The Bernie Sanders campaign kicked off its massive volunteer program this weekend by holding nearly 5,000 house parties across the country and unveiling a new organizing app that gives campaign supporters a way to share political information on friends, family, and neighbors.
Sanders’s strategy to emerge from the crowded primary field revolves around energizing and empowering his army of supporters, and giving them easy-to-use tools in the hopes of expanding the electoral map in both the primary and general elections. More than 60,000 people attended the events, which took place in every state and more than 30 countries outside the U.S., according to the campaign.
Sanders, along with campaign manager Faiz Shakir and campaign co-chair Nina Turner, addressed supporters through a pre-recorded broadcast that was streamed at the parties. “So let’s do it, let’s run a historic grassroots campaign,” Sanders told supporters. “And when we do that, the 1 percent can spend all of the money that they want. We’re gonna beat them.”
The campaign’s new organizing tool, called BERN, helps volunteers track potential supporters and voters, allowing them to log the name and background of anyone they talk to, from friends and family members to a stranger on the street. The app will also help volunteers know how to participate in the Democratic primary or caucus in their state and register voters.
On friend-to-friend mode, supporters are asked to add the name, city, and state of everyone they know, information that is then matched to their voter record. The app also asks about the person’s level of support, union membership, and other candidates they might vote for.
Some critics have called the app invasive, arguing that the database of personal information could open non-supporters up to harassment. Though much of the information the app requests is publicly available, critics say that having the data neatly compiled — while not giving people a way to opt out of it — presents safety concerns.
The skepticism appears rooted in (hostility to Sanders and) a basic lack of familiarity with how campaigns work. Voter rolls are public, and the Democratic Party has long been aggregating additional information about voters to aid with fundraising and turnout operations, data that all major campaigns have access to. The difference is that the Sanders app democratizes the process with the goal of expanding the electorate, while the party operations are aimed at identifying existing supporters so they can be motivated to vote. The party data is generally available to campaign volunteers, but because Sanders lowers the bar to volunteering, more people will now have access to the data. The goal, though, is to get more people to vote for Sanders, not to attack Sanders opponents.
To that end, they’ll be relying heavily on supporters.“We don’t think, in the national office, that we have all of the answers,” Sanders said. “Trust me, we don’t. Every person out there knows your own community better than we do. Can you put on a concert, can you have a potluck event? Whatever it may be, bring people together. Develop a sense of community, reach out to people who might feel uncomfortable about being involved in politics.”
Sanders has a list of 1.1 million people who’ve pledged to volunteer so far, meaning roughly 6 percent showed up to a house party over the weekend. Sanders told them that the goal is to have volunteers engaging on social media in addition to the “old-fashioned stuff,” like knocking on doors and handing out literature. Unlike the typical political campaign, where volunteers work under the supervision of paid campaign staff, Sanders volunteers will be given the tools to help grow the movement at an exponential scale, free of the restraints of traditional top-down campaigns.
“And remember,” Sanders said. “It’s not Bernie! It’s us! Don’t forget that: Us! Us! Us!”
Sanders supporters, with and without previous organizing experience, gathered this weekend in libraries, living rooms, restaurants, and classrooms. They wore Bernie shirts, made Bernie signs, Bernie cookies, and Bernie cakes. Some groups even received a surprise phone call from the candidate himself.
In Oakland, Bay Area Muslims for Bernie held its party at a local Palestinian street food restaurant. A group of around 25 people, which included supporters from Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Yemen, Afghanistan, and around the United States, joined the organizing kickoff. “We even had refugees attend who cannot vote but still wanted to support and promote Bernie’s message,” Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh told The Intercept in a message.
“We talked about how a lot of us can relate to the ‘Not Me. Us’ movement because it shares the energy of the Arab Spring, which we all were involved directly or indirectly in. After watching the video, we immediately got to work and planned teams to begin canvassing and mobilizing other immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and Iranians in California. The upcoming month of Ramadan will be key for us.”
Marco Alcivar Perez in Mooresville, North Carolina, hosted a Bernie house party, which 12 people attended. He said he felt motivated to host his own event after noticing that there weren’t any planned in his area and in part because of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former Sanders volunteer herself, who showed that “anyone can get involved and make a positive change.”
Alcivar Perez said most of the attendees at his party cited Sanders’s consistency on policy issues as the primary reason they were drawn to his campaign. “They mentioned they could go on YouTube and see him advocating for health care as a right since the 80s and that he was a genuine guy.”
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, a Sanders supporter, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from his employer, hosted an event attended by about 10 people. “The majority of people who attended were there because of horrific health care stories,” he told The Intercept in a message.
“Personally, my wife and I support Bernie for a plethora of reasons, but mostly because we lost a child, and as devastating and painful as that was and continues to be, the medical bills we accumulated made the situation that much worse. It’s been almost six years since our world was torn apart, and our bills are still with us.”
Nearly 20 people attended a Sanders party in Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. “We were all surprised when one of the attendees introduced himself as Faiz Shakir, Bernie’s campaign manager,” Thomas Henry told The Intercept.
Women of Color for Bernie, which organizes and campaigns in several neighborhoods in Los Angeles, tweeted photos of the group wearing shirts they made at their event. “We’re debunking the false narratives about Bernie’s troubles with POC!” they tweeted.
The Vermont senator has been leading almost every other presidential candidate in early fundraising, another indicator of his campaign’s strength. In the first quarter, he raised more than $18.2 million, with 900,000 donations from 525,000 individual donors.
Only former Vice President Joe Biden has had a larger first-day primary fundraising haul than Sanders, raising $6.3 million in the first 24 hours after formally launching his campaign. But Biden had far fewer donors, receiving 107,431 online donations from 96,926 individual donors. Unlike Sanders, he kicked off his presidential bid hosting a private event with corporate lobbyists and GOP donors at the home of Comcast executive David Cohen.
“That’s fine, there is a limit to how many max checks one can collect,” Shakir said in a fundraising email following the news of Biden’s haul. “Our advantage is the sheer number of people who support our campaign and are willing to chip in to help us win.”