Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaks on stage after receiving the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a Bernies Back rally in Queens, NY, on October 19, 2019. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A New Electorate

Can the Bernie Sanders Campaign Alter the Course of the Democratic Party?

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on stage after receiving the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a rally in Queens, N.Y., on Oct. 19, 2019. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2016, Shaun Navarro was a dock worker in Oxnard, California. Calling himself a “standard liberal,” he casually followed the presidential campaign — supportive of Bernie Sanders, but convinced Hillary Clinton was a strong candidate too. Driving Kia and Hyundai cars off of boats, he’d listen to former Obama staffers on the podcast “Keepin’ It 1600,” the forerunner of “Pod Save America,” assuring him that Clinton was a lock, that Trump could never be elected. “I was like, Hillary’s great too, we have two great candidates,” he said.

Things were gnawing at him, though. The disparity between his wages compared to those of his unionized colleagues on the same dock made the climbing cost of living in California that much more difficult to bear. Workplace protections were worse too: One afternoon that September, Navarro told me, he was fired without warning for parking a car in the wrong place. He allows that he was indeed guilty of the offense, but he never thought it would be a fireable one. Navarro had a college education and had begun to talk politics with the other workers — not the kind of person any nonunion boss wants on his crew. Election night was a second shock to Navarro’s system. Democratic Party leaders, he rudely discovered, could not be trusted to hold back fascism.

He packed up for Las Vegas, where his grandmother lived and was in need of in-home care. Nevada, he discovered, was full of people similarly spit out of the California economy. “Nobody plans to move to Las Vegas, you’re kind of forced to, so Bernie’s message resonates with us,” he said. He switched from “Pod Save America” to “Chapo Trap House,” thinking through the meaning of socialism and his place in the world, and found a community around the Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which canvasses regularly for Sanders. He said that other Latinos in Nevada were gravitating toward Sanders too. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Navarro said, “reminds you of your boss, and Bernie’s the opposite. He reminds me of my tio: a little grumpy, a little stern, but he’s looking out for you.”

Navarro got a job doing customer service for Amazon. (More employees of Walmart give to the Sanders campaign than any other company, followed by Amazon workers.) He began organizing with the local group Muslims for Bernie (he is not Muslim, but some of his friends are), canvassing mosques and otherwise trying to make inroads with the community. One such effort was hosted at Shiraz, a Mediterranean restaurant in Spring Valley, Nevada, where Sanders came to speak this past October. Navarro noticed that Sanders was particularly stern that evening, but he enjoyed seeing him, teasing the candidate in a Facebook post for sitting down toward the end of the Q&A.

Later, Navarro learned why Sanders had called for a chair: The senator was having chest pain, a heart attack. He felt terrible and deleted the joke, crossing his fingers that Sanders would be OK.

Sanders would be more than alright. Three weeks later, on a sunny fall Saturday, the campaign announced its triumphant return to the trail, joined at Queensbridge Park in New York City by more than 26,000 of its closest friends — including a new one, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on hand to endorse Sanders at the first public event since his heart attack.

Shaun Navarro volunteering at a community canvassing training for Bernie Sanders at the "Leftist Garage" in Las Vegas, NV on December 21, 2019.

Shaun Navarro volunteers at a community canvassing training event in support of Sanders at the “Leftist Garage” in Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2019.

Photo: Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept

For Claire Sandberg, though, the real work was happening not on stage but on the park’s grounds, and it was an extension of something she and the campaign had been working on for at least three years. Sandberg, the national organizing director, was looking for thousands of new Navarros.

Watching the crowd file in, she thought back to 2015 and 2016, and how painful it had been to watch tens of thousands of people leave an event without getting each person’s phone number or pitching them on becoming volunteers, save for a quick call-to-action from the stage and some scattered canvassing efforts. Nick Martin, another 2016 veteran and now the campaign’s deputy field director, recalled frantically working as many people with his clipboard and paper as humanly possible at rallies. Each person he could sign up and commit to volunteer for a canvassing shift meant that roughly 40 doors would get knocked on. As he’d be jotting down the email address of one attendee, he’d watch others stream helplessly by. “There goes 40 doors. There goes 40 doors. There goes 40 doors,” Martin would tick off to himself, tabulating the missed opportunities.

Jesse Jackson, during his first presidential campaign in 1984, which jump-started the progressive pushback against the rising corporate wing of the party, described unorganized potential supporters as “rocks just lying around,” sketching out a strategy to expand the electorate rather than pander to one element of it. Picking up those rocks is the driving ambition of Sanders’s second bid for the presidency, and is the cornerstone of his argument for why he will be able to win the primary and ultimately the general election against President Donald Trump.

“There goes 40 doors. There goes 40 doors. There goes 40 doors,” Nick Martin would tick off to himself, tabulating the missed opportunities.

That Sanders’s path to the nomination relies on activating the disaffected is old news by now. Yet how exactly his campaign plans to make that a reality has been closely guarded. Interviews with dozens of senior campaign officials, volunteers, and Sanders allies reveal a well-resourced and complex organizing apparatus that has been five years in the making, the most ambitious effort yet to link face-to-face movement-style organizing with technology not available to previous campaigns. If Sanders does manage to pull off a victory, it will be thanks to the faith he invested in his volunteer supporters to do more than any campaign has asked before — and his organizing operation will get, and deserve, much of the credit.

The emphasis on organizing, and the financial dedication to it, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the campaign. The organizing team takes up a sprawling amount of space in the Washington, D.C., headquarters, a result of the national, distributed strategy requiring, paradoxically, more national staff to coordinate the operation. Volunteers are meant to supplement paid organizers in order to scale the possibilities exponentially, not replace a traditional field program. Indeed, the campaign, unlike in 2016, is not lightly staffed. More than 800 people are in its employ, with more than 250 in Iowa, roughly 140 in New Hampshire, and 54 field staff in California.

It creates a hefty burn rate — made more costly by a union contract that is, in line with Sanders’s pro-worker politics, generous relative to other campaigns — which, by December, had contributed to a tight budget heading into Iowa, with the digital campaign putting the squeeze on its small-dollar army, and the campaign tightly restricting spending outside of Iowa. While other campaigns test out gimmicks to get their average donation down to a lower amount, the Sanders campaign is doing everything it can to raise its own average. With an explosive fourth quarter of fundraising — the campaign announced it brought in $34.5 million, with an average donation of $18 — more field staff to work directly with volunteers are on the way.

Going heavy on Iowa is a way to remedy what the campaign believes was a key mistake made in 2016. Sanders and many of those in his inner circle didn’t believe he could win until very late in the campaign, instead intent on running as a protest candidate who would drag Hillary Clinton to the left. That meant he didn’t invest in the early states in the way he might have otherwise, a miscalculation made painful when Sanders effectively lost Iowa by a coin toss. He won New Hampshire, but lost Nevada, South Carolina, and was waxed in the South on Super Tuesday. He never regained the momentum he needed. This time around, the campaign believes a win in Iowa is essential, with resources flowing heavily to the state in the hopes of bringing out a decisive number of new caucus goers. In the wake of the early states, Sanders plans to have thousands of volunteers trained and ready to scale to a national campaign.

In leaning so heavily into organizing, Sanders is gambling that the strategy that won him a mayor’s race in Burlington, Vermont, and broke the back of the local establishment, can be scaled nationwide. Or, perhaps, he’s made the calculation that no other path exists through the Democratic primary — where traditional voters are older, whiter, wealthier, and hell-bent on beating Trump, nervous about the electability of a 78-year-old democratic socialist, no matter how many head-to-head polls they’re presented with.

If it fails, it’s likely to leave a mark regardless. His 2016 campaign activated thousands of people who might otherwise never have gotten into politics, and the 2020 one is doing the same. One offshoot of the last race, Ocasio-Cortez, was on hand for the Queens rally, where Sandberg hoped to turn 26,000 people into hundreds of thousands of conversations with voters. At Sanders’s launch event in Brooklyn earlier in 2019, with constricted entrance and a long line of people, Sandberg’s team, armed with Android tablets, managed to sign up more than three of every four people. The sprawling rally in the Queens park was more of a challenge, but her team still managed to sign up around 3,000 people. Several hundred of those came to a campaign event called a barnstorm the next day, which itself generated hundreds of new volunteer-run events like phone banks, along with hundreds of trips to New Hampshire to knock on doors.

At stake in the campaign is not just the fate of this year’s nomination, but the future of the Democratic Party’s coalition. The party is not the multiracial, working-class one Sanders and many of his backers want it to be. Sanders is famously not a member of it.

Coverage of the 2018 midterms brought to political discourse the term “Whole Foods districts” — a way to describe the Democratic sweep of better-off suburban congressional districts. The phrase is itself a tweak on Democratic operative Brian Fallon’s observation that a House Democratic majority runs through Panera Bread.

That may be true for a House majority, but in order for a democratic socialist to win the Democratic Party’s nomination to the White House, Sanders believes he will have to do more than merely persuade a majority of the primary electorate to come out and vote for him. He’ll have to create a new electorate.

To understand just how dramatic a class swing we’re witnessing in partisan politics, we have to go back to 1960, just before Democrats embarked on civil rights legislation. At the time, northern Republicans were in the midst of an effort to link their business-friendly politics with segregationists in the South — both motivated by a desire to weaken the federal government.

Realignments don’t move slowly and steadily but tend to work in fits and starts, ratcheting up sharply, then plateauing. In 1960, House districts where income was in the bottom 40 percent were more likely to be represented by Democrats than Republicans, regardless of race. In the 1966 midterms, in the wake of civil rights and Great Society legislation, Republicans made inroads among working-class whites, seizing a fifth of the poorest districts from Democrats. In the 1974 midterms, in the wake of Nixon’s impeachment, wealthier districts started moving toward Democrats. That breakdown stayed roughly the same for the next few decades, until the 2006 blue wave, when the Democratic coalition got richer again.

The 2010 tea party wave brought more poor and working-class districts into the GOP fold, accelerating the realignment, but it was 2018 that cemented Democrats as the party of people who shop at Whole Foods. In 1960, Democrats represented nearly every district in the bottom fifth of average income, and roughly half of the richest. After the 2018 midterms, they represented 83 percent of the richest districts. They went from a near universal hold on the poorest districts to controlling just about 40 percent. The parties have switched places on the income ladder.

Now, representing rich districts and representing the rich are two different things. Exit polls from 2016 found that Trump won voters making more than $250,000 by two points. In 2018, even as Democrats swept the suburbs, they lost among people making more than $100,000 per year, as well as among those making $200,000, while winning those underneath.

But there’s evidence that representing those wealthy districts may be a leading indicator of where the party is headed. New research by economist Thomas Piketty — the basis of his new book “Capital and Ideology,” a sequel to his 2013 blockbuster “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” — shows that educated voters blaze a trail the wealthy later follow. In 1960, the Democratic Party’s main backers had both lower incomes and less education than Republicans. Beginning in ’64, a great divergence began: Educated voters flocked to the Democratic Party, even as the top 10 percent of income earners remained Republican. Along the way, Republicans — still the party of the rich — deftly caricatured Democrats as out-of-touch elites, liberal arts professors disconnected from beer-swilling real Americans.

When Republicans represent the rich and Democrats represent the well-educated but not quite as rich, Piketty says, there’s no obvious party home for the working class, and no motivation for the government to do much of anything for that working class.

It’s a global trend, and it’s one that the Sanders campaign is trying to stop and reverse. Instead of crafting a platform to fit a coalition, the campaign is trying to create a coalition to fit his platform.

In 2016, Piketty found, for the first time voters in the top 10 percent of income were more likely to vote Democratic than voters in the bottom 90 percent, making the realignment Sanders wants to force that much more timely. Without it, Democrats could eventually become both the party of the well-educated and also the super rich. That is a party whose policy ambitions would be hemmed in by the concerns of those already doing fairly well. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, in backing off of banning private insurance in her first legislative stab at Medicare for All, was responding in part to well-educated supporters she met at rallies who were concerned they might lose their top-shelf private health insurance. “The fact of the matter is, the people who are going to be more likely to show up at her events are going to be people who already have pretty good health insurance,” Rod Sullivan, a Warren supporter and member of the Board of Supervisors in Johnson County, Iowa, told the Washington Post. “So when other candidates sow the seeds of doubt with them and say, ‘She’s going to kick you off this. What if it’s worse than what you have?’ Those people are nervous.”

“The swing voters that we’re most concerned with are the non-voters to voters,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “What we need to communicate is that this, this year, for two days — your primary and the general — it’s worth it to believe.”

As Piketty observed, when both major parties are catering to the elites, the system can’t deliver material gains for the broad base of people, so the parties fight over the one thing a nation can control: its borders, and correspondingly the definition of citizenship. Without a party advocating for universal programs of uplift, for a collective effort to confront the seismic challenges facing the planet, the dialogue in the U.S. will dissolve, the way it has already begun to do in Europe, solely into battles over immigration and nationalism, battles that the right is well-positioned to win by exploiting fear, xenophobia, and anti-elite sentiment. At a rally in December, Sanders underlined what he saw as the stakes: “We are in a pivotal moment in American and world history. The future of the planet rests in a very significant way on this election.” As a way to confront the climate emergency and global refugee crisis, the Sanders approach to the campaign could hardly be more urgent or necessary. Whether it’s a way to win a presidential campaign is an open question.

“For a long time, the Republican Party just used racism to divide people in the service of their real politics,” said Sandberg, “which were just pro-corporate and pro-top-1-percent. But the Democratic Party as a whole hasn’t fully caught on to the obvious antidote to this: that we need to form a multiracial working class coalition by polarizing on economic issues and pointing out the con that the Republican Party is perpetrating on many of their voters when they use racist fear-mongering to divide and distract people while they hoard all the wealth in society for themselves and their Wall Street backers.”

Over the weekend before Christmas, Navarro set out to canvas for Sanders with his fellow DSA members, as he did most Saturdays. This morning, though, felt different. Sanders was climbing in the polls, and as Navarro went door to door, the Vermont senator was at a rally in Los Angeles, again with Ocasio-Cortez, drawing some 14,000 people, though with precious little press coverage. From there, the pair flew to Las Vegas, where Navarro went to see Sanders for the first time since he’d watched him have his heart attack. Ocasio-Cortez, who would hold a Spanish-language-only rally the next day, which Navarro also attended, introduced Sanders, but focused her remarks on the importance of organizing in order to persuade non-voters to get out and vote. “It’s like I said when I was first running: We’ve got people, and they’ve got money,” Ocasio-Cortez said, reprising a line from her run for Congress in 2018 (which I appropriated for the title of a recent book, from which some of the reporting for this article is derived).

“Every single one of us has something to give to a movement,” she told the audience of some 2,000 at Chaparral High School. “We’re not here to be spectators in our democracy. We’re here to fight for it. So we need to decide: Are you going to bring someone with you to the caucus? Are you going to create art, are you going to post it up in the streets? Are you going to host a barnstorm? Are you going to call people in Iowa?” It could even mean just posting on Facebook, she said, before adding, “but don’t get into any arguments with people, that’s not productive.”

“On caucus night, turn on the TV early, and if the moderator tells you there’s a large voter turn out, we win,” Sanders said. “If they tell you there’s a low voter turnout, we lose. It’s really as simple as that.”

The goal, she said, is to find people who haven’t voted before, and make the case to them that it’s worth it. “The swing voters that we’re most concerned with are the non-voters to voters. That swing voter is going to win us this election and the general election. And so what I need everyone to do is go out and find as many of those swing voters as possible,” she said, arguing that it’s inaccurate to say that non-voters are apathetic.

“What we need to communicate is that this, this year, for two days — your primary and the general — it’s worth it to believe. Just suspend your disbelief for two days out of the year, that’s all I’m asking,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Sanders picked up on her theme. “Alexandria a few minutes ago made the point, and I want to make it again,” he said. “There are a whole lot of folks out there who have given up. You know them. Some of you are in this room — given up on the political process, my vote doesn’t mean anything, politics is bullshit. Why do I wanna vote?”

He said that when they leave and tell friends they went to a Bernie Sanders rally, they should be ready for them to wonder why they bothered. “Why’d you waste your time getting involved in that stuff? You explain to them you’re sick and tired. Tell them to stop complaining and get involved in the political process.”

If they do, he said, they can win. “The truth is we can win this election if we have the largest voter turnout in the history of this country,” he said. “We are strong in Iowa, we are strong in New Hampshire, we can win here in Nevada, I believe we’re going to win in California, do very well in South Carolina. We can win this Democratic nomination, but we can’t do it without increased involvement in the political process.”

Increasing the size of the electorate, said Sanders, is everything. “On caucus night, turn on the TV early, and if the moderator tells you there’s a large voter turn out, we win. If they tell you there’s a low voter turnout, we lose. It’s really as simple as that.”



Sandberg was a high school student when she protested the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in April 2000 in Washington, D.C. The massive demonstrations were part of the worldwide anti-globalization movement, a forerunner of Occupy Wall Street, which brought together labor, environmentalists, and elements of the “global south” to protest the hegemony of Western corporations and a trade regime that was exploitative abroad and destroying the middle class at home. She got caught up in a mass illegal arrest, the type D.C. police were infamous for at the time, and ten years later wound up with an $18,000 payout as part of a collective settlement.

In 2010, she used the money to help get a new local group off the ground, called Frack Action, with the goal of banning fracking in New York state, considered wildly unrealistic at the time. Yet in significant part as a result of the group’s organizing, the fossil fuel industry was stunned when fracking was banned statewide in 2014. Sandberg moved on to the Rainforest Action Network, a radical environmental group that employs civil disobedience such as occupations and blockades of meetings, coupled with a media strategy, to pressure corporations and governments.

But, she knew, going state by state and company by company wouldn’t be enough, and believed something had to change at the top to enable grassroots groups to make progress at a scale that could match the extent of the crisis. She didn’t know anybody on the Sanders campaign, but she was in luck: Nobody who wanted a future career in Democratic politics was willing to work for Sanders, lest they wind up on the business end of the revenge-prone Clintons. Sandberg didn’t want a career in Washington, so that wasn’t an obstacle, and the campaign brought her, Zack Exley, and eventually Becky Bond on to run the digital organizing program.

Their immediate task was to make good on the campaign’s promise to host thousands of watch parties on July 29, 2015, to demonstrate the campaign’s breadth and depth of support. Exley and Sandberg quickly learned there’d be no cavalry coming to support the effort. “Bernie is a loner,” Exley said of the 2015 version of Sanders, before he became a leader with a genuine following. “He does his own thing. But he also won’t allow someone else to run an organization. He was scrutinizing every hire during the campaign and agonizing over it. The CFO was miserable; Bernie wouldn’t approve anything.” There is a difference between Sanders’s 2016 micromanaging and his approach to 2020, where the campaign leadership has room to make decisions. (That, in turn, means that same leadership will come in for criticism if those decisions don’t pan out.)

Sanders’s 2016 fundraising model was different than a typical high-dollar, super PAC-backed campaign, and Sanders, not unreasonably, was never sure when the spigot would suddenly run dry. That meant that Sandberg, Exley, and Bond had to build their organizing operation on the cheap, stitching together a budget and staff with highly committed volunteers. A bottom-up organizing strategy that leaves much of the initiative and responsibility in the hands of volunteers is known as distributed organizing (or “big organizing,” in the term Exley and Bond later used in their book about it, “Rules for Revolutionaries“). Sandberg’s team largely had to hide these efforts from the senior staff at headquarters, who were uncomfortable handing over significant responsibility to volunteers. The campaign, though, had approved hiring a handful of interns. The team didn’t want students just looking for credit. They wanted true believers, and Exley found them while visiting an event in Orange County, California, organized largely by community college students: Alexandra Rojas, Cole Edwards, Kyle Machado, and Lynn Hua. Lacking the resources of wealthier students, they had no easy way to get to headquarters. They piled into Edwards’s white Nissan Murano and drove across the country to Burlington, Vermont, organizing meetups along the way. Hannah Fertig, a student organizer at the University of Colorado in Boulder, rounded out the team.

Not much was expected of the operation. Sandberg recalled an early meeting with a leader of the field program, who didn’t end up sticking around, as indicative of how traditional campaigners viewed what they were trying to do. “I remember him saying to us, Listen, you guys, you’re the dancing dog. Just be happy that the dog dances. Don’t try to get it to do anything else,” she said. “He meant that the fact that you have this system where people on their own can go every week … with some friends and do a chalk-the-block-for-Bernie or do a honk-and-wave, a table at a farmers market, is in and of itself an accomplishment — and that is the best that you can achieve, is having people where there are no staff basically, just keep themselves busy with stuff that everybody knows is not actually valuable work.”

Instead, the organizers wanted people doing actually valuable work: contacting, persuading, and turning out voters, and giving them real support to do so. Getting the mechanics right took a painfully long time. One piece that finally clicked into place, now central to the 2020 campaign, is what’s now called a barnstorm. On one level, a barnstorm is as old as organizing itself, and begins by assembling a group of supporters in a room and getting them riled up, then ends by asking them to take action — host a phone bank, launch a canvass — that will benefit the campaign. But those ingredients alone weren’t enough to unleash the energy of potential volunteers, and it took months of iterating on the process to find the right formula of social pressure, commitment, and obligation that would lead to action that would build on itself.

Matt Krausse, a Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer, strategizes where to distribute brochures reminding Sanders supporters to vote in the Super Tuesday primaries, at the campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas early Tuesday morning, March 1, 2016. The local Sanders campaign mobilized over 40 volunteers in a grassroots effort to canvas Austin neighborhoods before dawn. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)
Staffer Melanie (right) helps volunteers at the NY State Bernie Sanders headquarters in the neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn, NY on the 19th of April, 2016. This is the date of NY State primaries for both the Democratic and the Republican parties in order to select their candidates for the US presidential election of the upcoming November. Photo by: Alessandro Vecchi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Left/Top: Matt Krausse, a Sanders campaign volunteer, strategizes where to distribute brochures ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, at the campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas, on March 1, 2016. Right/Bottom: Melanie, right, a staffer for the Sanders campaign, helps volunteers at the NY State Bernie Sanders headquarters in Brooklyn on April 19, 2016. Photos: Tamir Kalifa/AP; Alessandro Vecchi/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

By January 2016, the organizing operation was finally starting to hum. “We only built the runway right before we ran out of it,” said Sandberg. “We didn’t even hire most of our distributed team until January 2016, and we’d only hit a million calls, out of the 85 million that we ended up making, by Iowa.”

While the distributed team kept busy in later states where there was no staff yet, early states like Iowa were run in the traditional fashion. That approach asks volunteers to come to a local campaign office to make phone calls, stuff literature, or go canvassing door to door. The field staff spend their time on the phone, attempting to recruit volunteers.

“We only built the runway right before we ran out of it,” Sandberg said of the 2016 operation.

In March, after the first four contests, in which Sanders won New Hampshire, narrowly lost Iowa and Nevada, and was blown out in South Carolina, the focus moved to Super Tuesday states. That set up a conflict between the traditional campaign, which was now sending out paid staff who were running headlong into the radical distributed experiment that was under way. In some states, the field team worked collaboratively with the distributed team — often because Sandberg had helped hire that state’s director — but in others, they effectively kicked the Sandberg-Exley-Bond operation out. In one state, the campaign shut down a volunteer-organized phone bank because the campaign was having a ribbon-cutting on its first official field office and didn’t want competition. Sometimes it worked. In Michigan, the distributed operation had been up and running months before the paid field staff were relocated from New Hampshire, and they plugged in seamlessly, deploying the already-organized volunteers at scale.

On most campaigns, the advance staff — those charged with organizing events — are typically siloed off from the rest of the operation, particularly the field organizers. An event requires meticulous preparation, as every piece depends on every other piece working, and working at the time it’s needed. No extra pieces of the puzzle are welcome. One day in Lansing, Michigan, in March 2016, the field team, buttressed by volunteers, swarmed  a crowd estimated at over 10,000 at Sanders rally at the Breslin Center. Despite some run-ins with the advance team, the organizers signed up more than 3,000 people at the event to volunteer — using paper rather than Androids. Over the next few days, each one was contacted to nudge them to follow through on their commitment. Even with a healthy flake rate, that Lansing event easily translated into tens of thousands of conversations at doors all over Michigan. Sanders was polling 20 points down on March 8 when primary votes were cast, but scored a startling upset against Clinton.

But even by then, it was becoming apparent that the primary was no longer winnable, with a stake driven into it by a bad loss in New York. In March, a chunk of the distributed organizing team — Exley; Rojas, who did logistics for the barnstorms; Corbin Trent, and Saikat Chakrabarti — left the campaign to found, with Isra Allison, Brand New Congress, launched in April. It would later splinter off into Justice Democrats.

Sandberg, for her part, stayed until the bitter end, turning off the campaign lights after the convention, and then joining a new group, Our Revolution, that Sanders set up to carry the political revolution forward. It was of a piece with Sanders’s strategy to remake the Democratic Party in a more progressive, working-class image. Instead, it became a data point against the claim that such a reformation is possible. While it had some successes, it has by no means been a major force in Democratic Party politics.

Top advisers to Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential hopeful, meet with members of his campaign staff from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in Burlington, Vt., Sept. 30, 2015. The Vermont senator and his advisers, having raised about $26 million since July, are forming a battle plan beyond their immediate goals of winning Iowa and New Hampshire. (Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/The New York Times)

Top advisers to Sen. Bernie Sanders meet with members of his campaign staff from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 30, 2015. Claire Sandberg, in blue, is seated at the table.

Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/The New York Times via Redux

Sandberg’s condition for joining Our Revolution was simple: Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager, could not run it. Weaver was in sync with Sanders when it came to the political revolution, but the question of how to wage it through Our Revolution was different. The activists who were set to run Our Revolution wanted a distributed, bottom-up organization, while Weaver favored a more traditional model for an outside group, funded by big donations along with the small-dollar base.

Sanders promised that Weaver wouldn’t head it, and made his former body man — the staffer who follows a politician around, making sure he has everything he needs — Shannon Jackson, the executive director.

Our Revolution became a data point against the claim that reforming the Democratic Party is possible.

Weaver, however, was installed anyway as president and Our Revolution was made a 501(c)(4), which meant it could take unlimited dark-money contributions and also meant it couldn’t work directly with campaigns. It was the opposite of what Our Revolution staffers thought they had signed up for.

Sandberg, along with a majority of Our Revolution staffers, went for the door. When the story became public, Sandberg didn’t hold back.

“It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads,” Sandberg told Politico. “That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about, and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit.”

Sandberg, after joining MoveOn to help Hillary Clinton win the general, spent much of the winter and spring after the 2016 election, like many other people, getting arrested on Capitol Hill and pressuring Democrats to stiffen their resolve in the face of Trump.

Sandberg eventually left the country to help train leftist movements in Europe on what the Sanders organizing operation had learned, linking up with Podemos in Spain, Labour in the U.K., and Die Linke in Germany. But the insurgency in the U.S. drew her back, first running the organizing operation for Abdul El-Sayed, a gubernatorial candidate in Michigan. There she brought on Hannah Fertig, the one-time intern on the Sanders campaign who’d helped with the Lansing event. After winning her primary in June 2018, Ocasio-Cortez joined Sanders in backing El-Sayed and campaigning for him in Michigan. El-Sayed lost in the primary.

Sandberg moved from there to run a last-minute outside operation, funded by the Working Families Party, to boost senatorial primary challenger Kerri Harris in Delaware. Harris fell short too. She also helped out the WFP, which has endorsed Elizabeth Warren in 2020, in its efforts to elect Zephyr Teachout as New York attorney general and Jumaane Williams as lieutenant governor.  There were idiosyncratic reasons each loss could be explained away as there were for many other insurgent defeats in 2018. But despite the best efforts of organizers in Michigan, Delaware, and New York — Sandberg’s intern Rojas, fresh off of helping lead Ocasio-Cortez to victory, had moved to Delaware too — Democratic primary voters went a different direction, another reminder of the scale of the challenge facing Sanders. (Williams, though, was later elected New York City public advocate.)

As the 2020 cycle approached, Sandberg began to wonder what the next Sanders campaign could be capable of, if it was truly unleashed on the ground, and had more than a year to prepare. She mended fences with Weaver, apologizing to him for slamming him in public. Sanders, in a managerial decision that would have dramatic implications for the type of campaign he’d run, agreed to bring her back on, but this time he put the entire organizing operation — distributed, traditional, all of it — under Sandberg’s roof.

Weaver would be made a senior adviser rather than campaign manager. The swing toward a movement campaign threw some of the 2016 baby out with the bathwater. Even if the organizing operation was at a nascent stage, the 2016 campaign, run by Weaver, was remarkably effective (Weaver remains involved, but as a senior adviser). During his first run, Sanders’s messaging consultants, led by longtime Sanders ally Tad Devine, had been a key part of the campaign, producing the memorable and viral ad “America,” which gave a major boost to his campaign. This time, the consultants are gone — quitting after Sanders shot down their launch video and quickly cut his own — with the ads now made in-house. None have been memorable. The only viral video was made by a Sanders supporter who was later hired and just as quickly fired.


A campaign that views itself as a social movement first and a campaign second can create distractions for itself. Early on, aides who objected to elements of the union negotiations leaked to the press. Some staff fought against the campaign’s use of Amazon and Airbnb, later leaking that dispute to the press, as well.

But it can also come with upsides. In 2018, organizers who later joined the Sanders campaign picked up a handful of policy victories while working on Jess King’s House race in Pennsylvania, by not restricting their work simply to marshaling votes. In the same way, on a much larger scale, the campaign has put its resources to work on behalf of outside fights not directly related to the campaign in an unprecedented way. “Before I started, Bernie told me, ‘We’re gonna have a powerful organizing force, not just in service of the campaign, I want it in service of movements in line with our values,'” Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager, told The Intercept.

Sanders spokesperson Joe Calvello said that so far, the campaign has sent hundreds of thousands of emails and at least half a million texts encouraging its supporters to rally at more than 50 union strike sites, protests, and other actions.

During the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the campaign produced multiple videos, sent tens of thousands of texts and emails to support the strike, and assigned a staffer to embed directly with CTU.

In September, during the Chicago Teachers Union strike, Sanders met with and rallied the teachers, but didn’t stop there. The campaign produced multiple videos, sent tens of thousands of texts and emails to support the strike, and assigned a staffer, Alex Han, to embed directly with CTU. He hosted a civil disobedience training for nearly 600 teachers and staff, coaching them on how to block traffic or shut down building lobbies, which the CTU successfully pulled off during the strike. Sending emails to supporters urging them to join picket lines, as the campaign has done repeatedly, isn’t cost-free. Every email that goes to boost a movement is one that’s not raising money for the campaign.

In June, when the Trump administration announced they would use Fort Sill, the one-time site of a Japanese-American internment camp, as an immigrant detention center, local groups planned a protest. Calvello said the campaign identified hundreds of its supporters near Fort Sill, and helped coordinate the protest and turn people out, producing a video as well. The administration later backed off the plan.

When the administration threatened raids in major cities across the country, the campaign sent out know-your-rights graphics in Spanish and English, based on guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union, where campaign manager Faiz Shakir had recently been political director. That comes on top of the material gains Sanders has snatched, including pay raises for Amazon and Disney workers.

Sandberg’s first hire was Becca Rast, a veteran of the climate movement who helped launch the Sunrise Movement — where, at 27, she was the secondoldest person involved. When Sandberg first reached out, Rast had no interest in working on a presidential campaign. She had just thrown herself into one of the most dynamic congressional runs of the 2018 cycle, serving as campaign manager for Jess King in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country — Rast’s home of Lancaster County. In what proved to be a relentlessly Republican district, King lost by 18 percentage points, but managed to increase Democratic turnout to a number that would have been sufficient to win had the district not been redrawn by the state Supreme Court midrace.

But Sandberg laid out the scale of the campaign’s organizing ambition. It made sense to Rast, who had long been interested in remaking the Democratic Party. Her years as a young adult away from Pennsylvania convinced her that areas like her hometown shouldn’t be written off by Democrats. “When I left [Lancaster County], a lot of people told me the place that I’m from could never be progressive, would always be conservative,” Rast told The Intercept. “And I let myself believe that a little bit. And then as I learned how to organize and what it meant to organize working people and make political change, I realized just how much deep potential there is here.” After Trump’s election, she teamed up with Nick Martin, a fellow Iraq War demonstrator in high school, and her husband, Jonathan Smucker, to form Lancaster Stands Up, which The Intercept profiled in 2018. When she left to run King’s campaign, she brought Martin with her to be field director.

Protesters from the Sunrise Movement gather outside the offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Nov. 13, 2018. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, congresswoman-elect from New York, also made a visit to the protest. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)

Sunrise Movement protesters gather outside the office of then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13, 2018.

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times via Redux

Rast planned to build on the success of the LSU grassroots effort, which had helped flip a number of local races, and expand it statewide with the formation of Pennsylvania Stands Up. But Sandberg was insistent, making the case that the Sanders campaign represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the game, and there was really nobody else equipped with her combination of national campaigning and distributed organizing skills. And Rast had remained committed to global politics; a week after the 2018 campaign, she and Martin were in Washington, D.C., taking part in the occupation of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office that Ocasio-Cortez joined. She packed up and moved to Washington, where the Sanders campaign is headquartered, to become national field director in early 2019.

“We joke that we’re the only leadership team that could probably do a blockade if we wanted to,” Yong Jung Cho said.

Rast’s first hire, as deputy field director, was Martin. To fill out the team, they recruited the 2016 interns Fertig, Edwards, Hua, and Machado, this time in more senior roles, and brought in Cho, who Sandberg and Rast knew from the climate movement, to be constituency director. The only intern who didn’t come back had a good excuse: Rojas, now the subject of profiles in Vanity Fair, is executive director of Justice Democrats. Others who joined the national organizing team came from the immigrant rights movement, labor movement, and DSA — highly unusual backgrounds for campaign operatives.

It helped that many had organized together over the years, reducing the friction of campaign turf wars, and aligning them strategically. It also makes for a campaign that is unique in modern politics, relying on movement organizers rather than political operatives and consultants. “A lot of our organizers and staffers actually come from a movement background,” Cho said in an interview at the campaign’s headquarters. “We joke that we’re the only leadership team that could probably do a blockade if we wanted to.”

Cho caught herself, wondering if she should have admitted that. “No,” Martin jumped in, “we could do a direct action if we wanted to.” In Chicago, with the teachers, they had.

Brad James, 26, has seen the shift from 2016 to 2020 in action. He first watched Sanders speak in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2015, and was hooked. “Here’s a guy,” James thought, “who’s not patronizing us by talking up the local sports team. He was just like, here are the problems, and here is how we can solve them.”

He had an extra bedroom and hosted volunteers from out of state, made phone calls, and estimates he knocked on several thousand doors that winter. He even traveled to Colorado with friends to canvass ahead of the caucus there.

But through it all, he felt like a cog in a machine — to be sure, a more-than-willing cog in the machine he hoped would transform the country, but a cog nonetheless. “In Iowa, there was a Bernie staff canvasser in charge and they’d send their people out to knock doors,” he recalled, noting a similarity to campaigns he canvassed for later, where “you’re a vehicle to move a pamphlet to a door.”

“In comparison to 2016 — considering how well Bernie did then — it gives me a lot of hope how significantly more disciplined and organized it is, the focus on quality of interaction over quantity of interactions,” Brad James, a volunteer, continued.

He’s volunteering again for Sanders, this time in his home state of Michigan, but notices a substantial change in the campaign. “It’s different from 2016,” he said, explaining that the campaign has made it crystal clear it wants volunteers to be a more significant part of what’s going on. In 2016, “a lot of things would fall through the cracks. You’d be 90 percent of the way there but then the app wouldn’t work or something.”

This time, there is more for volunteers to do, he said, more support for them to do it, and mechanisms to hold people to account for what they promise to do. Getting people to sign pledges, he said, is a powerful way to keep them committed. “Things seem to be a lot more organized,” James said. (The volunteers in this story were not offered up to me by the campaign to interview.)

“In 2016 we were extremely averse to ever giving volunteers titles or giving them management responsibilities over other volunteers,” said Sandberg. Exley often discussed the volunteer leadership program as grappling with “the tyranny of the annoying,” as often the most annoying person in the room also happens to be the one who wants the leadership role. The 2016 campaign solved the campaign by asking volunteers to do particular things — host a phone bank, for example — rather than give them a title, like “phone bank captain.” Sandberg noted, “We never said, here is a leader in this community who is responsible for getting other volunteers to work.”

This time around, the campaign is comfortable assigning leadership roles. Perhaps not coincidentally, the need for radical organizers to get comfortable with hierarchy for the sake of efficiency is a key takeaway of “Hegemony How-To,” the book by Rast’s husband Smucker.

Volunteers with a title get additional training and coaching, and I’ve witnessed the title grant them authority among other volunteers. In December, the campaign began its expansion into the Super Tuesday states, launching what it called the Victory Captains program. The latest addition to the hierarchy, they lead other volunteers in the batch of the first two March primaries. Victory Captains join Community Connectors, who are constituent organizers, and Campus Corps Leaders, students who’ve gone through a summer or winter school and organize their campus in a structured way. The campaign has active campus groups on more than 700 campuses, including 46 historically black colleges and universities.

The Victory Captains were recruited online and have each committed to put in at least 10 hours of work per week for the campaign between now and March. Within 24 hours, 2,000 people had signed up for the online training session required to become Victory Captains. The campaign hoped that by the end of January,  1,000 of those would have gone through the training and become active. They had 2,200 by the end of December. James was among them. He said that the 10-hour commitment includes an hour of training each week, as well as 30 minutes with a coach assigned to him.

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 -- Arlington, Virginia Bernie Victory Captain Zeinab El-Rewini (center) at a “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” in Arlington, Virginia.

Bernie Victory Captain Zeinab El-Rewini, center, works with volunteers at a #ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 21, 2019.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

By persuading volunteers to sign “pseudo-contracts,” he said, and through connecting with others, people feel compelled to follow through. “They’re working to hold their volunteers more accountable this time,” he said.

“In comparison to 2016 — considering how well Bernie did then — it gives me a lot of hope how significantly more disciplined and organized it is, the focus on quality of interaction over quantity of interactions,” James continued. “You’re not arguing, you’re just sharing your hashtag, #MyBernieStory.”

For decades, “turnout” and “persuasion” have been the watchwords of the modern campaign, often viewed in competition with each other, or, at least, as separate animals. In persuasion, a campaign targets people likely to vote and persuades them — through television ads, “earned media,” mail, etc. — to vote for its candidate over other ones. The campaign then does its best to make sure that person does actually turn out to vote, but that’s a lower priority, because their past propensity to vote suggest they’ll do so again this time around.

Focusing on turnout, meanwhile, means focusing less on swing voters and more on identifying and galvanizing the campaign’s base of voters and reminding them relentlessly to vote. The usual assumption is that the voters are already supportive of the candidate’s message, they just need a nudge to get out and vote. For the Sanders campaign, that’s the wrong way to think about it.

“Turnout is persuasion,” Rast said. Nonvoters don’t vote not simply because they’re busy (which they are) or they don’t know where their polling place is (which they often don’t), but because they believe not voting is the rational choice. The system is what it is, politicians are corrupt or in it for themselves, and nothing meaningful is going to change. They might agree with Sanders on the issues — in fact, they probably do. But they don’t agree that there’s any point in trying to make his agenda happen. There’s an emotional satisfaction to not voting, as well. The most satisfying way to react to a system that shows you no respect may well be to show it no respect in return. If you can’t beat it, you can at least protest it by withholding your emotional investment. “A lot of people don’t want to consent to be governed by nonsense, and that’s why they don’t participate in our system,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the Las Vegas rally. What’s needed therefore is persuasion — persuasion that voting matters, that you matter.

“To convince a nonvoter that voting matters, and that all the politicians aren’t just the same, that is a very hard persuasion challenge, and most of them hate Democrats and Republicans alike,” Sandberg said. “I want to do away with the idea that getting nonvoters to vote is just turnout.”

In a car ride with staff, Sanders bemoaned the way Democratic Party leaders consider party activists and voters to be two utterly distinct entities, “who never the twain shall meet.”

From the beginning of his campaign, as Ruby Cramer recently documented in a profile of Sanders for BuzzFeed, the candidate has been turning over the microphone at events to regular people, not merely to give them a chance to ask questions, but to ask them to tell stories of the way they’re struggling in the contemporary economy. He has turned the camera away from him and on to them, in the hopes new people will feel important enough — and feel the campaign is important enough — to come out and engage. “It is a gamble to see whether we can bring those people into the political process,” he told Cramer. “One way you do it is to say, ‘You see that guy? He’s YOU. You’re workin’ for $12 an hour, you can’t afford health insurance — so is he. Listen to what he has to say. It’s not Bernie Sanders talking, you know? It’s that guy. Join us.”

On a car ride with staff earlier in 2019, Sanders opened up about one of his frustrations with Democratic Party leaders, bemoaning the way that they consider party activists and voters to be two utterly distinct entities, “who never the twain shall meet.” It’s OK for the activists to get riled up, but the voters never should. They have one job: Get into the booth, pull the lever, and go home.

“It’s a scarcity mindset that the party has,” Rast said. “It believes that voters don’t want to participate in democracy, which isn’t fundamentally true in this political moment. People want to participate — now! We have to give them the invitation to do it.”

That angling of the lens, that faith in people, is central to the organizing strategy. “We’re working collaboratively to actually build a movement for Bernie that’s legitimately integrated from Claire all the way down to FO’s” — field organizers — “in Iowa, which is pretty unprecedented for a presidential campaign,” Rast said.

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 -- Arlington, Virginia A “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” in Arlington, Virginia.Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

A volunteer uses the Bern app, one of the campaign’s organizing tools, at an #ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 21, 2019.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

That’s where #MyBernieStory comes in. It was an idea that came from a volunteer in the campaign Slack, that supporters should all have a way of sharing their stories. Through the campaign’s Bern app, they’re encouraged to record on video the story of why they decided to back Sanders — and share it with friends and potential voters. Whether it’s a medical emergency that bankrupted a family, insurmountable student debt, or simply fear of a world with runaway climate change, the goal is to personalize the politics, and perhaps take the harsh edge off some of the more caustic online supporters, some of whom believe they are helping the campaign by relentlessly attacking opponents, their supporters, or journalists believed to be hostile to Sanders.

The video itself isn’t the end goal, though. Its purpose is to focus the volunteer’s energy on that positive story, which they can then retell repeatedly IRL. “I don’t think the stereotype of Bernie supporters yelling and debating is the norm. I think that volunteers in general, and campaigns sometimes, don’t know what is effective and have to be trained. And so we want to train them on effective persuasion. That was the point of ‘My Bernie Story,’” Sandberg said.

Once a campaign sees its supporters through a broader lens than people to tap for small donations, more becomes possible. “It was important to us to not just engage voters as numbers in the voter file, but as people who exist in relationship to one another and also exist in communities that have specific concerns that are distinct,” she added.

The campaign began looking at the voter file in a different way. For this, they had the help of Emily Isaac, who ran one of the most unique field programs in the 2018 cycle, that of Sri Kulkarni in Texas. (Arguably, the four most innovative field campaigns that cycle were Kulkarni’s, Jess King’s in Pennsylvania, Ocasio-Cortez’s in New York, and Beto O’Rourke’s statewide race for Senate. Three of those four lost anyway, of course, but the Sanders campaign has absorbed organizers and tactics from all of them.)

It turned out that people knew an awful lot about their neighbors and their political preferences, and the campaign was able to amass intelligence at a scale impossible otherwise.

From Kulkarni they pulled what Sandberg thinks could be the key to victory in Iowa. Isaac was a field organizer in California during the 2016 campaign before going on to Kulkarni’s longshot bid for a House seat in suburban Houston, where she deployed what is called relational organizing at a scale never seen before in a House campaign, turning canvassing on its head. (The innovative field effort was covered at the time in The Intercept by David Dayen.)

Typically, a canvasser is given a list of names and addresses and told to knock on those doors, ask people how they’re voting, leave some literature, and perhaps attempt a little persuasion. The goal is to identify supporters so they can be turned out on Election Day. It’s grueling work: Most people aren’t home or aren’t interested in talking.

In the Kulkarni race, Isaac gave volunteers lists of people who lived in their local precinct and asked them to go through it and fill in information about their neighbors. It turned out that people knew an awful lot about their neighbors and their political preferences, and the campaign was able to amass intelligence at a scale impossible otherwise. The volunteers mapped roughly 14,000 of their neighbors with this method, and the campaign then leaned on friend-to-friend relationships to push those people out to vote. (According to the Sanders campaign, the Analyst Institute, which does private research for Democratic campaigns, has found that peers are twice as effective at persuading someone to vote than strangers on the phone or at the door.) In 2016, Democrats had lost the seat by 19 percentage points; Kulkarni fell just 5 short (and is running again, after the Republican incumbent Pete Olson, reading the writing on the Texas wall, retired).

Isaac, the campaign’s relational organizing director, is now rolling the same strategy out in Iowa, whose tight-knit communities mean there’s a lot of information to harvest. “One mom went through and she was like, ‘Oh, I know all these people, they’re the parents of my kid’s friends,” Rast said. “People see the list and they can think of who they could actually persuade.”

The question, though, was whether those types of guesses were accurate, so the campaign invested in a study to compare the accuracy of IDs obtained through relational organizing — people guessing about their friends and family — versus IDs generated by canvassers or phone bankers. It turned out, Sandberg said, that the relational IDs were more accurate — at 93 percent — probably because of the propensity of people at the door to tell a canvasser whatever they want to hear. “It is so powerful not only because of how quickly we get voter IDs with it, but because those IDs are much more accurate than traditional IDs, and finally because those voters are much more likely to be persuaded or convinced to turn out if a friend talks to them,” Sandberg said.

The Iowa voter-roll tactic, which hasn’t been previously reported, is called precinct mapping, and goes hand in hand with an app that drew condemnation when it was first announced in early 2019. The Bern app was Sandberg’s first and highest priority, and it was initially developed by a volunteer, who later joined the campaign.

It was iterated on by the Sanders software team for a month before it launched and sparked consternation when it was revealed that the app could find your friends (or enemies) in a voter file, and then allow you to input data about them — specifically, their level of support or opposition to Sanders, along with political and social information useful to persuading and turning them out. It was painted as a mass doxxing app, but the campaign doesn’t have access to, nor does it make available, the contact information; instead it relies on the supporter to reach out to them, believing that’s a more effective approach.

“Telling our personal stories is a huge part of our strategy to win because we know that our reasons for why we’re involved are deep,” Cho said. “It’s integrated in all of our persuasion materials at the doors and in our phone scripts.”

Shaun Navarro volunteering at a community canvassing training for Bernie Sanders at the "Leftist Garage" in Las Vegas, NV on December 21, 2019. Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept
Krostofer DiPaolo, a DSA organizer and caucus trainer for the Bernie Sanders campagin volunteering at a community canvassing training for Bernie Sanders at the "Leftist Garage" in Las Vegas, NV on December 21, 2019. Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept

Kristofer DiPaolo, a DSA organizer and caucus trainer for the Sanders campaign, runs a community canvassing training event at the Leftist Garage in Las Vegas on Dec. 21, 2019. Photos: Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept

There are currently more than 115,000 people who’ve created a Bern account, the campaign claims, and it has generated more than 300,000 IDs. The Elizabeth Warren campaign uses an app called Reach that was developed for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, which itself was a game-changer. Under the old programs, a volunteer would get a list of voters and then go out and try to find them at their doors or over the phone. But it’s much easier to make contact with voters in the wild: at farmer’s markets, on street corners, at concerts, or just out at the bar with friends. Reach allows a volunteer to easily enter information they collect on the street, but it falls short of what Bern is capable of.

What the Bern app enables is called relational, or friend-to-friend organizing, which has become a buzzword among progressive organizers, something many groups say they do, but don’t actually do with any rigor or scale.

“It’s very new overall and I don’t think that it’s ever been tried at this scale,” Sandberg said. “It doesn’t work to just say, ‘Bring five friends and then we’ll get bigger and bigger and bigger and win.’ It only works if you can systematize it and have ways of following up with every single volunteer and also finding out who they’re talking about and matching them back to the voter file. You can’t turn them out unless you have their precinct location.”

“The only other campaign that is doing relational organizing on a scale close to what we are doing actually is the Trump campaign,” she added.

“It’s one of the most innovative parts of our program, but it only works when you build something big around it,” Rast added. “If you have a couple of volunteers and they do relational [organizing], fine, but the reason why relational is really powerful on our campaign is because of everything else that we’re doing, and because it’s slotted into a bigger strategy that’s all driving towards the same point.”

Inside the Sanders campaign, relational organizing is linked up with the constituency program. In most campaigns, that means assigning staffers to reach out to various constituencies — labor unions, Chinese Americans, veterans, etc. — and meeting them where they are. For a standard campaign, the goal is simply to win the endorsement of an association linked to the constituency, perhaps extract some campaign cash, hold an event, and move on, hoping that the endorsement will win votes in the community. Traditionally, constituent groups are lobbied for their endorsement by the political directors or their staff, but the Sanders campaign has significantly underfunded that department, aware that Sanders won’t win many endorsements with one-to-one meetings. Instead, the task is seen as one of organizing: build support among a group’s base, and force its leadership into line.

Presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders meets with voters at a Town Hall meeting in Littleton, NH on August 24th, 2015. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders meets with voters at a town hall meeting in Littleton, N.H., on Aug. 24, 2015, during his run for president in 2016. Yong Jung Cho can be seen onstage at the bottom right, wearing black.

Photo: Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty Images

The Sanders campaign treats constituencies as a rich vein to tap for voters. Yong Jung Cho is the Sanders campaign’s constituency organizing director, and also oversees relational organizing, a way to integrate the two concepts. She grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, now represented by Ocasio-Cortez, and her parents owned a small grocery store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They rarely had health insurance, and it weighed on her. “I was like, I’m going to take care of my family and the people that I love by becoming a doctor,” she said. But in college, she got involved in environmental activism, fighting against local coal plants. Like others on the campaign, including Rast, she later worked for, organized campuses in support of fossil fuel divestment, and was a lead organizer for the 2014 climate march in New York City.

“Mike Brown was just shot the month before this big march happened,” she recalled, “and I was so frustrated that our movements were so isolated, because I was like, I am working on climate and I also really care about racial justice, and I also really care about immigrant justice. Why are our movements so siloed? So I’ve worked on a lot of projects to try to bring our different movements together, and I think Bernie really does that.”

Sometimes a constituency can be thought of in more creative terms. Volunteers in California canvassed a My Chemical Romance concert.

In 2017, she helped form the short-lived group #AllOfUs, along with Waleed Shahid — who went on to become Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign staffer and communications director for Justice Democrats — Becca Rast, Nick Martin, Yong Jung Cho, and Sandberg — as a way to try to bridge multiple movements and bring pressure to Democrats in Congress. She was later campaign manager for the ill-fated but high-profile bid of Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, which gave her insight into the power of constituencies.

This fall, the campaign has been hosting constituency-themed barnstorms, and 80 to 90 percent of those coming, Cho estimated, hadn’t voted at all in 2016. “These are people who were brought in because of their friends and their family members — and that’s our relational, our friend-to-friend organizing program connected to the Bern app,” Cho said.

Sometimes a constituency can be thought of in more creative terms. Volunteers in California canvassed a My Chemical Romance concert. Volunteers in Phoenix, not connected with the campaign, saw that Ariana Grande was coming to town not long after she had endorsed Sanders. “We knew there would be no other campaign at the concert,” said Eric Cardenas, a lead organizer of the event.


Many of the concertgoers were unaware, he said, that Grande had endorsed Sanders, but the reception was warm. They added 83 new people to their Arizona for Bernie email list — a coalition of the local DSA, Progressive Democrats of America, and other progressive groups that can’t legally coordinate with the campaign — which they hope to be able to hand over when it shows up in Arizona.

Online and inside other Democratic campaigns, the Sanders organizing approach has plenty of critics, who say it’s gimmicky and doesn’t really add to the time-tested traditional field approach. Political scientists will be quick to tell you about the limitations of organizing in a campaign.

Sandberg allows that they may be right, that maybe organizing a working-class coalition to elect a democratic socialist just can’t be done. But the idea that face-to-face relationships and technology can’t be brought together in a complementary manner is absurd, she argued. “The question we always want to ask when people say distributed [organizing] isn’t real, or whatever it is, it’s like: Is e-commerce not real?”

“Some people may balk at using a kind of capitalist metaphor, but we are trying to organize more than half of the country to do something. So are we supposed to completely ignore the way that our economy has changed over the last 10 years and not have any of those things?” Sandberg said. “E-commerce is a way that people buy a lot of stuff. It doesn’t mean that retail has no place, and it doesn’t mean that a national company can’t have both e-commerce and retail stores.”

By the end of the year, volunteers had hosted 45,302 events, made more than 11 million phone calls, and sent more than 88 million text messages.

Indeed, said Sandberg, big companies today must have both, and must do both at scale, not merely as an add-on. “They work well together because sometimes in a store you can’t get the special order item, but you still can, because you have one big supply chain and system for distributing everything,” she said. “You have economies of scale. We’re never going to have an organizer in every single office who speaks Vietnamese. But we do have a Vietnamese dialer. So if volunteers want to help call voters in California who speak Vietnamese, the organizer in that office can tell them about the dialer and get them on it and they can make calls from the office in Vietnamese that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And they also can still have a relationship with a local organizer in that office, which is important.”

Building that national scale, though, hasn’t been done by other campaigns with fewer resources than Sanders because, for them, it comes at the cost of opening new offices in early states and hiring more paid field organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Observers expect turnout to be roughly 250,000 at the caucuses in Iowa on February 3, meaning that 75,000 votes would equal 30 percent, potentially enough for a first-place upset. By mid-November, the campaign, according to numbers it provided at the time, had held over 3,850 events in Iowa, aside from the tsunami of calls and texts that had flooded the state. That included 1,287 door-knocking canvasses, 38 barnstorms, over 1,048 phone banks, 215 volunteer training events, and over 660 “community canvasses” — hitting concerts or farmers markets. The numbers for New Hampshire and Nevada have been equally robust. Even in South Carolina, where the campaign is presumed to be weak, by mid-November there had been over 1,572 canvasses, 16 barnstorms, more than 1,171 phone banks, 10 volunteer trainings, and over 294 community canvasses.

By the end of the year, volunteers had hosted 45,302 events, made more than 11 million phone calls, and sent more than 88 million text messages. In Iowa, the campaign had held 9,451 events by the end of the year, more than doubling their number in a span of weeks, a surge reflected in the other states as well, according to updated numbers provided by the campaign. On January 1, the campaign announced it had hit 5 million individual donations.

“It’s hard for campaigns to make the decision to invest in national staff to support something on this scale everywhere, because you could hire another organizer or open another office,” Sandberg said. “It really takes believing in having a national organizing program to invest in building the infrastructure.”

Shaun Navarro volunteering at a community canvassing training for Bernie Sanders at the "Leftist Garage" in Las Vegas, NV on December 21, 2019. Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept

A Bernie Sanders placard on the lawn of a home in Las Vegas in December 2019.

Photo: Krystal Ramirez for The Intercept

The Warren and Buttigieg campaigns are also both well-positioned in Iowa because they have both heavily invested in staff there. Warren has built what most local party officials say is the most structured and well-organized traditional operation, and Buttigieg has leaned into relational organizing, urging his well-educated and highly competent supporters to make sure to organize their friends on his behalf. But his operation has little capacity to scale in later states, because he hasn’t invested in building the infrastructure needed across the country the way Sanders has.

Biden has built precious little organizing capacity on the ground anywhere, including Iowa and New Hampshire, hampered by his longtime penchant for indecision and famously anemic work ethic. His campaign has acknowledged he may lose the first three contests but is banking on name recognition and TV ads lifting him to victory on Super Tuesday and throughout March.

Sanders is hoping for a surprise. The path to a victory for him is narrow and requires every ball bouncing his way, but it’s not impossible. “Most pollsters are throwing out anyone in an Iowa poll who says they may not caucus,” Sandberg said. “All of the literature will tell you, you can try to get a young person who’s 18 or in college to vote if they haven’t voted, but if they’re a working-class person, they’ve never voted their entire adult life, they are never going to vote. And so I wouldn’t blame pollsters for saying those people aren’t going to turn out.”

“This is why the polls also didn’t predict Trump’s election, because he was able to turn out so many unlikely voters who were white working-class nonvoters,” she said.

Even if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, Sandberg noted, the newly activated and trained volunteers will have skills and political knowledge they will take with them the rest of their lives. Some will undoubtedly run for Congress, like Ocasio-Cortez did, while others will build organizations we haven’t heard of yet. Those who feel inspired to will put their training to work on behalf of the Democratic nominee — and future nominees. If Sanders falls short, the “us” part of his slogan, “Not me, us,” will make a lasting mark, much as those activated by his 2016 campaign have already done.

If Sanders falls short, the “us” part of his slogan, “Not me, us,” will make a lasting mark, much as those activated by his 2016 campaign have already done.

The strategy is urgent, argued Sandberg, because Trump is already deploying a mirror populist version of it, activating disaffected working-class voters by appealing to layered insecurities and attacking an out-of-touch elite conspiring against them.

“We think all the time about what it will take to beat Trump, and I honestly lie awake at night thinking about that,” Sandberg said. “Democrats are probably underestimating what a challenge that will be.”

“But we’re also thinking what will it take to actually build the political power to enact Bernie’s agenda,” she continued. “What will it take to actually win back the Senate. And it is a huge undertaking. People cannot dismiss how difficult that will be. But I feel like sometimes people only talk about it in terms of the process, in terms of, ‘How are you going to get around McConnell?’ Are you willing to do away with the filibuster, and not, how are we, long-term, going to fundamentally win back big parts of the country that we have to win back if we’re going to enact policies on the scale that we need to? The only way that we can possibly do that is if we build a huge movement that can actually expand the electorate in all 50 states.”

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 -- Arlington, Virginia A “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” in Arlington, Virginia.Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

Volunteers learn relational organizing at an #ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 21, 2019.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

I wanted to see what a relational mapping party looked like, and signed up to go to one in Virginia, a Super Tuesday state, billed on the website as an “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” I reached out to the host to make sure she was OK with a reporter coming, and she said it was fine as long as her name was kept out of the story. She also asked if I’d help recruit other people to come, and I could see how the organizing built on itself. Here she was hosting and allowing me to come. How could I not help? I thought of people in Virginia I knew who might want to come, and invited one. The day before the event, I got an automated text with the address, asking to confirm I was coming. When I said yes, a bot came back: “Great, they need all hands on deck and are counting on you. Thank you!” I felt obligated to follow through.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, about a dozen people gathered at the apartment of the host, who we’ll call Sara, for reasons related to her day job and other concerns. With her co-host Yasmine Rassam, a human rights lawyer, the pair was organizing on behalf of #Arabs4Bernie, which had developed out of the Muslims for Bernie program that Shaun Navarro had long been involved with. Both hosts had supported Sanders in 2016, but neither had been volunteers.

When I confirmed I was attending a friend mapping party, a bot came back: “Great, they need all hands on deck and are counting on you. Thank you!” I felt obligated to follow through.

The friend mapping party combined relational organizing with the constituency program. Sara asked everyone to introduce themselves and talk about why they were supporting Sanders. “I kick people out of their homes for a living,” said one man, explaining that the legal work he did grated on his conscience, and he was eager to see a political revolution that would force him into a different line of work. It was a reminder that the coalition is not purely working class, and that segments of the professional managerial class, the handmaidens of capital, were also up for grabs. Indeed, a reminder that if new voters are found who can reshape the coalition, they’ll be found by volunteers who are largely college educated, many of them members of the loathed professional managerial class.

The hunt for a working-class consciousness has long been frustrated by the inclinations of the working class itself. Socialist author Upton Sinclair, when he launched a bid for governor of California nearly a century ago, lamented the phenomenon. “There was very little working class mentality,” he observed. “Those who belonged to that class did not know it, and hated you for telling them.” At the same time, the middle class has always been up for grabs. “I saw the middle classes suffering just as much as manual workers and farmers,” he continued. “If Fascism came to California it would be through these middle class people. If Democracy were preserved in California, it would be because these people had come to understand the depression and the remedy.”

In the living room, these people understood both the depression and the remedy. Sanders’s domestic and social policies underpinned their support for him, but most in the room, made up of people born in or connected to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere, credited his foreign policy — opposition to wars and imperial aggression — for separating him from the pack, and most specifically Warren. His invocation of Palestinians as people with rights and inherent dignity in the recent debate won plaudits. “He humanizes humans. That shouldn’t be radical, but it is,” said the man. “He doesn’t treat our community like a pariah.”

A few in the room were not fully sold on Sanders, one bothered by what she said was lackluster support for Clinton in the 2016 general election, another open to Warren, and a third looking for whoever could beat Trump.

Saturday, December 21st, 2019 -- Arlington, Virginia A “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” in Arlington, Virginia.
Saturday, December 21st, 2019 -- Arlington, Virginia Bernie Victory Captain Zeinab El-Rewini (right) and meeting Co-Organizer Yasmine Rassam (left) at a “#ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party.” in Arlington, Virginia.Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

Left/Top: Supplies and informational forms. Right/Bottom: Meeting Co-Organizer Yasmine Rassam, left, and Victory Captain Zeinab El-Rewini at an #ArabAmericans4Bernie Mapping Party in Arlington, Va. Photos: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

Sara and Rassam had a rough, campaign-provided script they worked from, and explained the theory behind friend to friend organizing, complete with the need to keep the movement going after Sanders is elected to be able to enact his agenda. “The entire thing is about the Bern app,” Sara explained, asking everyone to download it.

She assured those in her living room that the campaign wouldn’t collect their friend’s contact information, just the details of their support, and would later rely on them to turn their friends out and pass them information. She passed out worksheets for people to write down the names of their friends, but allowed that perhaps they could cut out that step of the process and go right to the app.

The app was a hit, with people delighted to find friends pop up in it. One was excited to see that his niece, who he’d been pestering relentlessly to register to vote (“Send me a screengrab of your registration, or I’m coming for you,” he’d told her in a WhatsApp chat) had apparently done so. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the names flooded into the app.

After snacking, the group came back together and gamed out ways to get the word deeper into the local Arab community. One person suggested an event in Skyline, an apartment complex with a large Muslim population. “They’re all connected with each other. If one person does one thing, everyone knows,” said one Egyptian woman, who wasn’t herself eligible to vote but wanted to help find people who could.

Nobody there, it turned out, went to the mosque near Skyline, Dar al-Hijrah, so they tried to figure out who they might know who does. Somebody suggested a woman who taught Arabic at the mosque to their kids on weekends. “Would she be a Bernie supporter?” Sara wondered.

“She absolutely is, I’ve talked to her about him, but she can’t vote,” a man noted. It was resolved that they would reach out to her about hosting an event. 

Finally, Sara asked each person to commit to recruiting two others for the next gathering. By the time I got home, the bot wanted to know if my organizing experience had been good, bad, or whether I’d missed it. It then thanked me for reaching out to friends, then returned to the theme of #MyBernieStory, asking that I “respond with more details about your experience or why you took action for Bernie 2020.” Later, the Bern app nudged me to reach out to one of my sisters, whom I’d entered as undecided to test out the app, to see if she had come around.

Over the next few days, Sara would follow up and make sure her guests had entered friends into their phone, a tally that was at 141 a few days later. One person wrote an additional 31 names down on the worksheet but had yet to enter them, she told Sara. Compare that to door-knocking: Depending on the density of a neighborhood, a typical canvasser can expect to make contact with between four and eight voters per hour. It would have taken 12 people two hours of door knocking to get to 120 IDs, a number the group hit fairly easily, in the pause between a conversation and a helping of snacks.

Thinking back on her event, Sara had a few thoughts on what she’d do differently, such as getting a tally of names entered from everybody before they leave. She was becoming an organizer.

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