We have much to celebrate at the end of this dark and devastating year. We won a presidential election, elected a Black and South Asian woman as Vice President, and turned back one leading prong of authoritarianism’s march in the U.S. But we have so much work left to do. We must get bigger, better, and stronger if we want to set the “common sense” political agenda, if we want to win and durably control state and federal governments for the sustained periods needed to enact our vision. And we do want that. At least I do!   

I am proud of the work that Community Change Action (CCA) and our dozens of state grassroots partner organizations and national Win Justice allies did this year to engage and turn out millions of voters, mainly voters of color, across twenty states. Many other allies in our movement also did creative, large-scale work to engage and turn out our voters. I am confident, as I’m sure many Forge readers are, that the painstaking work our organizations do — year-round base-building and political consciousness development, and the voter work built on top of it — was essential to the Biden/Harris victory.  

But unlike what usually happens when we win, this time we must learn from what we did: what worked and what didn’t, what we need to do better, and what we haven’t figured out yet. These are my beginning thoughts.

 

Some Of What Worked

1. Old-fashioned organizing know-how married to new relational voter technology  

I hear some of you groaning already. Do we really need some new tech from Silicon Valley to organize? So let me be clear — anything worthy of the name “organizing” has always been relational. Organizing for power, done well, centers on relationships, on well-understood and ever-expanding webs of leaders, activists, and members. And yes, progressive voter work has for years relied on mobile apps tied to sophisticated databases. But we also have to be honest that many of our groups — using good old-fashioned, analog organizing — have not reached nearly the scale needed to win statewide and national elections. 

A few years ago, Community Change Action started experimenting with relational organizing apps. My colleague, Kristee Paschall — an organizer’s organizer — has been the brains behind our good work on this front. Kristee and a lean, mean team of CCA organizers began in fall 2019 to work with dozens of interested local grassroots organizations to build an infrastructure to use relational organizing apps to help win the 2020 election. 

While it wasn’t always easy, embracing a culture of experimentation allowed our relational organizing program to adapt in necessary ways. For example, we realized quickly that with hundreds of volunteers with different levels of experience joining our national remote trainings and Zoom voter contact parties, a few breakout rooms were simply not enough to manage everyone’s needs — not to mention the risk of rooms becoming unwieldy. Our team had to pivot from focusing on teaching people how to use relational organizing technology to recruiting and training volunteer leaders who could facilitate breakout rooms. In addition to transforming our training model, we incorporated “office hours” where individuals could drop in to troubleshoot as needed. 

Our relational organizing work also expanded grassroots leadership and strengthened the membership and activist bases of local groups in the process. Voces de la Frontera Action (VDLFA) in Wisconsin, Stand Up for Ohio (c4 arm of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative), and Michigan People’s Campaign ran three of the largest and deepest relational voter organizing campaigns in the country with us in 2020. All three used these tools as part of their ongoing issue organizing and base building — not only for voter turnout. All have strong cores of member leaders and staff who have grown their sophistication and real-world application with the tools. VDLFA’s program, for example, grew to over 1290 individual members, activists, and staff engaging an average of 26 voters each over the course of the 2020 election (in most cases, through multiple messages or conversations). We won’t know detailed impact results of any group’s 2020 turnout work until state voter databases are updated early next year and in-depth evaluation can be done. What we do know is that the Analyst Institute (one of the go-to sources for scientific research on the quantitative impact of different voter turnout tactics) has consistently reported that relational organizing app contact has been shown to increase turnout at a higher rate than most other individual voter turnout tactics. 

A critical element of relational organizing is that volunteers engage their own friends, family, and contacts, rather than cold mass-texting to lists from the voter file. At a time when cold contact political text messages became the equivalent of spammy telemarketer calls at dinner time, is it any wonder that true relational voter organizing is seeing those higher turnout effects? And we’re also seeing much higher response and action rates. For example, from a control group test we ran this year: when people in our program received a relational app text from a friend or family member, they were substantially more likely to respond and take the action than when they received it cold “from” the organization.

Why do I believe this can also work as organizing, not just as voter mobilizing? One initial indication is that each week since Election Day, several hundred of the relational organizing volunteers from this year’s program have joined a national CCA Zoom call to talk about what comes next. One of the early steps the volunteers are taking is organizing virtual “house meetings” with their friends, family, and contacts to invite them into continued and shared political discussion and action beyond the election. 

2. Listening to voters and emphasizing values and vision (instead of one-way messages with negative attacks)

Listening to voters first should be the default for any (good) organizer. But it’s not always how our side organizes — especially at election time. Of course, the Democratic Party and its associated SuperPACs are the worst offenders here, but we progressive organizers must be honest that we also often fall into the trap of just attacking the other side. These last four years have made this even harder, and the attacking has been easy and cathartic, but we must listen.

CCA and partners led our phone calls, our text messages, and our relational app outreach with a question rather than a poll-tested talking point. What’s worrying you and your family right now? How has the pandemic and the economic crisis affected you? How are you feeling about the election? What does the VP nomination of the first Black woman mean to you? This approach was part of our trainings for phone-bankers, texters, and those using relational app messaging. We also did live coaching and peer learning with relational volunteers or texters — often dozens or hundreds of them in Zoom rooms with experienced volunteers and organizers reaching out to voters and trouble-shooting with fellow volunteers in real time.

We took listening one step further. In 2018, we began to see in our internal testing that digital video content created locally by voters, volunteers, or organizers worked better than highly-produced, flashy digital content from consultants or our own staff. We took that learning and expanded it exponentially for 2020 to gather hundreds of selfie videos for outreach and organizing. 

3. Trusting organizer and volunteer insights and data more than daily polls 

On October 30, as national and state polls showed large Biden leads almost across the board, I sent an email update to my list of several hundred donors, politicos, allies, stakeholders, and friends with the subject line, “It’s Closer Than It Looks.” It’s not novel to criticize polls and pollsters, but at CCA, we have been diligent about giving serious weight to our own internal program data. CCA and partners were often collectively reaching out to tens of thousands of voters a day across key states, giving us a lot of rich and actionable information. We listened to what voters told us. We listened to what volunteers and organizers told us in debriefs. Don’t get me wrong. We read polls too — and often. But we took them for what they were. And we tried to trust what voters and organizers were saying — and to refine, adapt, and drive our program accordingly. These data and insights came in from phone and text contact results and reports, from organized daily debriefs in different locations around the country, and from our own online digital content testing. Organizer and volunteer teams would regularly take in data, make meaning of it, and develop recommended updates to message content, volunteer and organizer trainings, and raps.

 

What We All Need to Do Better

1. Keep relentless focus on growing our politically conscious base and leadership — even at election time

While “we” won the big top-of-the-ticket race, we didn’t achieve the landslide many of us hoped we’d see. Notwithstanding the huge and powerful scale of independent progressive political operations this year, let’s be honest: the raw grassroots power of our collective movement organizations is woefully thin — especially when measured against the radical social change we seek. We collectively played critical roles in close margin races in many key states. But our movements’ ability to directly reach people at scale, bring them into organizations, develop their volunteer leadership, and grow their shared political consciousness is nowhere near what’s needed. 

2. Don’t just tell me how many doors you knocked on — tell me who you talked to and what happened

We need to get better at bringing our disciplined organizing rigor and measurement to our voter engagement programs. The electoral fundraising world — and the pressure to perform and compete that comes with it — doesn’t help. But we know better. We need to measure and promote our voter engagement work by assessing voter conversations and commitments to act (not just broadcasting how many doors we knocked, how many phone calls we made, or how many text messages we sent). I’m guilty of this sometimes myself.

I don’t know about you, but when I was being trained as an organizer (way back in the ’90s), if I’d come back at the end of the night and told my boss, Anthony Thigpenn, that I’d knocked on fifty doors but didn’t say how many people I'd talked to or how many of them committed to do something — it wouldn’t have gone well. Reporting big numbers of outreach attempts (doors, phones, texts, whatever) does tell us about the relative scale of our programs, which matters. But it doesn’t tell us about the reach of our actual contact and engagement with people, nor does it tell us about the quality or impact of that contact. We need to measure, report and assess all three dimensions of our work. Always.

3. Force a new “common sense” for the mainstream electoral industrial complex 

Lastly, we need to get better at showing (not just telling) the powers-that-be in mainstream, transactional politics that our way of grassroots electoral organizing and base-building is the path to power. We need to get together and really change the common sense that operates within what I call the “progressive electoral industrial complex.” The common sense should include:

  • Changing consciousness by engaging with real people on values and vision is more effective than TV attack ads. 

  • Year-round organizing and community-building by known and trusted local leaders is better than pop-up campaigns parachuting in months or weeks before Election Day. 

  • Spending money to identify and train more local volunteer leaders and organizers is better than spending more on polls to find alleged magic words or research to test font styles on mail pieces. 

So, congrats to all of us! We wrested the White House out of the hands of a wannabe dictator. 

As we fight for our agenda in the coming months — and as we gear up for more electoral gains in 2022, 2024, and beyond — let’s keep talking honestly, assessing critically, and pushing ourselves to get bigger, better, and stronger.

 

Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue.

 

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