Grassroots Movement Building During COVID-19

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

Grassroots movements come in all shapes and sizes

Grassroots Movement During a Pandemic - Build for the Future

We originally wrote this blog post on how to build a grassroots movement in 2016, and it’s amazing how much things have changed in the last four years. For most campaigns in 2016, canvassing was still the go-to way to build your grassroots movement and was a tried and true way of connecting with people. Some smaller campaigns had built their entire programs around a relentless canvass strategy and talking to every voter in their turf. But due to the onset of the global pandemic, canvassing become no longer possible. This left many campaigns around the country asking the same question, how do I build a real grassroots movement if I can’t go out canvassing and meet with people face-to-face. Below is my updated 2020 take on what the future of building a grassroots movement looks like for campaigns.

Canvassing Is No Longer King

Before COVID-19, canvassing was hands down the best way to build your grassroots movement. Though it may seem low-tech, canvassing has proven to be really, really effective. Meeting with people face-to-face and telling them why you are supporting an issue or candidate can make an enormous impact. However, for the foreseeable future, this won’t be an option. Campaigns have halted their canvassing efforts due to the pandemic and have had to adjust and refocus their field operations. And when canvassing does return, it’s going to look a lot different than it did. Canvassers will need to closely and carefully monitor the areas that they can go out in, socially distance from people at the doors, and wear masks. With the prominence of things like contactless delivery, voters are starting to become accustomed to not answering the door when the doorbell rings. Time will only tell, but it’s very possible that the contact rates at the doors will become so abysmal that canvassing in some areas will never really come back into style. 

Virtual Engagement is the Future

As a replacement to canvassing, many campaigns have started doing virtual engagement. Facebook Lives, Zoom meetings, and tele-town halls are all great ways to connect with people and can help fill the void that’s left by canvassing. Some campaigns are starting to do their fundraisers virtually, even (where its permitted) mailing beer and wine to people’s homes so they can bring the fundraiser experience virtually. Having real people talk to other people about the issues that matter carries a lot of weight and was a big part of what made canvassing such an effective medium. You can and should continue to do that virtually. But for these virtual tactics to work, you have to really take the time to recruit people ahead of time. Pre-COVID-19, you wouldn’t just set up an event and expect everyone to magically show up. You got on the phone and called/texted people to make sure they attended your event. The same holds true for virtual events, you need to make a real effort to recruit people ahead of time to ensure they’re successful. 

Phones Are Making a Comeback

Before COVID-19, the typical campaign phonebank was becoming fairly antiquated. More and more people are ditching their landlines and federal law prohibits using any predictive dialer technology to call cell phones, so every one of them has to be hand dialed. People change their numbers with cell phones more often now than they did in the past and as a result the phone data on many voter files has gotten worse and worse. Pre-COVID-19, other organizing tools like canvassing were just so much more effective than phone banking. All of these concerns still hold true, but the fact that we can’t canvass means that phones have taken on an increased level of importance. There are still a lot of older voters out there that do have landlines, and since many of them are stuck at home, doing a traditional phonebank may be a good way of getting them. Some people are hesitant about answering calls from numbers they don’t already have in their phones, so there’s technology that allows you to automatically drop a voicemail onto a phone without going through the hustle of dialing it first. There are also telephone town halls that allow you to get a lot of people on a call at once and talk to them about your campaign and let them ask questions. While phones aren’t as good as they once were, in 2020 they are becoming an important tool in your campaign toolbox once again.

SMS and Email Are Now a Must

When we originally wrote this post in 2016, we called SMS the future of building a grassroots movement. It’s clear in 2020 that the future has arrived. Texts are a highly personal form of communication and they aren’t ignored in the same way that email or a phone call can be. There isn’t a good way (at least that I’ve found) for you to delete a text message without at least reading a couple words of the message. In light of federal law prohibiting predicative dialers from calling cell phones, SMS can be a smart alternative. We’ve seen mixed results from campaigns who text voters they have no pre-existing relationship with using numbers from the voter file. The best way to utilize texting remains starting early and building your phone list from scratch. If you begin early enough collecting SMS sign ups, this can really pay off as you get closer to Election Day. Further, for campaigns, email remains essential and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. With Google’s development of the “promotions tab” that separate some email from others, it’s more important than ever that you develop a way to stand out and avoid getting flagged as spam. If you don’t have a strategy to develop personalized email and build an organic email list, your campaign emails will remain in Google promotions purgatory and will not engage with voters. 

Social Media Is the Present 

During the pandemic, social media has become one of the most important replacements for canvassing. Whereas many voters used to either learn about a candidate on the local news or Google them and go to their website, social media has become one of the primary ways that most people research and learn about candidates. It’s an absolute must that campaigns engage with voters on social media and have a regular cadence for social posting. Relational organizing has also grown significantly since we first wrote this post. Tapping into the fact that someone’s entire social network now lives online, organizers use social media for volunteer outreach to their friends or have friends of friends make warm introductions in order to make their asks more effective. Other social tactics like Facebook Live have also taken on an oversized level of importance, in that they allow you to speak directly to voters in a personal way. And though they no longer allow campaigns to do direct political advertising on the platform, Twitter is also a must for most campaigns to make sure you’re communicating with an audience that may not be on Facebook. 

Relationships Still Matter, Now More than Ever

While it may seem like COVID-19 has changed almost everything about the way organizers build a grassroots movement, one thing remains the same: relationships still matter. All of the tools mentioned above are only really effective when they are backed up by a strong personal connection. For instance, having a candidate be vulnerable and tell their real story on a Facebook Live is key to real engagement. While social media has been one of the most important replacements for canvassing, its strength lies in the fact that it is essentially tapping into the personal relationships between users. It’s clear that even in the face of a global pandemic, grassroots movements are still very much based in personal relationships.

Grassroots movement building can be done with Member organizations.   Check out: communication with your members.