All the Things Democratic Campaigns are Getting Wrong

It was Friday. I wanted some intel on a Presidential campaign I’m interested in working for. I got in touch with an organizer in Iowa to ask about her day. Her response? She’s in the office, calling through a volunteer list. Just as the other days. The scene this young lady described to me was not unusual, it was in fact very similar to what friends on other campaigns I’ve talked to have described. This makes it no less disturbing to me.

The Democratic campaigns for President have not yet, on the whole, made it clear they understand the mistakes of the Clinton campaign in 2016. This is not an alarm that I think they’re hopeless, or that Trump is a lock to win, it’s simply an observation of weakness that I’m making from more experience than some of the folks put in position to screw this up (thus far).

What are some of the failures I’m seeing? What should be different? I’ve compiled a small list of the things that stand out:

  1. The DNC and the campaigns are joining forces to ruin the future of digital organizing. An organizer in Iowa said to me “with all the young people online, we need to meet them there.” She’s right, but that’s not what we’re doing with digital organizing. We’re using digital as an ATM. Why? Because someone at the DNC decided grassroots donors would be a good metric for access to the first debate. Why? I guess because Bernie did it well in 2016- as though Bernie 2016 was the ideal campaign. Turning digital organizing entirely into an arm of the finance department makes zero sense when you look toward a future where actual organizing online will be an essential part of campaigns, but I guess burning a major potential future tool on an unsustainable model now is cool to someone.
  2. Organizers should organize, not just phone bank. The HFA organizing model had one main goal- produce enormous numbers. It did that. What it didn’t do was produce neighborhood organizing teams, or persuade swing voters in any of the decisive swing states. It was built off the idea that the election was purely a turnout battle, that there weren’t really any undecided people to persuade, so the most important thing to do was hit huge numbers, assuming that would cause higher turnout. The entire premise of the program was wrong. Clinton somehow won the popular vote by three million votes, but fell short in the six closest states by under a half million votes. As dumb as I thought the program was for a general election, it’s even dumber for trying to win an Iowa Caucus. Caucuses are all about personal relationships, getting quality captains, and the overall quality of your organizing work- not raw quantity. Unless you’re going to have paid staff at every caucus site in the state, it’s absolutely crucial that you build the best, most motivated, most strategic grassroots leadership teams in each caucus site, so that they know what to do on caucus night and have a plan to get it done. Organizers need to spend their daytime hours out, meeting with the people who may potentially be their caucus captains out there leading the charge. Build the relationships. Build the plan. Train them. You don’t do that phone banking.
  3. Bernie’s policies are not what helped him in 2016. Bernie Sanders didn’t get over 40% of the vote in 2016 because people loved his policy on Medicare-for-All or free college. A huge chunk of his votes came from people who didn’t want to vote for Hillary. Some of them were more moderate voters who have since peeled off to Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and others. Some were more ideological lefties that now are dividing between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. Even so, a majority of Democratic primary voters ultimately voted for Hillary. Why so many candidates thought it was smart to chase him on policy issues is beyond me. Why they’ve all chosen to accept his paradigm, of eschewing major Democratic donors and pledging to take “no PAC or lobbyist money,” is beyond me (note- unions and liberal aligning organizations have PACs and lobbyists too). Much of Bernie’s support was built off of personal feelings toward Hillary, not specific policy issues. Trying to replicate that in a race with different people is idiotic.
  4. Make your damn candidates accessible. One of the reasons Hillary never got the benefit of the doubt in her campaigns was that the press didn’t like her. One of the main reasons they didn’t like her was that she never was overly accessible, and when she did talk she was often safe. People aren’t that ideological, and they aren’t policy experts. They do like authenticity, some real answers, and to hear from their leaders. And the press are junkies for access, and will treat candidates differently who give them their fix. Give interviews. Have your candidates tweet. Do all the social media. Try to make them fun.
  5. People want something positive. The percentage of the population with whom shitting on Donald Trump is a motivator is fairly baked in. Hillary got 48% running ads about what a bad man Trump is, and that wasn’t enough, as appalling as that is. If you’re going to win in 2020, it’s going to take something more. Speaking to the base, trashing Trump, and praying for demographics to win the election for you aren’t going to work. Put forth a bigger vision, speak to more people, and give people some hope again. Bill Clinton gave them hope. Barack Obama gave them hope. Hell, even Donald Trump in his crude way asked “what the hell do you have to lose?” If you want to win the election, go with something positive and hopeful.

That’s my two cents at least.

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