The Political Revolution in 2020 Relies on Massive Volunteer Organizing

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A volunteer wears a credential before the start of a campaign event for Senator Bernie Sanders in Concord, New Hampshire. 

CONCORD, New Hampshire—If a fire marshal came to the opening of this Bernie Sanders campaign office, she probably would have shut it down.

An overflow crowd of at least 50 people packed the long and narrow strip-mall space to hear the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate launch his campaign’s “political revolution” in yet another outpost across the state. 

It was the last weekend in June, four days after Sanders appeared at the first Democratic Party presidential debate and, according to pundits, failed to challenge former Vice President Joe Biden and capture the nation’s attention. Polls have alternately shown Sanders falling slightly behind Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, or moving closer to Biden in second. A bizarre Politico headline read: “Harris, Warren tie for third place in new 2020 Dem poll, but Biden still leads,” without mentioning the guy in between. 

There was no sign of a slump, however, among the mass of Sanders campaign staff, volunteers, and supporters gathered at the Hudson office on the afternoon of June 29. And it signaled that, on the ground where early states may be won, Sanders still retains a good deal of grassroots support that he is converting into one of the largest volunteer armies of any candidate, fueled by the movement against inequality that has coalesced behind him.

“Bernie is my hero,” 38-year-old Amherst, New Hampshire, resident Rick Dumais said at the event. He agrees with all of Sanders’s policy platforms, including a $15 federal minimum wage, Medicare for All, and, most importantly for Dumais, ending corporate corruption. “I just don’t know if anyone else has the movement he has to get support across the nation,” Dumais said.

Kelly Bellemare, a middle-aged Amherst resident, said she was for Sanders last time around and is with him again because she believes Sanders is consistent, understands the issues, and looks out for everyone’s interests. “He believes we need to keep involved after the elections,” Bellemare said, adding that Sanders understands the importance of staying active in local and state politics. 

One wouldn’t expect to find defectors at the opening of a campaign office, but the message from Sanders advocates should be heeded. Time and again supporters spoke of the campaign not only as an effort to attain the presidency for a particular man, but as a collective movement to overturn the established Democratic Party’s political class, end the dominance of corporate interests, and redistribute wealth more equally across society. His backers depicted Sanders as the vehicle for the movement, but not its end goal.

On the wall, “Not me. Us.” was printed in large handmade letters. No one articulated the message of movement-over-campaign more than Sanders himself, as he placed his campaign directly in the lineage of past successful movements for change.

“Real change, whether it was the labor movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, the civil rights movement, all of you know from your history, it never comes from on top, it always comes from down below,” said Sanders. “It always comes when millions of people stand up, struggle, and fight for justice. This is what the campaign is about.”

While Sanders supporters at the Hudson office commented that Warren was not sufficiently in favor of political revolution, the two campaigns share important similarities. Sanders and Warren have the heftiest ground-games of any candidate in the state, especially when it comes to the number of field offices, with Sanders staffing six offices and Warren four. 

Field offices, where people can go to organize and learn how to canvass for a candidate, have been shown to increase county-level vote share by about 1 percent, according to a 2013 study from Joshua Darr and Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania. Barack Obama had 947 offices throughout the country in 2008 and 789 in the run up to the 2012 election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had significantly less, with 537 offices around the country. 

On June 29, eight months before voters go to the polls, both the Sanders and Warren campaigns had upwards of five separate canvassing events across the state in which volunteers knocked on doors to advocate for their candidate. No other democratic presidential candidate seemingly had even one public door-knocking event for volunteers that weekend, though many campaigns, including Biden’s, sent staff to march in the Nashua Pride Festival.

In-person conversations are the most effective way to turn out voters according to two decades of rigorous randomized experiments, said political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla. Even one in-person conversation boosted a voter’s likelihood of going to the polls by 20 percent, the researchers said. 

A strong ground game cannot alone can win an election. Donald Trump, with his paltry staff and organizing efforts outsourced to the Republican National Committee, beat the relatively robust Clinton voter contact machine. In a postmortem for the 2016 campaign, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame concluded that while ground games are important, they are not necessarily predictive. 

Still, the deputy director for Sanders campaign in New Hampshire, Carli Stevenson, said that the Sanders team will win the campaign on the ground. “We had a lot of folks that supported us last time, and we want to make sure those folks are hearing from us again,” Stevenson said. “I think especially because of our success last time that we feel we have to work harder this time.”

Sanders won the 2016 New Hampshire primary with 60.4 percent of the vote compared to Clinton’s 38 percent. Despite his success last time around, Stevenson said the campaign was not canvassing at this point in the cycle in 2015. “We don’t want folks to think that we’re just resting on our laurels. We want to do everything we can, and we’re commmitted to building the most robust ground game in the state,” she said. Early intel from canvassers show that Sanders is holding a lot of his 2016 supporters, but some voters also want to explore the other candidates. 

The campaign is combining formal office-driven field events with what they call “distributed organizing,” where volunteers independently engage in voter contacts through door-knocking, phone, and texts. By the beginning of July, the Sanders campaign had sent out 50 million text messages to potential supporters; throughout the entire 2016 campaign they sent 80 million. The goal is to convert non-voters into voters and overwhelm the primaries with turnout that polling won’t pick up. And it starts by identifying and turning out volunteers to do the organizing themselves.

On Saturday morning, Daniel Amick, despite his busy work schedule and a baby at home, went out canvassing alone for Sanders, for the third time in as many weeks. Amick is a 35 year-old landscaper who moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, a year ago from North Carolina, where he was a firefighter, in order for his wife to take a better job.

He first became a Sanders supporter in 2014 when he saw a video of the candidate speaking about ending super PACs. Corporate money in politics from the oil, student loan, and pharmaceutical industries hinders passage of all policies that could help the middle class and protect the environment, Amick said. In 2016, Amick backed Sanders, but never canvassed for him because of self-proclaimed selfishness: “I thought I had better things to do with my time. I’ve regretted it since the primary. In retrospect, I realize I could’ve done more.”

This election cycle, Amick is taking action. “He’s the one person that says not me, us. He’s the one person who works to get you and me involved,” Amick told Manchester resident Jeanne Johnson after knocking on her door.

Like Sanders, the Warren camp believes a strong ground game is their path to victory in New Hampshire. 

“New Hampshire for Warren has staff and volunteers talking to Granite Staters every day all across the state about Elizabeth’s big plans for big, structural change,” the Warren campaign told the Prospect. “We are building a campaign to compete and organize everywhere.” 

Mohammad Saleh was among the about 10 people gathered at Warren’s Keene office on Sunday, June 30, for training about how to canvass for Warren. Saleh, a middle-aged engineer and former vice chair of the local Democratic Party, came to volunteer with his high school-aged daughter.

Ever since 2008, Saleh has knocked on doors for the Democratic presidential nominee after the primary was over, first when he lived in Ohio and then in New Hampshire after he moved to the Granite State six years ago. “There are many activists like me who used to be seasonal and only show up after the primary but now realize we can’t wait until after the primary,” Saleh said. “We have to be involved before the primary so that we can control the dialogue and choose the candidate that reflects our values and would be the strongest person to implement the society we want.” 

Warren is his candidate of choice, Saleh said, because “she has the plan and she has the ability to execute the plan.” He compared Sanders to Gandhi, saying he has inspired progressives like himself. “Gandhi was the spiritual leader that set the tone of the conversation for where society wants to go, but he was not necessarily the right person to be the first prime minister when the country became India. It was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an excellent prime minister,” Saleh said.

This is all anecdotal evidence from a plot of the grassroots in one predominantly white, somewhat rural state. But considering the epic faux pas of polling in the 2016 election, and the extensive nature of the organizing, it may be the best we have, and worth listening to.

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