How to Do Political Organizing in a Pandemic

Anatole Jenkins, Joe Biden’s acclaimed national director of states organizing, explains how the campaign reaches voters when it’s hard to knock on doors.

In high school, Anatole Jenkins wanted to be an architect. In a sense, he now is. In 2012, Jenkins found himself in Las Vegas doing regional organizing for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. He traded in building blueprints for voter registration datasets and a construction team for an army of volunteers. He’s stayed in the field since. Today, instead of physical structures, he gets to build a human coalition from the ground-up as National Director of States Organizing for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. In his role, he recruits both volunteers and voters not only to help defeat Donald Trump but to build a diverse coalition for the Democratic Party going forward.

Jenkins was one of eight people to receive the 2020 Rising Star award from Campaign and Elections magazine. Prior to his role with the Biden campaign, he was the national organizing director for Organizing Together 2020, a group that brought in staffers from every Democratic primary campaign to build infrastructure for the eventual nominee. Before that, he served as the national organizing director for Kamala Harris during her bid for president.

It’s a lot of work for someone who is just 29, and it’s been complicated by COVID-19. Organizing entails energizing and expanding the base of a candidate, something traditionally done by having volunteers knock on doors and make calls, as well as getting voters to attend rallies—activities that make people realize they are part of something bigger than themselves. Those synergistic qualities are hard to translate over Zoom. As a result, organizers have had to shift their methods.

On October 20, I spoke with Jenkins about his career and what it’s like organizing during the pandemic.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ZH: First off, I’m curious to know how you got interested in politics?

AJ: I got interested in politics because of President Obama. I saw a Black man who won the Democratic nomination, who was a former community organizer, running a campaign focused on organizing. My journey was through representation, not just from a racial standpoint but from the standpoint of a different way to campaign, one which I had never seen.

ZH: Just so I’m clear on your timeline, you were an intern for the 2008 campaign, went back to school, and then started professionally organizing for the 2012 Obama reelection campaign. Is that correct?

AJ: I was a volunteer on the 2008 campaign, then I started interning for President Obama’s political organization after that, and then I started organizing in 2011 for the reelection campaign.

ZH: What about the reelection campaign made you decide to make a career out of organizing?

AJ: It starts with when I was interning for Obama’s political team around the 2010 midterms. I was working for the person who ended up being the deputy national political director for Obama’s reelection campaign. When the campaign was about to begin, he said, “You can come to headquarters in Chicago and be my assistant, but you already know how to do that. What you can do is you can go to Nevada and become an organizer and learn how to empower people.” It was the best piece of advice that I have ever been given. I learned more about myself being an organizer than I could have ever expected. I went back to Nevada in 2014 to be field director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, and many of my 2012 volunteers had become leaders in their community, running for elected office and positions in the state democratic party. I saw the seeds you can plant in organizing.

ZH: It’s clear from what you’ve said that you have a role model in Obama. Do you have any other organizing role models or heroes?

AJ: Senator Harris is definitely an organizing role model. This is a woman who, during her first campaign for public office [San Francisco district attorney], didn’t have a table and so brought an ironing board to hand out pamphlets outside of grocery stores and the metro. When I was her national organizing director in 2019, I had my first meeting with her and was talking about how we’re going to organize so she could win her race. She looked at me and said, “All that’s fine, but how are we planting seeds?” She sees the long-term impact of organizing, and that makes her an organizing role model. No matter what, with organizing, you have an impact.

ZH: To put her question back to you, what seeds do you feel like you’re currently planting?

AJ: We have put an intentional focus on bringing more people of color, LGBTQ folks, young folks, and women into positions of leadership in democratic politics. Those are the types of seeds that I’m excited that we’ve planted—new folks who will be the future of the party.

ZH: You talked already about bringing new people into the political processfolks from different backgrounds, different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. What lessons have you learned that you think could help the Democratic Party build a broad coalition in the future?

AJ: We have to do a lot more listening. We have to let people on the ground lead us to where victory is. In past cycles, we’ve often said we want to go into these communities, and we want these folks to become a part of our campaign. In reality, we need our campaign to become a part of these communities. If we are listening to the folks locally, then our politics will look the way that it should.

ZH: I want to ask a quick question relating to your time with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Having spent time on that campaign organizing in Minnesota and now being with Biden’s campaign, what do you see as the differences between the two?

AJ: Barring some of the obvious like COVID, we are taking no voter for granted. My mantra is you meet people where they are, and COVID has forced us to do a lot more digging to find out where people are. We have put a huge amount of focus on making sure that we are talking to persuadable voters from start to finish. We have a wide map of battleground states that we are invested in. We’ve put a huge focus on making sure that we are educating [voters] in all of the ways that they can vote. We also are asking a different question. This time around, we’re asking them to take a look at the guy that’s currently in there and then look at the alternative, which is hope for the soul of our nation.

ZH: What difference does the pandemic make? What are some methods of virtual outreach that you all have been doing?

AJ: It’s a matter of recreating the same community experience that a volunteer normally would have because it’s the experience that brings volunteers back. People will come to the campaign for Joe Biden, but they will come back because of the relationships they’ve made. We’ve also provided our teams on the ground with a whole arsenal of tools so they can talk to voters, whether that is via text message or the phone, or online and on Facebook. We have tested out different things like online rallies to try and bring new folks in the door.

ZH: It sounds like you have a wide range of activities. But do you worry that at the end of the day, thanks to the pandemic, you’re not covering all the bases?

AJ: I don’t. The most important thing is having meaningful conversations. And it turns out that you can actually talk to voters without being in person. I think we are spending a lot of time naturally meeting people where they are, and some of that happens to be online.

At the same time, we have been doing in-person work where safe, and it makes sense. For example, we’ve opened up voter activation centers in battleground states, which are places where folks can get yard signs and campaign material. We have our volunteers knocking on doors, dropping off literature, and then calling voters right after that to let them know we left them a piece of literature. I’ll tell you that every single morning we wake up and think about all the stones that we didn’t turn and how we can turn them.

ZH: But at the same time there was, for a long time, hesitance to do anything in person from the Biden campaign. Why the shift now?

AJ: The safety and health of our staff and volunteers has always been our #1 priority. We are doing some in-person activities because we have folks in communities who want to knock on doors where it’s safe to do so, and so we are providing them with the resources they need while advising them on the health protocols.

ZH: According to a recent Atlantic article, Republicans are recruiting upwards of 50,000 volunteers in battleground states as poll watchers to help “secure” elections against voter fraud, a well-documented myth and tactic of voter suppression. What are some organizing efforts from your campaign to ensure that voters feel safe at the polls?

AJ: We are building a voter protection operation made of lawyers and folks who want to aid in keeping the vote safe. Also, some of the in-person work we are doing includes helping with line management at polling locations. We want to have folks out there who can answer questions as folks are waiting in line and make sure that they stay in line.

ZH: Earlier, you talked about the importance of educating voters. I read what’s known within the campaign as the “Malarkey Factory,” the campaign’s strategy to target and remove disinformation about Biden online. How do you view your role as an organizer in fighting against disinformation?

AJ: In organizing, we’ve been working to combat disinformation through personal networks. We have the Vote Joe app, which is an app that helps individuals talk to the folks they personally know who we’re targeting and what messages they need to receive. People struggle to find a trusted news source, but they still trust their brother, their sister, or their friend. There is no one who is a better validator or surrogate for Kamala Harris and Joe Biden than the people already in their lives.

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Zach Harris

Zach Harris is a Washington Monthly intern and a senior at Northwestern University where he studies journalism and history.