In 1965, my great-uncle, John V. Lindsay, was running for mayor of New York as a liberal Republican. Trying to win in a city where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 7-to-2 was “a little like climbing Niagara Falls," as my late forebear liked to put it.
Facing long odds, but blessed with a candidate inspiring to New York’s young people and minorities, his campaign decided to go all-in on a grassroots strategy that funneled its message of change and inclusion through the voices of 25,000 enthusiastic volunteers, according to Vincent Cannato’s book The Ungovernable City.
The Lindsay campaign spent only 20 percent of its budget on television and radio advertising, choosing instead to focus its resources on setting up 122 storefronts across New York’s five boroughs, Cannato reported.
From these storefronts, campaign volunteers hit the streets and started millions of personal conversations with voters. Lindsay recruited volunteers by appealing to their idealism. “It’s part of living to be in a campaign, part of the fabric of society, part of human experience,” he said, Oliver Ramsay Pilat reported in Lindsay's campaign: A behind-the-scenes diary.
The approach paid off. Lindsay won by four points, beating Democrat Abraham D. Beame and journalist William F. Buckley, Jr., who was running as a Conservative. He went on to serve two terms.
Fifty years later, it’s rare to encounter a campaign employing a grassroots strategy with similar scope and scale. Mass media is the name of the game, and the voices used to create and spread political messages belong to a small handful of professionals.
Indeed, I helped amplify those voices as a data scientist at Facebook, where I worked on the ad targeting and Pages analytics tools that campaign professionals utilize so successfully.
But the game is changing. Mass media and social media channels are increasingly saturated, while Millennial voters crave authentic engagement. And recent technological advancements have made it feasible for campaigns to have genuine, personal dialogues with millions of voters.
This has been called the “Big Organizing” revolution. And it represents the future of how campaigns and advocacy groups will win elections, build power, and pass legislation.
In 2015, the Bernie Sanders campaign knew that competing in the traditional media environment was going to be difficult and expensive, so they augmented their efforts with a Big Organizing program they called “Text for Bernie.” An army of grassroots volunteers would be responsible for personally texting Bernie’s millions of supporters, asking them to come to rallies, volunteer, and vote.
It worked: the campaign found that personally texting their event invitations worked significantly better than calling, according to Zach Fang, a former Sanders organizer who now works at Hustle. As a result, local campaign events were consistently packed. Volunteers boosted primary turnout by texting every phone-carrying Bernie supporter with their polling or caucus location. If a voter had a question – which many did – the voter simply texted back, and an answer was provided shortly.
The Text-for-Bernie program took full advantage of modern, off-the-shelf tools. Our personal text messaging platform Hustle was used to spark conversations with supporters. The collaboration tool Slack enabled internal communication between staff and texters. Trello and Google Docs were used for volunteer training.
Essential to the success of Sanders’ Big Organizing program was maintaining strong oversight of volunteer activity, while letting the unique voice of each organizer shine through. Although the initial outreach message was meticulously crafted by campaign staff, volunteers were instructed to carry on the conversation as they saw fit, using the informal language and liberal use of emojis appropriate for texting.
Sanders’ Big Organizing strategy not only got butts in seats and ballots in the box, but it also brought citizens into the campaign in a way that immediately and viscerally rewarded their efforts. As a “jaded social studies teacher” volunteering with the Sanders campaign recalled:
“I signed up for the Text for Bernie program and … sent 150 texts reminding New Hampshirians where their polling site is,” the teacher wrote. “It felt fantastic. I haven't felt this since my sophomore year of high school helping old ladies vote, thinking that I was doing something important.”
Big Organizing is so exciting because it uses technology not to automate citizen communication, but to humanize it. By funneling communications through the authentic voices of their champions, campaigns and advocacy groups are strengthening ties in our communities and boosting their own key performance indicators in the process.
Half a century after John Lindsay’s mayoral campaign, we’re back where we started: campaigns as authentic conversations between real people around shared values. The rise of Big Organizing promises to bring millions of people into the political process once again.
Roddy Lindsay is the CEO of Hustle, a text messaging platform for campaigns and causes.