Bernie Sanders is putting his supporters to work this weekend.
Volunteers will host an estimated 5,000 house parties across the US and in 34 other countries on Saturday, the campaign said, as it launches the 2020 edition of its national organizing program – a grassroots effort that the independent senator from Vermont believes could be decisive in what is shaping up to be a tightly contested Democratic presidential primary.
Sanders, along with campaign manager Faiz Shakir, campaign co-chair Nina Turner and campaign organizing director Claire Sandberg, will address the partygoers via remote broadcasts, and the campaign plans to launch a new app to help volunteers keep track of their voter contacts.
In an interview Friday evening, Sanders touted the campaign’s large and growing volunteer list as a strategic advantage in the crowded primary field and said the Saturday gatherings represent “the first manifestation of that.”
“You will see in this campaign a lot of spontaneous activity that doesn’t come from our national headquarters,” Sanders said, nodding to the DIY culture that has sprung up around both his presidential bids. “People in Memphis, Tennessee and Los Angeles, California, they’re going to come up with an idea, they’re going to use local artists and musicians. So this is our effort to build a political movement, which will help us win the primary, help us win the general election and, in my view, it is the only way we bring about the kind of fundamental reforms we need in this country.”
But ceding that amount of control to volunteers – people with no official ties to Sanders 2.0’s more coherent structure – also invites some risk. Volunteers are offered scripts and “principles” by the campaign, but organizers on the payroll have no way of assuring the campaign’s message remains constant or comes across how they might hope.
“This is always the difficulty you have,” Sanders said. “So if somebody in some city or some state says something that’s dumb, we can be sure that the local media will pick up on it. But I think everybody understands that when you have over a million people involved in the political process, you know, people will say what they say.”
If all goes according to plan, they will be saying a lot – to a lot of people. In 2016, the campaign told CNN last month, Sanders supporters – using a smaller version of its current field organizing strategy – hosted an estimated 80,000 volunteer events, made 85 million phone calls, sent 10 million peer-to-peer texts and knocked on 5 million doors.
Veterans of the 2016 Sanders campaign went on to employ some of the same tactics in other races, most notably Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 near-miss challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. O’Rourke’s presidential campaign kickoff was viewed by supporters, his campaign said at the time, at more than 1,000 organizing parties in every US state and territory.
Sandberg said the information passed on to volunteers at the parties will help them keep tabs on persuadable voters, be they friends, family, neighbors or someone spotted on a bus wearing a “Medicare for All” T-shirt.
“In 2016, volunteers purchased voter files on their own from secretaries of state so they could get out there and start knocking on doors and talking to voters,” Sandberg said, describing a level of energy and amateur expertise that the 2020 campaign is trying to more efficiently translate into votes next year.
This time around, even the guidelines provided by the campaign have a more strategic, studied vibe. The six-page list of “principles” offered to hosts warns volunteers against engaging in debates with the unconverted.
They also include a reminder: Tread carefully – you are being watched.
“When we talk with voters about Bernie and his platform, each of us is the face of the campaign,” the guide says. “The impression that we make matters, and we take that responsibility seriously. We treat everyone we encounter with care and respect, whether or not they agree with us.”