More on the Poverty of Democratic Party Organizing
A new survey by 3 grassroots groups finds a big disconnect between party professionals and local volunteers as we head into the 2024 cycle.
Six weeks ago, three grassroots groups that have been mobilizing volunteers on behalf of Democratic candidates and causes since 2016 sent a survey to the leaders of nearly 50 similar organizations around the country, seeking to learn more about how the Democratic Party and grassroots groups connect and coordinate. In 2022, volunteers with these three groups—31st Street Swing Left, Markers for Democracy and Swing Blue Alliance—knocked on more than 50,000 doors, mailed more than 1.2 million postcards and letters, raised about $6 million for candidates, along with a host of other work like phone-banking and voter protection. They got in-depth responses from more than half the groups they surveyed, all of which were involved in multiple voter contact activities and each of which had more than 50 active volunteers under wing. Their report, “The Experience of Grassroots Leaders Working with the Democracy Party,” is sobering to read. As far as I know, though the report has been circulating among activists and has made it to the DNC, this is the first anyone has written about it.
Here are the highlights (I read 69-page reports so you don’t have to, but the whole thing is worth reading too):
None of the respondents could describe their state Democratic party’s mission. “Many state party organizations seem to lurch from election cycle to election cycle without a ‘strategic plan that includes every precinct, and no tactical plan to engage everyone’,” the report states.
Local volunteer leaders “yearn to contribute their expertise” as well as their legwork, but most “work under the direction of young, overworked field organizers who are not familiar with local issues, culture and relationship networks.”
Despite that, most field organizers do try to provide a great experience for their volunteers, but they are “hampered by inexperience and a lack of familiarity with the areas in which they are assigned to work.”
Most volunteer leaders see their state Democratic party’s efforts to organize outreach as “too little, too late.” One in four call their party unresponsive. A majority of respondents said the party does a terrible job targeting voters, saying that its lists are far too narrow.
Volunteers work with technology and data that is underperforming and out of date. They are too often calling people who have already voted, reaching wrong numbers, or sent knocking on doors of people who have already said they are voting for a Republican candidate.
Volunteers have no way of accumulating or demonstrating their own experience to party professionals. As one respondent noted, “With the exception of Mobilize, the DP's technology toolset is not set up to solicit feedback or suggestions from field organizers, volunteers, or voters. There is no efficient way to incorporate feedback into designing the volunteer experience. Another missing element - the tools often don't provide feedback to the volunteer. Minivan, for example, doesn't keep track of your doors knocked over the course of a campaign. OpenVPB doesn't track how many calls you made. There's no volunteer leaderboard to encourage the volunteer to stick with it.”
The scripts that campaigns give volunteers to use in talking to potential voters are seen as “out of alignment with social psychological research, the concerns of the targeted demographic groups, and democratic values.” And given how out of touch these scripts are, the report’s authors ask, “if the scripts are out of touch with the conversations that voters are willing to have and that volunteers can reasonably be expected to facilitate, are other aspects of the campaign similarly out of sync?”
Only one-third of respondents described their volunteers’ experience canvassing or phonebanking with the Democratic party as positive. Most called it “dismal,” “excruciatingly slow,” or “chaotic,” and one ultimately said, “It was actually easier to conduct a powerful campaign without the party support.” Another said, “we see the party … as something to work around while we tackle specific, local actions we feel are effective.”
Some of the specific examples from respondents to the survey are truly damning, including:
“For the 2022 midterms in the city with the largest Latino population in PA, there was almost no bilingual outreach (literature, phone, doors). The local Spanish-language newspaper printed two weeks before the election was filled with ads for Republican candidates but not one for Democrats.”
“In [California] CD 13 in 2022 we reached out to Adam Gray's campaign manager to help canvass and make calls in Feb, March, April, May, June July, August, September--finally we got a response in October only to have the campaign manager ghost us again shortly afterwards. Swing Left did sponsor a bus to CD 13 for GOTV and 47 people went out to canvass. Imagine if we had been doing that from the start instead of the last 4 days! Adam would not have lost by 562 votes. He would have won.”
“IN VA with Debra Gardner and in PA with Claudette Williams the party would not free up funds these women had raised unless they were spent as the party thought they should. They demanded Claudette for example use consultants who did not understand her district and they created TV ads that were generic and ineffective. Please note both of these women are Black. When we helped Claudette create a new TV ad they would not allow her to run in during the time slots she had already committed to. Enraging.”
The report suggests that sometimes getting the Democratic Party’s official backing may backfire on candidates. Here’s an example from Pennsylvania’s Monroe County spanning the 2018 and 2020 cycles: “In the first cycle, 2018, the candidate did not have the backing of the state party or local committee. In 2020 she did. It was actually easier to conduct a powerful campaign without the party support. [Emphasis added.] With the independence of the first campaign, the candidate spent her raised funds as she wished; in 2020 she was forced to use consultants the HDCC hired. Poor messaging and lack of control of her own narrative. She lost both times, the first time by fewer percentage points.”
The DNC’s vaunted “Organize Everywhere” program also got terrible reviews. One respondent said this: “Initially started off strong with their plans to text to advocate for issues, support midterm candidates and grow a huge team. Texting never seemed to get off the ground. Very little offered and what was offered was mostly for events and to recruit for the phone team. Limited opportunities - they cut off training and new people could not join. Eventually there were some text banks to GOTV for the midterms and some 2023 races, like Wisconsin, but there were repeated delays in the start times. We almost never started on time and sometimes it was several hours before the texting actually started. Many were canceled on short notice. I have texted extensively with many campaigns and organizations and very rarely had those kinds of issues.”
Is the Emperor Naked?
I’ve written multiple times about how the professional political campaign industry that surrounds and infests (or some might say literally embodies) the Democratic Party at the national and state level is out of touch with what is happening on the ground, and why that whole industry has become more like a “self-licking ice-cream cone” that keeps relying on the same strategies and tactics. This isn’t just a problem of culture and status, though, where a mostly white male establishment keeps reproducing itself, per the critique made by Daniel Laurison in his excellent book Producing Politics. Given that the majority of Democrats running for office are incumbents in gerrymandered safe seats, there’s little incentive for candidates or campaign operatives to change their ways. And most grassroots volunteers are a pretty fungible resource; who cares if you burn some out by treating them as interchangeable cogs in a machine as long as more can be found? (That’s the thought that crosses my mind every year when another young college student who took a job canvassing for NY PIRG knocks on my door asking for money.)
What this new report suggests, though, is that there’s a hidden crisis at the grassroots level of Democratic politics. The well may be running dry, having been milked too hard for too long. Indeed, buried in the 2022 Higher Ground Labs Political Landscape Report was this warning—" “this cycle, many practitioners lamented a shortage of volunteers out in the field - a significant problem that has been overlooked in many postmortem analyses.”
Volunteering to help candidates and causes you value doesn’t have to suck. Here and there in the report, there are bright spots. For example, one respondent praised Common Cause for having a “great system” for working with out-of-state grassroots leaders. “They've got a Slack channel for phone bank captains, where we could collaborate with each other and with Common Cause staff dedicated to grassroots leaders. For example, CC provided a training slide deck, and allowed us to copy and make changes for our own purposes. Then, we could share our new or edited slides with other captains.” But overall the tenor of the feedback from some of the Democrats’ hardest working volunteers is dismal.
As I said to Susan Labandibar and Susan Wagner, two of the report’s co-authors, the criticisms they’ve collected remind me a lot of the netroots wave of the early Aughts, when grassroots activists furious at the results of the 2002 and 2004 election cycles began banding together using a new technology called “blogging” and created a robust critique of the Democratic consulting class. Sites like DailyKos and MyDD (which stood for “due diligence,” since grassroots activists felt they could do a better job vetting campaigns for potential support than the establishment) grew huge followings. Now the conversation seems more dispersed, but if you look closely, you can see common threads emerging among people concerned with fixing the fundraising experience like the Donor Organizer Hub, people concerned with getting rid of the worst of churn-and-burn digital organizing like the Ethical Email crowd, and people trying to fix how state Democratic parties function like State Parties Advancement Network and the groups that collaborated on this new report. Maybe they will find a way to reach critical mass.
—Related: Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is masterminding the battle to retake several House seats his party lost in his home state last cycle, according to Edward-Isaac Dovere’s report for CNN. This makes a kind of sense, because winning those seats back will undoubtedly help Jeffries’ become Speaker. But while Jeffries and his allies are reportedly weighing in on deciding which House candidates will get the party’s nod, so far they are avoiding doing anything to address the dysfunctional state party and its abysmal chair, Jay Jacobs, a holdover from the Cuomo years. (Far from it—on the June launch Zoom for what Jeffries is calling the “Battleground Coordinated Campaign,” activists had to sit through a welcome message from Governor Kathy Hochul who opened by explicitly mentioning her support for Jacobs.) This does not bode well for getting grassroots Democrats in the states, who are still furious and organizing hard to dump Jacobs, to welcome the Jeffries push.
Odds and Ends
—Could the rightwing backlash aimed at local school boards be finally running out of steam? In suburban Temecula, California, three far-right school board members are facing a recall election led by more moderate parents sick of the culture wars and religious evangelism, according to this report by Blake Jones in Politico.
—The one thing to read about the rollout of Threads, Meta’s new Twitter-killer: Katie Harbath’s latest Substack on the topic. We don’t always agree but she is 100% right to call out Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, for trying to avoid his civic responsibility to make hard decisions about how Threads will deal with political issues.
—My friend and colleague Panthea Lee just finished winding down Reboot, her international civic tech consulting shop, and she’s written a majestic reflective essay on the many lessons she learned over the course of 13 years in the field. Here’s a taste: “This work will break your heart. To remain steadfast in demanding that nothing but structural transformation will do is excruciating, given the incentives to settle for flashy bandaids. And we each make compromises and fall short every day. But audacious worldmaking requires a deep well of imagination and an inner strength beyond what’s required when we’re fighting against. So let us each take the time and space necessary to cultivate these traits within ourselves, and to love and support each other on these journeys.” Read the whole thing.