The 2020 Democratic primary is already shaping up to be unlike any other primary we’ve seen in recent history.
Having so many potential candidates and no clear frontrunner will have a huge impact on each candidate’s early state strategy — not just which states they invest in, but how they invest their money. Having ten candidates on the ballot next February means that caucuses and primaries will be won by microscopic margins — which means that delegates will be awarded by tenths (or hundredths!) of a point.
But it’s not just the number of candidates that makes this primary unique. The new map timing completely changes how campaigns will need to think about strategy. With states like California moving up in the cycle, campaigns will need to reconsider their early state budgets and strategies. They can’t spend huge sums of money putting hundreds of organizers on the ground across a vast state like California or vying for TV time in such expensive media markets — but they also can’t risk sitting out a primary with so many delegates at stake.
Of course, a campaign apparatus can only do so much to help a candidate win — but in a crowded field like 2020, campaigns who spend money wisely to reach, engage, persuade, register, and mobilize voters will have an advantage over those who don’t. In order to win, campaigns will need to figure out cost-effective ways to build sustained infrastructure — not just in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in states across the country.
More specifically, it means that candidates who are serious about winning will need to do more than run effective organizing programs — they’ll need to innovate and modernize their organizing programs to keep up with the changing primary dynamics.
Every cycle, electoral campaigns spend millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours recruiting, hiring, training, and deploying organizers across states and districts. We do it because we know that nothing — literally nothing — is more effective than a face-to-face conversation. In a crowded primary, an effective organizing program will help a candidate cut through the noise and persuade and turn out supporters to caucus or vote. Organizing will be the difference between winning and losing each of the 4,051 delegates at stake.
But we can’t run organizing programs the way we have in previous elections. The way people communicate with each other is changing. People aren’t answering the door as frequently, and fewer people are picking up the phone — especially when they see the call is coming from an unknown number. Voters are less likely to trust a message from someone they don’t know — so the messenger has become as important (if not more important!) than the message itself.
The 2020 primary presents an exciting opportunity to modernize our organizing programs. Big innovations in organizing have often happened during presidential primaries. The Obama campaign’s use of community organizing tactics during his first presidential run popularized the Neighborhood Team model as an organizing model — and during the last Iowa caucus, the Bernie and Hillary campaigns began to integrate digital tactics and technology into their organizing teams. Organizing models change as we test and learn, incorporate new tools and strategies, and adapt to cultural changes.
In 2020, candidates who are serious about winning will need to modernize their organizing programs. They will need to arm their organizers with better tools and better trainings. Each organizer will need to be fluent in reaching and engaging people through social media. We will need to hold organizers accountable to different metrics so we can measure success and learn what works. And we will need to finally crack the nut of how to scale a “relational organizing” program — training supporters to become influencers within their own networks.
The Democratic primary campaign that modernizes its organizing program won’t just stand the best chance at winning the primary — that campaign will also go into the general election with the strongest national on-the-ground infrastructure and stand the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. Democrats will also have a new blueprint for how we can run more effective and efficient organizing programs in the future.
Executing a modernized organizing program won’t be easy. It won’t be a silver bullet for a candidate’s success, and it won’t replace a message that doesn’t resonate with voters.
But running the programs we have before is not an option. We have to adapt and innovate. Too much is at stake not to.