Bingo, Beaded Bracelets and Volunteer Iphones Power Biden’s Organizing Effort

Joshua Lott/The Washington Post
Wisconsin Democratic field organizer Oisin Kaliszewski, second from left, teaches volunteer Beth Counce, center, and her husband, Timothy Counce, how to use the Reach phone app at Amorphic Brewing on April 25 in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE – Bracelet beading for Joe Biden, timed to the new Taylor Swift album, drew students last month on the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee campus. Bingo cracked open the elderly apartment blocks on the north side of town. And at Mr. B’s, a soul club with weekly step classes, one campaign volunteer interrupted a show by Mo’Betta, her niece’s band, to talk about the coming election.

Organizers for President Biden’s campaign in this swingiest of swing states deploy similar scripts at each event: Take out your phone, download an app called Reach and use it to message friends and family – marking their responses in voter records as you go. There is a library of pro-Biden graphics, memes and videos, created by the campaign, which they can share to their own social media feeds or text chains.

The bingo winner goes home with champagne glasses. A wine decanter recently went to the person who shared Biden’s message with seven people on their phone, more than anyone else.

This is what campaign organizing looks like now.

“It’s modest stuff. This isn’t Tiffany’s, but you get the point, and they appreciated it,” said Sabrina Jordan, 63, a retired county budget analyst who has been hitting up the apartment blocks and Mr. B’s as a volunteer. “If they didn’t know anything and they weren’t engaged at all, they definitely thought about it afterwards.”

Joshua Lott/The Washington Post
Volunteer Sabrina Jordan helps recruit volunteers for Wisconsin Democrats and assist with registration and voter education.

No one looks at the 2024 presidential election and thinks this is a fired-up, ready-to-go race. Instead of Hope and Change circa 2008, the nation’s view of politics has soured and voters who dislike both Biden and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump dominate. Both have held the job before and both have received bad reviews.

Nearly two-thirds of those who support Biden told Pew pollsters in April that they would like to replace both the Republican and Democratic nominees. About a third of those supporting Trump said the same thing.

But the campaign team around the 81-year-old president still sees opportunity. They have opened more than 150 offices in nine states, including 46 in Wisconsin, hiring more than 400 people to build an army of volunteers. Success or failure of the field operation will probably determine the outcome in a closely divided state like Wisconsin, said Ben Wikler, the state’s Democratic Party chair.

“Are the social pressures making it unacceptable to not vote? Or is the social pressure to not participate for whatever reason?” he said in a statement. “Our goal is to make sure the wind is blowing in the direction of everyone jumping in.”

Deliberately, with little fanfare, the Biden campaign has been gathering people a dozen or so at a time, pulling in others for Zoom trainings and telling them their iPhone can change the world. The president has been appearing at campaign training events as he travels to encourage more face-to-face contact, telling his staff “to look people in the eye, get their feelings.” The number crunchers at the campaign’s Wilmington headquarters say victory depends on convincing hard-to-reach members of the Black, Latino and youth communities in eight battleground states that this election matters.

Biden campaign chairwoman Jen O’Malley Dillon, a veteran of Democratic presidential efforts since the 2000 election, said the campaign is looking at all aspects of how it can reach voters differently, from organizing tactics to the use of billboard advertising. “The voters who are harder to reach, they are just not getting information at the same level,” she said.

New technology, it turns out, can be both the problem and prescription. The people who don’t care about politics – the ones likely to decide this election – no longer watch much ad-supported television. They avoid public online spaces, where digital spots land, preferring text chains with friends, private Snapchat feeds and Discord channels. The dominant platform for the mindless scroller, TikTok, doesn’t accept political advertising.

“We are trying to figure out ways to reach young people. That is a challenge in this Facebook-TikTok environment that we are living in,” said Jordan, the volunteer in Milwaukee. “I have tried to speak with my own family members, the younger ones, and they are creatures of another planet. People live in silos. They don’t know what is going on.”

But that same phone – destroyer of attention spans and new opiate of the masses – also has the power to bring order. Back in Barack Obama’s day, the campaign would print out lists of addresses and phone numbers for volunteers from the voter file. That still happens, but many of Biden’s new targets aren’t even in the voter file, and Americans increasingly choose not to take unknown calls.

“Doesn’t matter how hard you try, people just don’t pick up phone calls from strangers,” said Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies get-out-the-vote tactics. “The cost effectiveness of these tactics has diminished dramatically, so the question is, ‘How can you achieve positive effect and break through the gating of these networks?’ The answer is friend-to-friend, contact-to-contact, community-to-community.”

That brings Biden to pay for bingo prizes, bracelet making, and trivia nights – trying to recruit the people who might know the people the campaign needs to vote.

“A conversation between people who know each other is about 2.5 times more effective than talking to strangers – and contact rates are much higher,” said Greta Carnes, a Democratic consultant who is preparing an independent relational effort to support Biden’s campaign. “Going forward, more people are going to be contacted by a friend or a family member than by a stranger.”

Back in November, when the Biden campaign was mostly not hiring people or spending any money, O’Malley Dillon authorized dozens of immediate hires in Phoenix and Milwaukee to test this new approach. The goal was to see if people could be recruited from within the most disaffected communities – to see if they would take action despite an election most Americans don’t want.

Nothing was easy, but the pilot projects showed a path, campaign officials said. More than two in five volunteers completing shifts in Arizona and Wisconsin were new volunteers who did not take action in 2020 or in 2022, the campaign found. Sixty percent of the voters canvassed had not been contacted in 2022.

“If we can’t get those folks in the door at all, what’s the point of doing any of this?” said Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager for Biden. “We found through this process that the answer is we could.”

That means Chris Krupp, a 23-year-old college organizer in Milwaukee, has been making Drake and Tiger Woods memes to share on social media at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and Marquette University. Krupp has students bead bracelets that spell out the issues they care about – CLIMATE, ABORTION – and then push related content into their feeds.

“It’s mostly Snapchat, Instagram, a little bit of TikTok,” Krupp said of his generation. “We have always been making memes. We have always been sending content to one another. So it is just about getting people involved.”

The campaign’s central technology, Reach, was built initially for the insurgent campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, allowing her to track the voters she met outside subway stops by connecting them to voter records. It contains a searchable database of just about every voter in America, allowing anyone to tag the people already in their phone, or whoever they meet on the street, with their voting disposition or interest in volunteering. That data is then uploaded to inform the Democratic Party’s ad-buying machine, acting as a sort of additional polling apparatus and allowing for targeting of ads that can be directed at the household level in some cases.

As Biden doubles down on organizing, Trump appears to be pulling back, with the Republican National Committee putting on hold planned hires as it processes the takeover by Trump campaign loyalists. What is unknown is whether Biden will be able to scale up this activity in the closing months of the campaign. At the moment, the Biden technology is being deployed in small groups at brewpubs, during trivia nights and at small gatherings in the battleground states.

The volunteers who showed up at a recent organizing get together Thursday night at Amorphic Beer Taproom on the north side of Milwaukee made no secret of the challenges before them. As the brewery owners hosted “Nerd Bingo Trivia” in the background – a hybrid game where winners need both the right numbers and the trivia answer to win – most of the volunteers described Trump as their motivation for helping Biden. Some also spoke frankly about the ennui in the air and wondered aloud whether it would have been better for Biden to step aside for a younger Democrat.

“I’m going to vote Democrat all down the ticket,” said Timothy Counce, 67, a retired truck driver dressed entirely in Milwaukee Bucks apparel, who has been volunteering in presidential contests since Obama and noted the importance that Black voters like himself will play in November. “But it’s funny that the Democratic Party that takes us for granted all these years now needs us to save it.”

Kimberlee Foster, another volunteer, stood nearby, wondering whether she should start grilling hot dogs and corn outside her house to attract younger people into joining conversations.

“We are fighting real hard to build their confidence up that it does still matter that we vote,” she explained. “Once you take the time and really sit down and really talk to them, people will come around. But it’s about trying to reach the masses.”