The Problem With “Paid Relational Organizing”

This buzzy new tactic is being touted as a silver bullet to help Democrats stave off disaster this fall, but it’s a bandaid, not a cure.

Micah Sifry


Jon Ossoff campaign, 2020

Imagine you are in charge of a legacy enterprise, a company that’s been in business for decades, even longer. You still have some loyal customers, but a lot of people loathe your product and the rest are indifferent. You’ve tried all kinds of ways to get more customers, including hiring new celebrity brand messengers, fancy TV ads, and sophisticated digital marketing that lets you target people individually. Still, you’re not getting through much, because people are bombarded with too many ads already. But now you’ve got a brilliant new idea for how you’re going to sell your product: you’re going to pay some of your customers to tell their friends about you.

In a nutshell, that’s the national Democratic Party today: desperately hoping a new marketing tactic called “paid relational organizing” is what is going to save it from electoral defeat this fall.

Check out this job listing from the Progressive Turnout Project, a key voter engagement group founded in 2015 that works to help elect Democrats up and down ballot by designing, testing and deploying “specialized voter turnout programs.” The group spent more than $78 million during the 2020 election cycle and is on track to spending a similar amount this time around as well. They are looking to hire state “relational organizing directors” for six key states: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Each director is supposed to manage eight “community mobilization managers” who in turn will have “at least 200 part-time Community Mobilizers per city” who will be “on boarded during the final weeks of the 2022 election cycle.” The pay is between $52K and $72.8K for a four-month stint, which is pretty good money in the world of political campaigns.

The idea of paying grassroots Democratic activists to do what ought to come naturally, that is, to talk to their friends, family and coworkers about the virtues of voting comes from the 2020 Jon Ossoff campaign for US Senate in Georgia. During its push to win the January runoff election, the Ossoff campaign decided to spend $500 a…