Text for Bernie Lives On in Issue-Driven Campaigning

An inside look at how Election 2016's not-so-secret weapon is helping issue-based orgs reach millions of voters.

Housed in a former yoga studio, the Philadelphia headquarters of NextGen Climate is reminiscent of a college dormitory common room during finals, complete with pillowy bean bag chairs, pizza boxes and take out containers, and millennials hunched over laptops. With less than a week until Election Day, the space is quieter than one might expect, although the calm could easily mask grim determination and razor-sharp focus as staff organizers and volunteers input personal information from paper vote pledge cards into the NextGen Climate database.

I’m here to meet Sam Ghazey, the lone Philadelphia-based member of the distributed organizing team, which is—and no surprise here—distributed across the country. Ghazey leads NextGen Climate’s text-based voter outreach program. To date, 2,600 NextGen Climate volunteers have sent more than 3.7 million text messages to millennial voters. An additional one million text messages have been sent through other NextGen Climate initiatives, like the campus outreach program.

The distributed campaign and the campus program are part of a $25 million dollar NextGen Climate campaign, announced in April, to mobilize millennials this election. The organization, which was started by billionaire Tom Steyer in 2013 to help move climate change legislation, is endorsing Hillary Clinton and six senate candidates with strong climate platforms, as well as Roy Cooper, who’s running for governor in North Carolina. Between distributed organizing, a digital campaign that includes partnerships with companies like BuzzFeed, and a campus program, NextGen Climate vice president Heather Hargreaves says they are targeting two million millennials.

In a kitchen-cum-conference-room, Ghazey explained how he began as an intern for the Bernie Sanders campaign in March 2015, and, after getting promoted to office manager, started organizing college students across the country before jumping to the distributed team and helping manage the texting program—all while living a double life as a full-time student. In June, Ghazey brought those skills to NextGen Climate, and he wasn’t alone. Of the fifteen paid staff and fellows who make up the distributed team, 12 come from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Ghazey says that he and the rest of the distributed team are refining strategies first designed and tested during the Sanders campaign.

Although the tool célèbre of the primaries was Hustle, NextGen Climate now uses a web-based peer-to-peer texting platform called Relay, which was launched in August by a team of former Bernie Sanders organizers. (Before switching to Relay, NextGen Climate tried both Hustle and a platform called Spoke.)

After the Sanders campaign wrapped up, Daniel Souweine, the lead on Text for Bernie, teamed up with three other Bernie 2016 alums to build Relay. During the primary, Souweine had been greatly impressed by peer-to-peer texting, which makes possible a one-to-one relationship between the organization and the target, unlike other outreach tools like mass email.

“I was blown away by the power of peer-to-peer texting to connect people to the campaign, to recruit them to volunteer, to create real, meaningful, substantive interactions,” Souweine told Civicist. “I’ve been working in political tech for 10 years and walked away from it [the campaign] feeling like this is the most important technological innovation to happen in, be it issue campaigning or electoral campaigning, since Facebook.”

Souweine said that they wanted to improve on Hustle in four areas: flexibility, ease of use, speed, and affordability. The latter three are relatively self-explanatory. By better flexibility, Souweine clarified that he means both the ability to target messages based on certain characteristics, and to collect additional data points for later use. For example, if 30 respondents express interest in attending an event, on the day of the event, the campaign should be able to send a reminder to just those 30 numbers. With Relay, Souweine says they can. And over the course of a conversation, if a respondent mentions that they might be interested in doing a particular task at a later time, the campaign can store that info for later use.

When asked what advantages Relay had over Hustle, Ghazey mentioned greater data catchment but also more dynamic scripting options, making more complex conversations possible. With Text for Bernie, Ghazey said they could “get away” with mostly binary conversations—can you make this event, yes or no—but with Relay, NextGen Climate volunteers can ask lots of probing questions about individuals’ climate priorities and preferences, or the kinds of tasks they might be willing to volunteer to do in the future.

Becky Bond, a former senior advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign, is now working behind-the-scenes at NextGen Climate, advising them on the campus program. She tells Civicist the most innovative thing that the organization is doing is marrying offline and online organizing. Specifically, she says the distributed volunteers will be able to pick up the responsibility of texting and calling numbers in battleground states that were collected through the on-the-ground campus program, leaving the on-the-ground organizers in key states to focus on face-to-face interactions.

Other organizations have also incorporated texting into their voter outreach. Vote.org is using text messaging in their nonpartisan Get Out the Vote outreach. Souweine says other organizations using Relay for election outreach include Avaaz and the Courage Campaign. And Color Of Change PAC, which also uses Relay, has been organizing text-a-thons in cities across the country, including New York, Washington D.C., Oakland, and Miami.

Jennifer Edwards, Color of Change PAC’s Electoral Communications Program Director, says that so far over 1,400 volunteers have sent more than 2.4 million text messages to black voters in battleground states. “We’ve reached more than one million black voters,” she told Civicist. “Our plan over the next five days is to send an additional one million text messages.”

For Color of Change PAC, the text-a-thons are as much about building community as they are about voter outreach. “In a time where black communities are feeling targeted…we thought it was important to bring them together and give them a positive feeling,” Edwards explained. This Sunday, Color of Change PAC will hold one of their text-a-thons at Civic Hall.

After the election, Souweine hopes to expand Relay’s capabilities to work for issue-based organizing as well as electoral campaigning.

Becky Bond thinks that the many contexts in which peer-to-peer texting and other tactics developed in the Sanders campaign are finding purchase is a good sign for the future of organizing.

“When we were on the Bernie campaign, people really wanted to work for Bernie and they really wanted to vote for Bernie because his agenda was radical as the problems we face, including climate,” Bond told Civicist. “It’s fairly remarkable that [NextGen Climate has been] able to replicate some of the successes of the Bernie campaign using the tactics and the technology.”

“It’s a really good sign for how we’re going to do field and distributed organizing in the future,” she added. “It worked for Bernie, and now we’re seeing it can work in a context where young people are…not that excited about who they’re voting for. It’s kind of a remarkable and hopeful thing.”