We Worked on the Bernie Campaign — More Democracy Would’ve Made It More Effective

Three former Bernie Sanders field organizers argue that the campaign’s internal structures and lack of accountability hurt its chances and undermined Bernie’s theory of political change.

Bernie Sanders campaign volunteers on February 3, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

There is no doubt that Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president inspired an unprecedented grassroots movement in this country. We built a multiracial, multigenerational campaign of working people united under a common struggle for human dignity. We all witnessed our fellow organizers, volunteers, and ourselves commit everything to further this cause.

If we are going to build a future characterized by economic, racial, and environmental justice, we have to take what we accomplished during this campaign further. We owe a transparent assessment of this campaign’s failures to our supporters, volunteers, and to that future we hope to build.

None of us was under the impression that fundamentally changing the American political system was going to be an easy feat. In light of 2016, many of us expected unprecedented levels of resistance from the Democratic political establishment we were working to unseat. From the mired Iowa caucus results, to the DNC consolidation behind Joe Biden before Super Tuesday, to rampant bad-faith smears from the corporate media, it was clear that we were truly fighting against an entrenched and effective establishment. But these are not the only reasons for our defeat in that fight.

Leading up to our precipitous downfall after Super Tuesday, the campaign’s field team had been expressing concerns over strategy and staffing for months. Beyond what has been publicly litigated by campaign management, media, and our supporters, our defeat can also be attributed to two major internal failures: an overreliance on the distributed model of organizing, and the lack of a system to maintain accountability, transparency, and feedback from staff on the ground to upper management.

We owe a full explanation of these factors to our base to show that it is not our movement that has failed — Bernie’s policies have proven to be incredibly popular — but rather a strategic error of the same campaign structures which hindered us from fully engaging our organizers, volunteers, and ultimately our voters.

Two Organizing Philosophies

The organizing program on the Bernie campaign was fundamentally a battle between two competing organizing philosophies. One is a deep organizing model that focuses on investing in field staff and community building. The other model, known as distributed organizing, places the work of organizing almost entirely on volunteers.

In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California, the campaign invested heavily in deep organizing. That investment paid off. In Iowa alone, there were well over 150 organizers, and that team was able to build an organization that knocked on almost 500,000 doors in a state of 3 million people.

Iowa’s constituency organizing program, which focused on the long-term organizing of core demographics in the state, won crucial satellite caucus locations. In Nevada, that team won the Las Vegas Strip caucus despite anti–Medicare for All fearmongering. A large campus organizing program, with organizers relentlessly working at almost every university available, organized everywhere from big state schools to small community colleges.

Despite all this, we did not win blowout victories in these states. Almost all our victories were won within a narrow margin. In these cases, it was the existence of a robust field program that accounted for those wins.

Campaign management acted as though the momentum of winning Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California would be sufficient to carry us to the nomination. This strategy drastically underestimated the combined influence of corporate media and power brokers within the Democratic establishment to undercut our campaign.

Unlike typical political campaigns, a working-class movement will only succeed if it out-organizes the opposition. This requires investing heavily in community-based organizing. From the beginning, it was clear that deep organizing would be our key to success.

However, the campaign began to rely on a distributed model of organizing in the coming states. They did not even maintain the investments they had already made — after each early state, most organizers were laid off instead of being moved on to Super Tuesday states. In Iowa, two-thirds of the staff was sent home, even as the campaign raised a historic $25 million in January and $46 million in February. Besides California, no Super Tuesday state had more than ten field staffers.

This is because distributed organizing vests the responsibilities of a field organizer — which include volunteer recruitment, development, training, voter contact, and most of all, time — entirely onto volunteers, supported by remote resources. For a distributed dependent program to work, the campaign would have needed to put staff in states months before their election to help build a grassroots, volunteer-led structure. Instead, field staff were thrown just weeks before the election into states with no prior organization and completely disjointed volunteer efforts.

Because the campaign pursued a model of distributed organizing, we went on to sacrifice states like Texas, Maine, and Washington, which we could have won with a deep organizing program. In others, we could have picked up a larger delegate share. By replacing organizers with volunteers, but expecting the same time commitment and level of training from volunteers that would have been expected of paid staff, campaign management effectively stymied the field program that delivered its victories.

The fact that campaign leadership maintained a strategy of minimal field staff in Super Tuesday states sheds light on another major shortcoming of management: they were ultimately unwilling to learn from their mistakes, even when hundreds of organizers implored them to reconsider.

The staff union estimated over two-thirds of Iowa staff as having been laid off and sent home. This ratio was more or less mirrored in the subsequent races in New Hampshire and Nevada. Many staff were shocked by what they saw as a poor strategic choice.

This decision-making seemed to be one of a campaign winding down rather than one at its zenith. The decision to downsize staff was never fully explained, and various efforts, including letters and petitions within and outside of the union, left largely unsatisfactory answers.

After Super Tuesday, the detrimental effects of overreliance on distributed organizing and failure to consult with people on the ground became abundantly clear. Another letter was sent to Faiz Shakir on March 4, signed by over one hundred field staff. Demands included immediate redeployment of all former staff to remaining states; prioritization of field investment, including campus and constituency organizing; and transparent channels of communication with upper management.

These demands were ignored, and staff who continued to express concerns through multiple channels were either brushed off or admonished for raising questions openly. Many wondered whether those running the campaign had given up already.

Unfortunately, this lack of accountability to staff on the ground was a pattern extending far beyond the redeployment process. Ranging from labor tensions early in the campaign cycle to concerns over transparency as the primaries drew near, it became clear that management would not consider the input of its workers in the field.

Workers were so dedicated to the campaign and a Sanders presidency that fear of potentially damaging leaks to the media severely limited internal organizing efforts to pressure management to change course. The lack of transparency combined with an under-resourced field program were the largest internal failures.

Expanding the Electorate

The Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated its impressive ability to mobilize communities when deep organizing was at the forefront. A core tenet of Bernie Sanders’s theory of change is the need to expand the electorate.

There are few examples more illustrative of this philosophy than the Spanish-speaking caucuses in Iowa, where no other candidate reached the viability threshold. It was proven by the workers at a pork processing plant who all caucused for Bernie in the first contest of the day. It was shown by the 159 Burmese refugees, 98 percent of whom caucused for the first time, winning all nine county delegates for Bernie. The spirit of this campaign was structurally laid out in victories like the Las Vegas Strip workers in Nevada, which required the deep organizing and connections only possible with staff and dedicated volunteers on the ground. Even then, the odds were tight.

Downsizing the field program and failing to listen to lower-ranking staff was a massive error implemented by those at the top. Had management been willing to pivot strategy and take advice from those on the ground, these mistakes may have been avoided. Regardless of the contingencies, however, there is no question the campaign was not prepared for the unprecedented attack on our movement that everyone should have been ready for.

A Beginning, Not an Ending

It is difficult to say whether anything could have saved the campaign’s precipitous decline post–Super Tuesday. Any such analysis is relying heavily on speculation. But it’s undeniable that Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs inspired a political awakening in millions of people, in a way not seen in decades. The promise of a change in business as usual — as well as Sanders’s candor and willingness to insist over and over on the things each person fundamentally deserves — for many felt like a sea change in political discourse at a fundamental level.

His supporters and volunteers made no mistake about the uphill battle ahead. They braced for a fight. That the campaign leadership failed to implement more democratic structures of accountability and feedback was a disservice to this base and to Sanders’s mission. A lack of transparency in strategy kept what should have been a dynamic process from the bottom up into a static one, with predetermined goals and little consultation with those on the ground. Indeed, if grassroots campaigns are to remain true to their origins, the shortcomings of the Bernie model may very well warrant a reassessment of internal democracy in campaign structures at large.

Ultimately, the experienced and well-paid senior advisers did not understand what we were up against. We did. The volunteers, organizers, and community leaders who committed to the struggle fought with our base to accomplish our ultimate goals.

It is up to all of us to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of this campaign and use it to build something truly grassroots, which we can only do by soberly assessing these missteps. The movement is not over with the suspension of Bernie’s candidacy — it has given us the tools we need to begin to build that movement.