Digital Precinct Captains: A New Strategy for Democrats

Empowered volunteer citizens could move the Democratic Party much closer to being a meaningful organization instead of a mere ballot label.

From incubating voter registration drives to promoting a community picnic, captains would choose the activities that their communities desire while also communicating with the tools that best speak to those communities. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

Paid TV ads are reaching fewer and fewer people.

Traditional media is fragmenting.

These facts have presented a new challenge for the Democratic Party, which must find new ways of reaching and organizing people. Fortunately, there is an answer. By focusing less on the traditional advertising tools of the 20th century and more on the new digital organizing tools of the 21st, Democrats can have a true 50-state strategy without all the costs it used to entail.

One way to do this would be by identifying and supporting a team of thousands of “digital precinct captains” around the country who would be supported and organized by paid staff members. These highly motivated super volunteers would serve an organizing role between both ordinary voters and occasional activists and the formal political party itself.  They would seek to engage, serve, and mobilize voters—not just the party—and in doing so, Democrats could become an actual energized community whose leaders and members are perpetually talking to and learning from one another. Their success would be based on engagement, not fundraising.

Digital tools to set up local groups and pages, hold regular events (real or virtual), and engage in advocacy efforts (like calls opposing a legislative initiative) are not novel, but empowering them within the Democratic Party is. The rise of Indivisible and countless other #Resistance groups have revealed an unprecedented interest in political activism and the power digital organizing tools can wield. The Women’s March and the reaction at airports across the United States to Trump’s #MuslimBan show the potential—they are “proofs of concept.”

But those groups and actions alone are not enough.

Such activism within the Democratic Party itself would increase the people power available to candidates who inspire communities. From incubating voter registration drives to promoting a community picnic, captains would choose the activities that their communities desire while also communicating with the tools that best speak to those communities.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party has made too little use of digital tools to organize and shape how people engage with politics. Instead, its digital strategy has essentially been used as a different way to raise money. Everyone’s gotten those emails (probably too many of them) asking if you “can chip in just $5” for a given occasion.

That means that the party’s digital strategy has largely been a one-way street: send out a message and judge its success by the dollars it generated. Whether someone chipped in $5 to celebrate Barack Obama’s birthday, however, gives no insight into what is resonating beyond the field of potential donors, and fails to generate stronger and more enduring ties between the party and the voters and activists affected by its policies.

The party also relies on traditional polling and surveys to try to determine which issues people care about, but this strategy lacks depth because it does not reliably measure what issues will drive people to engage in conversations and actions in their community. Answers from a focus group or a phone survey, for example, say nothing about whether a person cares enough about an issue to volunteer their time.

That’s where digital precinct captains come in.

These captains would engage a broad swath of voters and ensure a meaningful and consistent point of contact with the Democratic Party. They would help connect activists to people who want to do more if only they had a means of engaging on issues about which they are passionate. This strategy executed well would shift some command and control away from party leaders. However, what leaders would lose in terms of micromanagement they would make up for in terms of party strength. Empowered volunteer citizens could move the Democratic Party much closer to being a meaningful organization instead of a mere ballot label.

In this model, the grassroots heroes of Alabama—where Democrat Doug Jones recently won a seat in the U.S. Senate—would be given the support and tools to continue to organize in that state irrespective of whether there was a high-profile race or an iconic villain like Roy Moore running for office. This is about giving people the tools they need to engage and organize throughout the year while informing the party how politics is happening at the most granular level.

Some digital precinct captains would be responsible for organizing a particular community or geographic area such as “Eastern Pennsylvania” or “Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho,” while others would work across states with key constituency groups, like Black women or the Puerto Rican diaspora. Others might experiment with organizing previously inactive and somewhat under-recognized groups, like the parents of kids with disabilities or senior citizens in nursing homes.

The captains would use Facebook, Instagram, SMS (texting) tools—whatever makes sense for their community and their skill set. The use of different tools is critical to ensuring two-way communication with as broad an array of voters as possible.

Digital precinct captains would be connected to national staff to share research, videos, graphics, and other resources to be used at the precinct level where appropriate and effective. But the goal for this project wouldn’t be a larger national email list propelled by automatons mindlessly sharing headquarters’ ideas.

Activists, including precinct captains, need to be authentic, meaning they speak and act in line with their own voice and values. Authenticity requires allowing captains to choose to not share materials or priorities that they believe their teams won’t respond to with enthusiasm. They would be in constant communication with the communities they are organizing, learning in real time what does or does not resonate.

The premise of this program is that “the party” should not be conceived of as a building in the Southeast quadrant of Washington D.C.—it ought to be an organization of voters and activists committed to making the country better. Digital precinct captains would reduce the psychological distance between the party in government and the party as an institution of tens of millions of Americans.

Would there be disagreements within this structure? Of course! In a democracy and within a political party, there will not be unanimity of thought. But what is more important than enforcing unanimity is encouraging energy and activism.

What could these digital precinct captains accomplish? The possibilities are endless.

Empowering the grassroots could increase the odds that elected Democrats would be in touch with voters and that voters would be engaged with the party. In the long run, an empowered membership ought to be a “win-win” for all party stakeholders, including elected officials, because a party increasingly in touch with voters and aided by an energized volunteer base would be difficult to defeat. In other words, less hierarchy but more winning would, in the end, be good for all concerned.

And consider efforts to oppose Trump’s tax cut plan. The anti-Trump tax cut groups were woefully outspent, and until the end, corporate mainstream media paid little attention to the fast-moving semi-stealth initiative to redistribute wealth upward. More tools for experimentation up and down the national party hierarchy could have helped identify what messages could have sparked not just opposition (the Trump tax bill was already extremely unpopular) but the sort of electric opposition that might have given Republicans pause when the bill’s defeat might have still been possible.

This digital precinct plan, if implemented and successful, could create an enduring semi-decentralized digital-oriented permanent campaign structure. This structure would take advantage of the reduced costs of two-way communications between the federal party and grassroots outside the strictures of TV ads or mainstream media.

It would also go a long way to ensuring that Democrats leave no voter behind.

Opposition might come from political consultants who see resources as a zero-sum game and fear that a diversion of a fraction of the money that would otherwise be going to traditional media spending would squander opportunities. To them, I would argue that this moment’s most unique opportunity is building an enduring structure to nurture the passions of the post-Women’s March political moment.

Ads do not endure and grow, but institutions can.

In the end, the party that purports to be the people’s party ought to develop a modern strategy that empowers the people. Hopefully, the concept of digital precinct captains can play a role in making that hope a reality.