How the Biden-Harris campaign reshaped virtual organising to beat Donald Trump, and what Labour can (and can’t) learn from this.
While each US election is looked to by campaigners and organisers the world over for new innovation tested at scale, the 2020 US election was unlike any other in our lifetimes.
Disinformation from the incumbent President was a norm. The Democrats’ primary race was the most widely contested for either party in almost 50 years. The Covid-19 pandemic created great uncertainty, and removed the door-to-door cornerstone of organising.
Despite this, Biden for President campaign volunteers made more than 450 million voter contact attempts and had almost 20 million conversations in the last three months of the campaign alone, speaking to more voters than any previous presidential campaign.
This long read article looks at what now President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign team did – quickly – to meet and overcome these challenges through ‘virtual-first’ organising, with a particular focus on their virtual field offices (known as ‘virtual staging locations’, or VSLs). It also focuses on how these approaches helped bring activists together not only from across the party but wider progressive movement to defeat Donald Trump with this unique backdrop.
The Labour Party has a history of embracing terminology and aspects of approaches from the US within its on-the-ground field campaigns with mixed success. However the opportunity here to truly tailor, test and target virtual and highly scalable organising approaches, nimbly focusing volunteer activity where it’s needed the most, and integrate them with traditional doorstep campaigning should not be missed.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Julius Goldberg-Lewis, the Biden-Harris campaign’s Expansion States Organising Director, while writing this article. For a wider and deeper look at the activity of the 8 teams within the digital organising structure, National Director of Digital Organising Jose Nunez’s Medium piece is a must-read. As is detail from other staff members who have openly published or shared their insight at events since.
Virtual Staging Locations (VSLs)
While some highly focused door-to-door canvassing took place in key battleground states where and when deemed safe, in a real first for a general election campaign in the western world, the campaign pushed the vast majority of their more than 160,000 campaign volunteers away from speaking to voters face-to-face.
Given the array of constraints the Biden-Harris campaign faced, it was critical to create effective online mechanisms to replace much-loved field offices that could both facilitate the mass voter contact and volunteer recruitment needed at scale. At the same time, it was vital that these felt inviting and familiar to volunteers, and still enabled a real sense of community. The importance of this is clear where Jose Nunez, National Director of Digital Organising, details in his recent Medium piece that whether the team was focused on, “in-person campaign events, field offices, or canvassing, our goal was to take the best aspects of in-person activities and bring them online.”
Virtual Staging Locations (VSLs) were created to achieve all this. In short, as Julius Goldberg-Lewis, Expansion States Organising Director, explains in answer to my question of to how best to describe them, “Our VSLs were ‘virtual field offices’ which allowed a new volunteer to be quickly trained, put to work, and then asked to come back.”
Hosted on Zoom, this flow was built firmly into the structure and facilitated by volunteer leadership roles that will include recognisable focuses to staff and volunteers for any political party. Led by a VSL Director, each VSL had a Welcome Captain, responsible for that inviting introduction and volunteer sign in; Training Captain, ensuring each volunteer had the level of guidance they needed; Tech Captain, who could provide more detailed support with the tools being used and to troubleshoot; and a Confirmation Captain, signing volunteers up for their next shift in breaks and before they left.
Zoom’s breakout rooms enabled different volunteers to be engaging with the relevant Captains at the same time, and also helped ensure that experienced volunteers could join and begin making phone calls straight away, while those taking part for the first time could have that more tailored training they needed.
These distributed structures facilitated a blend of direct voter contact through phone and text banks, and also relational organising where volunteers would use that time to contact those they knew directly. Given the online nature of the VSLs plus the campaign’s national, state and distributed approaches, volunteers were empowered and encouraged to contribute in the ways and geographic locations where they could be most impactful, and all from home. As Goldberg-Lewis illustrates, this meant that “we could have a volunteer in New York call a voter in Wisconsin and provide important information, or have them send a text to a friend who lived in Pennsylvania to remind them to turn in their ballot”.
The major benefits to any political campaign are clear here, he continues, as in creating, “a robust volunteer leadership infrastructure, we were able to quickly train volunteers on new scripts and lists, allowing us to target several states over the course of the day.” This allowed battleground states to focus their local volunteer capacity on targeted door knocking, while the national operation enabled all other volunteers to support those key states remotely and lead on wider voter contact in other states to shore up votes and ballot returns remotely.
While the Biden-Harris campaign organised many VSLs directly, a large number were also organised by individuals, groups and communities reflecting the diversity of the Democratic Party, progressive movement and indeed wider society. Entirely open phonebanks ranged from ‘Korean Americans for Biden’ and ‘Seniors Calling for Biden’ to ‘Dance & Dial: Make Calls to Flip Texas’ and ‘DC Ridin’ With Biden: Flipping Battleground States’.
These phonebanks were all promoted and easily searchable on the mobilize.us website which, alongside the geographic phonebank signposting provided on joebiden.com, provided an individual with a wide number of routes into the shared effort. Critically, this enabled the campaign to have their central “vote for Joe and Kamala, and Democrats down the ballot” message shared by peers within communities via databases that they did not hold themselves.
While community-based campaigning has been an incredibly strong approach for years in US elections – I still have a ‘Women for Obama’ sign and ‘DJs for Obama’ stickers at home – and by no means alien to the Labour Party, that it was so easy to search and choose which virtual event you wanted to join based on how you chose to identify with or within the campaign, and from home, this was taken to the next level.
It also very much enabled supporters of other primary candidates to maintain their apparatus and community while campaigning as, for example, ‘Bernie supporters for Biden’. This distributed approach helped bring together different arms of a diververse progressive movement, all pulling in the same direction via the same tools to the same end, without any forced or even encouraged sense of one homogenous campaign identity at the grassroots level.
In a Labour context, while we select our Leader years ahead of an election, there should be no reason why, for example, previous backers of Lisa Nandy or Rebecca Long-Bailey couldn’t or shouldn’t act as networks to galvanise supporters to pull together for a Labour victory. Far from a threat, perhaps embracing our rich tapestry can indeed help bring the party together to win, as was demonstrated to great success in the US.
Both in the US and UK, campaigns have been long encouraging relational actions like “forward this email” or “share this on Facebook”, but have not prioritised friend and family outreach within campaign volunteer time to the same extent as pre-determined voter list contact. Putting relational outreach almost on par – or arguably on par – with voter list contact was a major change of the Biden-Harris campaign, seeing volunteers specifically trained and supported in effective ways and with new tools for doing so.
Within “OutVote”, the texting tool used by the campaign via the “VoteJoe” app and by other organisations in their distributed efforts, volunteers could sync their contact list and send voter registration and ballot return reminders alongside actions and ways that those they’re close to could get involved.
As ever, context and resources are critical. It would be remiss to simply equate Joe Biden’s multifaceted victory to this approach definitely having this place in any campaign hierarchy. It is hard to track the impact of relational outreach versus traditional voter outreach in terms of whether an individual voted or didn’t based on who made direct contact with them, but learning more from the campaign in terms of any data that it has through testing would be an important move for Labour. As would running more of this testing ourselves.
An important note is that this campaign was very well supported by volunteers with and,as Goldberg-Lewis shares, “the massive turnout to our VSLs meant that we could ensure that we were reaching priority voters through our direct calls, and also have the space to invest in relational outreach.” With every target voter being reached, the team could afford to be more creative and invest that time in relational outreach rather than having to make choices between data-driven priority voter lists and volunteer phone books. A lot more testing is needed on this re-prioritisation of relational methods here in different UK contexts.
Alongside the intense but rewarding hard graft of campaign activity, as everyone who has worked or volunteered on a campaign will know, campaigns are some of the most social and personal tribe-building places you can be. As we all know from our own experiences this year, Zoom is not the same as in-person interaction.
The Biden-Harris team were mindful of this, as shown through Jose Nunez, National Director of Digital Organising, sharing in his Medium piece that one of their objectives was to, “build a thriving online community online to support our digital organizing programs”. For Nunez it was vital, “to think critically about various virtual methods of communicating with supporters and voters, all the while not sacrificing the relationships and community we build while organizing in-person.”
Slack, the channel-based messaging platform, acted as the anytime virtual gathering and information sharing place for the campaign nationally and supported the community building piece for 160,000 volunteers across and within states. Alongside details of campaign activity, there was, for example, a channel designated to sharing campaign memes.
But to continue with my focus on the VSLs, the human aspect and consistency of approach for familiarity was put front and centre. When, for example, you joined a VSL for a phonebank, it wasn’t unusual for the host to be playing the Biden-Harris campaign Spotify playlist. Campaign videos were shared at the start or in breaks. Zoom’s breakout rooms functionality also meant there could be designated space for conversation (or even dance parties) on breaks.
As the event started, each volunteer was encouraged to set their name on Zoom to include their location and to say “hi” in the chat function. The breadth of locations people would be joining from was striking, and helped create a real sense of comradery, community and togetherness – no matter how many miles apart volunteers were within this virtual team.
Community was also supported through structure, as smaller regular weeknight phonebanks were set up that eventually fed into the larger VSLs, meaning that volunteers could get to know each other quite well early on. Additionally, because of the emphasis on signing volunteers up to additional shifts before they left a VSL, as Goldberg-Lewis points out, “we were able to ensure that people kept coming back… This allowed people to form a bond with the volunteer leaders who ran the VSLs”.
As with Zoom-hosted events in other parts of our lives this year, ways of integrating fun activities to bring people together were considered too. The campaign used a range of “surrogates”, well-known individuals supporting the campaign, ranging from community leaders and local politicians to famous actors for larger VSLs (I attended one the cast of the West Wing joined) to encourage people to take part. As Goldberg-Lewis aptly puts it, “people came for the big name, but stayed to make calls”.
Relational organising also helped in fostering community, too. As mentioned earlier, with volunteers encouraging those they knew not only to support but get involved with the campaign, it was not unusual for people to be making calls or sending texts with friends, family or colleagues.
Quality of training
High quality and readily available training is the backbone of any campaign, and was a great need here given the range of virtual tools and platforms being brought in to power this virtual-first organising operation. Even the most experienced campaign staff and volunteers would not have necessarily used all of them – Slack, Zoom, an automatic phone dialler and the new text tools – and certainly not to this extent before.
Training sessions were made widely available to all volunteers at every level of engagement with the campaign. From videos that could be shared around in advance to run throughs of scripts and how to use the voter phone dialler, the campaign not only put the time in through assets like these but fully integrated training into its organising model. As covered earlier, a Training Captain and Tech Captain were available in each VSL, accounting for half of the Captains.
As the campaign progressed and more volunteer leadership roles were required, such as the large number of VSL Directors needed for Get Out The Vote (GOTV), training was a mandatory part of the path to taking these on. I attended one of these trainings and what it achieved in terms of building levels of comfort and confidence with the strategy, tools, and community building was palpable amongst the group.
Even – or perhaps especially – in a virtual world, there were no shortcuts taken by the campaign; ways of being placed in a role you weren’t equipped for; or a volunteer not being clear on how they could get extra support if needed. The standard for volunteer leadership, and therefore the overall experience for anyone getting involved, was set high and developed with care and consistency.
That said, an interesting lesson is that despite the focus on training, Goldberg-Lewis still feels that, “we should have spent more time doing some of the Zoom basics with our volunteers. It made a huge difference in the end, and would have set them up for success in a better way.”
Training has long been a focus of the Labour Party’s, but as it considers investing in or pivoting to any of the tools and approaches used by the Democrats in 2020, it must also factor in and resource effectively for the training requirements that would be needed simultaneously.
What will last beyond Covid-19?
This question is being asked in every corner of work and society, and is an intriguing one in terms of the future shape of organising. With thousands of volunteers now trained in digital organising approaches, it would make complete sense for the Democrats in 2024 to fully integrate these into their model, regardless of their ability to be back on the doorstep.
I asked Julius Goldberg-Lewis this question too and he feels that, with the experience this campaign had of, “being able to direct calls from all over the country, it’s easy to imagine volunteer programs (especially on high profile races) using the out-of-state support in a bigger way.” An additional benefit here that he notes is that, “because of the low staff-to-volunteer ratio, this model can be done for far cheaper than traditional organizing programs.”
These are benefits that Labour could look to as well, fully integrating and building out from the tools the party already has, like ‘Dialogue’ for phone banks. There are good examples of CLPs and local and regional campaigns using these, and so learning from them and embedding this into a long-term structure instead of seeing it as a Covid-based approach, could be incredibly useful.
This could also bolster Labour’s campaigning base in the way it did for the Biden-Harris campaign, with Goldberg-Lewis also commenting on the increase in trust in volunteers doing outreach from home, which he feels will remain. Opening up volunteering to those who are time-poor or less able to travel to a specific location to attend a campaign event has its obvious merits for Labour too.
For the Democrats, the benefits of bringing their volunteer force together on Slack will be long-lasting. There are still over 160,000 people within their central channel and staff and volunteers alike are encouraging them to join phone banks and other activities to speak with voters in Georgia ahead of the runoff. What firepower that is to be able to turn on a dime.
Labour should absolutely consider how it can achieve this more nimble approach, and whether this is best achieved through its existing platforms and tools or through embracing external ones like Slack.
The negative impact of the need to move to almost entirely virtual organising approaches should not be overlooked. While efforts to achieve real community were as successful as they could have been, nothing yet replaces the impact of the in person experience within a campaign or – crucially – when speaking with voters. While there was no alternative in 2020, and this innovation has opened up participation in campaigns and increased the ability to be all the more nimble and targeted, it will be a relief when we can all return to the doorstep and to impactful in-person conversations.
If the best of politics is connecting people with power to shape, lead and make change happen within a place, then the doorstep will always be the most important place to an organiser.
While the Biden-Harris team worked hard to try to ensure that their campaign events could be accessible to volunteers who had traditionally been a part of Democratic campaigns, Goldberg-Lewis confirmed the assumption that, “because of the change to a remote program, older volunteers, or volunteers without access to high speed internet, often self-selected out.”
This was despite the fact that, “our team worked to make sure we could provide 1 on 1 assistance to those volunteers, and utilize tools that would be more stable in situations where people didn’t have access to a laptop and a high speed internet connection. Still, the volunteers this year ended up being… younger, more tech savvy, and had access to internet and devices.”
While inclusion improved in some demographics, it was seemingly at the cost of others. Again, this was very much not through choice in the midst of a pandemic, but a factor for both the Democrats and Labour to by mindful of while looking at how best to embed these new approaches in the long-term.
An additional challenge that such a high level of distributed organising poses is potential volunteer overwhelm. With so many VSLs and events to potentially join, rather than the one nearby, it can be hard to know where to start, which to go to, and whether you’re using your time most effectively. Even as an experienced campaign staffer and volunteer on many US and UK campaigns, I found the lists of preference-based phonebanks without clear prioritisation hard to navigate.
The challenge that remains for the Democratic Party is how they consolidate the lessons and great innovation of 2020 and integrate it with a refreshed offline model, which naturally did not see the same advancement in this campaign cycle.
The party and wider movement came together both in terms of a shared focus on the greater good, but also through the openness of the approaches used. While the former is an ideological challenge for the party, the latter could help keep this fragile but incredibly effective coalition together for elections and issue-based campaigns. The prize here is large if they can navigate this well in the months and years ahead.
Practical lessons for Labour
- Reject assumptions. It is neither the case that these approaches could only be successful in the USA, or – conversely – that these approaches can be lifted and applied to the UK directly without being tailored
- Pilot some (more of) this. Test some of these tools and approaches (more) to see what works, based on clear organising objectives to point us in the right direction. This can be done at a national HQ level, and by individual parties and campaigns
- Avoid using terminology without doing the above – it won’t work. We have seen this happen within our party over the years, and it unfairly discredits effective approaches. Take the time to learn, test and implement on a small level first
- Be creative. Don’t let the way we’ve always done things stop us also trying something new and unknown to us
- Integrate virtual approaches into offline. Neither should be seen as separate in the 2020s – it is one volunteer and voter experience. This is also critical in succeeding in both widening volunteer participation without losing experienced volunteers
- Train, train, train. Enable all party members and supporters to access a shared foundational level of training in existing and new tools as they’re adopted to ensure comfort and confidence in their application
- Let go, in a joined up way. The lessons here around embracing the different arms of a movement for what they are and not only not getting in the way of them self-organising, but encouraging that and sharing campaign events to allow self-selection are ones Labour could benefit from
- Embrace multi-locational talent. At a staff level, there is no reason why the shape of the national field operations leadership team should be determined by who the most talented staff are amongst those who are willing or able to live in London. Allow – no, encourage – the field leadership team to be multi-locational to bring together in the best talent, situated in different contexts, and to encourage greater creativity and challenge