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Bernie Sanders's Grassroots Army Is Passionate. But Can They Get Organized?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Before Jackie Sheeler leaves her Harlem apartment, she makes sure to put on her Bernie T-shirt and stuff the Bernie pamphlets that she made herself into her bag. She’s still waiting for her Bernie stickers to arrive in the mail (they’re on backorder), but she’s hoping they’ll come by the time she plans to set up a table near her neighborhood subway stop to flyer for Bernie this week.

“Too many people in New York don’t know who the hell he is—we need boots on the ground, flyers into people’s hands,” said Sheeler, who's recruiting fellow Bernie Sanders supporters in New York City. She's proud that her local dry-cleaner now has a stack of her pamphlets at the counter. But she acknowledges that the early organizing efforts behind Sanders are still scattershot. “It’s especially fragmented in New York—their limited resources must be focused on early primary states,” she said. “The organizers are trying to get organized.”

The grassroots enthusiasm behind Sanders's campaign is the single biggest advantage that he has over the Hillary Clinton juggernaut. His recent speech in Wisconsin drew the biggest crowd of any 2016 candidate so far, and small donors helped him raise $15 million in just two months. But Clinton's $45 million haul has helped her establish a far bigger organizing infrastructure. Her campaign has paid organizers in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., while the Sanders campaign has paid staffers only in Iowa and New Hampshire, the earliest primary states where he has the best shot of winning, given the high percentage of white, liberal voters. Nationally, he still trails Hillary by 40 points in the polls on average, and only 2 percent of Democrats think he is the candidate with the best chance of beating a Republican, according to a June 30 CNN poll.

If Sanders has any chance at all, it depends on his ability to spread the popular enthusiasm he generates and then direct that energy into organizing. Sanders's most enthusiastic supporters are trying to step up and fill the organizing gap. But out of principle and necessity, they've embraced a DIY approach—in sharp contrast to get-out-the-vote operations of more mainstream candidates like Hillary Clinton, which are part of the traditional campaign apparatus and take their cues from the top.

One of the biggest organizing hubs, People for Bernie, proudly embraces a decentralized model that encourages self-expression and autonomy in the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. As with Occupy, it's an organizing ethos that's in line with the populist spirit of Sanders himself. But the campaign now faces the challenge of turning popular enthusiasm into electoral wins, and personal authenticity into political pragmatism.

That’s one of the reasons that Winnie Wong decided to start People for Bernie in the first place. The Occupy movement “didn’t lead to electoral victories, and I wanted to change that,” said Wong, an Occupy activist who helped create People for Bernie after abandoning an earlier effort to get Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president. The group is betting that the same ethos behind Occupy can help send Sanders to the White House: Reject hierarchy, embrace decentralization, and make people feel like they can, and should, do what they feel like to help. "This is a story about a revolution, and the story is being co-created by everybody," said Wong.

People for Bernie’s most visible success so far has been online, where the fruits of a decentralized strategy are perhaps most obvious. The group created the #FeeltheBern hashtag on Twitter, which has spawned more tweets over the past month than #Hillary2016, according to Topsy, a media analytics company. People for Bernie has also spawned hundreds of subgroups on Facebook organized around particular constituencies: People of Color for Bernie; Vets for Bernie; Millennials for Bernie and Women 4 Bernie (not to be confused with Women For Bernie Sanders).

For Sanders's most devoted fans, their homegrown organizing efforts embody what they love most about the candidate himself: authenticity, iconoclasm, independence, and self-determination. “Who are we to tell people how they should meet?" said Wong. "Because we’re decentralized we can’t give them direction—we can only given them suggestions. Creativity wins always, and it's something that cannot be measured."

For Jane DeNeefe, a Bernie activist in Alabama, that means not only holding local meet-ups, but also creating a page of free clip art that people can download to transfer onto shirts or stickers. “I consider myself self-appointed on behalf of the people to do work,” said DeNeefe, who sent me a photo of her wearing “Bernie Y’all” buttons that she made.

For some, the path to electing Bernie is also a quest for self-understanding and personal fulfillment. "You’re trying to reach down into the passion, you’re trying to figure out what is it that’s causing you pain, what is it that causes you pleasure, what it makes you feel good, what makes really gives you a connection," Larry Swetman, a self-described “organizer, activist, writer, and lover of beauty” from Philadelphia, said on a conference call hosted by People for Bernie in early July. "That’s what really makes things democratic—that connection, that longing for empathy. That's what organizing is," he added.

Sanders is betting that passion will enable him to surmount the serious obstacles he faces in broadening his base of support. But that also means the campaign needs to find a way to corral popular enthusiasm into more traditional, on-the-ground organizing if Sanders wants a real shot at expanding his base beyond largely white, liberal enclaves. That means convincing more supporters to embrace a more centralized, hierarchical type of organizing, while still preserving the authentic, grassroots populism that Sanders embodies for his fans.

Sanders is beginning that effort in earnest this month. The campaign is asking supporters across the country to host house parties on July 29, where Sanders himself will appear by video link. The goal is to convince Sanders fans to "self-organize" into teams of volunteers to help Sanders in more conventional ways—door-knocking, canvassing, and phone-banking, according to the campaign's digital director Kenneth Pennington. “He’s very interested in this not being about him, but about everybody getting together and going together in the same direction," said campaign spokesman Michael Briggs.

Still, Sanders's campaign wants and needs his organizers to follow his lead. His "volunteer workforce" will have a leadership hierarchy that puts his campaign at the top. Each team of volunteers will have a volunteer team leader, who will receive guidance, training, and resources from campaign staff.

People for Bernie says that it will encourage its own network of activists to get involved with the official campaign, too. "We’ll support anything they want us to support," Wong said. And some Sanders enthusiasts openly recognize the need to develop a more organized network on the ground. When Sanders gave a speech in Portland, Maine to a crowd of more than 7,500, Shannon McCartney made sure that fans could sign up to volunteer and get involved immediately with Maine for Bernie. “There are going to be a lot of people ready to hit the ground running as soon as the time comes,” said Jeanine Calkin, a small business owner who helped start Rhode Island for Bernie.

But it's unclear how eager Sanders's most ardent supporters will be to use more conventional political tools and organizing to support their iconoclastic candidate, given how alienated many of his fans have felt from a political establishment they want to upend—and how encouraged they've felt to take things into their own hands.

And even if Sanders manages to assemble and mobilize his own grassroots army, he's still competing with big money and establishment influence on the local level. Ready for Hillary, the Clinton super PAC, has been handing out talking points and conducting media training sessions with mayors, state representatives, and other political players to get everyone on the same page. For all the grassroots support behind President Barack Obama, his campaign had the largest paid campaign staff in history to direct volunteers to finely tuned targets. While Sanders is planning to expand his field staff beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign is still betting that super-volunteers will spearhead its local organizing efforts. And the resource gap is just one of many serious challenge that Sanders faces: the lack of name recognition, the need to appeal to minority voters, the suspicion toward his affiliation with the S-word (“Socialist”).

But even if Sanders prevails only in a handful of states, his campaign could still be a turning point for activism on the Left. Post-Obama, progressive movement activists have focused on issues rather than candidates, sometimes openly refusing to engage with an electoral system they believe is irremediably broken.

The Sanders campaign is now an opportunity for activists to become engaged and organized on a national scale around an election. That was the approach that the Tea Party embraced, to a significant degree of success, and some Sanders activists hope their momentum can continue beyond Sanders's candidacy.

“Yes, let’s get Bernie elected," Calkin said. "But maybe also more at the local level—how can we also do more locally and how do we keep it going and keep the pressure on?”