Modern campaigning: Grassroots and apps

Let’s temporarily step away from the cynicism. Stop believing that people no longer take to the streets, or are unwilling to contribute through more than ‘clicktivism’; stop believing that time is long gone. Let’s blindly trust people DO want to roll up their sleeves and get to work. What kind of campaign would you set up? Or: how the Dutch Greens learned from Obama ’08 and Bernie ’16 (and built an app).

By Sybren Kooistra, campaign worker for the Dutch Greens  

Barack Obama did it in 2008. Bernie Sanders in 2016. The Spanish Podemos forms another great example of the shared belief in ‘Yes we can, together’. It started with people taking to the streets and contributing financially – many millions in total. We call it grassroots. More recently, the campaigns appealed to those same people’s ingenuity. Let’s dub it grassroots 2.0.

Soon, the Dutch Greens (’16) can be added to that list of illustrious examples. Without going too deep into it, I will elaborate on that statement by telling you about the GLAPP. Coming soon to the Dutch doorstep.

But first: a crash course in grassroots campaigning. Spanning eight years, from sea to shining sea. Just like Dutch populist Geert Wilders views himself as part of a worldwide movement (revolution?) of (scary) white-nationalism, I believe we can be a small piece in the worldwide movement of renewed progressive hope. We learn from one another.

Obama ‘08

Obama’s ’08 victory speech conveyed a clear message: “All of this happened because of you.” It celebrated the millions of people who assisted Obama on his path to victory. Of course, every politician thanks their voters at the end of the campaign, once the results are in. But Obama thanked the movement.

He thanked us. Because we were the movement. We went door to door to speak with voters. At first, to convince them to register to vote, soon after to ask for their contribution. The things I experienced there, I am yet to encounter in a Dutch campaign. Until now, as I will explain later.

Google ‘charisma gifs’, and watch Obama fill your screen. Type in ‘best political speeches’, and up pops Barack. He is black and white (and gray). The man can sing, speech, dance and convince. Even against (among others) Sarah Palin – who reminds me of former Dutch politician Rita Verdonk. Even after the financial crisis had just hit. Along came the first successful step of a grassroots campaign: engaging the people. Enthuse them to become part of a (credible) movement. The chant “Yes we can” became an essential phrase.

After the engaging, step two followed: organizing. Field organizers (read: campaign  managers) were trained and planted in strategic locations in the swing states, along with a core group of volunteers. They were to put as many volunteers as possible to work (as hard as possible) – and I worked among them. We were competing to get the longest list of recruited contributors as if we worked for a call center. The first time I won that competition, all I heard was: “Great work, Sybren, let’s double that tomorrow” (sigh).

Campaign manager David Plouffe wrote a great book about our organization: The Audacity to Win. Reading it, you’ll be surprised at the duck tape-amateurism. It happened, it worked, but it could be improved.

Obama ‘12
The best book detailing grassroots campaigning was written by Elizabeth McKenna and Harrie Han, two of Obama’s key organizers. Too long, didn’t read (TLDR):

The real lesson from both the Obama campaigns is that winning elections requires an integrated campaign that:
(1) raises the money necessary to win from multiple revenue streams;
(2) develops a winning message true to the candidate’s personal narrative;
(3) invests in a robust digital program to raise money, get out the message and mobilize voters;
(4) uses cutting-edge technology across departments;
(5) fully embraces data and analytics to make metrics-bases decisions across the campaign;
(6) and focuses on building a field campaign driven by volunteers who are trained and developed as leaders and empowered to represent the campaign in their own communities.

This book considers the ’12 campaign – partially becoming a handbook, partially an explanation. On the one hand, it delivers practical tips for setting up living room meetings or how to manage a doorstep conversation. Super useful.

And because more clarity is always better – and because I’m the type of person who can’t sleep without proper understanding – I contacted the organizer of the Trudeau campaign. He gave me helpful pointers, such as: when you call a new volunteer within their first 72 hours, the chance of them actually contributing is 90%. One week later, that chance decreases to 10% (wow. Also: the more you know, competitors!).

On the other hand, the books seeks to clarify the two main improvements the ’12 campaign made in comparison to the ’08 one. First point: better training for the local campaign managers, and point two: collecting data to more effectively manage your volunteers’ time. Especially: know where you need to be. These can be understood as step three and four of a proper grassroots campaign.

Bernie ‘16
Bernie  – “Not me, us” – Sanders knew what needed to be done. Engaging was this 74-year-old’s strong point.

There are major, major, major issues that confront us today. And we need your help. We need the idealism, and the energy, and the intelligence of millions of people, to join us in the fight to make America the kind of country we know it must become.“  - Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution Speech.

His campaign team also managed – more effectively than Hillary Clinton’s – to take the next step.

An old cliché says a good programmer is lazy, since a lazy person gets the job done quickest and easiest. A lazy programmer seeks to eliminate as many tasks as possible through automatization. A good programmer knows how to.

Bernie’s campaign reinvented the second step (organizing). Why build your own infrastructure, when others can do it for you, and better? Subsequently, the organization for Bernie’s campaign built a script which automatized part of their tasks – crowdsourced it even. The slogan #feelthebern is crowdbased, and a new Facebook-page soon attracted half a million(!) Americans to generate memes for Bernie.

Of course, elections aren’t won through memes or hashtags (although, don’t underestimate that sh*t!). But the script for the Bernie campaign did deliver most of the technology used for the campaign. Bernie utilized Blue State Digital (as do the Dutch Greens) for their e-mail, sites, ‘crm’ and crowdfunding.




The rest came from the 2000 programmers who contributed their time and effort free of charge. They built (among others) a BernieBNB and – their ultimate feat – a door-to-door-app named FieldTheBern. Their tools: a Slack -channel (the organizers replacement for e-mail and Whatsapp, google it now if you’re not a user yet) and a GitHub (like Google Docs for programmers); the rest followed automatically.

Thus, step five of the grassroots campaigning handbook is: apply similarly crafty networks for your own goals.

Dutch Greens ‘16
Let’s summarize. Grassroots campaigning is not (just) about convincing, it’s about engaging. It builds on the – naïve – belief that people ARE still willing to contribute for political causes, and builds an organization intended to get the most out of them. For instance, by sharing your messages, by taking to the streets for you, by donating or by sharing their thoughts.

And we have the foundations for that. For starters: a good, believable, engaging story (thanks Jesse!), followed up by a series of organized events intended to get the most out of it (many thanks to our 1000+ volunteers). Obama ‘08.

The organizing can be improved, as Obama showed us in ’12. So we created a digital platform, connecting local campaign managers directly to volunteers in their area. And we set up training sessions for the campaign managers from our largest departments (the top-30). Obama ‘12.

And learning from Bernie, last spring, I organized a GeekUp. A meetup for fifty programmers, designers and other creatives – where I had expected 20 at most. People with real, busy jobs, and lots of talent. The following day I set up a Slack-channel to allow them effortless contribution to the campaign. Bernie ‘16.

All this eventually delivered the GLAPP: a door-to-door-app. An app which allows any sympathizer to directly go door to door. Simply mark your location, and receive a complete list of addresses. Addresses which have not yet been visited by other volunteers; arranged by voting potential for the Dutch Greens.

What did all this cost? Forty pizzas, two crates of beer and twenty-something bottles of Club-Mate. Add the irregular use of heating, water and electricity over nights and weekends. So, hardly anything. An app built from engagement and talent.

For me, this is an excellent example of the cutting edge technology McKenna & Hahn described. Made by a network of crafty brains just like those supporting Bernie.

What else was this app founded on, besides engagement and Club-Mate? Working together with data-analyists, we utilized the data from Dutch polling stations, calculating the ‘Green’ potential for every address in the Netherlands. Imagine a large Dutch city cut up into 300 small squares, sorted by Green preference. Unparalleled detail, considering most political parties nowadays only use generic postal code information – which only delivers 47 sets of data for our entire country.

That potential can be understood as the percentage of progressive left-wing votes rallied in 2012. The addresses around a high-yielding polling booth are the first to receive a door to door visit from our volunteers.

Screenshot GLAPP

A screenshot of the GLAPP, the Green Left’s own grassroots tool.


A map does not an app make. Therefore, the programmers and ux-designers in our geek club developed the map into a proper app. Directly applicable through your mobile phone, it shows the high priority addresses in your area, while eliminating those previously visited by others. Swiping your thumb, the worries, wishes and (political) preferences of any voter are registered. Thus, we make the voter map more and more detailed. Anyone concerned about privacy can read this article.

We aim to speak to every potential voter leaning left. Going door to door, instilling the need for change in every heart, inspiring people to vote for progress. And improving our skills through each election.

So many volunteers combined with this app: the pinnacle of grassroots campaigning. Right here in the Netherlands.

This article is part of the  OverDWARS Campaign series in in collaboration with the Ecosprinter, which covers the road to the Dutch elections  of March 15, 2017.