You could fill half a library with all the post-election analyses, recriminations, post-mortems and debates over the worse debacle to hit the Democratic Party in decades. We all know the outlines of the story: The Clinton campaign vastly underestimated Trump’s strength. The high-paid folks who ran the billion-dollar effort didn’t seem to notice what Bernie Sanders had tapped into – a fundamental mistrust for an elitist economic system that has left so many behind.
The message was all wrong: “Stronger together” is a great union slogan, because workers fighting management really are together, but it was a terrible slogan for a national election in an era where most voters don’t feel “together” with the people running the country. They didn’t want to hold hands with Wall Street and corporate America and the lobbyists and the DC Power Structure; they wanted to take those assholes down. They feel as if they’re in a fight, and they want someone who will be on their side – and not on the other side. Bernie got that; Hillary didn’t.
But there’s another interesting take on all of this, one that turns the traditional concept of an advertising-driven campaign on its head.
Steve Phillips, a former SF School Board member who is now a bestselling author and founder of Democracy in Color, has a fascinating piece in The Nation that argues, in essence, that the Democrats need to stop spending so much money on TV and direct mail and put more of it into frontline community organizing.
Clearly, the plans and programs of those who orchestrated $1.5 billion in Democratic and progressive spending last year failed—miserably. What we now need is a bottom-up revolution of transparency and accountability, and the touchstone of that accountability is challenging the Democratic Party to move massive amounts of money into the front line states in order to dramatically increase the number of progressive voters. This can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of what is spent every cycle.
Based on past patterns, over the next two years, the Democratic Party committees and allied outside groups will spend in excess of $500 million between now and November 2018. Traditionally, most of that money goes to paid advertising (generally unmemorable and ineffective) designed to sway supposedly swing voters. Fortunately, there is a much better and more effective way to deploy political dollars. Employing a community-based voter mobilization model (what UC Berkeley professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla calls a “Civic Web”) of paid, community-based staff working with local volunteer neighborhood captains, an investment of $1 million can increase voter turnout by 20,000 people. Investing the full $500 million in this fashion could swell the ranks of progressive voters by nearly 10 million people. That is how we take the country back.
Phillips isn’t promoting the old Howard Dean “50-state Strategy,” which is great for building future strength. He wants us to put all of our resources into the “17 states and 13 Congressional districts that will determine future political control of this country.”
He says we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: With a fraction of the money that Clinton spent on advertising, staff organizers, working with existing community-based groups in those states, could have turned the election around.
Clinton’s campaign was a top-down operation that didn’t pay enough attention to, or send enough resources to, those front-line workers.
I am far from an expert in how to run a national political campaign. But on a much smaller level, I can tell you that we have plenty of local examples that seem to support the Phillips thesis
In the last Board of Supervisors races, the campaigns in District 1, 5, 9, and 11 used that model, at least to some extent. In D 1, Sandra Lee Fewer put precious resources into hiring paid field staff and canvassers, people going door to door every night talking to voters. In D9, Hillary Ronen put her early money into hiring and training staff – people who would spend long days and weeks organizing volunteers, putting together neighborhood events, and contacting voters.
Fewer and Ronen both ran against opponents who relied on “air” campaigns, with direct-mail attacks and messages run by traditional political consultants. You know how that worked out.
In D5, challenger Dean Preston also put a lot of his resources into hiring staff and doing neighborhood organizing. He didn’t win, but he was taking on the incumbent president of the board, and he got more votes than most of the winners in other districts.
Kimberly Alvarenga took on Ahsha Safai in D11 with a campaign entirely driven by community organizing. She fell 400 votes short in an election that would have been very different if the Democratic Party and the labor movement had gotten it together to support the candidate who would best represent their issues.
“We went into the campaign with a bit of trepidation,” Angeles Roy, who managed Ronen’s campaign, told me. “We put so much into paid staff that we knew we could be criticized for spending too much too early. But by the summer we knew we were going to win.”
Roy said that all forms of communication, including direct mail, are important. “But nothing beats a neighbor talking to a neighbor.”
Nate Albee, a progressive political consultant who worked on the Ronen campaign, agreed. “Mail is important, you can’t ignore it,” he said. “But knocking on doors is always going to be worth a lot.”
Democrats spend a lot of money — $1.5 billion is a whole lot of money – on campaigns, and a huge amount goes to TV ads. Consultants love those ads, because they get paid to produce them and tend to take a commission (typically 15 percent) on every buy. There’s an entire industry of people who make a very nice living doing things the way we have done them for the past 20 years.
I’m not saying ads don’t work, or that mail and messaging isn’t important. But I think Phillips is onto something – if more of that money had gone to people who already know how to do grassroots organizing and how to reach voters, maybe I wouldn’t be waking up every morning wondering what horror show I’m going to find in the latest news.