Leading digital for a swing-state party
The Wisconsin Democrats’ Bhavik Lathia outlines his team’s approach to online fundraising & social engagement
For every election cycle in recent memory, Wisconsin has been one of the most-watched battleground states for campaigns up and down the ballot. Fortunately for Democrats, the state is also home to one of the party’s most active and innovative statewide organizations.
Under the leadership of chair Ben Wikler and a sprawling team of organizers, communicators, and digital activists, the Wisconsin Democratic Party has become a grassroots organizing and fundraising powerhouse. For this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Bhavik Lathia, the Wisconsin Democrats’ Sr. Digital Director, about how they approach their work.
Q&A with Bhavik Lathia, Sr. Digital Director, Democratic Party of Wisconsin
Campaigner: Thanks for taking the time! Why don’t you start out by telling us how’d you get your start in politics?
Bhavik Lathia: I started knocking on doors and canvassing when I was in high school. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, which is a rural-suburban Michigan town that is really purple. It’s one of those places that voted for Obama, then Trump, then Biden. There were all of these clubs and activities that people get involved in high school, and none of them really felt like the right fit for me. So, I founded something called “One Small Step,” which was a group to raise awareness about issues that people in mid-Michigan don't necessarily think about and to fundraise for those issues. For example, we ended up spotlighting HIV+ single mothers in Kibera, Kenya during our inaugural year, and raised thousands of dollars to help build a clinic there. Back then, you could get 10 cents for every soda can that you recycled, so we organized our friends to knock on doors and collect a bunch of soda cans and talk to residents about the issue and why it was important. I didn’t know this was called canvassing at the time, but I just got a bunch of friends together to knock on doors and educate/activate our neighbors.
Ever since then, I've kind of just been hooked on this line of work. I later got a job with MoveOn.org, transitioned into becoming a full-time digital practitioner, and they really taught me a lot about what it means to do digital successfully. I later worked with SEIU, climate justice groups, and as Digital Director for Color of Change.
In 2020, I joined the Wisconsin Democrats after working on Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary campaign. My major priority was helping to defeat Trump, and I knew that Wisconsin was the state that tipped the electoral college to Trump in 2016. I wanted to do my part, and Wisconsin was probably the most impactful place I could be. That’s how I ended up here!
Campaigner: When people think of a quintessential swing state, most folks’ minds go straight to Wisconsin. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has kind of become known as one of the most organized and innovative state parties in the country. How has digital engagement been central to your success?
Bhavik Lathia: I attribute the direction that Wisconsin Democrats have taken to Ben Wikler’s leadership. He’s the state party chair. Many state party chairs and leaders in the Democratic party come from communications or fundraising backgrounds, but Ben comes from a digital background and he’s relatively unique in that regard.
His and my approach to the work is that almost everything is worth a test. Test things as much as you can, collect the data, iterate, and run a better test next time. One of the key mottos in my department is that we are never afraid to fail. I feel empowered to say that to my staff because our chair really supports me and he understands digital deeply. So I think that putting digital practitioners and digital leaders in positions of leadership within Democratic organizations is important, and I hope to see more of that moving forward.
Campaigner: Things are starting to heat up in 2022, and Wisconsin is once again going to be the center of attention in the midterms. What does your day-to-day look like? Are you all really focused on fundraising? Email? Digital ads? Managing tons of vendors or consultants?
Bhavik Lathia: A big priority for me since I took on this role has been to bring as much of our operations in-house as possible. When I joined the team, our email program and digital ads program were run out of house. There actually wasn't a stand-alone digital department back then - digital staffers lived within a few different departments - from finance to comms to organizing.
I felt really strongly that there should be a dedicated digital department, and I knew that it was part of Ben's vision for the party as well. When I became Senior Digital Director, one of my first orders of business was to bring staffers into one department and restructure. Now our department consists of four teams: (1) social media, (2) email & SMS, (3) digital ads, and (4) design. We’ve gone from maybe three or four staffers to around 15 staff in the digital department.
In terms of our work, we have two main objectives: One is to raise a lot of money from grassroots donors, and two is to dominate the online discourse. Those are our north stars and objectives, and those are the things that folks in my department wake up each morning thinking about.
Campaigner: For a state party, 15 digital staff is impressive, and it may be the largest team of any I’ve heard of…
Bhavik Lathia: You may be right. I can't think of any that are larger off the top of my head. But I’d have to do some research/poking around to confirm.
Campaigner: So under those objectives, what have been some of your most notable successes or proudest moments? One of our recent campaigner interviews highlighted your team’s Princess Bride fundraiser, which seemed legendary. What else?
Bhavik Lathia: There are a couple of things I'm really proud of. One of the things is that the digital department and the communications department work really lock-step with one another. For many state parties or campaigns, messaging typically originates from the comms department, and then the digital department just ships it out. Instead, myself and my counterpart work really closely together to co-create messaging and align on strategy together. That may not seem like a sexy thing, but it has been a major key to our success.
The second thing I’m proud of is where and how we’re reaching people. Twitter is obviously where many of our supporters and the media live, so it’s a great place to get people to sign up for volunteer shifts or to make a donation, but Facebook and TikTok are where a lot of voters are.
We were either the first or second state party in the country to have a TikTok. It regularly gets thousands of views from Wisconsinites. If you look at our overall Facebook engagement, you will see our messages and posts often far outshining and outreaching our counterparts in the Wisconsin GOP. It wasn’t always like that, but it's something that we had to build capacity and develop a strategy for.
To develop messaging and content that aligns with all of our organizing, comms, and other objectives that then reaches a big digital audience organically… that's not easy. That’s a big part of the work that we're doing.
The final thing I’ll mention is that I'm really proud of the monthly donor base that we've built. We have more than quadrupled that in the last year and a half. Having this level of grassroots support means that we can really plan for the long term and hire organizers and voter protection staff, etc. It allows us to be more consistent and strategic.
Campaigner: That’s particularly impressive growing the donor base in the off-year, right?
Bhavik Lathia: I made a pitch to our Executive Director and Chair at the beginning of 2021 that I wanted the strategic objective of my department to be growing the strength of our monthly donor base. I thought if we could build that base in the off-year, then it would really come to help us out in the on year. So yeah, the vast majority of growth happened primarily throughout 2021.
Campaigner: Year-round organizing and communications seems like such a big part of your work.
Bhavik Lathia: That's right. If I had to point to one thing that's the heart of our success it's definitely the commitment to year-round organizing, year-round voter protection, year-round communications, year-round digital, year-round coalitions work… the ability to have staff year-round working on these programs is invaluable. It's a model that I hope is widely adopted across the Democratic Party infrastructure.
Campaigner: What’s something you wish people paid more attention to in politics or that Democrats don’t talk about enough?
Bhavik Lathia: I think Democrats are a lot better messengers than we get credit for. The key issue is not what the message is, but how many times our messages are repeated. The right-wing has basically a sealed-off social media, radio, and broadcast media infrastructure, where one talking point or message is repeated to all of their followers every day. The left doesn't have similar infrastructure. We don't have thousands of radio shock jocks parroting the same talking points every single day and getting them into the ears as people drive into work. There’s no equivalent to Fox News on the left. I think it's an interesting challenge and Democrats have found some interesting ways of combating that.
The ways in which we've been most successful—in my opinion—are when we organize and build community. The Democratic party is a big tent party, full of diversity and energy. We fully realize the potential of this energy and diversity when we organize. For example, WisDems has based our organizing model off the 2008/2012 Obama campaigns - we have hundreds of active neighborhood-to-neighborhood teams across the state, supported by trained and experienced organizers. The thing is though, this isn’t cheap. We need to be able to afford to pay the salaries and benefits of these organizers. That's honestly what more Democrats should be talking about. We focus so much on the message and I think we should focus more on community building, and how we effectively get our messages repeated and heard.
Campaigner: That’s great. One last question: What’s your advice for first-time staffers looking to break into politics or digital work?
Bhavik Lathia: That's a great question. I would say it's definitely become easier to break into this work than it used to be, just because there are many more jobs in this space than ever before.
My number one piece of advice would be: don't trick yourself into caring about a campaign or an issue that you don't actually care about. Don’t just take a job because it’s an important race and you think you should. Get involved in something or somewhere that you're truly connected to. That’s been my guiding principle.
Do I feel good and excited about the work that I'm doing in the world? And if the answer is yes, then lean into it 100%. But if the answer is no, there are going to be other opportunities out there. Democratic politics at large, but also specifically digital work is a growing field. We need more people. Finally, keep an eye on wisdems.org/jobs - come work with us! There are so many amazing roles that we have and living five or six months in beautiful Wisconsin is not a bad way to spend a part of your life!
These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media
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