Politics

Once an organizational army, Team Sanders now skeleton crew

Bernie Sanders

Staffers work in Bernie Sanders’ Des Moines office the day before the Iowa caucus. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

[I]n the early part of the presidential primary calendar, Bernie Sanders’ organizers were a fierce, effective force.

A corps of 150 staffers ventured to the nooks and crannies of New Hampshire searching for votes. Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina each boasted at least 100 paid organizers.

There was also a vibrant base of volunteers, including loyal crews of community members in the first two nominating states of New Hampshire and Iowa. The Vermont senator energized these supporters during a series of pre-candidacy trips in the summer of 2014, and the organically cultivated volunteers began spreading Sanders’ message before offices even opened.

The campaign paid special attention and ponied up major resources in these two states, including a plethora of offices, hordes of organizers and tens of millions spent on advertising.

The theory was that big, early wins would create a bandwagon effect and bring media attention, money and more supporters.

As thousands of fans attended Sanders rallies, headlines were made and the money flowed.

A few weeks before the Iowa caucus, in order to accommodate a growing list of employees, staffers set up computers and desks in a second, semi-secret office in Burlington, located above the Burton Snowboards shop on College Street.

At the height of the game — back in February when Sanders had plenty of money to spend and a world full of possibilities — more than 1,000 people were working on his promised political revolution.

But as the calendar dragged on and Sanders lost states, problems popped up — problems that have continued to this day and hobbled the campaign’s organizing prowess ahead of the last 11 nominating contests.

VTDigger spoke to five current and former Sanders staffers for this article, all of whom served prominent national roles for much of the campaign. They were all granted anonymity to speak frankly and because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Top officials in the Sanders campaign did not return multiple phone and email requests seeking comment about recent layoffs and the organizational strategy moving forward.

The staffers reflected on their proudest moments, as well as the lessons they would bring to future campaigns. While frustrations emerged, all of them expressed amazement at what an impact the Vermont senator’s campaign has made.

Not the campaign they expected

Several issues with the campaign emerged. Among them:

Sanders was unwilling to truly interrogate his own proposals and enrich them. Campaign strategy was flawed, often prioritizing advertising over organizing. And the organizing atmosphere that proved effective in the early states could not be replicated in later states, simply because there wasn’t enough time and operations didn’t effectively scale up.

All of the issues staffers pointed to could be traced back to the early assumption on the inside that the Vermont senator’s candidacy would be a rather short-lived, message-oriented venture.

“If you are going to run for president of the United States, you should be in it for the long haul,” said a former national organizer. “You should understand the delegate math, the nature of the calendar, the demographics.”

“But it’s hard to plan a presidential election. Sanders didn’t know it was going to last this long,” the organizer added. “That’s not a critique on him or anyone. It’s just so hard to plan.”

While the campaign had exhibited coherence through the first few states, flawed decisions and deep frustrations have marked the second half of the calendar.

The most public sign of discontent and disagreement in the campaign came April 26. It was a key turning point.

Sanders had just lost four of the five states that had voted — a week after a pummeling in the delegate-rich state of New York, where the democratic socialist was born and where he hoped to make a dent in Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead.

News outlets deemed the campaign on its last legs, and top advisers were publicly scrambling over how to react to the string of losses.

Senior adviser Tad Devine told The New York Times that the tough electoral results would spur a “reassessment,” while spokesman Michael Briggs insisted the inner workings of the campaign would not be rewired.

“There’s nothing to reassess,” Briggs said in an email to VTDigger on April 26. “He’s made clear that he’s going forward to give voters in California and every other state that still hasn’t voted a voice and a choice in the democratic process.”

The next afternoon, after an assessment, the Times’ Yamiche Alcindor reported that hundreds of staff members would be laid off and Sanders would “focus much of his remaining effort on winning the June 7 California primary.”

The story surfaced before the word was official, and many of the staffers learned of the layoffs from the Times, not the campaign.

Shortly after the news broke, campaign manager Jeff Weaver announced a conference call with staff, and many knew what was coming.

Sanders

The Sanders campaign has laid off hundreds of staffers in recent weeks, resulting in a greatly diminished organizing team. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

In a five-minute call, Weaver officially announced the layoffs before thanking the organizers for their work and expressing regret about the firings.

“It just felt really sad on the call,” said a Vermont native who served as a national field organizer on the campaign until the April 27 layoffs. “No one really responded to the news. There was no conversation on the call.”

While it is normal for campaigns to lay off staffers as the primary season progresses, the shedding of employees at the Sanders campaign has left its organizational power greatly weakened. The layoffs also deeply damaged the morale of an organizing force once driven by idealism.

“Staff sizes are dwindling,” said a current national staffer. “There’s no way we can put enough people in enough places to stay competitive.”

Staffers remain in every state still on the primary calendar, a total of roughly 300 people.

While the majority of the recent cuts have been to field staffers, the campaign’s staff of data experts has also been scaled down ahead of California, to about four people.

The team once in charge of recruiting at college campuses is no more. Another small team tasked with luring out-of-state volunteers into neighboring races has been shut down. So has the team that trained staff on how to work a phone bank and use the campaign’s voter database.

The once-thriving Burlington office above Burton now has a lot of empty chairs.

“I do wish the organizing was seen as more valuable,” said the former Vermont organizer. “I understand a layoff. I don’t understand that one.”

New York and California

Most of the resources are now being heaped on California, a state that, while 35 times more populous than New Hampshire, is working with roughly 40 staffers, or one-third the organizing power seen in the Granite State.

Sanders stands about 300 delegates behind Clinton. His only real shot at significantly closing the gap is in California, where a huge win could net him a big chunk of the 546 delegates up for grabs.

California is not the first important primary state where the campaign has faced organizing challenges.

Another huge state, New York, had just 50 field staffers, many of whom were put on the ground with less than a month to pull off a big upset. The first New York office, in Brooklyn, opened just 25 days before the state’s primary.

Besides a lack of time, staffers said the Empire State campaign was also plagued by too many voices at the top.

Sanders hired two state directors, Nadya Stevens and Phil Aroneanu, both of whom some thought ineffective. After problems came up, organizing guru Robert Becker was brought in as the third state director.

Becker and the New York team were unable to salvage a win, and the leadership combination was seen as such a mess that staffers deemed it the “three-headed monster.”

In California, Sanders has had staffers on the ground longer than in New York, revving things up March 20. But organizational issues have also emerged in the Golden State, as top officials have grappled over whether to prioritize advertising or organizing.

Last week, following strategy disagreements, Michael Ceraso, Sanders’ state director in California, left unexpectedly. Becker has come in to take the helm, and it’s unclear if the campaign there will sink millions into television ads or focus more on organizing.

Sanders

Robert Becker, in black at left, has been one of the most effective organizers on the campaign, leading operations in a number of states including Iowa, Michigan, New York and California. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

All the staffers expressed frustration that ads seemed to trump organizing when budgets tightened or time was thin.

“A month is plenty of time to win through organizing,” a former Sanders organizer said. “But it’s easy to lean on television because people think there isn’t enough time to build an organization.”

Organizers argued that on-the-ground door-knocking work is what really sways voters. Advertising, they asserted, was most important at the beginning of Sanders’ candidacy, when he was relatively unknown.

Indeed, recent ad splurges by Sanders have done little. In New York, for example, Sanders outspent Clinton 2-to-1 on media and lost by more than 15 points.

One staffer asserted the reason ads have been given outsize importance is that the senior strategist, Tad Devine, also runs the ad operation.

His company, Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, has created a number of effective, eye-catching spots throughout the campaign, including “America,” which have spurred millions in spending.

In April, Sanders brought in $26 million, a dropoff in donations after a string of losses. That same month, the campaign paid Devine’s ad agency more than $2.2 million to create ads and $16.2 million for media buys, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Payroll was a much smaller expenditure in April, less than $4 million.

Sanders

Bernie Sanders got on the ground late in South Carolina, unable to draw large crowds or connect broadly in communities of color. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

Organizers acknowledged that another huge roadblock to winning states was a lack of time, a problem money cannot remedy.

While Sanders reached out early and often in Iowa and New Hampshire, his travel schedule never diversified.

Staffers wished he had reached out to Latino and black organizations early, and visited the South when he was testing the waters two summers ago. Because Sanders stuck to the whiter parts of the country, his early platform didn’t encompass the problems of the broader American electorate.

The campaign also didn’t put people in later voting states early or greatly scale up operations after the first few states.

“The general sense is this has been incredibly successful for as late to the party as we were,” said a former national advance staffer.

‘Making him look like a president’

While many teams have been gutted, the advance team for events has been mostly spared the layoffs as Sanders continues his cross-country tour.

“Field is about getting votes, advance is about making him look like a president,” said a former national advance staffer. “You can’t shirk on either, but the field’s attitude towards us was ‘Why are you doing this but not getting votes?’”

The rallies have consistently brought the most energy to the campaign, serving as well-orchestrated displays of confidence and support.

Facing a virtually insurmountable delegate deficit, Sanders continues to post huge numbers at his gatherings, with more than 21,000 people watching him last week in Sacramento, California.

The planning team has put on rallies in beautiful, majestic parks and fields, with indie rock bands telling you to vote and then telling you to dance. The rallies had summer concert vibes even in the snowy fields of Iowa.

But while joyous and fun, the rallies are all virtually the same.

Surrogates come and go, and Sanders will regionally tweak his speech on occasion. But the applause lines are well-known, and the pre-show music is always the same.

Staffers wanted the Vermont senator to hold a more diverse offering of events, but Sanders was hesitant to do more buttoned-up policy speeches.

He delayed a speech on democratic socialism in October, but then gave it at Georgetown University in November. He also canceled a planned foreign policy speech before the Iowa caucus.

Sanders agreed to a Wall Street reform speech, which he delivered in January in New York City. Before he gave the address, the idea was floated to poke the finance sector a bit and hold the speech on Wall Street, but that was shot down.

While not entirely effective at bringing in votes, the rallies do give Sanders power. If he can continue to draw huge crowds until the convention, Sanders will most likely enter Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena with added leverage to get his ideas on the platform.

Staffers remained generally optimistic about the future of Sanders’ ideas, if not his prospects in the campaign’s last big shot in California.

Deep friendships were made for the longtime staffers, and a few spoke optimistically about regrouping for another push — likely for another candidate — in upcoming races with progressives on the ballot.

“Young people: We have four years to get organized,” the advance staffer said. “Now we have people who understand digital media, canvassing, advance, all sorts of campaign activities — who are aware of the problems and pissed off that (Sanders’ campaign) was foiled from the beginning.”

Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.

 

Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is a freelance reporter for VTDigger.

A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news site dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger from 2015-2017.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

Send us your thoughts

VTDigger is now accepting letters to the editor. For information about our guidelines, and access to the letter form, please click here.

 

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Once an organizational army, Team Sanders now skeleton crew"