“Political campaign” may evoke cliches–not to mention cartoons–of smoke-filled back rooms, but the young founders of Sole Strategies have a very different vision: a progressive, one-stop shop that creates powerful movements, one “sole” at a time. A workhorse for progressive campaigns and causes, the firm was started in the early days of the pandemic. And while competitors have since folded or abandoned their core field operations, Sole Strategies has proven remarkably adaptable–and resilient. Its success may have a big impact on the future of political campaigns. Yet, in important ways, the firm’s model is a throwback to the old days, if with a digital twist.
Not surprisingly, surviving COVID was job number one for Sole Strategies’ founding team, all seasoned activists who had learned the importance of personally interacting with voters. “We definitely were concerned about how the pandemic would affect certain parts of campaigning,” recalls co-founder Amani JeAnna Wells-Onyioha, “Particularly door-knocking, and face-to-face canvassing efforts. We instituted certain things to protect our canvassers and the people they interacted with–like mandating masks and requiring our canvassers to be vaccinated.”
While challenging, the pandemic also presented an opportunity to expand other parts of Sole Strategies’ operation. For example, Wells-Onyioha says that its digital marketing team became much stronger because, with more people at home, mastering the phone became a vital way to reach voters. “Our fundraising team got a big boost as well since that is also a part of a campaign that we were able to provide virtually,” she says.
To reach older voters, who have been more reluctant to interact physically since the pandemic began, Sole Strategies relied on tools like mailers and phone calls that have traditionally worked well with the senior demographic. The result is a hybrid campaigning strategy that has evolved a traditional grassroots approach into something more technologically-savvy. While Sole Strategies’ founders acknowledge that nothing will top the results of in-person canvassing, they say a strong digital brand and social media messaging can now take a campaign to new heights. “Digital is certainly the name of the game,” Wells-Onyioha says bluntly.
Sole Strategies’ resilience may be explained by its unique position as a purpose-driven organization, one that emphasizes both passion and a commitment to the voters whom it considers to be the true “silent majority”–working people. Co-founder Wells-Onyioha says that this group, while often portrayed as divided along ideological lines, are in fact united by favoring facts over fictions as well as their support for a number of progressive policies, like access to healthcare. “The problem historically has been that the people who have been voted into office to represent these people, oftentimes do not,” she observes. “This creates the illusion that they are ‘silent’ when, in reality, their wants and needs are being ignored. Which in turn makes it hard for them to feel motivated to vote because they think that they will still remain unheard, and looked over. The only solution to this problem is having candidates who run who actually give a damn. And those are the candidates that Sole Strategies like to work with.”
Another competitive advantage is the company’s youthful vigor. While acknowledging that field operations in the midst of a pandemic is “extremely difficult,” Sole Strategies’ founders have stood by their belief that it is the most effective part of a campaign and have pledged to stay with it no matter how hard it gets. After all, it’s in their firm’s name.
But politics isn’t everything. Between campaign cycles, Sole Strategies has offered its hybrid model to non-profits. Wells-Onyioha says that her firm’s services are particularly well-suited to this market. “A lot of these orgs have a great mission, but don’t have the messaging and branding to help their mission land with the intended audience,” she says. “We can help with that.”
One thing that Sole Strategies has not been able to change is the ever-increasing amounts of money flooding into political campaigns–a trend that, ironically perhaps, Sole Strategies would like to see reversed. Wells-Onyioha says that political campaigns have long overstated the importance of money while understating the importance of delivering results for voters–on and after election day. She thinks that publicly-funded elections would be a game-changer for progressive candidates, who typically cannot rely on big donations from corporations or wealthy individuals, and hints that Sole Strategies may become involved in that movement some day.
In the meantime, Sole Strategies will continue changing the part of the game that it can with its unique combination of low- and high-tech, as well as plenty of passion. “We actually offer hands-on campaign services,” Wells-Onyioha says. “The old guard of campaign “consulting” is just that. We are not consultants. We are a political organization that does labor and strategy for progressive campaigns. And that’s how we’ve changed the game.”