Jack Runyan, Nov. 4, 2016
Future Democratic campaigns should prioritize face-to-face canvassing over all other GOTV strategies.
Scientific studies of various GOTV methods have consistently shown that direct contact with potential voters is the single most effective method for turning out additional people to the polls.
Alan Gerber and Don Greenran the first of these “field experiments” in 1998. The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing.
The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points).
The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency.
In contrast, there is mounting evidence that campaign ads are not nearly as persuasive as vying politicians would hope. And yet, this year has been marked by millions of dollars directed to TV advertising. While some baseline presence on TV is probably a necessity, the science suggests that it’s daft to prioritize spending on campaign ads over face-to-face mobilization efforts.
If we accept as a maxim that increased overall turnout is good for Democrats and decreased overall turnout is bad for Democrats, this is an especially important question for midterm elections (where turnout generally drops compared to presidential elections). U.S. Representative Keith Ellison has personally embarked on a quest to drive up turnout, particularly during midterm years, through his own brand of face-to-face GOTV efforts:
…Ellison has workers fanning out to apartment buildings and low-income communities to reach potential constituencies in more personal ways. His idea is that through more one-on-one contact, Democrats can drive more people to the polls and cement lifetime allegiances to the party.
Enter Artiste Mayfield — a part-time employee at an Amazon warehouse and a college student who grew up in north Minneapolis. With streaked red and pink hair and glasses at the end of her nose, she doesn’t look like your typical hardened political operative. Last year, she knocked on more than 200 doors in the neighborhood. This was different from conventional political door-knocking, however. In this case, she knew many of the people behind the doors.
Mayfield also was part of a “SWAT” team — composed of blacks, Spanish speakers and Oromo speakers — who descended on apartment buildings and knocked on doors together. The idea was that no matter who was behind the door, there would be someone on the team whom he or she could relate to.
The results of this effort are striking:
Ellison can point to his own Fifth District in Minneapolis and parts of adjacent suburbs as proof that the system works. His was the only one in the state where turnout numbers grew significantly between 2010 and 2014 — both off-year, midterm elections. More than 13,000 additional voters in the district showed up in 2014 than in 2010 — by far the biggest spike seen across the state.
These results were achieved “without the enormous investment of television ads.” If implemented nationally, Democratic prospects in midterms could significantly improve.
Protecting and expanding voting rights may be the single-most important means of securing a progressive agenda.
Sean McElwee went through the American National Election Studies 2012 survey and produced a chart that makes this case better than anything else:
Consistently, nonvoters tend to favor a government more active in combating economic inequality, whereas those voting are more likely to oppose such a government. Furthermore, a survey of nonvoters from 2012 tend shows extraordinary support for Barack Obama over his then-rival Mitt Romney.
This suggests that turning nonvoters into voters would make the electorate more progressive, and therefore the elected government would ideally be more progressive in response. Therefore, protecting and expanding on voting rights has the potential for doing more to secure a progressive agenda than anything else. That means fighting for initiatives such as universal voter registration and making election day a holiday on top of combatting various forms of voter suppression, many of which disproportionately affect people of color and low income folks. The increased willingness of Republicans to adopt voter suppression tactics, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, seems to suggest that they realize one of the greatest threats to their agenda is more people voting.
Democrats can be realistic while not being allergic to imagination and a strong progressive vision.
While Bernie Sanders ultimately lost the Democratic primary, understanding why his campaign was more successful than the majority of people originally predicted is a worthwhile exercise. His presidential campaign generated a unique brand of enthusiasm largely because his stances on various issues were not limited by perceived political realities: Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges, a national minimum wage of $15 by 2020, and breaking up the largest financial institutions so they’re no longer too big to fail. All of these are ambitious policy objectives, but they were straightforward and easily conveyed a vision of a society characterized by economic justice. As someone who supported Bernie’s primary run throughout late 2015, the appeal of this platform was that it was seemingly free of bullshit: no playing around with means-testing and it’s absurd to say we can’t pay for these things when we are the wealthiest country on earth.
While I believe it’s vital to level with your supporters what aiming for these bold policy goals means in terms of the resistance they are likely to face, there still is a value in Democrats aiming high, especially during midterm elections. Whereas presidential elections entail rallying around a candidate, midterms should ideally be times where Democrats rally around key issues (e.g. a public option), and make clear that down ballot candidates winning across the country is necessary to achieve those objectives. The bottomline is you cannot separate excitement for Democratic candidates from their positions on the issues. And if the Democratic primary has taught us anything, it’s that Democratic voters now tend to be more liberal than Democratic voters in previous years.
The most reliable Democratic voters are people of color. Recognize that they are the base of the party and build on that.
In October, Jacobin posted a piece that suggests flipping Trump supporters to the Democratic Party’s umbrella is what is required to not only win the election, but secure Democratic majorities.
If Matthews supports the Democratic Party’s agenda, why wouldn’t he want it to win back as many Trump votes as it can? How can the Democrats gain the kinds of majorities they need to push through all the beneficent policies he cites if they fail to win votes away from the other side? Isn’t that one of the ways parties win elections — by taking votes from the other side? In fact, isn’t that why Hillary Clinton’s campaign is now wooing anti-Trump Republicans?
This is misguided. First of all, having the most votes isn’t just about taking voters from the other side. It can be about registering new people to vote and convincing them to vote for you as I noted in previous sections. Building off of that observation, the second point that needs to be reemphasized: people of color tend to be more reliable Democratic voters (as the 2012 CNN exit poll shows).
Instead of chasing after Trump’s white male base, which is predominantly motivated by apprehension toward a country that is rapidly changing demographically, it makes way more sense to expand the electorate with new and mobilized people of color. If people who voted for Trump end up voting for future Democratic candidates, that is one thing, but we should primarily court those most loyal to party.
One idea proposed by Professor Lisa García Bedolla of UC Berkeley entails the creation of an in-person social network that combines traditional in-person GOTV efforts with community organizing:
A permanent, year-round system can be established in minority neighborhoods for a fraction of the funds it takes to carpet-bomb voters with television ads. Lisa García Bedolla, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Latino Politics,” has developed a concept called the “civic web” that is a synthesis of the old-fashioned precinct captain model, modern-day social networks and culturally specific community organizing. Paid staff members, neighborhood team leaders and block captains are part of a seamless network where the employees recruit and supervise volunteers — especially mothers, who are critical to building good voting habits in their families and communities.
The civic web leverages face-to-face social networks and emphasizes long-term relationship building. In a battleground state such as Nevada — which Mr. Obama won by about 66,000 votes — Ms. García Bedolla estimates, the civic web model could, by 2020, mobilize more than 100,000 additional Latino voters at a cost of $3.1 million.
Winning elections, not bipartisanship, is the only way forward in the face of GOP intransigence.
In 2009, John Cole wrote something that proved to be extraordinarily prescient in retrospect:
I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.
We have now reached a point where Republican officials refuse to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. But now conservative groups like Heritage Action are committed to 8 Supreme Court justices throughout Hillary Clinton’s presidency, and elected officials are promising “years” of investigations targeting her as well. The reality is that Republicans have abandoned any semblance of interest in governance. Proposing bipartisanship with a party that is fundamentally at odds with the notion of Hillary Clinton governing is a fool’s errand, and quite frankly, talking about bipartisanship with a party establishment that’s been okay with a white nationalist on the top of the ticket so long as tax cuts for the rich come to pass is an insult to the base of our party, people of color.
Until the Republican Party engages in collective self-reflection and commits to actually caring about governing again, Democrats should not campaign on the notion of bipartisanship. Democratic voters want to hear their candidates talking about winning majorities and fostering the conditions necessary to pass policy solutions, not working with a party whose leadership did not buck Donald Trump as the Republican nominee.
Securing a long-term Democratic majority is contingent on:
- Prioritizing in-person voter contact methods for GOTV.
- Safeguarding existing voting rights while pushing for voting right reforms across the country.
- Getting more people to vote, especially given that nonvoters tend to have more progressive views than people who currently vote.
- Recognizing that being realistic about perceived political realities is not incongruent with offering a bold progressive vision of where we should go, particularly in light of the increasing number of Democrats who identify as liberal.
- Recognizing that people of color are the base of the Democratic Party and build on that.
- Candidates that recognize that winning majorities, not bipartisanship, is the only way to achieve new policies given the extraordinary intransigence we are witnessing from the GOP.
Edit (11/15/16 1:01 AM): This piece was originally written under the presumption that Hillary Clinton would win. While we are disappointed (frankly, horrified) that presumption turned out to be incorrect, we still feel the advice offered in this piece is a winning strategy for Democrats going forward. This piece has been edited to reflect this new information.