How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Rose Up and Won an Underdog Political Victory
Joshua Green Details AOC’s Grassroots Campaign Against the Incumbent Joseph Crowley
By any measure, Alexandria Ocasio‑Cortez ran a remarkable 2018 race that was tailored to her district and benefited from shrewd organizing and even technological innovation. Running as a Democratic Socialist, she drew a large, multiracial progressive coalition that overwhelmed an incumbent, in Joseph Crowley, who personified the Wall-Street-friendly Democrat uninterested in local concerns but assumed to be too powerful to be held to account.
In this sense, her victory was a triumph for the brand of politics that Occupy Wall Street had brought to public attention seven years earlier. It consecrated Ocasio‑Cortez as the new star of the party’s left flank, perhaps even its future.
Her campaign, though, got off to an inauspicious start. In May 2017, the paperwork she filed to enter the Democratic primary listed the wrong congressional district—the Fifteenth, not the Fourteenth—although she campaigned against Crowley from the outset. As a would‑be insurgent, she faced two big obstacles, beyond the entrenched incumbent, right out of the gate. The first was time. Working two restaurant jobs left her little opportunity to knock on doors, meet voters, and carry out the rudiments of a congressional campaign.
The other obstacle was money. The wave of grassroots donors Chakrabarti had confidently promised a year earlier was nowhere in evidence. By September, the campaign had raised less than $6,000. (Perhaps chagrined, Chakrabarti personally contributed the maximum allowed, $2,700, accounting for nearly half the total.)
On the positive side, Ocasio‑Cortez and her inner circle believed deeply in their mission, which is an underrated strength in a grassroots campaign. While they lacked experience running congressional races, they were skilled organizers and veterans of countless protests. They saw her campaign as a necessary extension of their activism, a theory that Ocasio‑Cortez herself, likely knowing she was about to run for Congress, laid out in the Facebook live stream during the Standing Rock road trip. Politics has to be confrontational, she asserted, because leaders only respond to pressure from below.
“You’re always going to hear: ‘Protesters are rabble‑rousers, they’re troublemakers, protest doesn’t do anything, it’s ineffective,'” she said. ‘Protest galvanizes public sentiment, and when public sentiment is galvanized to a certain extent, then that turns into public pressure, and then when public pressure is applied to a certain extent, then we get policy change. That is how protest works.” The pressure on Crowley was going to come in the form of her campaign.
Ocasio‑Cortez had the good fortune to launch her candidacy in the chaotic early months of Trump’s presidency, when liberal alarm was at an apex. In the deeply Democratic Fourteenth District, parts of which were rapidly gentrifying, Trump’s election pulled many new people into political activism, and they responded not just by piling into buses and attending Women’s Marches but also by paying more attention to what was happening in their own backyards.
The challenge lay in conscripting them into the cause of a candidate who didn’t appear to have much chance of prevailing. Here, Ocasio‑Cortez’s doggedness as a campaigner, the limited but necessary support of Justice Democrats, the influence of media outlets such as The Intercept and The Young Turks, and the creativity of her staff made the difference.
One benefit of a campaign run by millennials without ties to the institutional Democratic Party is that it isn’t beholden to outdated methods. As they canvassed the district, Ocasio‑Cortez’s volunteers were struck by the same limiting factors Alfred Johnson and Allen Kramer were trying to overcome with the Mobilize app in Virginia. Knocking on doors yielded a lousy success rate—particularly in a district full of minorities and transient, mobile‑only millennials, groups notoriously difficult to canvass.
But the DIY culture of grassroots campaigns allows plenty of room for experimenting. A few Justice Democrats discovered they could use voter registration data to find local residents on social media and serve them digital ads before they knocked, which improved the campaign’s reception at the door, because voters were now familiar with their candidate.
A bigger innovation was a mobile organizing app not dissimilar to what Mobilize was building. Two early campaign volunteers—Jake DeGroot, a theatrical‑lighting designer, and Leo Sussan, a digital marketing specialist—were frustrated by door knocking’s obvious limitation: most people aren’t at home. Instead of trying to find potential voters off a list, DeGroot and Sussan thought it would make a lot more sense to go where crowds of likely supporters already gathered—bars, churches, subway platforms, and so on—and match them to the list right there.
“If we were going to win, we knew it was going to be through grassroots folks on the ground in the Bronx and Queens,” DeGroot explained. “We had all these people talking to voters, but we weren’t capturing any of the data.”
A few weeks before the primary, DeGroot pulled an all‑nighter and emerged in the morning with a prototype app that contained the campaign’s entire voter file and turned it into a searchable, mobile database. It allowed Ocasio‑Cortez to ramp up the one thing her team knew it had to do to have a chance of winning: bring more underrepresented people into the system.
Despite its late arrival, the app would account for 12 percent of total voter contacts during the fourteen‑month‑long campaign. And people canvassed via the app turned out at higher rates than those contacted through conventional methods.
The biggest difference maker, however, was the candidate herself. Ocasio‑Cortez did everything in her power to contrast herself with Crowley. She spoke Spanish. He did not, instead hauling along a congressional colleague, Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, to serve rather awkwardly as an unofficial interpreter.
Embracing the Democratic Socialist label (after some early trepidation), Ocasio‑Cortez countered Crowley’s cautious centrism by pushing a platform that included a federal jobs guarantee, Medicare for All, tuition‑free public colleges, a $15 minimum wage, ending for‑profit prisons, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She also leaned into her deep district ties, criticizing Crowley for pulling his kids out of the local schools and moving his family to Northern Virginia to better accommodate his busy life in Washington.
Most of all, Ocasio‑Cortez stressed her working‑class background. With less than a month to go, she poured her remaining money into a campaign video she wrote herself that was shot by a pair of socialist filmmakers from Detroit. The ad shows Ocasio‑Cortez getting ready for work in an unglamorous apartment, climbing out of the subway, swapping comfortable shoes for nicer ones on the platform, greeting people in the neighborhood not in the stagy way a big‑time politician does it but like a normal person who lives there.Most people’s first encounter with Ocasio‑Cortez, if they worked in politics and didn’t live in New York, was seeing the ad and marveling at its young protagonist.
“I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family,” she says in the ad. “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.” Calling herself “a working‑class New Yorker,” as the city rushes by her subway window, she empathizes with the working lives of her future constituents.
Every day gets harder for working‑class families like mine to get by—the rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same, that a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us.
The ad conveyed an authenticity about working‑class life in the Bronx that sent it ricocheting far beyond its intended audience in the Fourteenth District. Most people’s first encounter with Ocasio‑Cortez, if they worked in politics and didn’t live in New York, was seeing the ad and marveling at its young protagonist.
Michael Podhorzer, the political director for the AFL‑CIO, who spends his waking hours trying to get voters to care about working people, had never heard of her until a colleague showed him the ad. “I was floored,” he recalled. “The best comparison I can make is to the famous Jon Landau line: ‘I’ve seen rock ’n’ roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen!'”
This burst of attention finally produced the windfall Saikat Chakrabarti had been waiting for. In the final three weeks leading up to the primary, Ocasio‑Cortez raised more than $135,000, money that funded a vital last‑minute organizing push. But Crowley might have caused his own undoing, by deciding that squaring off with a confident, young Latina opponent wouldn’t help him be seen as a popular, unifying House Speaker in waiting.
At the second of two candidate debates a week before the election, Crowley didn’t show up, sending the former city councilwoman Annabel Palma in his place. The move wasn’t just high‑handed; it smacked of tokenism, because Palma was a Latina. Afterward, The New York Times scolded the incumbent in an editorial that ran under the headline “If You Want to Be Speaker, Mr. Crowley, Don’t Take Voters for Granted.” The editorial warned that Crowley had “better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job.”
To everyone’s astonishment, they did.
The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics is available via Penguin Press.