Cruising for a Bruising? Or Will Democrats Course-Correct Before 2022?
How and why they're chasing the wrong voters. Plus, the stunning increase in billionaire greed since Covid; public support for criminal charges against Mark Zuckerberg; and much more.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
Way to Win, the progressive Democratic fundraising collective, has put out a major report on the electoral landscape titled “Data to Win: How 2020 Shapes 2022” warning that the party is heading for disaster in 2022 and beyond if it keeps focusing on habitual voters instead of investing more on engaging the new and infrequent voters who came out in 2018 and 2020 to supports its candidates. Ron Brownstein gave the report banner coverage in The Atlantic when it was first released two weeks ago, so if you want to get the gist of it, start there. The full report runs 110 pages and is chock-a-block with data about the 64.8 million voters who cast ballots in 11 key states in 2020: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Instead of using notoriously unreliable exit polls to understand these voters, the report builds from actual voter records compiled by TargetSmart of who voted (but obviously not how they individually voted) and the recorded results for their precincts, with predictions about their race, ethnicity and partisanship appended for each voter.
Here’s what stood out the most for me in the report, which was written with support from the Movement Cooperative:
The people who are likeliest to vote in 2022 largely know already how they’re going to vote. These high-propensity voters split almost 50-50 in those 11 states in 2020. They are polarized and deeply entrenched in their partisanship. Only about one in seven in them are reachable. But as Way to Win notes, “The majority of the Democratic political apparatus focuses on persuading these 5.6 million people…ultimately ignoring the 24 million voters who voted once or twice in the last three elections who are more likely to be Democrats, and millions more remaining eligible voters without a vote history at all—yet.”
Less likely voters and currently registered non-voters, which Way to Win refers to as “high-potential” voters, tilt markedly more Democratic than regular voters. They, unlike the hard-core partisans, are persuadable but they have to be engaged. “Democrats are currently leaving a lot of power on the table. They should dedicate themselves to the question of turning out these high-potential voters…because they are the path to a permanent federal majority.”
While Trump voters are already motivated to vote, Democratic voters have yet to hear a vision for why they should vote in 2022. And without an inspiring vision, the erosion that we saw in 2020, when some new voters of color supported Trump, is likely to continue. (I’d go with something like “Freedom to Thrive,” but it’s hard to push that when the Senate is controlled by people beholden to plutocrats.)
“A multiracial coalition is the future of political power.” The chart above, showing the demographic shift underway, as the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers get displaced by Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, should speak volumes. And this shift is most accentuated in the south and southwest.
While turnout among 18-29 year-olds hit 65% in 2020 in the 11 states in this report, Democrats should not take the youth vote for granted. According to Way to Win, that group tilted blue by less than five points, 52.3% to 47.7%. “While progressive, young people increasingly identify as Unaffiliated and are typically wary of political parties. In states like Florida, Unaffiliated is the fastest growing party—and registered non-partisans cannot vote in primaries and thus are lower in priority of engagement by campaigns,” the report notes.
Candidate campaigns and party committees aren’t likely to do the work recommended by Way to Win; only independent power-building groups appear committed to doing so. The report delves deeply into the efforts of 31 state and national partners that organize in the 11 key states, showing that their outreach to new and high-potential voters made all the difference in places like Arizona and Georgia in 2020.
All that said, Way to Win’s report left me not just worried about the prospects for 2022, but also discouraged that so much progressive organizing smarts and energy is channeled so narrowly into the most basic kind of voter engagement: capturing contacts onto organizational lists (which are markedly better than the voter file) and then reaching back out to people by phone, text or (sometimes) door-knocks, to remind them to vote. Since Way to Win—which has raised $165 million for its work since being founded after the 2016 election—is trying to convince Democratic donors that multi-racial basebuilding beats chasing “swing” voters, this focus is understandable. But this report offers only glimpses of what local organizations ~might~ be doing to pull people into volunteer and leadership development. The perennial problem of electoral politics starving long-term organizing is barely addressed.
If you read between the lines, it’s also clear that a tremendous amount of electoral organizing work involves failing to connect with voters. For example, Way to Win’s report notes that the Working Families Party, one of its bigger partners, logged more than 19 million voter contact attempts mainly in PA, GA, AZ and WI resulting in 630,000 conversations with 518,000 unique voters in the 2020 cycle. That means a staffer or volunteer, on average, succeeded in three out of one hundred contact efforts. Imagine sitting alone at your desk, plugged into an auto-dialer or text messaging platform, spending hours at such a frustrating task. Yet more reason that we figure out how to involve people in more substantial ways, and one more illustration of how the pandemic has hindered organizing; when you can’t get people together physically, it’s harder to build the authentic relationships that keep folks in this work long-term.
Deep in the report (literally the last page), Way to Win explains how contact rates are calculated and how they typically average. It counts contacts as successful when the person being reached actually responds, and doesn’t opt out of future communication. Typically, the report says, canvassers manage to contact 25.6% of the people whose doors they knock. Phone-bankers using a dialer program reach 15.3%. Peer-to-peer texters have successful contacts with only 3.8% (so much for the efficacy of texting programs).
One additional quibble with Way to Win’s study. The word “women” doesn’t appear anywhere in the report. There’s no breakdown by gender, either in voting behavior or other forms of engagement. Considering how the majority of the actual work of political organizing is done by women, and how much of a stake women have had since the rise of Trump and the GOP’s Supreme Court power grab, this absence is hard to fathom.
Beyond the political challenge of the moment, Way to Win offers some vital lessons for the whole field, noting that “1) organizers do not yet have standard ways of collecting data across organizations; and 2) a platform has yet to be created that can truly capture all the information integral to power-building, and organizers are still creating tools to measure relational organizing.” Building on that last point, it also urges that we “test and develop new metrics to measure the transformative effects of year-round aid and organizing within communities, and its impact on elections.” Amen to that.
Brave New World
—The 745 richest Americans, billionaires all, have seen their wealth increase $2.1 trillion since the beginning of the pandemic, from just under $3 trillion to a bit more than $5 trillion. Let’s write out that number: $5,000,000,000,000. This is according to a new analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. Chuck Collins writes that this increase in wealth is equal to the entire $2.1 trillion in new revenues approved by the House Ways and Means Committee to pay for the Build Back Better plan over ten years. Unless the tax rules are changed, most of this mammoth increase in wealth will go untaxed. (And supposedly serious people made fun of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for wearing a gown reading “Tax the Rich.”)
—Nine public high schools in Scotland have started using facial recognition to take payments for school lunches, Cynthia O’Murchu reports for the Financial Times. They claim the system is faster and more Covid-secure than using the card payments and fingerprint scanners they were using previously. Sixty-five schools have signed up for the service. For more details, check out Pippa King’s Biometrics in Schools blog. Yes, a whole blog devoted just to that topic, just in the UK.
—Meanwhile, not even your underwear is protected from surveillance. Samsung has a new line of AI-powered washing machines that remember your laundry habits and suggest the best wash cycles to use based on user-provided information such as color, fabric and degree of soiling. It can also be controlled with your smartphone. No word on whether this means your dirty laundry will literally be leaked online when someone inevitably breaks into Samsung’s Cloud. And LG is selling an “intelligent washer” that “not only detects the volume and weight of each unique laundry load, but also uses AI and advanced sensors to identify fabric types in each load. Using deep learning technology, the washer then compares this information against more than 20 thousand data points related to washer usage to program the optimal wash cycle setting for the best results, improving cleaning performance and extending the life of garments by 15 percent.” Or so they claim. But wait, there’s more. “The intelligent washer can also connect with Amazon Alexa through the LG ThinQ® mobile app to provide notifications when the laundry detergent is running low. Furthermore, customers can enable Amazon Dash Replenishment via the app to automatically reorder pre-selected supplies such as detergent and fabric softener to be delivered right to their door.” This is not The Onion.
Life in Facebookistan
—Four out of ten Gen Zers and one-quarter of all Americans say they are addicted to Facebook and “can’t stop if I tried,” according to a new survey by John Della Volpe of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Two-thirds of Americans say life was better before Facebook. One third of the public (though just 23% of Gen Zers) said they believe Mark Zuckerberg should be subject to “criminal prosecution with potential for prison” for failing to stop the harmful effects of Facebook and Instagram.
—For all of Zuckerberg’s claims about how well its artificial intelligence programs are spotting hate speech, internal company documents estimate that it is only successful at blocking a low-single-digit percent of all the content that violates its community rules, Deepa Seetharaman, Jeff Horwitz and Justin Scheck report for the Wall Street Journal. Not only that, two years ago, the company reduced the time its human reviewers spend on speech complaints and began employing an algorithm leading them to ignore a larger percentage of user reports.
—“The first thing you see when you open your Facebook is the most heinous content,” independent researcher Berhan Taye tells the Guardian’s Aisha Gani. Taye is based in Nairobi, and has been closely monitoring the spread of hate speech in Ethiopia, which is facing ethnic cleansing and where Facebook is a central information source. She decries the company’s failure to invest in more human moderators who are fluent in the local tongues and said the “strategy of focusing on language-specific, content-specific systems for AI to save us is doomed to fail.”
—Facebook has rejected ads for a class called “Outsmarting Antisemitism” that the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the adult education arm of the Chabad Jewish movement, recently tried to place, according to the eJewishPhilanthropy newsletter. Rabbi Zalman Abraham, the institute’s executive director, said they requested a review by an ads manager, but the review was rejected. But hey, Sheryl Sandberg recently shared that she’s “proud to be Jewish” and Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan just donated $1.3 million to 11 Jewish organizations mostly in the Bay Area, part of the couple’s “commitment to building relationships, learning, and deepening their connection with the Jewish community,” so we’re all good, right?
—Yes, if you know enough about a person’s particular interests you can use Facebook’s targeting tools to make an ad that is only aimed at them, researchers from Spain and Austria have found.
Odds and Ends
—New York City has released a new Artificial Intelligence Strategy and Primer aimed at fostering the responsible use of AI at the municipal level. The report has lots of interesting examples about ways that AI is helping the city manage things like cybersecurity, energy bills, noise pollution and storefront vacancies; it is notably silent about how the city’s police department uses AI.
—ActBlue has just released the Q3 fundraising numbers on its giant platform, and compared to the same point in the quadrennial political cycle, the scale of Democratic giving is double what it was four years ago. Not only that, “So far in this election cycle, donors have made more contributions and raised more money (through Q3 2021) compared to the same point in the 2020 cycle (through Q3 2019), despite the fact that there was a presidential primary in 2019.” It would be useful if ActBlue broke out how much of this money is flowing to organizations vs candidates; as we’ve noted here before, Democratic small donors are wasting a great deal of their money supporting candidates instead of building power.
—Deep in this story in The Trace by J. Brian Charles on the ongoing movement in Baltimore to shift resources away from the city’s troubled police force comes this nugget: “The campaign plans to educate people on pushing for participatory budgeting, a process through which the city would give Baltimoreans a hand in crafting the budget from scratch. The hope is that, over time, this strategy can shift money away from policing to other needs, as community members determine them.” The city of Seattle is currently using PB to involve its residents in deciding how to redirect $30 million from its police budget.
—Mark Glaser has a great round-up looking at creative ownership structures that independent publishers are trying to buttress local journalism.
—Related: Something weird is up at The Devil Strip, the local news cooperative in Akron, Ohio, that I profiled back in the spring. Three weeks ago, its founder Chris Horne announced he was going on sabbatical, and yesterday its board summarily fired its staff and announced that it was shutting down due to lack of funds, shocking many of its 1000-plus member-owners.
—Don’t miss Zeynep Tufekci’s excellent think piece on the real reasons so many Americans remain unvaccinated.
—Related: Journalist Lauren Wolfe asks a very good question: “Why is the US hoarding hundreds of millions of Covid vaccines?”
—GWU Public Policy professor Don Moynihan offers a nightmarish round-up of how the moral panic against Covid safety, and racial and gender inclusion deluging school boards and public school officials is exploding across the country. (His new Substack on how protecting the civil service as anti-democratic attacks rise looks well-worth following.)
—Attend? I’ll be doing a keynote conversation with my friend Mario Lugay, senior innovation director at Justice Funders, at the Lenfest Institute’s News Philanthropy Summit November 4th. Registration is free.
—Acute-onset tic-like behaviors have risen dramatically among teenage girls, pediatricians in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK are reporting, and you won’t believe what they think is causing the phenomenon.