly on social media. This feels like a challenge because the impulse is to make every event as freely accessible to volunteers. But as long as you’re heavily recruiting for the event and able to disseminate meeting instructions by calls, email, or text, you should hopefully not see a major drop off rate.
Traditional organizing is still needed
Our communication transferred to an entirely virtual world, but our day-to-day operations remained largely the same. We called volunteers, set up meetings with supporters on the ground already doing the work, and reached out to local organizations to garner support.
Organizing, virtual or not, is fundamentally about people. Although we couldn’t hold in-person meetings, relationships could still be built with volunteers to identify them as leaders and level them up with additional responsibilities.
The method for carrying this out was somewhat different since we could only communicate over phone and video conference, but we still looked for the same things we would in any volunteer. Are they following the program? Are they showing up to the shifts they signed up for? Are they bringing in new people? Have they expressed a willingness to do more? Whereas in California we’d level up volunteers to host and recruit for their own canvasses or phone banks, in New York we were looking for leaders to do that for virtual phone banks with a video conferencing component. That way they could provide training on the dialer system.
Lastly, the risk of volunteers not showing up for their assigned shift still applied virtually. We found that confirmation calls and texts were as important as ever to increase volunteer engagement and retention.
One of the last decisions we made before the campaign ended was how long to make each assigned shift when volunteers were making calls at home. We were scheduling volunteers for three-hour shifts but found that it was rarely completed in full.
We planned to cut the length of a shift in half, in order to provide volunteers with an achievable goal and sense of accomplishment. Since the campaign ended before we were able to implement shorter shifts, we weren’t able to find a sweet spot of how much time ideally to schedule a volunteer. For any campaigns or organizations still operating under COVID-19, this is important to consider.
Moving on from here.
It’s unknown how long campaigns will need to operate in a world of social distancing and without in-person contact. If restrictions are lifted soon without consequence, it’s possible that campaigns field operations will have the ability to operate under standard procedure with door-to-door voter contact. Under current pandemic conditions, campaigns will be well served to adopt remote organizing methods in order to build, harness, and deploy volunteer energy — wherever it comes from.
Brendan Wiles is a political organizer based in Southern California and has worked on campaigns at the state, federal, and the presidential level. Follow him on Twitter at @brendanwiles