Elections are Won in the States (and Online): Stories from the Biden 2020 States Digital Organizing Team
80,000 votes in Pennsylvania. 20,000 votes in Wisconsin. 10,000 votes in Arizona. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won this election because our campaign maximized its organizing efforts — and with margins this slim, it’s fair to say that digital organizing teams on the ground put them over the edge.
Headed into the most unconventional general election in our country’s history, there were many unknowns, but two things were certain. First, that this campaign would be won or lost in the battleground states. And second, that we had to rethink how we organize.
The answer to our problems was clear, but risky: Revamp our state digital organizing programs to meet the moment and incorporate robust direct voter contact elements.
For over a decade, presidential campaigns have invested in small, traditional battleground state digital teams tasked primarily with running digital communications programs. If these teams ran any direct voter contact, they were limited to peer-to-peer texting programs. We knew that this cycle we needed a historic amount of volunteer capacity and that the pandemic would put an unprecedented onus on our teams, so we moved forward with a new digital organizing model for our 17 battleground states.
But a blanket approach wouldn’t do the trick. We challenged our state teams to customize how they executed the model, considering their state organizing infrastructure and different communication styles. The final product was a two-pronged approach, with state digital organizing teams running different variations of the following programs:
- In-state distributed organizing programs: Battleground state teams recruited and managed volunteers through Slack to make statewide phone calls and send peer-to-peer texts that IDed supporters, recruited volunteers, supported voter education, and turned out our voters.
- Online communities programs: State teams engaged with existing online communities and influencers within battleground states to spread our campaign’s message, combat misinformation, and push supporters to volunteer. In addition, they ran relational organizing programs to help facilitate friend-to-friend outreach, allowing our campaign to reach new voters.
This post will outline how we built this cutting-edge program and will highlight the amazing organizers and volunteers who made it a success.
Running Digital Organizing Voter Contact Programs in 2020: In-State Distributed Teams
Across our 17 battleground state digital organizing programs, in-state distributed teams served as critical contributors to our voter contact operations. In Virginia, over 60% of the state’s direct voter contact was completed by Emily Doran, her digital organizing team of three, and their army of volunteers.
All told, our state digital organizing teams accounted for one-third of all voter contact on the Biden campaign, including nearly 250 million text, call, and relational attempts, more than 5 million conversations, and over 248,000 completed volunteer shifts — with just over 120 paid staff. Think about that for a second, especially if you’re a campaign manager with a small budget. The Biden campaign’s in-state distributed model gets you potentially millions of quality conversations for a fraction of the budget. For larger races, if organizers are able to resume outdoor canvassing in 2022, campaigns will have unprecedented options on the table to reach voters at scale. Or, when examined through a sequencing lens, campaigns will no longer have to choose between running persuasion programs versus voter registration programs in the critical closing weeks of early October. They can run both.
Our state model’s foundation rested on two key pillars:
- Traditional organizing tactics that built volunteer leadership and teams, empowering supporters to invest in a single state identity (which kept them coming back).
- State-of-the-art voter contact tools that allowed us to scale our outreach into the stratosphere.
Each of our battleground programs ran their own call, text, and relational organizing teams. To sustain this massive program, we recruited, trained, and empowered hundreds of (wonderful!) volunteer leaders. Following a detailed model set by Emily Doran’s Virginia team, volunteer leaders worked hand-in-hand with our state staff to craft seamless training programs that quickly onboarded new volunteers.
This added capacity allowed our teams to bake in organizing fundamentals, which are often overlooked in distributed organizing models. In Colorado, Karla Galvan’s team scaled a massive texting program, but paid particular attention to reshifting volunteers for future events. This meant their team had a reliable volunteer corps and an accurate picture of their capacity.
Just because we couldn’t meet face-to-face didn’t mean we would throw out the principles of community organizing and team identity that got us here in the first place. Our teams were deliberate in creating a culture around the identity of their state. Here are a few great examples:
- In Florida, Miranda Barrie’s team built out Spanish and Haitian-Creole bilingual voter contact programs. In addition, they developed a Digipuertas program that tasked their Spanish-speaking volunteers with contacting likely-Hispanic voters through WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram.
- In Georgia, Stacia Yim’s team leaned into the state’s lingo. Volunteer trainings were named “Peach Jams” and their volunteer appreciation call was branded the “All Y’all Vol Call.”
- In Michigan, Jewell Porter’s team took an even more precise approach by integrating their texting team directly into the regional organizing structure. This gave volunteers the opportunity to text voters in their own communities.
- In New Hampshire, Royce Kim’s team energized a fatigued voter-base with accessible and concrete online volunteer opportunities, like virtual strategy meetings, friend banks, social canvass trainings, and post-debate social media chats.
And at the forefront of every state digital organizing staffers’ mind was the longevity of these programs: How do we build infrastructure that will last beyond this cycle?
Our Texas team’s efforts further laid the groundwork to flip Texas blue in the very-near future. Led by Bethanie Olivan, the team activated supporters in the Lone Star State who had never engaged with Democratic campaigns before. In a matter of weeks, they scaled a massive distributed volunteer army that contributed to over 50% of overall voter contact in the state. When Texas finally does turn blue, it will be in large part because of the work of Bethanie, her team, and their thousands of fired-up volunteers.
Engaging Online Communities
In addition to running an in-state distributed organizing program, we wanted to tell the story of our campaign and our supporters online to engage voters, combat the spread of misinformation, and recruit volunteers. To do that, each of our state digital organizing teams ran Online Communities programs.
We didn’t have a long runway to build infrastructure, so rather than creating new state-specific campaign communities, we focused our efforts on identifying existing grassroots groups and online spaces within each battleground state. We found this approach more valuable because we were able to partner with group moderators to mobilize the groups’ memberships. We prioritized identifying Democratic-leaning Facebook groups and Twitter DM groups within the state, and monitoring Reddit threads and tweets, in addition to experimenting with WhatsApp.
Our teams met people where they were and got creative with their asks. They ensured that everyone interested in supporting our campaign could use their strengths to get involved.
In North Carolina, our coordinated campaign needed a logo designed. Our digital organizing director, Alexis Hebert, and her team identified design-focused online communities within the state and launched a competition to design the state team’s logo. The end result was a sleek, unforgettable Fight for NC logo that paid homage to the state’s flag.
In Pennsylvania, Nandi O’Connor led a team that encouraged their volunteers to share their own stories using Soapboxx, a tool used to support organic video creation and distribution. When Joe Biden visited his hometown of Scranton, the digital organizing team collected dozens of videos of Scrantonians expressing their support. The content generated earned media for our campaign and helped shift over 100 new volunteers that day.
Aneese Johnson, our Ohio digital organizing director, generated timely content by capitalizing on breaking news. When Trump asked the world to boycott Akron’s Goodyear Tire Company, simply because they banned employees from wearing his hats, Aneese’s team worked with community members in Akron and Goodyear employees to share video testimonials through Soapboxx explaining the importance of electing Joe Biden.
In Wisconsin, our digital organizing director, Heba Mohammad, and her online communities team took a different approach: canvassing social media to recruit supporters to volunteer. The team developed an effective system to track and reply to accounts posting positive content about our campaign in the Badger state by monitoring keywords to recruit these supporters. During the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s widely discussed reunion fundraiser with the cast of Parks & Recreation, the two-person online communities team engaged with hundreds of supporters on Twitter and recruited over 130 volunteer shifts for their in-state distributed program in just 45 minutes.
Relational Organizing Outside of an App
Relational organizing is enticing because it’s the most effective way to turn people out to vote. Getting supporters to talk to people they know is the easy part: most of us are already relational organizing every day when we post political memes on Facebook or discuss our views at the dinner table.
The hard part is turning that promise — and those everyday conversations — into a program that scales, that volunteers want to continue engaging with, and that yields meaningful data to understand voter outreach and impact.
To tackle the data problem, we used Vote Joe, a whitelabeled version of OutVote’s relational organizing app. We found however that when battleground state teams deemphasized the app itself and focused on the power of meaningful conversations with friends and family members, their relational programs were stronger.
Every organizer knows the hardest thing to do is to create a truly engaging volunteer experience — an experience that meets them where they are. Without the ability to organize in-person this year, our options for creating those experiences were even fewer. However, with limitations comes the opportunity to innovate. Each of our battleground states took on this challenge in their own creative ways.
- In Nevada, Emma Kraus’s team incorporated high-profile surrogates into themed friend banks, which were dedicated events for volunteers to do relational outreach. One of their most successful relational events was a Women for Biden Friend Bank with actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
- In Minnesota, Emily Frost and her team held “Among Us” friend banks, aimed directly at younger, millennial-aged gamers to give typically disaffected audiences a pathway into the campaign that was relevant to them.
- Labor is big in Iowa, and Alli Peters and Nick Meier pioneered the use of “labor-to-labor” friend banks in partnership with their state coalitions team. As you may suspect, they found volunteers in labor were incredibly effective messengers about Joe Biden’s policies on jobs and the labor sector at large.
To win in Arizona, we knew we needed to engage the following demographics:
- Tribal communities
- Latinx communities
- Younger voters
These three groups are particularly well-suited for relational organizing because they all tend to be tight-knit. In addition, the Democratic voter file lacks significant data for these voters, making it difficult for campaigns to reach them through traditional methods like calls or canvassing.
Michael Ramirez and his Arizona team took a distributed approach to relational organizing, building a relational house party program. Here’s how it worked:
- After a volunteer participated in a friend bank, they were asked to host their own relational house party on Zoom with their networks.
- Team Arizona provided staff support, and created assets and resources for volunteer leaders and friend bank hosts to make hosting as simple and accessible as possible.
- Volunteer leaders coached hosts on event best practices and attended the friend banks to hold attendees accountable to accurate reporting.
This approach exponentially increased each hosts’ impact, turning volunteers into organizers, and voters into volunteers. The tactic helped Team Arizona rack up 41,062 relational (friend-to-friend) texts sent, the most of any state in the country.
Arizona also ran a first-of-its-kind paid relational canvassing program during the final countdown to Election Day. The team recruited paid relational canvassers from lists of college students and targeted legislative districts with high Latinx and Native population density. Our ideal paid relational candidates were infrequent voters with large networks of infrequent voters. The candidates went through a low-bar vetting interview and training. Then, they collected IDs using fairly typical relational tactics: usually by syncing their contacts with the Vote Joe app and going through their phonebook to text all their family and friends, or by looking through their networks on social media platforms, messaging people, and submitting their ID in the voter file look up portion of the app. This strategy garnered 3,000 new IDs alone in priority communities over the last nine days of the campaign.
Relational organizing is a necessary program that requires investment. It’s difficult to track (you get back way less data than what is actually happening in the field), and continues to suffer from a lack of scalability (which can be combated with a greater investment of resources). Running relational programs is high maintenance (in that it requires rigorous training and consistent coaching of volunteers, navigating the difficulties of data collection), but it’s also high reward.
Each of our state digital organizing teams ran unprecedented, innovative programs. Together, they bridged the gap between organizing and the internet and helped our campaign pull off the largest voter contact operation in political history.
We learned *a lot* running these programs. Here are our top recommendations for anyone looking to build a similar model:
- If you’re working with state programs from HQ, give teams a blueprint and let them run. Not all programs will look the same — and that’s ok. These programs should be authentic and reflect the states they’re run in.
- People still think digital organizing means social media content creation. Get buy in for the kind of program you want to run, and the types of skills needed in staff to run it, early on.
- States teams will still need content. Determine which team will be responsible for it (Comms? Digital organizing? Another team?), and develop systems and processes immediately. Social content programs require a lot of time and effort — make sure you staff up appropriately.
- Set goals that can be measured and work with your data team to build reporting that holds your teams and program accountable. You might need to get creative with exactly how you’re tracking this work. Get comfortable with the thought of tracking digital organizing work outside of VAN, or better yet, build a system early that translates digital organizing data to VAN.
- When a supporter signs up to volunteer with your organization, your first ask should be a relational ask. Relational is finite in that a volunteer only knows so many people — they can exhaust their list of contacts, and then still be asked to come make calls or knock doors week after week!
Throughout the Biden-Harris campaign, our state digital organizing teams challenged themselves and the preconceived notions we have about how organizing and digital operate within the campaign structure. They pushed boundaries and fought every day to elect Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Democrats up and down the ballot. The proof is in the pudding.
We couldn’t have accomplished all that we did without the support of our amazing in-state distributed volunteers. Thank you for tireless work and your dedication to our campaign. You own this win and the success of this program.
We want to help your campaign or organization incorporate this model! You can find our contact information, and the contact information for our incredible state digital organizing teams here.