Vincenzina Monteleone arrived in the picturesque town of Yarmouth, Maine on a beautiful March day excited and ready to work. She had just been hired as a Field Organizer on Sara Gideon’s senate campaign in advance of the 2020 primary and general elections. Monteleone was welcomed into a cozy home by a kind older couple who had volunteered to host her. There, she met her friendly and energetic colleagues before settling into the office, looking forward to the banter and communal fun often found on tight-knit campaign teams. In particular, her colleagues had thrown a staff bowling party the previous week.
The next bowling party never came. As the outbreak of the coronavirus began to wreak havoc across the United States, the Gideon office quickly transitioned to remote work. Monteleone’s medically vulnerable hosts politely gave her the boot. Just over a week after her sunny arrival, Montelone found herself alone—holed up in an airbnb in small-town Maine, trying to elect a Senate candidate with nothing but grit, a phone, and a laptop computer.
Monteleone’s experience is not unique. In 2020, thousands of similar campaigns across the country quickly pivoted away from their long-established strategies and attempted something completely new: organizing thousands of volunteers to reach millions of voters without ever meeting them in person.
Even before COVID-19, digital organizing had long been on the rise, and Democrats had put special effort into bolstering digital infrastructure in recent years. Still, until March 2020, nobody imagined that the emphasis on digital organizing would transform into an absolute dependence.
Allen Kramer and Alfred Johnson never anticipated a global pandemic would render volunteers and organizers home-bound, but their platform, Mobilize America, was well equipped to serve the moment. They created Mobilize America in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss. In an interview with The Politic, Kramer said that each presidential campaign cycle, the large tech teams create their own internal digital infrastructure to assist in the campaigning process. He estimated that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 team launched 80 products internally. Instead of feeding the “boom and bust” cycle of political tech, Kramer wanted to create a centralized organizing platform that grows stronger with each campaign cycle.
Mobilize is a mission-and values-driven company that has become ubiquitous among Democratic campaigns. Through operating a centralized online volunteer sign-up and management platform, Mobilize allows Democratic groups to easily track, recruit, and organize their volunteers. During the 2020 elections, Mobilize powered the largest online mobilization program in American political history. Through Mobilize, Democrats organized a total of 340 thousand events, with 4.03 million volunteers completing 13.1 million shifts.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., only about 20 percent of all Mobilize events were virtual. That quickly shifted to nearly 100 percent by mid-March. While Mobilize databases show an uptick in in-person events during the final, get-out-the-vote stage of campaigns, virtual happenings still comprised the vast majority of total events. Mobilize adapted to this shift: integrating Zoom links for events into sign-up pages, sending out reminder texts, automatically synching volunteers’ Zoom call sign-ons with their attendance statuses on the Mobilize site.
Monteleone used Mobilize while working on both Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential primary campaign and Gideon’s senate run. But when the Gideon team transitioned to virtual campaigning, they began to utilize Mobilize even more: using it to host more frequent campaign events and sign up volunteers during phone banking. Mobilize was “the only way we could keep a good track and a good record” of volunteers, Monteleone said in an interview with The Politic.
Between March and May, the amount of sign-ups through Mobilize increased seven-fold. Kramer said that for many volunteers, virtual campaigning reduced barriers to taking action. Volunteers could sign on for shifts during a break in the middle of a work day without having to travel to knock on doors; it also became more accessible for those who were homebound and could not have attended in-person shifts. In a time of mounting restlessness and fear, Americans progressives turned to virtual political volunteering as a safe and fulfilling way to make change.
There is no equivalent centralized organizing tool on the Republican side. With so much Democratic organizing happening virtually, volunteers and even some organizers could work on a race from anywhere. This may be why the Mobilize platform was able to play a critical role in key states. The centrality of the platform allows it to harness both local and national energy. In Pennsylvania, for example, which flipped for Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential election, 168,000 volunteers participated in 604,000 shifts through the site. 47 percent of volunteers who attended Pennsylvania-based events via Mobilize were from out of state. Volunteers could choose to work on their favorite candidates’ race, or triage which races in which they felt their time might be most impactful.
As 2020 Democrats used Mobilize and other online platforms to dig deep into digital organizing, progressive campaigns staffed their teams accordingly.
DigiDems is another organization that Democrats relied on in their 2020 campaigns. It delegates full-time tech and data workers to address digital infrastructure gaps and strengthen the data and security efforts of Democrats in competitive races. Like Mobilize, DigiDems was founded in the wake of the 2016 election.
Stanley Yuan took a civic leave from his job at Microsoft to work as the DigiDems staffer on Representative Katie Porter’s (Yale College ‘96) re-election campaign in California’s 45 congressional district. Yuan worked as the main point of contact for all cybersecurity work on the Porter campaign, leading data-based volunteer recruitment and voter targeting while spearheading efforts to connect text-banking and phone-banking to the campaign’s predictive dialer.
In light of the high rates of COVID infection in Orange County, the Porter team eschewed all door-knocking in advance of the November election and turned their focus almost entirely to phone and text banking. In an interview with The Politic, Yuan further explained that the virtual approach allowed volunteers to follow up with undecided and low-propensity voters multiple times, building a relationship over the course of several months. “The number of times we talked to [undecided voters] is definitely something we could not have done if we were just door knocking,” Yuan said.
Porter team’s increased digital infrastructure proved especially valuable when the Silverado Fire broke out in Orange County in October, prompting mass evacuations. It was easy to pivot efforts and use these mediums to communicate evacuation information and provide aid. Yuan said that the team was able to text about 10,000 people in 20 minutes. “Being able to have that mass communication is definitely helpful,” Yuan said. Similar call and texting efforts were used to connect constituents to coronavirus resources and mutual-aid.
While Democrats largely shifted to virtual campaigning—phone banking instead of door knocking, holding Zoom webinars instead of rallies—Republicans largely stuck to in-person canvassing and events.
“There was almost nothing virtual as far as the Republican campaign was concerned,” Ben Payne, who worked as an organizer for Republican candidates in Arizona ahead of the general election and in Georgia for the January run-offs, explained in an interview with The Politic. “The strategy was to be on the ground and interacting with individuals like we would pre-covid…. The belief was that we would have a more genuine interaction and this first person contact would really encourage someone to go out and vote. It would show that we were serious and we were passionate.”
These divergent strategies in campaigning reflect the often partisan divide in approaching the pandemic. A survey from the Pew Research Center showed that Democrats were far more likely to view coronavirus as a major threat to public health. Democrats, in refraining from in-person work, communicated the severity of the pandemic and their serious commitment to halt the spread. Through their in-person events, Republicans hoped to demonstrate a quick recovery and model a return to normalcy.
However, Payne noted that the one virtual realm Republicans placed a heavy emphasis on was media.
Sarah Doty worked for a Republican ad agency in DC in advance of the 2020 elections, making video advertisements for races in various states. She noted, similar to Payne, that there was a much greater focus on digital ads and social media outreach since the onset of the pandemic.
“People paid more attention to politics due to the pandemic,” Doty said. She spoke of how, in many of the states for which she made advertisements, large amounts of the population were blue collar workers who were unable to work remotely. Her work targeted Americans who, out of work and stuck at home without much to do, turned on the TV to see how politicians proposed to bring their livelihoods back.
Payne said that the trend of media sensationalism intensified in 2020. “You kind of get stuck in your own social media bubble,” Payne said, “You see the news that you want to see and it kind of invigorates you.” He attributes the recent rise of sensationalism to the culture of social media browsing, which was heightened during the pandemic.
Democrats also used media sensationalism to their advantage. Yuan noted that candidates with strong national profiles and skillful digital teams, such as Porter, were able to bring in more fundraising and out-of-district volunteers through more viral moments. Politico attributes her campaign’s massive two million dollar fundraising revenue in the first quarter to a widespread video of Porter questioning Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While strong social media presences and mass teams of national volunteers are certainly advantageous, the virtual realm lends itself less intuitively to the kinds of small-scale interpersonal organizing that would occur in pre-pandemic canvassing and community events.
“Relational organizing” is the strategy of utilizing volunteer’s own social networks for outreach and crafting personalized conversations between friends and acquaintances. In normal times, relational organizing thrives off happy hours and potlucks. In 2020, like just about everything else, relational organizing had to be reinvented. Enter: “friend banks.”
Friend banks are virtual events where volunteers sync their phone contacts and match their friends to their voter files. Instead of calling strangers to ask them to support a candidate, volunteers text or call their own network instead.
“It will and it should stick around,” Monteleone said of relational organizing and friend banking, “Especially when utilized right, I think it’s one of the greatest tools.”
While the conversations between friends, family, and neighbors that usually happen at those happy hours and potlucks can be one of the most effective tools in political persuasion, it can be hard to track the progress that results from these conversations. Relational organizing apps gave campaigns the infrastructure to track these personal organizing efforts that often fall through the cracks of data scrutiny.
The Gideon campaign used an app called Reach, which enabled volunteers to look up a friend in the public voter file, see if and where they were registered, flag the friend as a supporter (or not), and send a customizable script about the campaign. The Porter team used a similar app called Outvote, and Senator Ed Markey’s campaign team designed their own relational organizing hub which allowed volunteers to maintain a relational organizing score to track and encourage campaign energy.
These apps (save for Markey’s custom hub), like the other Democratic tech services, were formed from the rubble of the 2016 defeat, as techie leftists galvanized their skillset to prevent such a loss from ever occurring again. Many of these projects came to fruition before the 2018 midterms, but only really took off post-pandemic; pandemic-related popularity and success will likely allow these services to thrive in the future as well.
On the Gideon team, Monteleone spearheaded the campaign’s friend banking efforts. She would hold social, conversational Zoom calls with potential voters and volunteers. While on Zoom, Monteleone would use Reach to identify the enthusiastic attendees as supporters. She would then ask these attendees to download the app themselves and reach out to five friends.
Yuan also noted that it is important for campaigns to strike a balance between using these data-tracking relational organizing platforms and encouraging volunteers to reach out to friends using whatever medium may be the most comfortable for them, whether that be over text, phone, or Facebook—even if a campaign may not receive as much information about the outcome of these efforts. What really matters, and what all these apps try to facilitate, is increasing the number of people who support the campaign—sometimes those solutions are located outside formal digital spaces.
Mobilize has found tremendous success in relational organizing. When a volunteer signs up for an event, the site grants them their own personal sign-up invitation link that they can share with friends or post to social media. Kramer said that 20 percent of all sign-ups on the platform come from a friend’s link. 39 percent of Mobilize users signed up for events through the same friend’s invitation multiple times. 14 percent of Mobilize users attended actions and events with the same person multiple times as well.
Mobilize is taking advantage of the use of its service across many organizations and campaigns to look at the macro level data. Kramer said that he envisions a site so “social, connected, and community-driven that people are just volunteering more in aggregate because we’re delivering them a really great experience with no friction.”
“Overtime, Mobilize is becoming the single destination for people to go to if you want to have an impact in your community,” Kramer said, “The goal is to become that destination not just for four million people as we are today, but 20 million people by 2024, and 50 million in years after that.”
In August 2020, Mobilize launched a feature that sends a weekly automated newsletter with relevant action recommendations. Kramer hopes to further develop Mobilize’s recommendation capacity over time. As individuals volunteer more, the site will be able to gather more data on the issues that matter to them. In the same way one might receive a Youtube or Netflix suggestion for a video to watch based on their viewing history, Kramer hopes to utilize similar algorithms to suggest events that perk a volunteer’s political interests. Kramer hopes to eventually develop a feature that would notify volunteers of events their friends had signed on to attend and nudge those users to sign up as well.
While Kramer and many organizers predict a return to door-knocking in post-pandemic years, media, social media, and relational organizing services are predicted to stick around and grow in influence.
Monteleone said that the coronavirus outbreak was, in a sense, beneficial to the Gideon campaign as it caused them to take a major step back and examine the efficacy of previously sworn-by practices.
She predicts an increased focus on relational organizing in years to come, although she’s eager for some of those events to occur offline and in person. After building close friendships with volunteers on her friend banking Zoom calls, Monteleone is most looking forward to a time when “you can actually hang out with people in person and give them a nice little hug.”