Bernie Won’t Get the Nomination. But His Online Army Isn’t Done
If the latest projections come to pass, Hillary Clinton will lock up the Democratic nomination for president by the June 7 primaries in six states. If she does, it will be the end of a hard-fought insurgent campaign for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
But it will not, Sanders supporters say, be the end of the massive progressive movement that propelled him.
The Sanders campaign has defied expectations from the outset. What began as a long-shot campaign in April 2015 soon became a viable threat to what pundits had long seen as Clinton’s inevitable coronation. Over the course of a year, his campaign has out-raised Clinton’s, amassing more than 6 million mostly small-dollar donations and drawn record-breaking crowds, with more than 28,000 people turning out to his Brooklyn rally in April alone.
Sanders, of course, deserves much of the credit for this success, but so do the millions of vocal supporters who gathered on Reddit, Facebook, Slack, and Twitter to amplify his message. They’re the same people who donated nearly $213 million to his campaign and who built dozens of apps and tech tools for free to help lighten the campaign’s load. Now, even as they cross their fingers for a contested convention in July, Sanders supporters are already spinning off new organizations in hopes of maintaining the momentum they’ve built over the last year.
“Bernie is great,” says Saikat Chakrabarti, who worked as Sanders’ director of organizing technology until April, “but we’ve got to keep this political revolution going.”
Brand New Congress
For Chakrabarti, that means upending Congress so that, no matter who becomes president, the progressive platform Sanders laid out during the primaries won’t just evaporate. That’s why he and about forty other Sanders volunteers and former staffers are launching Brand New Congress, an audacious organization that aims to recruit and elect hundreds of new members of Congress who agree to uphold parts of Sanders’ platform. That includes both Republicans and Democrats.
The goal is for Brand New Congress to become a central fundraiser for all of the candidates by tapping into Sanders’ substantial fundraising community. That way, the candidates won’t have to mount their own fundraising campaigns, and the community of donors and volunteers can focus their resources on a single entity.
“My personal belief in doing Brand New Congress is that the movement needs something to focus on that’s constructive,” Chakrabarti says. He compares Brand New Congress to groups like Democracy for America, which grew out of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, and Organizing for Action, which evolved from President Obama’s campaign, Obama for America.
“DFA and OFA did a lot of advocacy work, but those are things that are hard to keep a lot of momentum going, because the goals are shifting,” he says. In order to keep people’s attention, he says, “you need concrete goals and a thing to focus on.”
But there’s another major difference that separates the Sanders movement from Dean and Obama. Those earlier campaigns built strong grassroots communities. But in 2004 and 2008, the campaigns themselves were largely responsible for maintaining the connections among supporters. In Sanders’ case, supporters found each other. “Now, almost all of these groups are hanging out on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, and Slack,” Chakrabarti says. “They’re creating their own centers of power.”
Change Is Local
While Brand New Congress sets its sights on Washington, other Sanders supporters are working on effecting change at a local level. Jon Culver, a Sanders delegate who also built a debate-night tool for Sanders supporters, recently created the site FileforPCO.com. It encourages progressive leaders to run for precinct committee officer in Washington state. Culver describes the position as “a tiny elected official” with the power to nominate local Democratic officials and run the party’s caucuses.
“To me, it’s a great starting place,” Culver says. “I want to lay out for people that if you’ve been a leader in volunteering for this movement, this is a fantastic time to step up.”
In addition to trying to get progressive leaders elected to various levels of office, other Sanders supporters are working to institutionalize the ad hoc collection of tech talent that coalesced behind Sanders. Rapi Castillo, a San Mateo-based engineer who built an events map for the Sanders campaign, is working on turning the 1,500 members of the Coders for Sanders Slack channel into a formal organization to serve as a resource for future campaigns.
Meanwhile, Josh Smith, another volunteer, is working on crowdfunding a new voter file that liberal candidates could access for free, competing with paid products currently sold by companies like NGP VAN. “Realistically it costs $2 million to go out and run for Congress and one reason is because of things like this,” Smith says, referring to the cost of renting voter data. “By reducing the cost, it seems a lot more Democratic to me.”
The challenge to any of these efforts will be keeping enthusiasm alive once Sanders himself is no longer running for president. Without such a strong figurehead to unify them, so many small-scale initiatives could lead to fragmentation of the movement.
“I think it’s a valid concern,” Smith says. “You have a lot of dilution happen by having a lot of overlapping projects.”
As Smith says, Sanders has been the community’s rallying cry. The big question now is what Sanders himself will do with his newfound fame. “Sanders is the first one to be this successful and lose but still have millions of people believing in him. So what’s he going to do with that?” says Joe Trippi, who served as Dean’s campaign manager in 2004.
“With this technological ability to power people and move a populist message for change, there’s nothing that says he can’t continue to raise millions of dollars.”
More immediately, the question is whether any of this activism will benefit Clinton in the general election. The battle between the two Democratic candidates has only gotten uglier, most recently erupting in a violent exchange at the Nevada Democratic party state convention. It’s little wonder then, with tensions so high, that Sanders supporters are setting their sights not on November but 2017 and beyond.
“All these people work really hard and put their life and soul into Bernie, but it’s not as transferable to another campaign,” says Chakrabarti. “I would be surprised if a lot of them went on to do a lot of work for Hillary Clinton.”
Still, Smith says that’s subject to change. “I think you look at five months of Donald Trump campaigning and that might be a motivating factor for people,” he says. It could come down to what Sanders decides to do once the nomination is sealed.
“It all comes back to my candidate,” says Culver. “If he’s in, I’m in.”