Democratic Socialists Are Counting On Friendbanking To Increase Turnout In June Primary

Democratic Socialist candidates for state legislature in Brooklyn are counting on a new, more personalized, but unproven, form of voter engagement, known as “friendbanking,” to turn out votes in their districts and win them seats in Albany in the June 23 primary.

Candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York branch across the city have been assigning campaign workers to call not strangers dialed randomly, as in traditional phonebanking, but rather their friends and family. They reason that a voter is much more likely to respond positively to outreach from someone they know than from a stranger, and thus also more likely to spread the word further about the candidate in their social networks.

Jabari Brisport, a DSA member who is running for State Senate District 25 — an open seat encompassing parts of Sunset Park, Gowanus, Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bed-Stuy — told Bklyner that friendbanking is a small part of their overall outreach operation, but that it has a relatively high success rate. Fully 20% of voters engaged with friendbanking, about 600 people, affirmatively said that they would vote for Brisport, he told us, over twice the percentage of people engaged through traditional phonebanking.

“It’s people they already know, so it’s much more effective than talking to a stranger,” Brisport said.

Marcela Mitaynes, a candidate on the DSA slate running against incumbent Felix Ortiz in Assembly District 51 — encompassing parts of Red Hook, Gowanus, and Sunset Park — is utilizing friendbanking as well. A spokesperson for Mitaynes said that one hour of friendbanking yielded the same amount of useful outreach, such as “positive IDs” that a person would vote for Mitaynes, as three hours of phonebanking. Like Brisport, they said that voters are much more likely to respond to campaign outreach from friends and family than from strangers.

“We need to reach a huge number of voters,” the spokesperson said. “This is about building a movement at a massive scale. Phonebanking is still an incredible necessary tool, because we need to reach beyond who’s in our networks, but it’s important for us to start with bringing in our friends and our acquaintances, because that’s a starting point for our movement.”

The campaigns on the DSA slate this year are collaborating both with one another and with the organization’s central leadership in New York. Phara Souffrant Forrest, running against incumbent Walter Mosley in Assembly District 57 — consisting of parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Downtown Brooklyn — says that her campaign is collaborating with Brisport’s on friendbanking, since much of their respective districts are overlapping.

“It’s easier to have one conversation about the two of us than two conversations about each of us,” Souffrant Forrest said in an email.

The DSA-endorsed candidates in New York have been utilizing the strategy for the past several weeks. Brisport said that he first encountered it while working for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign this year, where a similar strategy was employed through the campaign’s Bern app.

In addition to its use on the Sanders campaign, friendbanking also partially gained traction as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The DSA slate had been using an app called Reach for canvassing efforts, but with in-person campaigning suspended to maintain social distance, Reach was repurposed for friendbanking.

The strategy is relatively untested, which is why campaigns aren’t adopting it as their dominant outreach method. Friendbanking’s reach may be limited to voter demographics mirroring those of campaign workers; for DSA, that usually means young, college-educated white people living in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“I think it would be a bubble,” Brisport noted regarding those reached by friendbanking. “I think it would be a very specific type, probably younger, probably whiter.”

Brisport said that while his campaign has reached about 3,000 people by friendbanking, that is only a small fraction of the approximately 300,000 phone calls staffers have made to voters throughout the district. Mitaynes’ campaign, which has made 100,000 total calls, is in a similar situation. Souffrant Forrest’s campaign did not provide metrics.

DSA has been floating on clouds, so to speak, in New York City ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled Joe Crowley to win his seat in Congress, and Julia Salazar defeated Martin Dilan to win his State Senate seat in Brooklyn. Brisport, who ran for City Council in 2017 on the Green Party line and received 30 percent of the vote in District 35, says that while there’s nothing like the confidence of a first time candidate, he is feeling good about his chances this time.

“I am feeling good. I don’t have the confidence of a first time candidate. First time candidate confidence, there’s nothing like that,” Brisport said. “I think we’re at a good place. We’ve done more work than any other campaign.”

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Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in Gotham Gazette, City & State, and Gothamist. Reach out to him via email at benbrachfeld@bklyner.com, or on Twitter @benbrachfeld.

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