Dems mastered technology. Now we have to get back to organizing
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Last weekend, hundreds of Democrats came together in Atlanta to elect a new leader for their national party. Now that Tom Perez has taken the helm, the question is, what strategies and tactics will he champion to help Democrats win elections — and will others in the Party follow him into the future.

By any measure, the Democratic Party has performed poorly in recent years. Before Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDem senator: Pardoning targets of Russia probe would be 'crossing a fundamental line' Trump lawyers looking into special counsel's potential conflicts of interest: reports Trump lawyers asking about presidential pardon powers: report MORE’s shocking defeat of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem senator: Pardoning targets of Russia probe would be 'crossing a fundamental line' Trump officials: Russia meddled in the election Trump lawyers asking about presidential pardon powers: report MORE last fall, Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in the “red wave” of 2014. Just two years after sweeping Barack ObamaBarack ObamaOvernight Regulation: Trump administration reveals first regulatory agenda | GOP lawmakers introduce measures to repeal arbitration rule | Exxon gets M fine for sanctions violation Mounting nationwide immigration enforcement costs 20 attorneys general urge DeVos to keep college sexual assault protections MORE into office on a mantle of hope and change, Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 — having held the majority for only four years following more than a decade of Republican dominance.

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Governors’ seats followed the House’s pattern: A majority of states elected Republican governors from the mid-1990s to 2007, and again from 2010 onward. Today, Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both legislative houses in half of the states. Democrats can make the same claim in only five states.

 

There are bright spots. Despite electoral outcomes in the past several cycles, Democrats’ success introducing technological advances into its campaigns offers hope — and potentially a blueprint — for the future.

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 introduced social media and other technology into the national campaign tool kit. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign not only advanced the way we organize online, it also pioneered a Campaign 2.0 strategy that put supporters in charge of their own “My Barack Obama” web sites so they could disseminate campaign-generated messages, communicate about the candidate in their own words to friends and family members, and raise money for the campaign from personal networks.

Remote phone-banking tools allowed Obama supporters who lived in late primary states to participate in the Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns from the comfort of their homes. Democrats will need to continue to iterate and innovate to post wins in 2018, 2020, and beyond.

Of course, campaigns and elections are not entirely about strategies and tactics. Technology alone is not the answer. Ideas and candidates matter immensely. But deploying technology applications that facilitate the core components of effective organizing should be right at the core of the Democratic Party’s mission and Tom Perez’s “to do” list.

The simple truth is that Democrats can’t show up in a community for a few months every two or four years and expect to build relationships that foster loyalty and successful campaigns.

The most important discussions about politics occur in weekly or monthly local union meetings, Rotary Club gatherings, church suppers, and the local VFW hall. They are happening in diners, book clubs, and the workplace coffee room, and across neighbors’ back fences.

Local Democrats who have participated in these discussions for years must have the support of their leaders all the time, not just around Election Day. These are the interactions where persuasion, education, and peer pressure occur, and where elections can be won or lost. As Chairman Perez and Deputy Chair Keith Ellison both made clear during their campaigns to lead the Democratic Party, political organizing must be a year-round endeavor.

Further, direct, personal communication has always been at the core of successful organizing. From their earliest days, for example, unions made “home visits” so they could meet face-to-face with prospective members on their porches or in their living rooms to discuss the value of organizing a union in their workplace.

Building on that example, campaigns have long organized door-to-door canvassing so that volunteers meet voters in person to discuss the candidate and the campaign. Television and digital advertising may have its place in modern campaigns, but it is not a substitute for personal interactions.

Technology is making this kind of sustained, direct, and personal engagement easier by connecting people online to take action in the real world. Indivisible, which did not exist three months ago, used a simple online platform to help hundreds of thousands of progressives organize thousands of chapters to confront the Trump agenda and members of Congress. Congressmen and women have been met by robust and sizable local Indivisible chapters at town hall meetings.

Hustle — a texting application that allows one person to conduct individual conversations with dozens or hundreds of voters — was a driving force behind Bernie SandersBernie SandersOPINION | Shailene Woodley: US should run on renewable energy by 2050 Gore: Progressive ideas 'gaining ground' among Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’ surprisingly large crowds and unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic primaries and caucuses.

Over the past year, organizers for candidates and activist organizations conducted millions of text conversations to mobilize supporters, donors, primary voters, and caucus goers. Facebook famously played a similar role in the early organizing of the Women’s March on January 21 of this year, which began with an exchange of messages among a group of friends who grew the discussion to an ever-larger network that was joined later by national organizations.

Other tools will help Democrats reach populations of millennials and others who rarely turn on a television. Snapchat, Periscope, and Facebook Live allow activists and candidates’ supporters to advance their own video narratives.

Our current president has shown that Twitter remains a potent tool. But the future of the Democratic Party’s organizing will require reaching back to its past, or at least returning to the organizing fundamentals of sustained engagement and direct, personal contact.

Democrats will succeed if they depend on connecting people who are already involved and empowering them to persuade and mobilize their own communities.

With our new leader in place, it is time for Democrats to get started, again.

Seth Harris was Deputy Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration and an early advisor to the Obama for America campaign.


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