Canvassing for Bernie and Building DSA

Canvassing with the Democratic Socialists for Bernie campaign is great. You get to talk about class politics with your neighbors or fellow students, inspire new people to become socialists, and be part of a historic movement that has the opportunity to elect the first socialist president of the United States.

It’s also urgent: we have only four months before the Iowa caucuses, and other important primaries aren’t far behind. At this point, we’re in a race against the clock to build up as massive a grassroots canvassing infrastructure as possible to generate an unprecedented turnout of people who don’t usually vote.

Since we don’t have a lot of time for trial and error, it’s crucial that we discuss and generalize what has been working in the field. In that spirit, I’m sharing here the canvassing “rap” we’ve been using for our Democratic Socialists for Bernie campaign at Brooklyn College, followed by the organizing techniques and tips that have proven to be most effective.

This rap is specifically for tabling in a public place relatively early in the election when we have time to talk to people more deeply and think about recruiting them as new organizers. As we get closer to the primary, priorities in local campaigns will likely shift to focus more on winning over undecided voters and doing broader get-out-the-vote for Bernie. But for now, it makes sense to prioritize recruiting and training an army of socialist volunteers that will have the numbers and dedication to win that later get-out-the-vote war.

We have lots of experienced canvassers in DSA, but we also have lots of new organizers. I hope what follows will give newer organizers some ideas and show that going all out for Bernie doesn’t have to be scary — it’s often fun and it’s always rewarding. Adapt these to your own organizing efforts — and share what has been working for your local Bernie work!

Our Bernie Rap at Brooklyn College

Our rap at Brooklyn College goes through the following steps.

The Introduction

– Step 1: “Are you interested in social justice?” [Depending on where you are canvassing, you might also try asking if they are interested in a specific issue like Medicare for All, stopping climate change, or eliminating student debt.]

– Step 2: “Awesome! Is there an issue in particular you feel strongly about?” [Ninety-nine percent of the time, the person replies with something that Bernie is great on, e.g. climate, anti-racism, health care, student debt, etc.]

– Step 3: “Yeah, I agree — that’s a really important issue! By the way my name is ____, what’s yours? Cool, well, I’m volunteering for Democratic Socialists for Bernie, because we think Bernie is the only candidate who can really bring about real change on [the issue they raised] as well as Medicare for All, fighting racism, Green New Deal [you can tailor this a bit to the person if you want], and because we’re going to have to build a real movement on campus and across the country to win the big changes he’s proposing. That’s why we’re out here trying to get volunteers to help us build this movement.”

The Conversation

If it seems like they’re interested in talking and are a person we’d like to recruit — and if we’re not swamped with folks coming up to us — at this point, we usually try to engage in as substantive a conversation as possible, e.g. ask them a) what they think it will take to win the change they want to see and/or b) how they got interested in social justice and/or c) what they think of the 2020 elections and the other candidates and/or d) if they have any questions about democratic socialism.

Then we reply to their points and explain why it would be great if they get involved in the campaign, what our next steps/events/canvasses are, why only a mass movement can win (since we’re going up against such powerful enemies), and why Bernie is the only candidate truly oriented to taking on the billionaires that control this country. Then we end by getting them signed up (more on this below).

If we’re really swamped at the table/canvass and we’d miss talking to other good people by engaging in a long conversation, or if the person seems like they’re in a bit of rush, we go straight into getting them signed up.

Sign Them Up

Give them our basic Democratic Socialists for Bernie platform flier(s) and/or a flier for any upcoming event on campus or in the neighborhood. Make sure they sign in on the sign-in sheet with their email and phone number (their phone number is the most important) and make sure you let them know the next steps to get involved. Check to make sure their handwriting is legible.

Put a star next to anybody who seems like they’re a good possible volunteer recruit, so that you know to follow up with them by text immediately after the canvass.

Register Them to Vote

This is true anywhere, but especially on college campuses with lots of young people. We should make sure everyone we talk to is registered to vote. But ask them after the political conversation, which is more important and more engaging to lead with. If they aren’t registered, give them a voter registration form. If they aren’t in a rush, encourage them to fill it out right there so you can turn it in later.

Follow Up

Send a text to your starred contacts that evening thanking them for signing up, asking if they’re still interested in volunteering, and letting them know the next steps. Email the rest of the list that evening if possible, or the next day at the latest. We want to make second contact with people while the interaction is still fresh in their mind.

Some More Organizing Techniques and Tips

Beyond having a good rap, here are twelve more tips to keep in mind.

1. Be as visible as possible: the more people that can see you, the more likely it is that pro-Bernie people will voluntarily come up to you. Have big Bernie signs and/or a Bernie cardboard cutout. Wear a Bernie t-shirt.

2. Ideally you have enough people in your group to have a few people staffing the table. All the rest of the volunteers should be fanning out, approaching strangers in the vicinity of the table to talk.

3. The single most important thing for canvassers is to stop being shy: go up to as many strangers as possible, over and over and over again. It gets easier! Persistence and growing a thick skin to having strangers ignore you is the single most important key to success.

4. One key to recruiting new volunteers through canvassing is to understand that you get quality through quantity. We get great new activists by speaking with as many different people as possible, so that we can meet those exceptional people who are open to start immediately organizing with us. Casting this wide net is ultimately even more important than any particular rap or political argument. And when you meet someone who seems like a possible recruit, make sure to do individualized follow-up with them.

5. If you have a new volunteer on the canvass, it may be easier for them initially to staff the table. But eventually we should help give everybody the confidence to go up and talk to strangers. Canvassing is a great way to convince new members of our movement about the importance of socialist political education. Tabling every week tends to spur an organic desire to get more informed about socialism and history, in order to be able to answer people’s questions better.

6. Always use tabling and canvassing to help develop new leaders. Every task (from the most simple to the most difficult) is a possible opportunity to delegate a duty to someone new, so they can gain ownership over the campaign and develop their political confidence and skills.

7. Try to table weekly and have a set routine. Invite any good contact to help table the following week.

8. Ignore the trolls. Right-wingers or some strange people will want to talk your ear off. Just say ASAP, “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Have a nice day.” It’s a waste of time to engage with them; our focus is on meeting new people and convincing people to vote for Bernie.

9. Keep in mind that good organizing usually means you talk 30 percent of the time and the contact talks 70 percent. So ask them questions!

10. Always, without exception, take pictures of the canvass and post them to social media with the #DSAforBernie hashtag. If someone you talk to is enthusiastic about volunteering, ask their permission to take a selfie with them to post online later. Publicity matters!

11. In our experience at Brooklyn College, canvassing at a multiracial, working-class commuter school has proven to be by far the most strategic location to effectively spread the word about Bernie and recruit new volunteers. These types of schools are disproportionately young, nonwhite, and working-class — exactly the demographics of Bernie’s key base of support. You can meet way more people, more quickly, because of how schools concentrate large numbers of people. And the weekly nature of campus life means that the people you meet will likely be free at the same time and place the following week, greatly facilitating the recruitment of new volunteers.

12. The art of organizing requires that we try to stick with “tried and true” methods while remaining flexible enough to adjust to conditions on the ground. So try out the method laid out above, but feel free to experiment/adjust depending on your local conditions. And please share what works with comrades in your town, region, and across the country!