Digital Fixes Won’t Solve the Democrats’ Problems

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Conor Lamb is surrounded by media after voting in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, on March 13, 2018.

Political connections have a long half-life. Canvassing for Democrat Conor Lamb in Washington, Pennsylvania, in March, I met an ardent supporter who couldn’t get around like he used to. So he was running a one-man anti-disinformation campaign from his desk, reaching out to friends he feared might be swayed by the Republican attack ads flooding into Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District special election.

The Lamb supporter hated Trump, but it was Barack Obama who was on his mind as we talked on his porch. In 2007, the man had driven to Ohio to hear the young senator speak just days after he announced his presidential bid, and returned home to set up an Obama for America headquarters. “I knocked on every single door in my town three times that year,” he smiled, shaking his head, before heading back inside to his desk and his mission.

Meanwhile across the district, calls, texts, and emails poured down on voters who just wanted it to be over.

Democratic Party leaders need to take a hard look at the incoherence of super-sizing last-minute, get-out-the-vote efforts, while failing to support the most basic structures for sustained local participation. For the last year and a half, newly engaged citizens have been searching for local Democratic membership groups: structures within the party for face-to-face civic engagement that can harness diverse energies and expand to welcome newcomers in ways the finite slots of the party’s elected ward or county committees cannot. The grassroots democracy groups that Middle America’s fired-up mothers and grandmothers have created in the absence of local party membership options have many strengths. But there are roles those groups cannot play.

The laws governing our elections are set up for political parties, and parties alone, to be the membership groups that coordinate with electoral campaigns. As envisioned in the rules—and as really happened in most places until about a generation ago—local party groups provide not just the boots on the ground but the community-specific knowledge and personal connections that guide voter outreach, and the group’s continuity means that knowledge and those connections grow with each campaign and build toward the next.

In this local role, the Democratic Party is utterly failing. Indeed, the party’s current approach to grassroots “engagement” is only making things worse.

The good news is that canvassing can be transformative for volunteers and voters alike, as my newfound Washington, Pennsylvania, friend and I both can eagerly attest. The bad news is that Democratic strategists remain fixated on one-off voter “contacts,” with ever-more emphasis on digital tools like apps that use personal data to automate messaging. Such tools multiply the channels for connection-less contacts, transforming distant supporters’ enthusiasm into counterproductive spam, and distracting party leaders from the real organizational problems that need solving.

Let me show you what that feels like on the ground. Conor Lamb’s campaign in Pennsylvania’s 18th was powered from the start by hyper-engaged, women-led grassroots groups, which had been organizing since January 2017 to unseat the Republican incumbent, Tim Murphy. When Murphy resigned in scandal and Lamb was selected as the Democratic candidate, they sprang into action.

(Gabriel Perez-Putnam)

A volunteer for Conor Lamb's campaign canvasses before the special election

Even before the campaign opened offices, grassroots groups began weekly canvasses: convening at a Panera cafe in one county, a leader’s living room in another, they shared “walk lists” of target voters with volunteers who fanned out to knock on doors and make the case for change. By late January, the campaign was logging 3,000 to 4,000 personal conversations each weekend. Some volunteers canvassed their own neighborhoods, leveraging prior personal ties. Others traveled to the same communities repeatedly, learning to appreciate local issues as voters opened doors and shared their thoughts.

From January to March, independents’ support for Lamb nearly doubled (from 24 percent to 46 percent), and Trump voters (in this district, many of them registered Dems and on canvassers’ walk lists) supporting Lamb nearly tripled (5 percent to 13 percent). This shift, even as Lamb was hammered with over $7 million in Republican attack ads, testifies to the impact of sustained grassroots and union outreach.

But as Election Day neared, the Lamb campaign’s own GOTV surge collided with national attention. Progressive groups pushed digital voter contacting tools to distant volunteers, and these “contacts” metastasized. Since 501(c)3 nonprofit groups cannot coordinate with campaigns, the phone calls, texts, and canvassing teams run by outside groups hit the same people that the Lamb campaign itself was now re-contacting over and over.

The real message was clear, whatever the script. We’re the players, you’re the target: politics isn’t about you finding your voice, it’s about us getting your vote. People began refusing to answer the phone. Volunteers got in an apology at best before doors slammed shut. A 93-year-old woman seemed to speak for the district as she fought to maintain her manners after my Election Day knock had dragged her in her walker all the way to the door. “Please. I can’t not answer the phone, it might be the doctor. But please, can’t you all just stop?”

Luckily for Lamb, personal networks—some newly forged and others deep-rooted in the region’s union past—propelled voters to the polls. Every activist I know has stories of friends and neighbors they had to talk off the ledge, persuading them not to protest the onslaught by refusing to vote. Meanwhile, other citizens were not contacted even once. If voting records show someone votes rarely or never, the standard playbook tells campaigns not to bother.

Can we at least agree that this drought/flood strategy is not an ideal allocation of resources? It seems not. The slew of self-congratulatory emails from national groups in the wake of Lamb’s win, each group trumpeting their supposed impact and asking for donations to do it again, suggests that progressive leaders don’t agree on this at all.

Piling on contacts while ignoring connections makes no sense. Using apps to automate pseudo-personal contacts just renders channels that could be connective less valuable. As technology sociologist Zeynep Tufekci points out, when messaging gets cheaper through digital automation, its impact is predictably reduced. People discount the signals’ value, as they should. (It is notable that even as voters railed about the flood of calls and texts in PA-18, they still voiced affection for the carefully hand-inked postcards encouraging them to vote that many also received.)

The short-sightedness baked into current Democratic Party strategy means even when campaigns get the canvassing right, they miss the chance to build. Lamb volunteers had tens of thousands of conversations with potential voters in southwestern Pennsylvania this winter.  None of those conversations ended with “There’s a group of us meeting monthly down at the library. We’d love to see you there,” unless someone went off-script. Literally.

The opportunity cost of failing to build participation is cast in stark relief by the enduring impact of those eras when hands-on politics did happen. Some grassroots activists invoke a father who was a union steward, or a mother who as Democratic committeewoman knew every voter in her precinct by name. For others, like the desktop warrior in Washington, Pennsylvania, it was the first Obama campaign, whose locally embedded organizers trained volunteers to take charge.

These lives bear the mark of groups within which regular people convinced each other they could make the difference. Unionization campaigns today do the same. One young woman answered my knock at her door in hospital scrubs, eager to share news from Hospital Workers Rising (a Service Employees International Union initiative). She told me she’s going to be mayor of Pittsburgh one day.

The Democratic Party can get serious about opening doors for regular people to become active local members, or party leaders can keep acting like what happens in America’s cities, suburbs, and towns before campaign staff arrive is someone else’s problem. National progressive groups can work to spread their outreach to voters long before Election Day, and ensure that each of those conversations includes an invitation to some local group that meets regularly. Or they can keep channeling distant volunteers’ passion into digital “peer contacts” that are no better than spam. These are necessary low-tech changes—and the stakes could not be higher.

This article was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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