More than a dozen former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers have joined NextGen Climate, according to the group run by environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer. They’re helping to organize millennials around climate issues and keep them engaged in the political process as Democrats fear young people will stay home in November.
More young people voted for Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, according a new Tufts University study. That same group of voters under age 30 was central to both of Barack Obama’s wins, but tend to vote in lower numbers. Some say they won’t go to the polls this fall if Sanders isn’t on the ballot.
To help address that, NextGen is running what they call the largest non-candidate student organizing effort in American political history. They plan to register and organize students on over 200 campuses in seven states, including Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois, which has a competitive Senate race. The group already has 175 full time paid staffers and fellows, up from the over 140 staffers they deployed 2014, and is adding more.
NextGen, which Steyer started in 2013 to help build the political power and fight climate change, has spent tens of millions of dollars on grassroots organizing in recent election cycles, but is focused this year on young voters, who tend to care more deeply about the climate than other cohorts but have yet to fully utilize their power at the polls.
Zack Malitz, who was the deputy director of Sanders’ digital organizing team and will now lead campus organizing for NextGen, said he and the other former Sanders staffers are bringing with them many of the “distributed organizing” techniques employed by the Vermont senator.
“Working for Sen. Sanders, I saw the incredible power of young people to reshape American politics and push a broad-based progressive agenda," Malitz explained. "I’m excited to continue that work."
Distributed organizing uses open source technology to tap into and empower volunteer networks and let those activists perform tasks that would traditionally be done by staffers. The model allows for massive scaling: It helped the Sanders campaign make 70 million peer-to-peer calls and send millions more individual peer-to-peer text messages.
Other campaigns, including Obama’s, have experimented with distributed organizing, but Sanders committed to it more than others in the past as staffers worked iteratively to constantly improve it.
“Some of it worked spectacularly and some of it failed completely,” Malitz said.
NextGen does not endorse candidates, though Steyer is personally backing Clinton. He was the largest individual donor of either party in 2014, and is currently close in second place this year.
NextGen will slam Donald Trump, who has said climate change is a hoax, along with other Republicans and urge young people to vote for the climate.
It's an open question as to what will happen to many of Sanders’ campaign staffers, given the unorthodox nature of his campaign. “I don’t think that people are going to get smoothly inducted into establishment politics,” Malitz said.
The operative would not hazard a guess as to how many young Sanders supporters will ultimately come to the polls in November, but said, “We’re going to be trying to make the largest material impact we can on young people.”