As innovative political tactics go, “Tell your friends” does not sound quite cutting edge. And yet, as the 2020 election lurches into gear, there may be no hotter trend in the campaign tech world than “relational organizing”: apps that help leverage good old-fashioned word of mouth—and the contact list on your smartphone—to drive turnout.
These platforms, with names like Team and Outvote, first sprung up from the wreckage of the Democrats’ loss in 2016, as tech-minded liberals, horrified by Donald Trump’s win, sought ways to turn his massive unpopularity into votes for Democratic candidates. The approach gained wider attention during the 2018 midterms, when Democrats, many wielding the new technology, managed to flip the House of Representatives. Now, as we approach the first presidential campaign in these startups’ brief histories, along with hundreds of down-ballot races that together will determine which party shapes the next decade of American politics, the question is: Can relational organizing give Democrats the edge they need?
Michael Luciani holds the dubious distinction of having worked as an organizer for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in Michigan. In 2016, unsure of exactly what his supervisors expected him to be doing, he experimented with his own approaches. He asked his volunteers to post pro-Hillary messages to Facebook. He also asked them to take the list of voters they were supposed to call and, instead of just starting at the top, look through their phone contacts and start by calling the people they actually knew. The results were intriguing, if intuitive: Voters were much more receptive to campaign calls when they came from someone familiar.
But when Luciani approached higher-ups about implementing his methods more widely, he was shut down. His supervisor was being judged by things the campaign could measure, like total phone calls made and doors knocked on. There was no way to get credit for having volunteers reach out to their personal networks. The existing campaign technology wasn’t designed to take advantage of relationships.
That, at any rate, is the origin story Luciani tells about the Tuesday Company, the project he and two friends developed in the rubble of the 2016 election. Their Team app, Luciani explained to me recently, fixes the problems he encountered in Michigan by allowing campaigns to “organize, coordinate, and measure volunteers’ relational communication and social media activity.” In other words, it turns the kind of informal conversations people are already having about politics into the medium of organized persuasion and turnout efforts. Volunteers upload their contacts—friends, family, coworkers, whomever—to the app. The campaign matches those contacts against their voter lists and tells the volunteers which ones to reach out to, when, and on what subject. Organizers can suggest scripted messaging, but the volunteers are ultimately in control of what they write, as well as what medium they use—texting, Facebook, Twitter DM, and so on. They can also use the app to post to social media in a way that allows the campaign to track engagement.
The basic idea is that a message will be more effective at getting you to vote if it comes from someone you know and trust than if it comes through a cold call or campaign advertisement. (In theory, the apps can be used to try to get people to back a particular candidate over another—but one of the firmest findings in political science is that turnout, while difficult, is much easier than persuasion, which is nearly impossible.) Along with the Tuesday Company, other key startups based on this premise include OutreachCircle (formerly called VoterCircle) and Outvote. All three have gotten funding from Higher Ground Labs, a progressive tech accelerator created by former Obama staffers in 2017.
“Relational organizing is just organizing,” said Betsy Hoover, one of Higher Ground’s cofounders. “But this allows campaigns to say, ‘Now is the time for you to prioritize your network’ and, two, to say, ‘This is how that outreach impacted my outcome.’ And that’s a really important piece that gets us to another level of voter contact. That, we’re seeing, is just way more effective than the cold outreach.”
“In general, the effects are big,” said Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Columbia and one of the country’s leading experts on get-out-the-vote tactics. When it comes to raising turnout, Green explained, face-to-face canvassing is at the top of the effectiveness scale. At the bottom are spammy, impersonal techniques like mass emails, texts, and paid social media ads. But when those texts or Facebook posts are coming from someone you actually know, the early research suggests that the turnout effect can jump up to levels similar to in-person canvassing. Plus, unlike paying for an army of in-person canvassers, digital relational organizing is easy and cheap to scale.
Democrats have been quick to integrate these tools into their campaigns. In 2018, the Tuesday Company partnered with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to implement its Team app in 70 “red to blue” swing districts, most of which ended up flipping to the Democratic column. Was relational organizing part of the reason for the blue wave? As you’d expect, the people behind the technology argue that it was. Somewhat more surprisingly, some of their Republican Party opponents agree.
Among them is Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist who served as digital director for Ed Gillespie’s 2017 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. Polls on the eve of Election Day showed Gillespie trailing Democrat Ralph Northam by only a few points; he ended up losing by 8.9 percent. Wilson thinks his side was outgunned on relational organizing. “There was one county just outside of Richmond that we were the first [Republican] campaign to lose in 50 some-odd years statewide, and it’s because this group of women self-organized using these tools,” he said. “And that was the wakeup call for me.”
Heading into 2020, Democrats still are far ahead of Republicans in adopting relational organizing technology. So far, some campaigns are using it in primary contests, but the real test will come in the general election, when tech-enabled Democrats find out whether their spiffy apps offer a meaningful counterbalance against Trump’s advantages of incumbency and the social media juggernaut that is his reelection campaign.
When it comes to state and local races, Wilson predicts that, similar to 2018, Democrats may have the advantage again. “There are going to be a lot of Republicans who wake up after Election Day and say, ‘How did this happen—how did I get beat?’” he said. “And it’s going to be relational organizing.”
Democrats’ relational organizing edge is part of the typical pendulum swing of political innovation. Just as Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, lacking a traditional ground game, developed novel approaches to social media, Democrats have been scrambling since then to find new tools to win back power. “They got there first because they were having to climb back out of the hole,” said Wilson.
To help his side catch up, Wilson founded Startup Caucus, a conservative response to Higher Ground Labs, in August 2019. The fund has given money to Swipe Red, an app still in beta which aims to do for Republicans what apps like Team have done for Democrats. (Sadly, “Swipe Right” was trademarked.) One candidate giving it a spin is Mark Koran, a Minnesota state senator using Swipe Red for his state’s February caucus.
Speaking on the phone from downtown Minneapolis recently, Koran outlined a quintessentially Republican case for relational organizing. He praised the technology for making it easier to get his message directly to voters without relying on the media, which he sees as hopelessly biased against conservatives. Ditto the tech giants. “We have to be one step out the door with any social media platform,” he said, alluding to the widespread perception on the right that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are in the tank for Democrats. An app like Swipe Red could allow conservative politicians to access their supporters’ social networks without relying on Facebook. In fact, Facebook used to allow campaigns to access users’ friend lists, which the Obama reelection campaign used to great effect in 2012. Some Republicans resent the fact that the company removed that functionality in 2015, before their side learned to fully exploit it (though not before Cambridge Analytica slurped up data on tens of millions of users).
So, depending how you look at it, relational organizing may be a welcome turn to a more personal form of democratic politics, or a step further down the path of atomization and political bubbles. Maybe it’s both. Either way, like any political technology, this one is unlikely to have much of an impact unless it’s deployed intelligently.
Silas Russell, a political organizer for the SEIU health care workers’ union in Pennsylvania, has experimented with several relational organizing apps. “It’s a tool,” he said. “It is definitely beneficial and will help, but I don’t think it changes the game. We should use it, we should use everything we can, but we have to not forget that first step: being good organizers.”