Donald Trump seemed to usher in a new era of Democratic grass-roots engagement. More than four million people marched in the streets the day after his inauguration. Several thousand chapters of Indivisible, one of the biggest new “Resistance” organizations, sprung up, covering every congressional district. On the Democratic fund-raising platform ActBlue, the number of donors more than quadrupled in roughly four years, reaching 15 million during the 2020 election cycle.
But less than two years later, Democrats and national progressive organizations seem to have done very little to translate that energy into a lasting movement. What happened?
National Democratic and progressive groups together burned through the surge of liberal organizing under Mr. Trump, treating impassioned newcomers like cash cows, gig workers and stamp machines to be exploited, not a grass-roots base to be tended. Worse, research by academics and political professionals alike suggests many of the tactics they pushed to engage voters proved ineffective.
Some may even have backfired. Millions of dollars and hours were wasted in 2018 and 2020. And yet, as the party stares down a bleak midterm landscape, with abortion rights on the line, the Democratic establishment and progressive organizations alike are doubling down on the same old tactics.
For all the conflict between mainstream Democratic and progressive leaders, most share a common way of thinking about electoral politics. To the “Beltway Brain,” as we think of it, voters are data points best engaged via atomized campaigns orchestrated from afar.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
The core role of supporters is to be whipped into panicked giving by messages like this one from Nancy Pelosi on April 28: “I asked — several times. Barack Obama told you the stakes. Joe Biden made an urgent plea,” she said. “I don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll be blunt: All these top Democrats would not be sounding the alarm if our democracy wasn’t in immediate danger of falling to Republicans in this election. I need 8,371 patriots to step up before time runs out, rush $15, and help me close the fund-raising gap before the End of Month Deadline in 48 hours.”
Inside Democratic fund-raising circles, this tactic is known as “churn and burn”: a way of squeezing money out of individual donors that reliably produces brief spikes in donations but over the course of an election cycle overwhelms their willingness to keep giving. Even worse, these apocalyptic messages fuel despair. If “democracy is in the balance” and then Democrats fail to pass restorative measures, voters inevitably must wonder, why keep trying?
The notion that digitally targeted, professionally scripted, just-in-time voter contacting is the best use of volunteer energy became conventional wisdom among Democratic campaign gurus after Barack Obama’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008. People who cut their teeth on that campaign now dominate Democratic politicking. After the 2016 election, establishment Democrats and new “Resistance” groups alike pioneered new tactics, encouraging volunteers not just to cold-call swing voters across the country and sign up for shifts knocking doors in faraway swing districts, but to send semi-automated texts and handwritten postcards, as digital tools for “distributed organizing” made such microtargeted anonymous contacting ever cheaper.
Recent studies show that the effectiveness of such approaches varies from small to nil to negative. People who volunteer on campaigns are often nothing like other Americans in their politics. The gulf is particularly wide on the Democratic side, where infrequent and swing voters of all ethnicities, ages and life experiences tend to encounter highly educated, liberal and white volunteers.
In elections where voters are already getting bombarded with ads, the odds that a volunteer contact can help get people to the polls may be canceled out by the odds the contact will turn them off entirely. One study found that handwritten postcards supporting state legislative candidates in 2018 actually reduced turnout. Meanwhile, Sister District Action Network found that a postcard campaign they coordinated in 2019 had a “marginally significant negative effect” on turnout in primaries, and no impact in the general election.
Yet national groups continue to push this approach. This year, Vote Forward aims to have volunteers print and send some 10 million heavily scripted voter turnout letters. With most of the personalization gone and the risks of counterproductive freelancing clear, one could well ask why these groups are using volunteers at all. Are “letters to voters” just chum to draw in small-dollar donors? A gig-economy scheme that works only because volunteers pay for their own stamps?
There’s a better way. One of us, Dr. Putnam, has been observing progressive infrastructure in Pittsburgh’s once ruby-red northern suburbs since 2017, when ordinary voters appalled by Donald Trump came together by the dozens and then hundreds, hoping to contest every seat, in every election. In 2017 they helped elect the first Democrat within memory to the North Allegheny school board; in 2018 they helped flip a State Senate seat and oust an incumbent Republican congressman. In 2019 they battled for town council seats.
Each year, they gained experience and had more political conversations that were within their own community, but outside their own bubble. They heard firsthand their neighbors’ reactions to national Democrats’ sound bites. They learned not to overestimate the impact of anonymous contacting.
For 2021, they recruited four school board candidates, intentionally choosing people whose profile and networks did not just echo those of activists. Rather than spamming voters via distant digital volunteers, the team primarily sent the candidates themselves and trusted endorsers (community leaders and popular local incumbents) to knock on doors. Volunteers instead focused on hyperlocal fund-raising and house parties, capitalizing on their existing ties rather than ignoring them.
Dr. Putnam handed out cards for the candidates on Election Day, watching as the campaign team executed a turnout effort reminiscent of an old-fashioned party machine. In the face of a huge infusion of Republican cash and attacks on mask mandates, Covid policies and “critical race theory,” two of the four were elected, and one of them is thought to be the first African American ever to serve on the North Allegheny school board. Their supporters are already at work on the next election.
Doubters may ask if this kind of retail politics can scale up. But the real question is, how have national Democrats and progressives fooled themselves into believing a party can survive without it? Logistics experts know the last mile of a delivery is generally the most expensive and that the rest is worthless without it. A container truck is not going to get a package into a cul-de-sac and up the steps to the porch, no matter how sophisticated the routing software, without an actual local person involved.
A political party that has few, if any, year-round structures in place to reach voters through trusted interlocutors — and learn from how they respond — can do no more than lurch from crisis to crisis, raising money off increasingly apocalyptic emails, with dire warnings “sounding the alarm” about a democracy in “immediate danger of falling.”
Republicans, of course, also treat the news as an endless series of crises. But their calls to oppose socialism or critical race theory or transgender-inclusive bathrooms generate energy that flows into local groups that have a lasting, visible presence in their communities, such as anti-abortion networks, Christian home-schoolers, and gun clubs. Right-wing activists are encouraged to run for local office by overlapping regional, statewide and national personal networks that conservatives have built with decades of sustained investment. When not connected to such networks, Democrats receiving apocalyptic messages can feel more battered than activated, leading to demoralization and despair.
If democracy is indeed on fire, the thing to do is to stop asking people to buy water bottles and organize them into fire brigades instead. Neither the national Democratic Party nor progressive leaders seem to have learned that lesson. They aren’t wrong to call the next election the most important in our lifetimes. And abortion bans and the Jan. 6 committee hearings may well recharge their base. But it’s what the base manages to build with that energy that will matter.
Lara Putnam (@lara_putnam) is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Micah L. Sifry (@Mlsif) is the author of “The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet).” He writes The Connector, a newsletter about democracy, organizing and tech.
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