The Future of Field: Lessons from the Front Lines of the Democratic Resurgence

Apr 2 · 20 min read

By Dylan Cate, former Director of Organizing and Strategic Campaigns with the Washington State Democratic Party, and Maria Beltran, Guillermo Mogollan, Garrett Moore, and Alexander Scott , former Field Organizers with the Washington State Democratic Party.

None of us will forget where we were, and what depths of despondency and hopelessness we felt on the evening of November 8th, 2016. Today, with the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, and an exciting, diverse cadre of Democratic candidates piling in to the ring to take on Trump in 2020, the mood couldn’t be more different. Democrats won up and down the ticket in nearly every state in 2018, taking back forty Congressional seats, five governor’s mansions, six state legislative chambers, and winning the popular vote by nearly 9% — a huge repudiation of the hateful ideologies and policies pushed by Trump and his Republican allies; bigger even than the blue wave that followed the Watergate scandal.

With a bevy of Democratic presidential candidates building campaigns for 2020, now’s the time for us to ask an important question: how did we achieve this progress? And how can we turn what we learned into a blueprint for building long-term political power for our movement? As a group of organizers who were on the front lines of developing a new way of doing politics in one state Democratic party, we set out to answer that very question, and share the lessons we learned from more than two years of trial, error, and eventually, success.

There’s been a resurgence of activism and organizing, both inside and out of the Democratic party. State Democratic parties and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are reinvesting in organizing with a series of grants designed to get more staff on the ground in more places earlier than ever. Groups like Indivisible and Swing Left are creating new political homes for people who want to elect Democrats, but don’t feel that they fit in at the monthly meetings. This new era of progressive politics focused on organizing is all good news — but with every watershed moment like this one, we must pay attention not just to how much field work we’re doing but to how we’re organizing.

We are nearing a broad-based popular movement on the left that doesn’t stop with electoral gains at the ballot box, but could also usher in a new era of progressive victories outside of elections. Imagine if a fraction of the millions of people who marched for the first time in 2017 and 2018 trained for and participated in direct action in the next two years. Our movement could exercise major economic and social power, through radical new forms of collective action in the workplace, local and state legislative progress on national priorities like gun control and drug reform, or push for more corporate accountability via organized mass consumer actions. But to get there, we need to run our campaigns as though we’re preparing for the day after an election, developing the infrastructure needed to build and sustain a long-term popular movement on the left.

We believe staffers and volunteers on progressive campaigns can win both short-term electoral victories and build power for long-term, institutional and cultural change. Below are our four guiding principles that define this “future of field”:

  1. Organize volunteers as “whole people” by focusing on building relationships.
  2. Our goal is to develop leaders, not just knock on doors.
  3. If we’re asking people to do big things, we must give them ownership over our strategy.
  4. We must right systemic imbalances through affirmative hiring practices.

None of these ideas are new, and others have written about them in far greater depth ^1. But our argument is that these tactics don’t only work on short-term electoral campaigns, but that they provide a better — and necessary — path forwards for our party and our progressive movement.

Principle 1 — Organize volunteers as “whole people” by focusing on building relationships

In the future of field, we build successful organizing programs centered on strong relationships, and by systematically mapping the ways our volunteers are embedded in social circles and communities. Organizing around existing relationships results in a more resilient corps of volunteers who can take on the bigger challenges demanded to win the future we seek.

On Dylan’s first day as a new labor organizer with SEIU 1199NW, he was handed a photocopied piece of paper with handwritten “advice for rookie organizers;” a series of a dozen or so principles gathered by some of the most experienced labor organizers in the country during a convention in the 1980s. He’s committed many of these to heart. One reads, “The working class organizes cells for its own self-defense. Find them and recruit their leaders.” Leaders exist out in the world — and our job is to identify them, build relationships with them, and bring them into our campaign.

In many ways, organizing workers to form a union is one of the most difficult organizing challenges a person can take on. Just look at the statistics: nearly two-thirds of the American public approve of unions, yet only 10% of the workforce actually belongs to a union. People face incredible risks — to their workplace relationships, their family’s livelihood, and even their physical safety — when they stand up and decide to fight their employer to make their job and workplace better. Think about what it would feel like to march into your bosses’ office with a group of your co-workers and tell them you’d like to make some big changes at work. Just thinking about it probably causes most of us some degree of anxiety. So, naturally, the labor movement has developed an organizing praxis that can move majorities of people to walk through fire together. The methodology is simple: map social networks, and identify, recruit, and train the leaders of those networks.

Anyone who’s organized people who have a lot to lose understands this viscerally. It doesn’t matter how many times you describe to a worker the benefits of forming a union with their coworkers or uniting to build power in any social structure (win higher pay, decrease harassment, receive improved benefits, etc.). Once management starts to turn up the pressure and disciplines or fires activists, folks you thought were on board will stop returning phone calls or showing up for meetings.

Rewind this scenario and pretend that an individual who folks really respect in the workplace is the messenger. Someone that folks trust with their lives and livelihoods — someone they’ll follow into battle. It’s a totally different ball game. When you have the real workplace leader on board — the person that folks respect and look up to — supporters start asking to be involved or just showing up.

Why? Because relationships matter, especially if you’re trying to move someone to do something really hard, like take a risk, commit to a big ask, or change their position on an issue. But why does this matter in electoral campaigns? If “persuasion is dead,” and the purpose of campaigns is only to turn out more supporters than our opponent, why would we have to care about relationships if we’re not trying to change hearts and minds, or asking voters to do anything more difficult or time-consuming than filling out a ballot?

In the future of field, campaigns become seeds for movements for social change. Instead of viewing a campaign as a conveyor belt to deliver voters to the polls one day, campaigns could be the vehicle to build a network of people who are capable (and willing) to do much more.

They could organize their workplaces, coordinate far-reaching shareholder activism for greater social responsibility, or lead a large-scale consumer buying or boycott campaign for a critical social good like combating climate change.

What if we viewed campaigns as a training ground for a much deeper — dare we say revolutionary — type of change, the kind of change that comes from building real and sustained power? We already have all the tools we need to do this. We can ensure that volunteers don’t just build strong, trusting relationships with staff, but also with each other. We can train volunteers to run their own one-on-one meeting and onboard new volunteers. We can achieve this by asking volunteers to map out everyone they know and make a plan to reach out to them about joining, or at least voting for, our campaign. Like most humans, volunteers are already part of dozens of groups, from houses of worships, to campus organizations or their kids’ sports teams. We can track all this information and use it to identify the cells and circles that people belong to, and recruit their leaders. What would it mean if, after running an electoral campaign, we were to be able to mobilize 20%-30% of people in a given town or region into serious collective action beyond election day, through relationships and established leaders alone?

We’d end up with a campaign that left behind in the community a deep understanding of how to mobilize large swaths of people towards a collective goal, with a well-trained cadre of volunteer leaders who hold relationships with those people. But how do you operationalize this in a field campaign, where we typically ask volunteers to knock on the doors of complete strangers, and where we often don’t have the time to sit down with every single volunteer and chart their entire social network?

Until recently, we didn’t have tools that enabled us to map our supporters’ relationships against the list of voters we’re targeting and operationalize those relationships into meaningful contacts between volunteers and voters. But now, with tools like VoterCircle, Team, Outvote, and Vote with Me on the market, campaigns can easily connect the dots between their supporters and the voters they need to reach.

This is exactly what we did on a competitive congressional campaign I was a part of in Seattle in 2016. Using Votercircle, we had more than 300 volunteers map their relationships to voters in our district. We were blown away by the results: those 300 voters had nearly 75,000 relationships with voters in our district — nearly 20% of the entire registered voter population. Using personalized emails, our volunteers were able to connect with 50,000 of those voters directly.

But what about privacy? We thought volunteers would be creeped out when we asked them to sync their contacts list with our program — but quite the opposite happened. Most supporters were thrilled to have the option to talk to friends and family about the campaign, rather than doorbelling or calling complete strangers (although we did plenty of that, too). Why?

We were asking them to do something only they could do for the campaign — connect with the people they had relationships with, the people they were uniquely situated to persuade to support our campaign.

By focusing on relationships, we approached organizing based on the way that people had already organized themselves in our community: into cells, with members and leaders. And we looked at each volunteer as a whole person, with a unique set of relationships and cultural capital to contribute, rather than just the ability to knock on a certain number of doors in an hour. What’s more, this is shockingly easy to implement: organizers can map volunteers’ relationships and social networks at the end of an initial one-on-one meeting, then teach volunteer leaders to do the same as the pace of volunteer intake grows throughout the course of campaigns. Both staff and volunteers will learn the valuable skill of building a power map of their supporter network, and campaigns will have a richer understanding of the absolute best way to reach each voter.

If we want to move more people into greater action against tougher odds, then we must map and mobilize relationships in our electoral campaigns and use that knowledge after November.

Principle 2: Our goal is to develop leaders, not just knock doors

In the future of field, every campaign is designed to build power and develop leaders who will continue to operate long after the campaign is over. Winning on election day is just the first test of a movement’s ability to mobilize a majority of voters into collective action.

Another way of saying this is that, when forced to prioritize between maximizing a campaign’s inputs and its outputs, we should always prioritize inputs. Let us unpack that a bit. In today’s data-driven campaigns, staff have a multitude of metrics at their disposal — so many that it can become overwhelming. Should we measure the number of volunteer sign-ups we have, the number of calls we make to recruit volunteers, the number of folks who say they’ll attend a canvass, the number of people who actually show up, the doors they knock, the outcome of those door knocks, or whether those supporters we found on the canvasses actually vote? The short answer is that we should measure all of it — but we should be careful about which metrics we use to measure success. It’s very tempting to measure “outputs” like door knocks because they are a consistent, uniform quantity. Door knocking scripts, volunteer recruitment and training, and myriad other factors vary from campaign to campaign — but a door knock is a door knock, readily understood by all stakeholders and partners, and easy to compare to other efforts. So we end up with some campaigns that prioritize outputs like door knocks and phone calls over volunteer training and leadership development. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that outputs don’t matter after election day. Once we win (hopefully) on the first Tuesday in November, all those doors we knocked to get there become just a means to an end. But inputs keep mattering. Because underlying each input is the concept of “capacity” — our ability to expand our work and replicate it in different contexts, elections, and years.

At the Washington State Democratic Party, our year-round organizing program wasn’t designed to knock a lot of doors: it was designed to build as much capacity as possible. And for us, that meant one thing: not just recruiting volunteers, but developing volunteer leaders. We started organizing in 2017, when there were very few elections to organize around. This naturally provoked a minor identity crisis: if we’re not knocking doors to turn out voters for elections, what’s our purpose? Our raison d’être as a party? The answer was simple: build our capacity to generate future wins by focusing on recruiting, training, and developing a cadre of grassroots leaders.

So, we launched an Organizing Academy program, running twenty-three half-day organizing trainings across Washington State that drew more than 2,200 attendees. Then we took the folks who were interested in being more than just volunteers and put them through an additional webinar-based training series to prepare them to lead organizing work in their communities. By the end of this training regime, our “Canvass Hosts” could do nearly everything a paid staffer could do: recruit volunteers by making phone calls through our database, “cut turf” (making lists of voters to canvass and call), plan and lead events, enter data, and much more. Some of our volunteer leaders even began doing their own one-on-one meetings to welcome and begin training new volunteers.

Of course, we knocked on doors too, running an open-ended community listening canvass with the goal of practicing having deep conversations with friends and neighbors. Those conversations helped us refresh our data, get new contact information for targeted voters, and identify the issues most important to voters in every legislative district in our state. With nearly four hundred Canvass Hosts trained to lead canvasses, our staff could manage more than ten canvasses simultaneously in their turf. We knocked on doors in all forty-nine legislative districts in Washington with only three paid organizers on the ground in the first few months of our program — all in an “off year” with relatively few elections to organize around.

When the Coordinated Campaign program (the Democratic party’s statewide campaign to turn out democratic voters to support candidates up and down the ballot) began, our team grew and trained some Canvass Hosts to an even higher degree, preparing them for a role as Neighborhood Team Leaders. The names and role titles aren’t important, but what is important is that, because of how we chose to organize, Washington State has a whole new generation of leaders in nearly every community in our state who are taking serious ownership over making local and statewide change. In fact, some of those folks began calling and e-mailing us just one week after the election to ask about what’s next. They have an incredible amount of ownership because they’ve led the work, and far from being burned out at the end of the electoral cycle, they’re ready for more!

In the world of campaigns, for too long we’ve measured the outputs of our program at the expense of measuring our ability to do work over the long term — the capacity generated by identifying and training new leaders. That’s why we need to care more about developing leaders than about knocking on doors.

Principle 3: Making Big Asks Requires Giving Big Ownership

In the future of field, a campaign’s responsiveness and flexibility is more important than its discipline and dogmatic adherence to centrally planned prerogatives. That requires giving ownership — and responding to feedback — from leaders doing the work on the ground.

Everyone who’s been an organizer long enough knows what it feels like to inherit “burned turf.” The name itself is pretty explanatory. Burned turf is a region, district, or group of volunteers or voters who are burned out, demoralized, or altogether skeptical of your campaign due to the actions or reputation of previous campaigns. There’s nothing worse than being a brand-new organizer and having to start every conversation on the defensive by explaining, accounting for, or distancing yourself from previous efforts that left a bad taste in folks’ mouths. Organizers and field staff may move every year or two, but most voters and volunteers don’t — and the fallout from burned turf can haunt new organizers and efforts for years to come.

But why do campaigns so often “burn” their relationships with the volunteers and voters they set out to organize? The single common factor is this: When voters and volunteers view the campaign as an outside organization — a third party that is trying to convince them to do something — they don’t feel ownership or self-determination in the effort and feel that the campaign is an unaccountable, indecipherable entity asking them to do things. Some campaigns are lucky enough to have such an inspiring cause or candidate that they can get away with — for a little while — a less-than-accountable internal structure. But pretty soon, it’ll catch up with them.

The first thing many of our organizers would hear when they started to reach out to volunteers was some version of “why should I work with you? You’ll just be gone in November.” In the past, staffers would come in to the community, and leave after the first Tuesday in November. Furthermore, organizers did all the work themselves, rather than teaching volunteer leaders how to do it. They never tried to “work themselves out of a job” by training new leaders to become organizers on their own — the true goal of any real organizer. Further, staffers kept goals and plans close to their chest rather than sharing the campaign plan with volunteers. As a result, volunteers had become so dependent on the paid staffer that they did not know how to lead any of the work — and never understood the why and how behind all the work we were asking them to do.

So, how do we run campaigns that don’t burn turf? The concept is radically simple, but incredibly hard to implement at scale: we have to seek out, listen to, and respond to the feedback of people participating in our campaign. And we have to share as much information about our plan and goals as we possibly can. We need to prioritize flexibility and responsiveness over discipline and hierarchy. And we need to go a step further by training volunteer leaders who will take ownership over their corner of the campaign and run it as if it were their own. Now, this concept seems simple — but imagine how scary it is for most campaign managers. Campaigns run on a rigid, hierarchical system, and often for good reason. If you’re working in progressive campaigns, your goals are always high, your resources are always limited, and your opposition is almost always better-funded than you. Under those circumstances — scarcity, high expectations, and fierce opposition — campaigns often take on a militant culture of discipline and rigidity. If we’re spending down to $0 — both in terms of our campaign’s financial resources and the energy and emotional capacity of volunteers and voters — we need to make sure that absolutely every door knock, conversation, ream of paper, hour of data, and dollar of field-office rent is put to its best and highest use. Anything else is a betrayal of our core cause. Winning becomes the core goal, and a rigid chain of command and adherence to a strict plan become the means to that end. You can understand why campaign culture is one of the most heavily planned, hierarchical, rigid, and inflexible work environments most people will ever encounter.

But it also creates predictably frustrating results for the people who brush up against it. Imagine being a volunteer who’s lived somewhere for 20 years, and being so excited to participate in a campaign that has the potential to achieve something you really care about. Maybe you’ve volunteered on campaigns before, and maybe you have more local cultural competency than the staffers shipping in to lead the field effort in your area. But, far from asking you how you think we should accomplish something, they ignore or rebuff your ideas. You are treated like a cog in the machine — because campaigns are built to run like highly efficient machines. For someone who cares a lot about the cause or candidate they’ve signed up to help, this can be a really alienating, hurtful, and frustrating experience. It’s far worse when your own side doesn’t listen to you than when the other team doesn’t — after all, that’s what you’d expect from your opponents, not your friends.

Furthermore, many people are choosing to do their volunteer work in exciting new organizations outside of traditional campaigns and the Democratic Party, like Indivisible and Swing Left. Campaigners should view this as a huge opportunity, not a threat. With more containers for activism to happen in, more people are likely to find one that fits their identity and needs. The onus is on us, as campaign staff and volunteer leaders, to identify these organizations in our area and build relationships with their leaders. Campaigns need to start acting more like an open-source platform for political action rather than a cult that requires fiendish, dogmatic devotion to our plan in order to participate. That only happens if we ask folks in other groups about their goals, their plan, and how they think we can work together — and then share our answers to those questions freely and openly.

We invested significant time and energy into building relationships with these groups and building a shared plan for our targeted races. In 2017, our three organizers conducted more than 100 1-on-1 meetings each with community groups and leaders. The result? In 2017 and 2018, volunteers from groups like Swing Left and Indivisible comprised at least one-third of all our volunteer efforts at the State party — all because we made it clear that we didn’t have to agree on everything to work together, and because we worked hard to develop relationships built on trust, transparency and ownership. We provided an opportunity for members other political organizations to be a part of the plan and develop their leadership through our work together. Without this level of flexibility and mutual respect, we wouldn’t have been able to work together with the numerous talented volunteers who were doing great work in other organizations.

If you’re asking people to take on huge, important roles as volunteers — essentially acting as staff — you also have to give them the same insight and involvement into the plan and the numbers driving the campaign, a practice that may be uncomfortable for some campaigners. Volunteers want to be a part of a movement. Something that was effective in one of our swing districts in 2018 was giving volunteers a peek behind the curtain, and sharing our real, internal weekly numbers on our progress towards our goals — whether they were rosy or terrifying. Teaching volunteers how to track our progress towards goals made a huge difference. It showed volunteers the impact that their work had, and it made them feel part of the campaign — and gave them the same level of responsibility for our success that paid staffers had. Volunteers were very motivated to try strategies to recruit other volunteers, knock on more doors, and have more effective conversations with voters. They were empowered — so they did more, and better, organizing work. This principle extends to young staffers working on the ground, who may have fresh or creative ideas for improving the performance in their district. If our leaders at headquarters aren’t willing to listen to, and try, new ideas bubbling up from the front lines, we’ll never develop the best practices that move our campaigning praxis forwards.

We must recognize that there will always be another campaign. We are all in this for the long haul, and even the biggest win in any given November election won’t change the underlying causes of many of the problems we face. We must treat every campaign like the building block for the next one, and that means we must give the folks who will be involved year in and year out — our volunteers on the ground — as much ownership as possible in every aspect of the campaign. And, when volunteer leaders continue the work year-round, whether there are paid staff on the ground or not, we’ll prevent our relationships, institutional knowledge, and organizing infrastructure from stagnating. Rather than burning our turf every cycle, we must fertilize and replant it. And that gives us a much better chance of winning in November and beyond.

Principle 4: We must right systemic imbalances through affirmative hiring practices and a long-term commitment to outreach

If we want to change the game, we have to recruit new players.

This should go without saying at this point: our staff (and especially leadership) should reflect the communities we are organizing alongside. Grace Lee Boggs perfectly captures this idea in her concept of “prefigurative politics,” arguing that our organizations should internally look like the world they are fighting to build. Or, in other words, the means don’t justify the ends — they must reflect the ends.

Diane Bedwell, our incredible WA State Democrats Coordinated Campaign Director, hired one of the most diverse teams ever to work on a Coordinated Campaign in our state, a staff who went on to break every field record we’d ever set. By hiring folks who had credibility and relationships in the communities they were organizing, Diane ensured our campaign reflected the voters and communities they were organizing in. This is a no-brainer; it’s just the right thing to do. Hiring a diverse, locally-connected, and representative staff wasn’t just a nice thing to do, it was an essential strategy for our success, and it paid off.

Furthermore, we need to stop thinking of outreach and in-language communication as icing on the cake. They aren’t icing — they’re a fundamental part of what we’re trying to cook together. Take active steps to elevate the diverse populace that will be governed by your (hopefully) winning campaign. If your campaign budget doesn’t have a line item for outreach to communities that are underrepresented in our politics, hasn’t analyzed the different languages spoken in your district, and hasn’t built a plan to reach people in their primary language, ask why — and push for a deeper commitment to this work.

We believe these four principles chart the course for the future of field — a new way of running electoral campaigns that learns lessons from the labor movement and community organizing. These four principles aren’t new, they aren’t radical, and they aren’t impossible to implement, even in the biggest field campaigns. In fact, campaigns all over the country are using these tactics right now, and winning. But it’s time, we think, for them to become the norm, not the exception. We don’t have time to pour billions of dollars into campaigns that aren’t contributing to our movement past November.

The time is now to develop a new future of field, in which campaigns play a real role in building the power our movement needs to win the future we want to live in.

Onwards!


[1] If you like what you read here, consider reading Grace Lee Boggs’s The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Organizing for the 21st Century, Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, and Becky Bond and Zach Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything).

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