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February 5, 2020
No app can replace good old-fashioned organizing

This week, the much-anticipated Iowa caucuses marked the formal start of the 2020 presidential cycle. But the night was marred by the failure of a mobile app that was intended to facilitate gathering and announcing caucus results. In the end, the caucus leaders had to revert to the tried-and-true method of calling in their results to state officials by phone.

The app was aimed at simply reporting caucus results, not organizing campaign volunteers or contacting voters, but its failure highlights an ongoing debate on the left: Can we build an app that will magically get Democrats to vote / volunteer / care?

Can apps solve voter turnout and volunteer engagement?

A few digital solutions have genuinely made our jobs easier. Traditional social media and email are great ways to get information out, track engagement, and reach new audiences. There are also industry-specific email blast platforms and volunteer CMS solutions like Action Network and Every Action, textbanking platforms like Hustle and Relay, auto-dialers like CallFire and CallHub, event tracking and mobilization like Mobilize. But none of these can replace the work of individuals talking directly to each other, and forming meaningful, ongoing relationships.

No Shortcuts in Organizing

Sister District Head of Organizing poses with Mayor Pete Buttigieg as volunteers for Obama in Iowa in 2008
Me (center, Obama t-shirt) posing with Barack Obama’s sisters Auma Obama (left), Maya Soetoro-Ng, and other volunteers for Obama’s 2008 campaign in Iowa. Do you recognize the guy in the sweater on the right?

As I reflect on what we might take away from what’s happened in Iowa – as it happens, I got my start in all this a dozen years ago as a volunteer for Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses – one lesson might be that while technology can make us more efficient and broaden our reach, there are no shortcuts in organizing. There is no substitute for personal, meaningful connection either to help identify, persuade, and mobilize voters or to build the kind of power (creating coalitions, recruiting volunteers, developing leaders) that can allow us to move the needle in a close election.

Here are a few things we might consider:

  1. Developing leaders: Tech tools are here to help us get to personal, meaningful connections more efficiently. When Sister District gets an online inquiry from someone interested in starting a team, I email them with the sole intention of setting up a time to talk on the phone. This way we can get to know each other a bit and create next steps together through our conversation. We suggest this same approach when you welcome new volunteers!
  2. Increasing event attendance: Our research affiliate Sister District Action Network (SDAN) has shown that personally contacting volunteers via phone or text more than doubled RSVP and attendance rates over sending just emails. It might seem like a lot of work to call through an entire RSVP list, but if you’re going to the trouble of hosting an event, it’s more than worth it.
  3. Increasing voter turnout for our candidates: Candidates and their campaign staff want us to speak with their voters and raise money so that they can more effectively and efficiently speak with their voters. Most Sister District volunteers are geographically distributed, so when we can’t talk to voters face-to-face (knocking doors), making phone calls is our number one tactic for identifying, persuading, and mobilizing voters remotely.

So as we engage with tech communication tools, I encourage assessing utility and value based on how directly or effectively they enable the kind of communication that is possible only through conversation. At the end of the day, from a remote position, the most expedient route to real connection is low-tech and old-school: pick up the phone and call!