In 2018, the Delaware Democratic Party brought me to their headquarters for a meeting. For the last several months, I had been serving as the impromptu field director for Laura Sturgeon, the Democratic candidate in Senate District 4, a competitive district held by a member of the Republican leadership. Six months from the election, it was evidently decided that I should talk to someone who knew what they were talking about. The party had hired a field expert who headed several successful local campaigns the year prior and tasked her with helping people just like me.
This meeting is where I first learned how to draw up a field plan. While there were several steps, one of the most important parts was determining your universe, or rather, your universes. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of creating a field plan before, a universe is the subset of voters that you plan to talk to during the campaign. It could be as simple as “All Democrats” or “All Republicans,” or it could be as complicated as “Democrats and Independents over the age of 30, that have voted in at least 2 out of 3 of the last general elections, and have a support score over 50.”
For this particular election, we had three universes to work with: base Democrats, low-turnout Democrats, and “persuadables.”
- Base Democrats were Democrats that were probably going to vote based on their past voting history and were probably going to vote for us based on a special score that the party gave us.
- Low-Turnout Democrats were Democrats that were probably going to support us based on the special score but were less likely to vote based on past elections.
- Persuadables were Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans that were probably undecided based on the special score but were probably going to vote based on their past voting history.
The plan was to knock on the doors of Base Democrats at least once to make sure they were on our side and to knock on the doors of the Persuadable universe at least three times to win them over. The Low-Turnout Democrats were less important, and we only talked to them if we had the extra capacity. The field expert wrote all this out for me, and my job was to execute it. And that’s what I did. Throughout the campaign, we knocked on around 30,000 doors, especially focusing on the Persuadables. On Election Day, we won by six points against a state senator who had represented the area since 2000.
At this point, the story seems fairly straightforward. There was a proven strategy to win elections like these, we followed it, and we won. It was not until I found myself in charge of a different campaign, in a different district, that I saw the downsides of the strategy that had become the norm in Democratic campaigns.
Outside the Universe
After the 2018 cycle, I took a step back from the more establishment track I was on with the previous campaign. Always a bit of a lefty, I started working with a group that was recruiting, vetting, and supporting progressive candidates. But while the infrastructure-building work was important, I still wanted to get more directly involved in a specific campaign.
The opportunity arose when one of our candidates, Madinah Wilson-Anton, put me on a short-list for her campaign team. I started to attend preliminary meetings, and pretty soon I ended up as the campaign manager. While I would like to brag that it was because of my campaign prowess, it was largely because I was one of the few on the team who (a) had prior experience and (b) whose public involvement with a primary challenge would not cost me my day job.
While the prospect of working for Madinah excited me, what interested me even more, were the differences between the 26th house district where she would run and the 4th senate district I had worked in during the 2018 election.
The 4th district was extremely typical of the 2018 blue wave. It was highly educated, very wealthy, 80% white, and about even in party registration. The 26th district was a completely different beast. It was one of the most diverse in the state, only 40% white, with a balance of Black, Asian, and Hispanic voters making up the rest. It was firmly middle-class, above the median household income for Delaware but well under the median for a suburb. It was also largely Democratic; Hillary Clinton won the district by just over 40%.
While that was all compelling data for a progressive campaign, there was another statistic that stood out. Despite being a deep-blue district where usually only the primary election mattered, only 19.6% of Democrats had voted in the previous primary. And that was an all-time high; the usual turnout was around 15%. Comparatively, the primary turnout in the 4th district was approximately 35% (also shamefully low, but that’s a story for another day).
What I came to realize was that the logic that had guided our 2018 victory led to a style of campaigning that was deadly for voter participation. In previous primaries, candidates had only knocked on the doors of “super voters” that had voted in at least 2/3 of the previous primaries, sometimes including people who had only voted in one. Just as our 2018 strategy had accepted turnout as something immovable and focused on identifying and persuading those who were already planning to vote, candidates in this area had focused only on those who had previously voted in primaries.
The result is a static electorate. If you don’t already vote in primaries, then candidates won’t reach out to you. But if candidates don’t reach out to you, you probably won’t vote in primaries. Of course, it’s great if you’re a candidate. When you have fewer people that you need to talk to, you get more time to convince each person. But it leads to an electorate that’s older, whiter, and wealthier. So they’re the ones that get their voices heard.
Beyond the Super Voter
In 2016, I was one of the millions of young people that was excited when Bernie Sanders launched his presidential campaign. It was a campaign based on the idea that if you brought millions of new people into the political process, you could win an impossible primary and change the political system. But he failed, and in 2020 he failed again.
Part of that came from tactical mistakes or circumstances outside the campaign’s control. But there’s also a pretty substantial math problem that lies at the base of Sanders’ strategy. If someone has not voted before, it takes more time to convince that person to vote, sometimes as much as a 15-30 minute conversation per person. Sometimes several of those conversations. When you’re running a presidential campaign and need to turn out numbers in the hundreds of thousands or millions, the amount of volunteer time that it takes to get any substantial results is nearly impossible.
However, things are a bit different at the local level. Our campaign in the 26th district was a perfect example. Instead of dealing with an entire nation, we found ourselves at the beginning of the campaign with about 9,500 Democrats in a closed primary. That was only 5,000 households. So early on, we made the decision that we were going to include every single Democrat in our universe. No filtering by voting history, age, special scores, or anything. Just every single Democrat.
Initially, it was awkward to explain. I had gained a bit of a reputation from my previous campaign as a numbers person. So, people starting their campaigns would ask me what novel mix of constraints I was using in my new campaign. I would have to explain, often to puzzled looks, that we were just talking to everybody.
But it was working. After launching the campaign in September 2019, we had already knocked on every Democratic door at least once by the end of the year- and we were getting good responses from people who had never before voted in a primary election. Part of this was the door-knocking power that came from a good candidate, a popular platform, and a committed team. But the ability to work at a small scale allowed us to have personal, face-to-face conversations with a percentage of voters that larger campaigns could only dream of.
Throughout the campaign, we ran into challenges. The most notable was the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit almost exactly halfway through the race and forced us to shut down our most effective form of voter contact. We switched over to the phones but never quite got the same good conversations that we had at the doors. However, our numbers still showed the mark of our broad-based strategy. On the eve of the election, 56% of our identified supporters had never voted in a primary. 16% had never even voted in a general election.
Leading up to the election, I was a nervous wreck. The mail-in numbers looked very bad for us. It was basically the opposite of what we were hoping: they were older, whiter, and had generally voted in primaries before. It seemed that none of our low-turnout supporters were actually going to come out and that we had used a flawed strategy the entire time. Then came September 15, the day of the primary election.
We spent an immense amount of work reaching out to people leading up to the election. We did three full passes of our universe in the three days before the election and another three passes on Election Day. We had volunteers at all the polling places, making sure that each voter knew who our candidate was. Despite losing the mail-in vote by over 20 points, we ended up winning the election by 43 votes.
Just last week, I finally got the full data regarding who voted and who did not. The numbers were remarkable. Forty-seven percent of the people who voted in the primary had never voted in a primary before. Ten percent had never even voted in a general election. Of the confirmed voters we had identified, 41 percent of our supporters had never voted in a primary. Only 22 percent of our opposers had never voted in a primary. Ultimately, we increased voter turnout by 60 percent over 2018, from 19.6 percent to 31.3 percent. Those new voters gave the win to a 26-year old, first-time candidate over a 22-year incumbent.
How To Build a Political Revolution
Our campaign was not the only upset that night. Three other progressive legislative candidates beat moderate incumbents, including the senate pro temp, who had served in that seat for over 40 years. All of these candidates used similar ideas of targeting a broad swath of voters and non-voters alike.
Delaware was not alone in these victories. In 2020 alone, New Mexico, Rhode Island, New York, and many other states saw progressives win massive upsets in state legislative seats, even as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lost at a federal level.
If the left wants to continue to build power in the future, it must build roots at the local level. I am not the first person to point this out, and I will not be the last. There are obvious benefits of incumbency when running for federal office (Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Bernie Sanders all held local office before running for Congress, most of them for several terms).
But the advantages run deeper than that. Local races allow candidates and activists to practice the type of campaigns that progressives truly want to run. Campaigns that are powered almost entirely by volunteers, independent of corporate donors, and that effectively target and talk to communities that rarely participate in the political process. These campaigns are also a great way to bring new volunteers into the process at a level where they can truly impact the course of a race and can try out new ideas.
Looking forward to 2022, it’s important to take a closer look at these legislative races. Most states will be redistricting, leading to the potential for massive upheavals across the country. These victories can lead to not just a deeper bench, but real legislative wins that can provide health care, protect tenants and homeowners, and transition us to a clean energy economy.
When it comes to the future of the progressive movement, all politics truly is local.