At one point, he thanked everyone for being there and reassured them that, yes, the campaign would continue to contact New York voters.
At another, he apologized for having set up a call that competed with a virtual event Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) was throwing from an empty room in his house in Vermont. “I know our boss is having a call at this time,” Návar, Sanders’s New York state director, said sheepishly. “We scheduled this before we knew about that webinar.”
It’s a paradigm shift the entire Sanders operation is grappling with.
The campaign has spent two presidential cycles building a grass-roots movement unparalleled among Democrats in reach and dogged loyalty. And for nearly eight years, that network has measured enthusiasm by doors knocked and ralliers rallied.
Now though, as the novel coronavirus ravages the country, Sanders’s staffers and organizers have found themselves stuck in their homes, unable to hold the sunshine-splashed, concertlike events that have become a staple of the campaign. Instead, they’re reduced to connecting to people over Zoom, erasing a major advantage they had over former vice president Joe Biden — an ability to fill communities with volunteers and have thousands of conversations about their candidate.
The radical shift in how the campaign reaches people comes as Biden has opened a wide delegate lead in the Democratic primary. If Sanders is going to overcome that, he will have to wrack up big wins in states such as New York. But much of the state is on lockdown as the death toll from the covid-19 epidemic mounts. New York has postponed its primary until June.
Complicating matters is the fact that much of the New York team isn’t actually in New York. Návar, for example, is organizing from D.C. Others are stuck in Southern California. After California organizers helped Sanders win there, the campaign ordered most of them to New York. But the coronavirus pandemic escalated so quickly that many didn’t have time to make the cross-country move.
There are other obstacles, too, such as how it’s hard to create much variety when all your events take place in front of a computer.
Over the past few weeks, Team Sanders has hosted “virtual house parties” (a few New York staffers sitting in their homes explaining organizing strategies to several dozen viewers sitting in theirs), which seem to closely resemble “virtual barnstorms” (a few New York staffers sitting in their homes explaining organizing approaches to viewers sitting in theirs), which look a lot like “volunteer launch calls” (a few more New York staffers sitting in their homes talking to a few more viewers sitting in theirs).
During these meetings, volunteers are often asked to share why they’ve joined the call. Some talk about loved ones lost to illness without adequate insurance to pay for coverage. Others say they’re recent immigrants worried their families may be departed. Some just cite President Trump’s arrival in 2016 as a galvanizing factor.
Then a lead staffer offers a few thoughts about the state of the campaign. The comments wouldn’t seem scripted, unless you’d seen them delivered at one barnstorm/house party/volunteer call after another.
Normally those remarks acknowledge that people within the campaign are discussing its future. They highlight the delegate opportunities available in New York. And they outline a pivot in focus from politics to the coronavirus pandemic, a switch Sanders himself has made in his nightly addresses, too.
There’s also an effort to get a little more personal.
“The first part of a phone bank conversation now is no longer ‘Who are you supporting?’ It’s ‘How are you doing?’ ” Návar said. “We have an initial check-in. We’ve totally changed the script.”
At most organizing events, he and his colleagues share the screen with a slide show presentation that outlines the key aspects of Sanders’s vision for a coronavirus response plan, which include monthly payments to everyone, 100 percent unemployment insurance for income up to $75,000, free coronavirus health care and testing, and support for small businesses — among others.
Volunteers are encouraged to share those ideas with people they talk to on the phone. The hope is that if someone in need can relate to something Sanders is advocating, they will relate to his broader platform, too.
Like many campaigns, Sanders’s New York staffers are asking people to sign up for phone bank shifts in which they can convert their personal computers or cellphones into dialers. Staffers promise those dialers can help volunteers make 100 calls and lead to 40 to 50 conversations per hour. And these days, Návar says, more people are answering those calls than usual.
“In this moment, folks are actually answering the phone. They actually want to talk to you,” Návar said. “So what we’ve lost in our ability to door-knock, we’ve found people more receptive to willing to talk to you and talk at length about the broader political situation, because it’s affecting their lives.”
And those digital organizing events seem to have taken on a broader importance, too. About 2,000 people attended the campaign’s first volunteer call in New York earlier this month. A few dozen have attended barnstorms and virtual house parties for New York organizing in the past two weeks. Alongside video of staffers, most events have a running chat in which attendees can share thoughts or ask questions.
Some tell their colleagues not to give up. Others type that whatever happens in the campaign, “the movement” will live on until policies Sanders espouses materialize. Many just share their gratitude to have the chance to see people, even a few thousand miles away.
“I’m here to see some human faces,” one man wrote in that chat at an event last week. “Quarantine has got me down.”