Shifting from cold outreach to relational organizing
Greta Carnes explains how campaign organizing strategies need to evolve to meet the moment
Welcome to Campaigner, a weekly newsletter exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons. Produced by Arena & FWIW Media.
Over the past two decades, Democratic campaigns have built a model for field organizing focused on data-driven tactics, hierarchical structure, and cold outreach that has become the go-to for campaigns up and down the ballot. In recent years, however, some have begun to experiment with “relational” organizing strategies and tools, emphasizing personal networks and deeper conversations over numbers of doors knocked or phone calls attempted. Greta Carnes is one of those organizers - someone who came of age politically in Iowa for President Obama’s re-elect, and later led national organizing strategy for Pete for America.
In this week’s Campaigner, we spoke with Greta about relational organizing and her thoughts on how campaigns should be empowering their volunteers to reach new voters.
Arena Toolbox Highlights:
Want to learn more about relational organizing? Check out Arena’s Relational Organizing tool which includes a podcast featuring Greta Carnes.
Q&A with Greta Carnes
Campaigner: What is relational organizing, and how is it different from how campaigns have approached organizing in the past?
Greta Carnes: It’s a great question – ‘relational organizing’ has quickly become such a buzzword, so it’s important to define it. Relational organizing is the proven concept that people talking to their friends and family is much more effective than talking to strangers.
This is not shocking. Contact rates and conversion rates are higher with relational outreach. To put it in concrete terms, a voter is way more likely to pick up the phone when their mom calls than when an unknown number calls them – and I am so much more likely to listen to my mom than I am to some stranger.
“Relational organizing is the proven concept that people talking to their friends and family is much more effective than people talking to strangers.”
A lot of people would say: isn't this just organizing? Yes – it absolutely is. Relational organizing isn’t new. Community groups and organizations, especially in communities of color, have been using these tactics forever. (I’ve been particularly inspired by the work done by Color of Change and Voces de la Frontera). But the reason I differentiate electoral ‘relational organizing’ right now is because most campaign organizing programs are built around strangers talking to other strangers. Campaigns set metrics for how many phone calls we make and how many doors we knock. VAN [campaign software] is really good at measuring those things. But we do not often set metrics around people actually talking to their friends, their family, and their coworkers. And when we don't measure something, campaigns tend to not prioritize it, and they don’t ask organizers to do it, who then don't ask volunteers to do it.
Some people equate relational organizing with apps or tools, which is also not right. Relational organizing doesn't have to be done through an app – and I think there’s an argument to be made that it’s actually more effective when it's not done through an app.
Campaigner: Can you talk about how you’ve put this into practice in the past? What does it look like on a big campaign?
Greta: I became really fascinated with relational organizing in 2018 and I knew I wanted to build an Iowa caucus program around relational organizing. Pete Buttigieg’s long-shot presidential campaign was a perfect environment to do something different, and to their immense credit, they were really on board with experimenting.
We decided early not to go with an app to support our relational work. We did have tools that we would use to support our relational work, especially later when we were focused on scaling. But at its most basic, our program was literally volunteers writing a list of people who they knew on a piece of paper and then our organizers coaching them on how to talk to each person in their lives about Pete and about our campaign.
Especially in the beginning, we didn’t set goals around cold phone calls or cold door knocks. Instead, we measured relational volunteers – anyone who was talking to their friends and family about Pete – and we measured the number of conversations that they were having. Literally: How many people did you talk to this week about Pete? Did you talk to your mom? Did you talk to your dad? Did you talk to your sister? You said that you are really close with your two coworkers. Did you talk to them? How did that conversation go? I think that by emphasizing relational organizing instead of cold voter contact, we were able to quickly scale our program and disseminate our message a lot faster while bringing new people into our organization. There’s also data that shows that relational IDs are much more accurate, which was critical for us in a caucus with 20-something other candidates and people quickly changing their minds.
Another reason that we were successful in a very crowded Iowa caucus was that we weren’t constrained by traditional approaches to targeting. Campaigns typically model universes based on who they believe will actually show up to caucus, who might be likely to volunteer, who might be persuadable – and in a crowded primary, all the campaigns are going after the same voters. We weren’t necessarily competing for those voters, especially at first. We targeted anyone our volunteers and supporters knew – their sisters, their cousins, the people they went to high school with, people who lived in different precincts, counties, or across the state – which meant we were sometimes reaching people who had never been talked to by a campaign, people who weren’t registered to vote or who didn’t have updated information in the voter file, even Republicans who changed their party registration to caucus for Pete (or who even agreed to be a precinct captain for us!). In the Des Moines Register’s analysis of the Iowa caucus results, they noted that Pete performed well everywhere – and that’s in huge part due to our relational organizing program.
Campaigner: How did that approach differ from your experience on the Obama campaign?
Greta: I was an organizer in Iowa in 2012 for Barack Obama's re-election campaign. I was exceeding my canvassing and phone goals every single week, so I thought I was doing a good job – but I wasn’t. I was rushing conversations. I was cutting corners on canvass trainings to get volunteers out to the doors faster. I got good at figuring out if someone was persuadable in the first minute of our conversation, and if they weren’t, I would just move on, thinking that’s what the campaign wanted. We won Dubuque by eight points in 2012, but now we regularly lose what used to be a blue stronghold to Republicans. As an organizer, I didn’t leave infrastructure behind. It’s a sobering experience to look back on.
Campaigner: Campaigns want to measure anything that they're doing and prove the ROI against other tactics. When it comes to measuring these types of conversations at scale, how have you done that in the past? What are good ways to do that?
We measured conversations on Pete's campaign by essentially asking organizers to soft report the number of conversations that people were having – which was quite a data adventure. I was lucky to work with many brilliant data women, including Lala Xu and Nina Wornhoff, who were both really committed to figuring out how to measure this organizing program that didn’t quite fit into VAN. Lala brilliantly said: it is better to run a program that tries to imperfectly measure something that actually wins elections than it is to run a program that perfectly measures something that does not win elections.
“It is better to run a program that tries to imperfectly measure something that actually wins elections than it is to run a program that perfectly measures something that does not win elections.”
We made that decision on Pete’s campaign – we measured conversations between people who knew each other, even though it was probably never completely accurate, because we knew that would actually be something that helped us win.
We did build a relational website – not an app or a tool, we liked to say, but an easy website – to measure some of the work. It was essentially a fancy Google form with Pete branding, built by our incredible innovation team. Essentially it captured the supporter’s name and then everyone they knew, even without any kind of VAN match. And as easy as it was, we still had a ton of people who didn’t want to use it. I will always be an advocate for pen and paper in addition to a digital or tech option.
Campaigner: I’ve seen a bunch of startups and apps offering software for relational organizing. I know you’re a bit of a skeptic - but Is there a space where technology fits into this?
Greta: I think yes and no. There are upsides to using tools – you can scale much more easily, and you can keep track of data – but you also lose the people who don’t want to use a tool, which is a huge issue because you’re also losing access to every person that supporter knows and can reach. One thing I’ve seen with tools is that the most likely people to use them are already hyper-plugged-in activists already engaging their communities. Campaigns should lower the barrier to entry for everyone so we can involve ANYONE, regardless of their level of comfort with technology or their trust of the tools we’re asking them to use. We should make volunteering equally accessible for people whose first language isn’t English, for people who don’t have smartphones or laptops or unlimited data plans, for people who want to do the work but don’t want to download yet another app.
We saw a surprising additional upside to using pen and paper on Pete’s campaign, especially at the beginning. By explaining our strategy to supporters and then asking them to map their networks on a piece of paper, our volunteers understood much more deeply what we were asking them to do. They knew we weren’t mining their contacts’ data. We were literally bringing back the same notebook to the same coffee shop every week and asking how did your conversation with Sheila go? We had much more buy-in from volunteers when we first operated on pen and paper, and I think it’s because it really helped them understand what we were asking them to do and why.
Campaigner: Do you think relational organizing strategies generally have caught on?
Greta: Certainly many campaigns have started to embrace it – the Georgia runoffs are a great example of a serious and successful investment in relational organizing – but by and large, we still have a lot more we can do. There was a really fascinating study done by two political scientists, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, that showed that campaign organizing programs essentially have literally *zero* impact on a general election. We are not doing any kind of effective job at persuading voters. (Broockman and Kalla wrote a really nice piece in the Washington Post about this).
I do not think that means that people aren't persuadable. People can change their minds. It’s hard, but it’s possible. But it’s a pretty clear argument that campaigns need to change – people are not changing their minds about something as personal as political ideology or preference based on one conversation with a stranger on their doorstep or over the phone. One of my favorite people in politics always says that campaigns are the last door to door salespeople. If it doesn't work for companies selling knives anymore, why are we still doing it?
“People are not changing their minds about something as personal as political ideology or preference based on one conversation with a stranger on their doorstep or over the phone.”
Campaigns need to take a huge step back and realize that the world is different from how it was twenty years ago when Alan Gerber and Donald Green published their study that showed that door knocking was effective. People don’t trust media sources anymore. Our world is much more partisan than it was twenty years ago. People don’t answer their phones anymore, and they’re answering their doors less and less. We know the messenger has become just as important – if not more important – than the message. COVID has made us even more insular, even more hard to reach.
So how do we actually start engaging people authentically – not just spam them with calls or texts – and effectively persuade them and build a relationship with them? How do we listen to them (and build that listening into our campaign strategy)? How do we make them feel positively about our party past an Election Day? How do we constantly and consistently communicate the work that Democrats are doing?
Long-term infrastructure is something I’ve thought a lot about recently. We say we build lasting infrastructure, but we really don’t. When a campaign packs up and leaves, we take everything with us, often including our data. We also say that we’ve empowered people to keep doing the work, but we’ve just taught people to repeat a script we’ve devised to a list we give them – that’s not real empowerment. And then we’re surprised that we don’t win elections. One of the reasons I love relational organizing so much is that it trains people HOW to organize, not just how to be part of a big cold voter contact program.
Campaigner: Anything else you want to add?
Greta: There is so much cool organizing work happening around the world that isn’t necessarily electoral. Bottom-up grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter have had an enormous impact on our world, and they aren’t necessarily knocking doors. I was so inspired by all the mutual aid work that took place in communities after the pandemic hit – communities organizing themselves around grocery runs, sharing resources, childcare. And I've been REALLY excited watching K-pop fans not only completely take over a pretty xenophobic American music industry but also organize vaccine drives all over the world and donate millions of dollars to charities. Campaigns have a lot to learn – but we have some pretty incredible movements, organizations, and fan bases that we can learn from.
Arena Training Highlight:
The early admission deadline for both Tech to Elections: Campaigns 101 for Tech Workers and the February Arena Academy is tonight (Wed. Dec, 15) at 11:59 ET. It’s not too late to apply! And, if you need a little more time on your application, the general admission deadline is January 4. Apply and spread the word: arena.run/academy
That’s it for Campaigner this week! If you enjoyed reading this issue, give it a share on the socials! Programming note: We’ll be taking a break for the holiday, but will be back to our regular weekly emails in the new year!
Fascinating and convincing. But where does this strategy leave distributed programs? The time and energy of out of state volunteers is such a huge resource for campaigns in battleground states. What is the best way to utilize that capacity if outreach to strangers is ineffective?