Web Only / Features » June 8, 2017
Interviews for Resistance: A Sanders Campaign Vet on How to Connect with Disaffected Voters
Becky Bond talks about the importance of knocking on doors to bridge the gap between voters and campaigns.
'There was a dissonance between the voters and the messages that were coming out of the Democrats. There was this disconnect.'
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we'll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They'll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn't, what’s changed and what is still the same.
Becky Bond: I am Becky Bond. I was senior adviser on the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and, since the election of Trump, been in a lot of parts of the resistance, including co-founding a group called Knock Every Door.
Sarah Jaffe: I want to talk about Knock Every Door. Tell us how that got started. Where did the idea come from and how did you end up putting it together?
Becky: Like a lot of people that have been involved in organizing after the election of Trump, everyone I knew and people that I didn’t know, would come up to me and say, “What do we do now? What should I do?”
It was kind of an amazing moment, in part because everybody wanted to do something and not only did they want to do something, it wasn’t just that they wanted to know where to give a donation or how to make a phone call, but they wanted to do things that were in person where they lived. They wanted to be with other people and they wanted to be active together in person, which was an amazing impulse. I, personally, felt that, too. I wanted to be with other people and I wanted to be engaged in work that was going to be part of the solution.
One of the things I would tell people was that surely one of the next things that was going to happen was that we were going to start talking to the voters who had supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and who flipped to support Trump in 2016, as well as with the people who voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, but didn’t vote in 2016. Understanding what happened with those voters is going to be key in how were going to make things be different next time. We have got to get out there and knock on doors and talk to people and we have got to phone bank these people and start the conversation.
I actually just really thought that most organizations that were involved in elections were going to basically start the work for the next cycle then because so many people were ready. They were like, “Let’s go! Let’s go canvas.” And then nobody asked them to do that. Nobody asked me to do that. So, even at the same time as all these new stories were coming out about the presidential campaign, which had really failed to talk to voters, at scale, in person with volunteers, there had been this idea on the campaign that that wasn’t a valuable or cost effective thing to do.
One of the things that became clear, I think that the people who were asking me what to do next felt it very viscerally, was that somehow we lost this feedback loop between voters and the people who were running campaigns. If you had actually gone out and talked to people, like we did on the Bernie Sanders campaign across the country, you knew that people were really angry and hurting and that the solutions that the Democrats were talking about and were bragging about, “We fixed the economy. The economy is growing. It is awesome.” They were talking about the amazing advances of Obamacare, which did solve problems for a lot of people, but I would talk to people again and again across the country who said, “I am forced to pay expensive premiums that I can’t afford and my deductible is so high that I can’t go to the doctor when I am sick.”
There was a dissonance between the voters and the messages that were coming out of the Democrats. There was this disconnect. There were a lot of people that were ready to go out and start having the conversations and to listen and try and forge the connections that we need and the civil dialogue that we need to get out of this hole. When that opportunity wasn’t offered, there were some other organizers that were feeling the same as I was and we all got together kind of as volunteers and we said, “Well, what if we could just help people go out and go canvassing? Why do we need a professional organization to run these canvasses and to invite people to do it?” We learned a lot on the Bernie Sanders campaign about how to use very cheap or free consumer software to help volunteers actually run their own voter contact operations.
So that is when we decided that we would set an all-volunteer run, pretty much, campaign up that we called Knock Every Door. That was a series of conference calls and Google Docs and data entry teams and text message turnout teams and sort of bringing people together where they lived to go out and talk to voters.
Sarah: It has been a few months now that this has been going on. How is it going? How many doors have been knocked? Where are people doing the door-knocking?
Becky: It is amazing. Volunteers are running canvases in 37 states right now and they’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors and they have had thousands of amazing conversations. And a lot of it is listening.
What is so amazing about this moment that we are in and the really sort of humble and generous attitude of the volunteers who believe that we need to break out of filter bubbles and go talk to people that may not agree with us to try and understand, “What are the problems that they are facing? What are their hopes and fears for the future?” Then, how do we engage with them about our hopes and fears, especially if they are different?
We have debriefing calls every week where the volunteers who hosted a conference get on one of these free conference calls with other people who have hosted and some of the organizers that were involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign, some of them were involved with the Clinton campaign and what they say is that people who show up and go out to canvass who have never done it before, not only are they having conversations that they think will make progress for the next election, but it is transforming them and how they feel about things. It is a really amazing personal experience for them to actually go out and relearn talking to people that are different than we are and sharing experiences. It has opened their eyes to the world in a certain way and it is creating a sense of connection that is missing.
Sarah: What kinds of things are people learning on the doors?
Becky: I think the thing that we are learning at the doors is that people actually want to talk. We worked with some political scientists to try and write scripts that would be most effective at the door that would also tap into a new kind of research about canvassing that suggests that a certain kind of, they call it deep canvassing, is actually the most impactful in terms of persuading people and having that persuasion be durable over time. We ask people at the end of the survey, “Would you like to have someone come back and talk to you about this again?” Overwhelmingly, people say “Yes,” they would.
There is this myth that people don’t like to be bothered, that the voters don’t like to be bothered, that we are bothering them by going in and having conversations. One of the most amazing things that we are learning is that actually people do want to have these conversations with their fellow citizens about what is at stake and people really want to feel like they are listened to not just delivering a script and trying to tell somebody what they should think.
Sarah: All of these conversation are happening, where does this go? Where does the information go? Where do the conversations lead?
Becky: Right now what we are doing is if you are a volunteer and you want to start canvassing, when you go to the doors with your fellow volunteers, you pre-print out these forms where you can record the answers and what people say at the door. It is a combination of verbatims and picking on a scale of one to ten, “How do you feel about X or Y?” What they do after a canvass is there are these free apps you can put on your phone, and they turn the forms that they fill out into PDFs right there with their phone. Then, they email those forms in. Then, we have a team of a volunteers who actually enter the data into the database.
Right now the data I think just goes into an air table just like on Google Sheets where we are tracking these responses. Then, we also send the Google spreadsheet back to the canvass organizer to give them that data back, because a lot of people when they are doing this have a small local group that is actually running a campaign that they look for candidates at times and they want the data back about the people that you talked to. So we are giving it back to the people that did it, but we are also keeping account of it.
Right now, you think about how many people are doing this wherever they are, it is not concentrated in one area, so right now relative to the number of voters, it's a small database, but we are going to keep compiling it. And if enough people get involved, it will get large enough to be useful, at which point, what we say is that we are open to sharing the information with campaigns that are fighting for racial and economic justice. But, for now, we are just keeping information and putting it back in the hands of the people that are organizing on the ground.
Sarah: It has been really interesting to me to see all of these new organizations or formations like Knock Every Door. There are a whole bunch of other things where it seems like you are doing basically what political parties in countries that have functional political parties would be doing. Especially in this vacuum of the Democratic Party not wanting to do some of these things, how do you feel about how all these different formations come together and what they’re building towards?
Becky: I think, in some ways, what we are seeing are that people are just way out in front of the politicians and party leaders. With Knock Every Door, one of the things that we wanted to do was make a bold statement saying that this was really important and we need to show that volunteers actually really wanted to do it and to show that the voters at the doors actually want to be a part of the conversation. When we started this, there was no chair of the DNC and now we have people at the DNC talking very passionately about the need to go out, especially in an off year, and knock on every door.
We have created a demand to knock every door and we are seeing the party start to talk about it. I think that is progress. Where we are actually seeing the party really get involved and really get involved with these volunteers is several state parties have come to us, where you have someone who works at the state party who went, “This is what I have been wanting to do is knock every door because our lists aren't great,” or “I know we could persuade people.” There are a lot of people that work at state parties who, especially in red states where there are counties where they don’t have staff on the ground in those counties because they just don’t have enough Democratic voters there. For them, this has been this great tool, this great platform where they can say, “I am going to run. I want help to run a Knock Every Door canvass in these counties in my state where we don’t have party staff.” We have been working with state parties about [how] they could get volunteers to start doing this work in places where they are not funded to do it.
And really wanting to put this together as a platform and not as a campaign behind a specific idea. We already have ActBlue, which really revolutionized how people can raise small dollar donations to candidates without ever having to talk to staff or not having to rely on a group like the DNC or the DCCC to promote a candidate. We thought, in the same way, what if people could contribute small amounts of doors knocked to a larger strategy and create a platform that would let anybody plug into it and get started and with the hope that like ActBlue, which started slowly but has eventually become this really important part of the infrastructure of the Democratic Party and progressive movements, that setting up a platform where volunteers could be canvassing could really change things.
Then finally, this is important too, is that we are turning people on to canvassing and once people start going door-to-door and talking to people, it is pretty addictive. What you find is that people that do it, some of them really get into and do it a lot. It is the kind of the thing where you get better at it the more you do it. We are completely certain that what is going to happen here is that by the time candidate campaigns and maybe some issue campaigns get to the maturity that they are ready to go out and knock on doors for some of the candidate campaigns for 2018, it might not be until the summer of 2018, but when they do, they are going to find these volunteers who have been doing Knock Every Door canvasses, they are going to be ready to come and be their top volunteers and start canvassing for that candidate for that campaign.
We think that when the party catches up to the people and they open up their own canvasses for these important races to come that we are going to have a bunch of people that are ready to go, they have been doing this all along, and that can be huge contributors to climbing that hill that we have to climb, which is midterm elections.
Sarah: This obviously comes out of your work on the Sanders campaign and the willingness to trust people to go run their own canvass, to do things largely without asking for permission. The tough question will be: How do you decide who is part of the movement and who isn’t?
Becky: The folks behind Knock Every Door are working on a lot of things as part of the resistance. This is a certain platform that we thought could be important to all sorts of things that are going on. For example, a lot of the Swing Left chapters and Indivisible chapters are running Knock Every Door canvasses. They have a program, we have a platform to help people with resources to get trained and tools to use and data entry ability and the conference calls where people can debrief together and support each other.
In this work we have really said this platform is going to be used by anyone who supports racial and economic justice. But in our other work we are more specifically ideological. There is a real divide in the party right now and all these calls for unity within the Democratic Party, I think they kind of get it wrong, the calls for unity and healing. I think what we actually have [is] groups of people that believe different things. I think we have factions or formations, and the people we generally refer to as the neoliberals, they want to have a few more winners and a few less losers, but they want to keep the current economic system basically the way it is.
Then, there are other people that think that financialized capitalism is a huge contributor to gross economic and racial injustice and that we have to take on capitalism and structural racism at the same time. That is incompatible with a party which represents big money and elites in this country. In our other work, we are working on racial justice campaigns. We are working to elect district attorneys who are going to end mass incarceration. We are looking at other municipal and county campaigns where we can stop pipelines and protect voting rights, supervise elections and that kind of stuff. I think that it is important to be clear about what you believe in and to be working for specific solutions, but also I think it is sort of the tax on all of us, or maybe a tithe, that we all need to contribute to creating practices and infrastructure for everyone that is going to lift all boats.
And I think that when we have a system or when we are pushing tactics that involve getting more people involved, getting volunteers involved, and talking to more voters that is good for strengthening little-d democracy. This is how we make people more important than money and it is something that we need to work on even as we are pursuing other specific policies. This is why we are really open to this being something we hope is adopted by the parties, no matter where we stand on some of the issues and some of the ideological battles which we are engaged in and that I think are really important, but I think this is important, too.
Sarah: I suppose is part of the goal of this is to bring some feedback back to candidates and campaigners about what people actually care about and what people are actually feeling and that should shape what those policy decisions end up being, right?
Becky: Yes, I think that is right. I think if campaigns actually heard word for word from voters, and if they tried to talk all the voters—not just a small number of voters they cherry-picked to swing an election—there are a lot of things to take away from the 2016 presidential election. One of the things to take away was how absolutely dangerous it was, that strategy which was going for 50 percent of the vote plus one because there should have been a wide margin between the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign going into election day. Had there been that wide margin, then the Comey revelations and the other things, they could have gotten it down some, but it wouldn’t have been so catastrophic.
The big data strategy is where essentially you hire a bunch of data consultants to run a bunch of models to find out, “What is the smallest number of people you can talk to and win? Who are those people and what do they care about?” We need to talk to everybody. When you talk to a small group of people, they may not reflect back what the campaign needs to hear and about what is really going on with most of the constituents in that race. I think that campaigns need to hear from the majority of the people how policies are affecting their lives. Then, that could really change what politicians decide to talk about and fight for.
One of the things that I really learned from talking to people across the country is that the people that are not participating in elections, the so-called “low information voters,” it is not that they are ignorant people at all. In fact, time and time again, when I talk to them I come away feeling like they have a very sophisticated political analysis and they are choosing not to participate in politics. Not because they don’t know, but because their liberation is not on the ballot or they don’t see how voting is actually going to materially change anything in their lives. I think that reestablishing the feedback loop of talking voters is doing an important thing. That the concerns from the people that are not participating can also be something that politicians take into account, not just the narrow slice of voters who they think will put them over the top.
Sarah: We are having this conversation shortly before the People’s Summit, which is going to be the second year in a row of this post-Bernie campaign gathering. You are going to be talking. What are you looking forward to about it?
Becky: I am really excited about the People’s Summit in Chicago. I feel like it could really be a turning point for the resistance in 2017. I am talking about a couple of things there. One, there is going to be a panel about big organizing after Bernie. Big organizing is this idea of campaigning behind big ideas that are really going to change things and getting as many people involved as possible in making change.
And then also, I am really excited to be there because this is an explicit gathering of the left activists who are fighting both fascism and neoliberalism and are involved in a project of political education so that we know not just which races we need to win and not just who we are supporting, but, “What is it that we are actually for and why?” and “How is what's going on right now and is that caused by the deeper issues that are going on in politics?” I am very excited to be part of a movement that cares about this kind of analysis and putting it into action and that cares about bringing movement values into electoral politics. I think we will look back on the People’s Summit in 2017 possibly as a real turning point for the Democratic Party and for the American left at a really dire moment when big change is needed and the country could go in two very different directions.
Sarah: How can people keep up with you and sign up to knock every door?
Becky: Go to KnockEveryDoor.org. If you sign up at KnockEveryDoor.org, you will get a text message from a volunteer inviting you to be on a conference call where you can talk to people about how you can get started going door-to-door in your community. It is not just about getting some information, it is not just a software site, it is really a community of volunteers that are supporting each other to do this work and we would love to have as many people come and join us as available.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
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Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.