Let’s present the question simply as we confront a situation of growing urgency. How can the 99% defend themselves against the power of the 1% that have purchased the political system, continue to enrich themselves at our expense, and can be expected to stop at nothing as they seek to repress those who challenge their domination? How do we organize ourselves to alter that imbalance of power?
Together, we have to develop many different organizing strategies. The assumption here is that some of us have develop ways to win election campaigns at the local, state and national level. The following comments describe the “nuts and bolts” of election organizing: building a volunteer base, phone banks, house meetings, one-on-ones, canvassing door-to-door, voter registration, social media, forming alliances, the difference between mobilizing and organizing, and some ideas about how to continue fighting for the agenda past the election.
These are some post-election reflections from Berkeley and Oakland about trying to win the California Democratic Party primary for Bernie Sanders, a small but important part of his national campaign. The comments also point out some shortcomings of Bernie’s campaign in our area.
We can learn from the “elders”:
We did not invent these techniques of welding together a volunteer force capable of winning elections. Collectively, we learned, directly and indirectly, from the disciples of legendary organizer Fred Ross Sr.—whose story is well-told by Gabriel Thompson in the biography America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Community Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Also deserving mention are: Cesar Chavez, Marshall Ganz, Fred Ross Jr., Larry Tramutola, Paul Milne, Glenn Schneider.
Creating a volunteer base:
My partner Tory Griffith, Carla Woodworth and I combined forces, beginning in October 2015, as we witnessed Bernie’s campaign pick up steam across the country. We prepared for the national campaign’s arrival and its hoped-for-success in the Berkeley-Oakland area.
Our first task was to begin creating the volunteer base. We printed a volunteer card, set a goal of 1000 volunteers by the end of December, and began to attend events to talk with people one-to-one about Bernie’s campaign. The volunteer card asked for contact information and listed campaign tasks: hold house meeting, talk to voters by telephone and house to house, staff office, distribute signs….
We asked questions. Had the person heard about his campaign? What did they think about it? We asked whether we could keep in touch with them and, together, find something they would like to do at a time that was convenient for them.
During one week-end, we went to a street fair, an event on Shattuck Avenue, one of Berkeley’s main arteries. We were surprised, and excited, by the cross section of people who were politically well-informed, and how many were ready to talk and willing to fill out the volunteer card. Some came from Walnut Creek, a mostly white, middle-class suburb about 20 minutes east from Oakland/Berkeley.
Listening, we quickly understood that there is widespread dissatisfaction. People want change, big change. Bernie’s message had hit a responsive chord.
Combining with young allies:
A few days later, we went to a meeting of students on the UC campus and connected with some “tech-savy”, motivated people who had visions of organizing the campus. They said that they wanted to run phone banks. (It is more productive and more social to call for three hours with other people than it is amid numerous distractions at home.) I told them that was our next step as well. They filled out cards. We agreed to collaborate.
Carla found an art gallery on University Avenue, Berkeley’s other main street. She talked the owner into letting us use it for free. It was a good space for a phone bank.
The UC students helped connect with the national Sanders campaign. It asked us to call voters in States that were about to hold their primary. Our volunteers were able to log-on and download phone numbers, instructions and scripts. We scheduled them to call in three-hour shifts and asked that they bring a cell phone, a lap top and a charger.
We began recruiting volunteers to attend the phone bank on Saturdays from 10 to 3, a time period that enabled them to reach the voters whose names and numbers were supplied by the national campaign. As the California primary approached, we called California voters.
Building an organization on the foundation of individual relationships:
We did everything possible to begin developing a relationship with each volunteer. Tory greeted people, had them sign in, gave them a name tag, set them up with a student assistant if they needed help, and pointed out the food and the location of the rest rooms. She captured them as they completed their shift to ask about their experience on the telephone, thank them, and sign them up for the following week on butcher paper at the exit. We promised to contact them at their phone number and email address a day before their next scheduled participation on the phone bank to remind them of their commitment. Tory quickly memorized everyone’s name, and treated each like a comrade.
During the phone bank session, we called people who had signed up the previous week but had not showed up. We had two purposes: reschedule “no-shows” and hold them accountable. We let them know that we noticed that they missed their shift, assured them that we knew they were committed to Bernie’s victory, and pointed out that they had a continuing opportunity to succeed. We signed them up for another day.
Our attendance grew. Several times we had over 95 callers on a Saturday. On one day we had 105. Together, we called thousands of voters in other States and enjoyed believing that we helped produce some wins.
In the words of Fred Ross Sr.: “Short cuts are always detours.”
House meetings, a building block:
Tory and I began doing house meetings. Aggie Rose Chavez, David Weintraub and Stu Flashman, three experienced organizers, helped by leading those we were unable to cover. Building a grassroots movement with house meetings is a technique that was created by Fred Ross Sr. and Cesar Chavez as they organized the farm workers union. It has been used since in many organizing drives throughout the US. Bernie’s national campaign did not do house meetings.
We began by meeting one-to-one with people who were interested in inviting relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors to a Bernie meeting at their home. We did not soft-sell the task. Instead, we were very clear with prospective hosts that to produce a decent house meeting, attended by12 to 20 guests, you have to make 60 to 80 calls, get firm commitments instead of “maybe”, and do a round of reminder calls a day before the event. (Our experience demonstrates that failure to do reminder calls results in a 30% loss of attendance.) Emails and phone messages help focus busy people on an event, but do not substitute for a person-to-person conversation that yields a clear commitment. In the words of Fred Ross Sr.: “Short cuts are always detours.”
The prospective hosts agreed that we check with them several times before the meeting about their progress getting firm commitments from potential guests. Our support would also include directing people to their meeting. But we would call off their meeting if they were unable to get at least ten. A number of potential hosts decided not to hold a house meeting. We cancelled some house meetings in order to avoid failures.
At the house meeting, we began with a welcome from the host who also explained what it was about Bernie and his campaign that motivated them to do the work of convening a house meeting. Then, we asked each person to introduce themselves and explain their interest in Bernie’s campaign. People were no longer anonymous. They could teach and learn from each other. Listeners acquired a sense about what they had in common with other guests and heard several perspectives about the importance of the campaign. Guests began to be aware that they were not alone. Some began to sense the possibility of collective power, an important part of creating organization.
We began the meeting by explaining the agenda and promising that the meeting would be completed in less than one and a half hours. That promise justified a rigorous adherence to the agenda and the time allotted to each item.
We showed some Bernie videos we got off the web, told our respective stories (some biography and why the campaign was personally important to us), held a brief discussion, explained the campaign, filled out volunteer cards, and made a pitch for money. We signed guests up to participate at the phone bank. Others volunteered to hold a house meeting. We raised about $10,000 that we sent to Bernie and cash that we used to pay for the food and drinks we made available to volunteers.
Our best organizers, as usual, turned out to be the people who held the most successful house meetings. We enlisted them to help us call the local campaign’s volunteer base to schedule volunteers for phone banking and the canvassing that took place in the neighborhoods contacting voters at their residence.
Our initial meeting with the prospective house meeting host resembled an additional technique that is used by organizers of grass roots movements. The organizer asks questions designed to get to know the person’s interests and values. What is it, in the individual’s view about their background and hopes that causes them to respond positively to Bernie’s campaign? The interchange encourages the person to think about, and act on, their aspirations for a better world, for themselves, their children, and their community. The one-to-one is a respectful and somewhat probing exchange that evolves into an invitation by the organizer to act with like-minded individuals.
A local Democratic Club served as the sponsor of the phone bank and fronted the money for signs, buttons and later lawn signs. Merely a few of its members showed up at the phone banks and held a house meeting. Some prefer the realm of ideas to building collective power, the labor intensive, person-to-person contact with voters.
A few people who show up at phone banks, canvassing, and house meetings prefer to talk, give advice about what else should be done, and speculate about the various candidates’ chances of winning. Try as you may, you can’t get them to commit to a specific task. Unless you are careful, they will waste the time you have to spend with active volunteers.
Why didn’t more people who had gone out of their way to sign-up on the national web site feel they had made a commitment and honor it by returning another volunteer’s phone call, signing up for a shift, and then showing up to do their part?
The new technology:
We discovered a treasure trove of potential volunteers. One of the UC students “accessed” the Sanders national web site and downloaded about one thousand of the 7000 names of people who had signed up from the Berkeley area to volunteer in Bernie’s campaign.
We made cards for the new people and began calling them. (Later we developed a data base for all volunteers and listed the results of our various contacts.) It was difficult to reach them. Despite our pleasant, sensitive, caring messages, hardly anyone called back. We found some good people, but very few out of the number we called. It was like “cold calling,” a term used by telemarketers.
Why didn’t more people who had gone out of their way to sign-up on the national web site feel they had made a commitment and honor it by returning another volunteer’s phone call, signing up for a shift, and then showing up to do their part? One reason was that it is always best to find something for the new volunteer to do immediately. Unfortunately, the new list was “cold”: they had signed up weeks before and had not received a call or contact.
An additional reason has to do in some way with the limitation of social media. Those communications, alone, do not produce the kind of personal relationships which in turn can produce mutual commitments. I recall Cesar Chavez teaching his organizers about how to deliver the union’s newspaper El Macriado: “Don’t leave a stack of them on the counter in the union office. Don’t leave them where people live. Hand them to people individually and have a face to face conversation. The ‘warmer’ the contact, the stronger the relationship.”
Neither signing up on a web site, nor communicating by email is warm enough. It does not create the powerful bond needed to weld together a community of mutually committed activists. In our local experience, the national campaign’s approach relied too much on social media and was weak on relationship building.
There may be an additional factor operating. Our society has become more and more atomistic. Fewer people live in areas they grew up in, with familial ties, as part of communities they depend on. The new technologies and the demands of a person’s job(s) isolate them further. Although there appears to be yearning for community, people are accountable at most to immediate family. They find it difficult to commit to others even for something they believe in. These obstacles may be overcome as worsening conditions give more and more people an urgent, personal stake in confronting what Bernie has aptly described as a rigged economic and political system.
The national campaign’s “barnstorm”:
One day, we learned that two volunteers from San Leandro would use our space in Berkeley to conduct a “barnstorm” on a Friday evening That is a Sanders campaign invention that puts out an invitation on social media, asks for confirmation and hopes for the best. We did not ask permission, but had eight of our people greeting guests at the door with pens and volunteer cards. We collected 383 cards.
“We lost an experienced organizer.”
The meeting had a good spirit but a totally chaotic way of recruiting people to work. Individuals were encouraged to stand up and invite people to their house, office, a local café, or wherever, to make calls, in other words to organize an impromptu phone bank. The do-your-own-thing approach did not urge the hosts to get the contact information from people who wanted to come, and there was no organized way to give reminder calls–a fatal flaw. Also, the national campaign encouraged people to log-in and begin making calls from their homes, but it had no way of knowing who was doing what. It had no on-going contact with those potentially active volunteers.
On the day following the “barn-storm”, we began using the completed cards to call people and urge them to come to our phone bank on Saturday. Later, after the national campaign people came to Oakland, they did another “barnstorm,” but they refused our offer to connect with people individually at the entrance, fill out cards, and get contact information. Instead, people stood in line to sign-in at a computer.
Carla considered the national organizers inexperienced and viewed their campaign structure as ill-conceived. She wanted a full time office for the Berkeley campaign and a precinct operation in which captains were recruited and trained to take responsibility for contacting voters in a particular geographical area. She finally quit over disagreements. We lost an experienced organizer.
Precinct captain structure:
We tried to negotiate with the staff an opportunity to put together a precinct captain structure. The Sanders people had claimed they were building an organization as opposed to merely mobilizing. We argued that without a structure in which people take ongoing responsibility for part of the campaign, in this case contacting a certain number of voters in the precinct to which they were assigned, preferably in their own neighborhood, the campaign was reduced to mobilizing volunteers each week from square one. The campaign seemed to agree with our request but did not want us to do anything different and made it all so complicated that it became impossible.
We went along with their structure. Our volunteers wanted to work with the campaign rather than quit.
Mobilizing for each week-end continued to be difficult and frustrating. We were not building an organization of shared responsibility and leadership.
To illustrate how this contrasts with a more effective organizing campaign, let me explain briefly how to set up a precinct captain model. The county registrar of voters has divided the electoral district into precincts, and produces lists of voters’ names, addresses, phone numbers, political party, and age, that can be obtained in hard copy or on the computer. The organizer approaches the most energetic and reliable volunteers and asks them to be responsible for contacting voters in a particular geographical area, the precinct, to identify Bernie supporters and later turn them out to vote. The captain is responsible for figuring out how to be most productive, namely making the contact when the voter is most likely to be home.
The organizer and precinct captain set a realistic goal for the precinct and schedule phone conversations to take place during the week when the captain will report numbers of voters contacted and responses. The organizer explains that s/he is there to help the captain, to suggest ways to overcome any difficulties and to send other volunteers to help form a team under the direction of the captain. A strong, on-going connection is forged between the organizer and her/his captains. The campaign is clear what it needs and encourages the captain to use her/his creativity how to accomplish the goal.
The Sanders campaign did not venture into our suggested realm of organizing. It even refused to take its list of supposedly 7000 people from the Berkeley-Oakland area who had signed up on the national web site and match their addresses with precinct numbers. We had explained that such a list would enable us to interest potential captains in assuming responsibility for working their particular neighborhood. Staff members told us that the national campaign wanted to keep that list separate for fund-raising.
The staff person assigned to our office had launched a Bernie student group at UC Davis and worked in another State’s primary before California’s election. She had good computer skills and worked hard to implement her campaign’s program. She was encouraged about our capacity to turn out more people for phone banking and precinct walking than “any other office in the State,” a fact that, if true, reflected badly on what was going on elsewhere.
There was no effort to figure out whether to attribute our “success” to the relationships we built or to Berkeley’s political history. The national campaign’s East Bay “headquarters”, located in upscale Rockridge, had the reputation as an unfriendly place run by an in-group of staff members. Some of that office’s refugees preferred to work out of our office in Berkeley.
Immediately, after their arrival in the East Bay, the national staff asked us to register voters at supermarkets and other locations of high volume pedestrian traffic. We approached passers-by and offered to register those who had never voted. We offered to re-register those who recently had moved or changed their name, or who were registered in another Party (primarily Peace and Freedom and Green Party members) and would have to re-register as Democrats to vote for Bernie in the primary.
Although this kind of voter registration gave the campaign visibility, it did not focus on the campaign’s main objective. We were legally obligated to, and did, register people whatever their party affiliation, which included the Republican Party and the further right American Independent Party. We had no idea whether the person we signed up to vote was a Bernie supporter. We were not necessarily going to have further contact, to persuade the Bernie supporters to vote on Election Day.
Later the staff agreed that it was best to register voters as we canvassed neighborhoods, a task that was focused, in contrast, on the campaign’s main objective: contact voters, get a commitment to vote for Bernie, turn Bernie supporters out on Election Day.
GOTV (Get out the Vote):
On the last week-end before the election, the staff sent us to houses of voters we supposedly had identified as Bernie supporters. We could increase turnout by motivating them to vote the following Tuesday, Election Day. Most of the people on the list, to our surprise, had not been contacted before. Many had voted absentee and others intended to vote for Hillary. The campaign was wasting our time. More importantly, it risked motivating Hillary supporters to go to the polls.
I do not know how widespread the problem was. California had been expected to vote for Bernie but the turn-out was surprisingly low. Perhaps that was because voters assumed by that time that Hillary was the winner. Her campaign was implying that Bernie was a bad sport by not conceding the California race.
“The organizer has an obligation to explain, without letting anyone off the hook, how that hard work can and must be accomplished.”
Relationship to Bernie’s national campaign organization:
Although we began by running a separate operation before the national campaign arrived in the Bay Area, it affected our work before and after its arrival. The national campaign engendered a “do your own thing” mentality. People interpreted the on-line “how to” suggestions as encouragement to do whatever. As a consequence, undirected volunteerism was a problem.
One self-appointed volunteer-recruiter encouraged people to act in ways that were really a waste of their time, for example to wave Bernie signs at passing motorists from freeway overpasses. She was not aware of, and therefore did not explain, the campaign’s priorities at the little barnstorm meeting she convened in her friend’s back yard.
The “disorganizer” and the local director argued that the campaign did not want to discourage anyone who was inclined to volunteer. That orientation, in my mind, fails to meet the organizer’s responsibility to potential volunteers. They wanted Bernie to win. The organizer has an obligation to explain, without letting anyone off the hook, how that hard work can and must be accomplished.
The “do you own thing” approach was related to another shortcoming of the campaign. If it had numerical goals for the State and our local operation, they were not communicated to the volunteers. If the campaign kept track of the State campaign’s progress and the contributions local groups were making toward meeting its goals, the information was never published to the volunteer base. That presented a big problem. We did not know what we, or any of the other local operations, had to do to meet goals and whether we were doing our share or better. Meeting goals did not become every participant’s project. We were not empowered by knowing what we were accomplishing collectively.
Some self-criticism is in order:
Our phone banks could have been more systematic. Although we spoke with callers on an ad hoc basis, we should have conducted an orientation at the beginning of each shift that explained the stages of the voter contact: national calling, and then local calling, house-to-house canvassing, and getting Bernie supporters to the polls. We could have calculated the average number of voters contacted per hour and asked the caller to adopt that number as a personal goal and to keep track of the total calls made. We could have included an explanation how each caller’s results, although they may have appeared insignificant because voters did not answer most of the calls, combined with others to make an impact.
Our difficulty arose from the fact that callers arrived at different times between 10 and 3. But we could have conducted trainings every 10 or 15 minutes.
They also left at different times. That made it difficult to bring them together for their comments and our summary of what people accomplished collectively. We could have presented that tally if we had insisted that each caller maintain an accurate count of their calls (voters contacted and voters reached).
Some potential volunteers pushback against a campaign that is directed from the top. There is apprehension about structure, authority, organizers rallying them to produce numbers. They resist clear goals and continual measurement. They are unwilling to be personally accountable for their part of the campaign. We saw that tendency in the Occupy movement as well as, to some degree, during Bernie’s campaign.
To elect a candidate, the labor-intensive work of contacting voters has to be done thoroughly, in a finite amount of time. Of course, you have to have a hard working candidate who has no illusions about what it takes to win and helps focus the volunteers on meeting the campaign’s goals. Mail is important, and some endorsements help, but it is the superiority of the ground operation that makes the difference.
As many people as possible deserve the opportunity to participate in a well-functioning organizational structure that wins improvements in people’s lives. That happens on an election campaign when the candidate defeats her/his opponents. It is the experience of doing one’s part with others, building that kind of collective power, that increases the probability that volunteers will continue on grass roots campaigns.
Your relationship with the candidate:
Bernie explained to his supporters that an election campaign has to be about more than electing a candidate to office. It has to be part of an ongoing campaign to bring about significant improvements in our lives. It’s about organizing for a specific agenda before and after Election Day.
Sander’s biography demonstrates that his success in Vermont has depended on the on-going organization of his constituents. He meets with them periodically throughout the State to discuss the issues that affect their lives. He invites them to tell their personal stories at public forums, to formal bodies, to the media. The 80% support he received in Vermont’s last senatorial election is a product of many years of relationship building.
Even the best-intentioned office holder with the most progressive agenda is relatively powerless without the continuing activism of supporters. Yet, unlike Bernie Sanders, most of them make no effort to develop it. They fear that it would complicate their life. They depend, instead, on their limited power of persuasion and deal-making with other elected officials. They are drawn to the pomp, perks, and flattery that surround them. Typical office holders become isolated and remote from the average constituent. Their relationships are almost exclusively with (1) the campaign donors who can be persuaded to help them remain in office, and (2) the heads of, or legislative representatives of, key endorsing organizations that have a large presence in their districts (like big public employee unions). In addition, they count on their staff members to provide individual services to constituents whose loyalty they expect in return at the time of the following election.
“Before signing up to help a candidate get elected, insist on a specific agreement about the relationship that will continue after the election.”
What can you do to ensure that your candidate remains loyal to the constituents and to those of you who personally contacted voters to build support for a progressive agenda? Will the candidate take steps to continually expand her/his base among the voters throughout the electoral district? Will the voters be enlisted to present testimony to, and lobby, elected officials in support of the campaign’s agenda? Does the candidate agree that the data base of volunteers and supporters that you built during the campaign belongs to the organization that put it together to fight for the progressive agenda, that it is not the private property of the candidate? Will there be periodic meetings with the campaign organizers who fought to ensure the candidate’s election?
According to Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez referred to elected officials as “public servants,” to make clear that they are to serve their constituents, not the other way around. Before signing up to help a candidate get elected, insist on a specific agreement about the relationship that will continue after the election. Your effort to secure an agreement may reveal that you have chosen the wrong candidate.
Did the campaign produce a lasting organization?
From the time Bernie announced his candidacy, there was discussion about building an organization that would have a life beyond the campaign. That remains an open question.
A few days after the June primary in California, we convened a meeting of the people who showed up to do the work of contacting voters. Forty- five people attended and expressed their desire to have an ongoing impact on Bernie’s agenda, locally and nationally.
Anna Callahan, who emerged the most talented and energetic organizer, made the calls and ran the meeting. Her subsequent efforts to keep something going, however, have not had the desired success. It could be because there has been no agreement that everyone choose one project instead of dispersing to various campaigns. That is the problem that the 2008 Obama campaign invited after its victory when it urged people essentially to “do their own thing.”
Hopefully, Bernie will help focus the work of his followers. There should be only one or two options at a time. The project, or projects, should be about implementing the agenda that was central to his Presidential campaign. The appeal should be directive: this is what we need to accomplish by this date. Although top-down, it should be clear where individual and local creativity is in order.
Conclusion: What does all of this mean for the future?
First, reliance on social media is insufficient.
Second, there are models that combine the benefits of social media with organizing principles. Obama’s 2008 campaign built an organization out of personal relationships, trained leaders, and gave participants a role in the organization and an experience of collective power. That campaign was designed by Marshall Ganz, one of Cesar Chavez’s key organizers. Use of the new technology should be incorporated into that refined model.
Third, it is vital that thousands of people across the country learn the difference between effective organizing and mobilizing, between people who call themselves organizers and those who really are capable of building the power necessary to shift the power balance and create a vital democracy and just society. It is a set-back when campaigns waste the time of well-meaning people. They deserve better.
We have urgent and exciting work to do. Bernie’s Revolution is not a tea party. Only organizations built on the foundation of strong and respectful personal relationships can match the 1%’s monopoly power of money, military and media.
Peter Haberfeld: BA, Reed College, 1963; law degree, UC Berkeley Law School, 1967; California State Bar, 1967; employment as lawyer with United Farm Workers Union, legal services organizations, State agencies (OSHA, PERB) and private firms; labor organizer with California Teachers Association; community organizer with Oakland Community Organizations (PICO) and back-to-land residents of Shasta County; organizer of elections and recall of local school board members and Federal presidential candidates (Dukakis, Obama, Sanders); and organizer on behalf of defendants facing criminal charges.