Randall Woodfin beat a 7-year incumbent & became one of Birmingham's youngest mayors

With a fresh approach to politics and strong grassroots support from his community, Randall Woodfin inspired thousands of young people to vote for the first time in a municipal election.

By Jane St. John


  • 19
  • point lead
  • 11.5K
  • first-time municipal voters
  • 5K
  • new voters ages 18-35

Amid an upsurgence of new candidates running for office under the progressive banner in the first half of 2016, a thirty-six-year-old former school board president in Birmingham, Alabama campaigned for mayor, energized record numbers of new voters in his community, and became the youngest mayor in more than a century of the city’s history. Randall Woodfin’s win made national news, in part because he managed a nineteen-point victory over a seven-year incumbent to reach this significant milestone.

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Aside from the rising progressive tide in the Democratic Party, Woodfin’s campaign benefitted from a savvy mix of targeted digital organizing and more traditional, face-to-face interaction. His team included field organizers from both Bernie and Hillary’s 2016 Democratic campaigns, each bringing unique competencies to the table for a charismatic candidate they believed in. For Field and Operations Director Daniel Deriso, working for Woodfin was a valuable opportunity to make change locally after working at a national level. “We built a real grassroots movement here in Birmingham, in my own home town, which was amazing,” Deriso says.

While campaigning for a presidential candidate in a Democratic primary meant following a rather rigid structure, this mayoral campaign allowed Deriso to exercise more creative freedom in the strategies he employed, like focusing on people who don’t typically vote in local elections. In his estimation, "You can focus on those people if you have the right candidate with the right message. We turned out a lot, 11,500 people, who’d never voted in a municipal election before, which is insane, and 5,000 of those people were eighteen to thirty-five.” Using NationBuilder for their website and email communications, the Woodfin team saw particularly good results with petition and pledge to vote pages, which they linked to from targeted digital ads.


But, this effective digital outreach was only half of it. Perhaps the most key element to the this campaign’s success was a candidate who knew how to be the reason voters show up at the polls. Deriso is quick to add:

“We did it because we actually went and talked to [voters] or made phone calls and got them engaged. 8,500 out of the 11,500 [first-time municipal voters] had a face-to-face interaction. So a big takeaway that I have from this campaign is: actually engage people face-to-face, especially unlikely voters, because that’s how you get them out to vote.”

At the beginning of Woodfin’s campaign, Enterprise Account Manager Sorcha Rochford traveled from our LA HQ to Birmingham for an intensive day of software training to help his team hit the ground running. Working directly with Woodfin and his staffers at the home of Woodfin’s campaign manager, she walked them through everything from handling campaign finances to pulling in social media data sets to inform competitive research. But what seems to stick with her most about that day is how Woodfin engaged with his community. “On every street we turned on were people being like, ‘Randall, so good to see you!’” she says. “It was really cool to get the feel of that community and what he was doing before he was a well-known politician.”

For Sorcha, also a long-time political pro, this was no ordinary campaign.

“He’s so young, [particularly] for old south politics . . . The fact that Ed, his campaign manager, had never engaged in politics before gave me the sense that he was a fresh face and didn’t have the same baggage as other campaign managers, who are jaded from it. The whole campaign was so young—the most senior person was forty-two, with field and organizing leaders at twenty-four, twenty-two, and even support from teenagers. As opposed to campaigns I’ve seen where people have a chip on their shoulder, this was like, ‘We love Randall, we’re excited, so let’s figure out how to do it.’”

And figure it out, they did.

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