Inside the virtual staging location for a Florida canvassing shift, the organizer in charge is taking bites of her lunch as she takes attendance in the Zoom room. Another volunteer has just finished a shift and is planning to start another, once her son was done with school. Another was having problems with the internet connection.
It’s Friday afternoon, five days before Election Day, and this Zoom room of volunteers are part of one last digital push to help former Vice President Joe Biden win the White House. “We’re the campaign office that used to be in the neighborhood,” says Kevin O’Connor, a paid organizer with a Biden 2020 sign hanging in the backdrop of his Zoom setup.
O’Connor helps train and manage digital volunteers for Biden, part of what staffers say is the largest experiment in digital organizing in American political history. Two weekends ago, the Biden digital organizing operation reached over 37 million people with calls and text messages, the vast majority of them in battleground states. Last weekend, volunteers made 58 million voter contacts between calls, texts, and door knocking. Compare that to the final four days of the Obama campaign, where organizers reached 25 million people, according to a staffer who worked on both campaigns.
Six months ago, Biden’s digital organizing team was nearly nonexistent; now, it has 98 digital organizing staff members dedicated to battleground states alone. In July, the campaign’s Victory 2020 Slack channel—known as the main digital field office—had about a thousand people in it. By the end of October, there were 200,000 Biden volunteers in the channel, where they ask organizers for help and send special emojis when they reach a supporter or recruit a volunteer.
“The biggest surprise for me has been the scale that we’ve been able to achieve in the shortest timeline of any presidential campaign in recent history,” says Caitlin Mitchell, a senior advisor for digital strategy for the campaign. “I do believe that a digital-first and primarily virtual approach has allowed us to reach this level of voter contact.”
Democrats are banking on this unprecedented push to make up for the lack of door-to-door canvassing that has normally been the party’s strong suit. This year, Republicans have been hitting the streets to reach voters, and the GOP is boosting a formidable ground game operation. A Trump campaign spokeswoman says they have knocked on 35 million doors in total this cycle, and numbers released by the RNC boasted 15 million voter contacts in seven days. Biden and the Democrats, in deference to public health guidelines, waited until October to start knocking on doors, and have only gone out in some states.
Instead, they’ve betting big on digital outreach. Most of the virtual staging locations are hosted through Mobilize, a digital platform founded in 2017 to help Democrats organize online. Over the last three years, nearly 4 million people have signed up for more than 13 million volunteer shifts on the platform. Before the pandemic, Mobilize helped grassroots organizers organize their in-person events; now, it has pivoted mostly to digital events, for the Biden campaign as well as other campaigns and liberal organizations. Since May, volunteers have attempted almost 400 million voter contacts through Mobilize, and more than one million people have signed up to volunteer in the four days leading up to November 3.
The Biden campaign has more than 8,000 Mobilize events in the four days leading up to the election, including more than 400 events in North Carolina alone The Trump campaign, by comparison, has just over 50 “Trump Army” events nationwide, according to its website. But the Trump campaign also has an ambitious digital organizing operation to supplement its in-person canvassing: a Trump campaign spokeswoman says the campaign has 2.6 million volunteers who have made 180 million voter contacts, including the door knocks.
Alfred Johnson, founder and CEO of Mobilize, says the current level of voter engagement is roughly twelve times higher than the mobilization just before the 2018 midterms, and at least triple what he saw before Super Tuesday. “We’ve never seen organizing that even closely approximated what we’re looking at right now,” he says, adding that it is the culmination of years of anti-Trump organizing, from grassroots activists to Congressional candidates to the presidential primary. “This didn’t originate overnight. This has been percolating over the Trump presidency.”
Now Democrats are trying to channel that energy into actually getting people to vote. In ordinary times, they would be constrained by physical concerns: for example, if Californians took a bus to Nevada to help knock on doors, the volunteer capacity would be constrained by how many people could fit on the buses. With digital organizing, those constraints are eliminated, and the campaign can direct volunteers from all over the country to target specific swing areas.
“The system allows us to be able to navigate our volunteer activity on the flip of a dime, and be able to direct traffic to specific virtual station locations that may need support,“ says digital organizing director Jose Nunez. If the campaign thinks they need more volunteers in Pennsylvania, for example, they can digitally send them there—without having to worry about travel times or logistics.
The Biden team is also capitalizing on years of data building by the DNC in the closing days of the campaign. Since 2016, the DNC has done multiple rounds of cell phone data acquisition, and cleaned up their data file so it’s easier to use. Now, volunteers can use the “VoteJoe” app on their phones to cross-reference their personal contacts with that data. Contacts who live in battleground states have a little ballot next to their name; contacts who have requested ballots are marked with a green star. This allows volunteers to be more targeted with their asks. “You don’t have to hit up every single person in your contact book,” Mitchell says. Cross-referencing users’ contact data with voter data allows the app to say “here are your top 10 suggested friends to make sure that they’re putting that ballot in the mail.”
If it’s successful, this new digital organizing model may be the new paradigm for Democrats. And it means the Biden campaign will have effectively trained a new cadre of digital organizers to take those skills into future elections. “Now we are coming out of the general election running with a massive army of volunteers that know how to have effective conversations, they know how to use digital tools,” says Nunez. “I think that’s going to change the landscape.”
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson