Staff and volunteers for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have organized and hosted over 11,000 events, including more than 2,000 in California, the campaign announced Tuesday evening. The vast majority of the events have been organized by volunteers, according to the campaign.
The achievement, which top Sanders campaign organizers revealed in a conference call with over 7,000 supporters, reflects what the Sanders campaign sees as a secret weapon as it seeks to stand out in a crowded field of candidates: a “distributed” ― or volunteer-run ― organizing system that it innovated in the 2016 race and has since fine-tuned.
Joining the call with volunteers after several of his advisers spoke, Sanders affirmed that, although the campaign would engage in conventional tactics like television and radio advertisements, its strength was the devotion of its supporters, many of whom have become volunteers.
“We are going to win this campaign because we ... are going to have the strongest grassroots movement of any campaign,” he said. “That is how we win this thing. We win this going to our base, our strength of support.”
The conceit of distributed organizing, which has its fair share of skeptics, is that campaigns can amplify by orders of magnitude the effect of the staff they employ directly by empowering exceptionally motivated volunteers to run their own house parties, lead their own canvasses and develop, and monitor their own voter contacts by phone and text message. It differs from traditional campaign volunteering in terms of the resources and technology the Sanders campaign, and others inspired by it, have expended on creating an infrastructure to facilitate the work of its most dedicated supporters.
It will be difficult to fully measure the organizing technique’s effectiveness prior to Feb. 3, when Sanders competes in Iowa’s Democratic caucus.
On Tuesday evening’s call, the campaign said its staff and volunteers had made 2 million calls and sent 30 million text messages to voters in early states. It also recently concluded a two-week campus organizing boot camp, or “summer school,” that it says graduated more than 1,500 college and graduate school students who plan to serve as campaign ambassadors and organizers at their universities.
A viral initiative earlier this month asking Sanders supporters to share on social media the life experience that brought them to the campaign ― dubbed “#MyBernieStory” ― doubled as a volunteer recruitment technique. The campaign directed Sanders supporters who used the campaign’s organizing app, Bern, to post “#MyBernieStory” on Twitter or Facebook to use a digital tool to contact several other voters by text message and encourage them to get involved in the campaign. The campaign estimates that it reached the equivalent number of voters through those digitally facilitated connections as it would normally reach from knocking on 63,000 doors.
Critics of distributed organizing argue that it is no substitute for the professionally run field organizing teams that have powered successful presidential campaigns. And on that front, Sanders got a later start than some of his rivals, beginning hiring field organizers in the early states only in May. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, by contrast, already had 50 staff members in Iowa by that time.
The Sanders campaign insists, though, that distributed organizing aims not to supplant traditional field organizing but to magnify its impact. It now has dozens of paid, full-time field organizers in each of the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, as well as in California, a Super Tuesday state with a primary open to all registered voters.
The conference call noted the campaign’s distributed organizing strategy has gone from identifying and recruiting volunteers to now putting that volunteer army to work more aggressively. Campaign organizing leaders invited call participants to volunteer in real time to host a “Plan to Win” house party in September, where volunteers will bond with their peers and receive marching orders for the next phase of the campaign. The campaign said it received 1,700 commitments from volunteers on the call to host such house parties.
The Sanders campaign is hoping to capitalize on the momentum it has developed in recent weeks after a series of high-profile policy rollouts and endorsements, including his first official declaration of support from a national labor union.
The Sanders campaign, which has tangled bitterly with media outlets and pollsters for what it believes is bias against the Vermont senator, touted a national poll released Monday that showed Sanders in a statistical three-way tie for first place with Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.
His campaign has argued that polls, which generally survey a universe of likely voters, do not account for the ways in which his campaign is seeking to turn out infrequent and new voters often left out of polling. At least one leading pollster has disputed the Sanders campaign’s analysis of the polls’ shortcomings.
Still, the Sanders campaign believes its success hinges on reaching those non-traditional voters ― and sees its volunteer force as a key tool to do it.
“We will win this election ― we will win the Democratic nomination, we will defeat Trump ― because we are going to bring out people who, in many cases, have not participated in politics before,” Sanders said Tuesday evening. “And I’m talking about a generation of young people who in my view are the most progressive generation in the history of our country ― anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia, anti-religious bigotry.”