Democrats, Consultants and Wasted Money

DNC Chair Tom Perez speaks during a “Come Together and Fight Back” tour at the James L Knight Center on April 19, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Far from a “resistance” movement the Democratic Party’s response to President Donald Trump has so far been one of half measures and missed opportunities. Among their most significant failures: the party’s flat-footed investment in special Congressional elections called to replace Trump appointees.

This late coming tendency by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in races in Kansas, Georgia and Montana has frustrated many rank-and-file Democrats. “The party clearly has no clue how to build and nurture a movement,” Markos Moulitsas, founder of the party stalwart blog Daily Kos told the New York Times in mid-April. In the months following the party’s shock defeat by Trump they seem to have learned little and instead put their energy into blaming outside force for the loss.

What they really don’t want to admit is that their problems run deep, and even if the Democratic Party’s biggest institutions were to jump into these races both experience and hard scientific data indicate that their likely tactics would not make a difference. This isn’t because there’s nothing that would help, on the contrary the right tactics will capture these seats. But these Democrat institutions are controlled by interests that make money off of doing things that do not work, which goes a long ways towards explaining why the party has collapsed nationwide in recent years.

Political science has confirmed in recent years what many political organizers have known for a long time—that the best way to convince voters to support your candidate and then to actually get to the polls and vote is to talk to them face-to-face. One Yale study from New Haven, Connecticut performed in the late 1990s found that direct face-to-face outreach increased voter turnout by nearly 9 percentage points. A later replication of the study confirmed these effects.

Another important test of the tactic came from a California nonprofit called Leadership Lab that went door-to-door to convince voters to support gay, lesbian and transgender rights. A study of methods like theirs performed by Stanford graduate students found that they made a substantial shift in opinions on transgender rights in at least 10% of the population and that these shifts were still there months later. A 10-point swing in Kansas or Georgia would have won those races outright, not to mention what it would have meant for Clinton last November.

Despite this evidence, however, canvassing is not how most federal campaigns spend most of their money. They are much more likely to spend their resources on media advertisements—especially television ads—and direct mail pieces. As clear as the evidence is that face-to-face outreach is highly effective, political science has proven that these methods don’t move voters much at all.

The same New Haven study mentioned above found that direct mail in particular had entirely negligible impacts on voter turnout. One George Mason study tried leaving literature at voters’ homes—probably even more effective than just mailing it mixed in with the credit card offers and coupons—and found that it didn’t make a difference in mobilizing voters.

As for TV, the impacts on campaigns seems to be small and expensive. One study by Washington State University and Bowdoin researchers found that for every 1,000 ad advantage over an opponent a candidate could expect a 0.5 percentage point edge in support. In races like the ones in Kansas and Georgia where the party starts with a substantial disadvantage this would mean investing in potentially tens of thousands of more TV ads than the opposition, and there’s likely a pretty steep case of diminishing returns in this instance.

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supporters as votes continue to be counted in a race that was too close to call for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in a special election to replace Tom Price, who is now the secretary of Health and Human Services on April 18, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Why would the DNC and DCCC put so much money into TV ads and mailers when the same money spent on a field effort could have better, more sustained results? The answer, in large part, is because these party institutions and in fact the Democratic Party as a whole are dominated by interests and attitudes which empower the consultants and undermine the field organizers.

“Field is really hard work it’s messy work,” one veteran Democratic Party field organizer from Texas told me on condition of anonymity. She’s won tough races in some of the least likely areas of the state and helped Democrats win races around the South against steep odds with field work. She sees class discrimination and sexism playing a role in this problem, even among Democrats.

“When you look at the types of class backgrounds and the men versus women breakdown in field versus the upper echelon of campaigns it’s going to women,” she says. “Men get promoted up really quickly, get fancy titles really quickly and get moved out of field pretty quickly.” The result is that field is devalued in the culture of the party.

This, however, raises the question of which came first: the devaluation of field organizing or its association with more working class and female political operatives? The most likely scenario is that structural choices and financial interests within the party led to an emphasis on tactics besides field work, leading to this work being relegated to less privileged activists. Sexism and classism then created a vicious cycle with field work further neglected and further passed off onto women and organizers from leaner backgrounds and on and on.

Primary among these structural choices is the fact that the DNC—the party’s governing body—actually allows political consultants to be elected as members and then even allows those members to be vendors to the party and to campaigns they are supporting. This self-dealing means that the interests of the consultant class will always have a privileged place in campaign decision-making.

This became a key point of contention in the recent race for DNC Chair. As reported in the New Republic, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison—the race’s initial front-runner—directly challenged this scenario, saying that he was “battling the consultant-ocracy.” The ultimate winner of the race, Tom Perez, refused to answer questions about the massive conflict of interest in letting consultants be the bosses of the folks deciding whether or not to contract with them.

These campaign consultants make a lot more money off of TV and mail than they do off of field efforts. Field efforts are long-term, labor-intensive, high overhead expenditures that do not have big margins from which the consultants can draw their payouts. They also don’t allow the consultants to make money off of multiple campaigns all in the same cycle, while media and mail campaigns can be done from their DC office for dozens of clients all at the same time. They get paid whether campaigns win or lose, so effectiveness is irrelevant to them.

This phenomenon is further enabled by the party’s major donor class. Campaigns cannot easily take their money and then refuse their input on how to spend it, and oftentimes these donors have ideas on what the campaign ought to do that run contrary to best practices.

“If you aren’t a Bernie Sanders, you don’t have small donors, you don’t have ID, and you are screaming to try and get donors for your campaign you have to turn to the PACs or the party or a big donor and it’s basically whatever their political trends or ideology du jour is that’s going to guide your program, and that’s scary,” the Texas field organizer said.

TV and mail are more visible and tangible for many of these donors, leading them to prefer these tactics over things they won’t get to see when they turn on the nightly news or check their PO box. There’s also often an incestuous relationship between the consultants and these donors, wherein the donors use established relationships with the consultants to decide where their money would best be spent and the consultants drive the funds to campaigns that are most likely to use their services.

And when the DNC and DCCC do spend these funds on field the money is often still misplaced. “There’s a lot of critiques in our line of work of organizations like the DCCC, how they have a one-size-fits-all campaign model for field on the ground no matter where they are that doesn’t always work,” the Texas organizer said.

When the DNC and DCCC do spend these funds on field the money is often still misplaced. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In particular the DNC and DCCC have in recent years relied upon data that indicate that the best investment of field resources is to only organize in areas with sufficient population density to maximize contacts per hour for each canvasser. This obviously means, however, that they invest nothing in reaching out to rural communities, and the results have been stark and obvious for Democrats.

“Not going to talk to rural people for four cycles has shown itself now in our national political landscape,” she said.

Even in the denser areas, however, DNC and DCCC field efforts often have the feeling of outsiders parachuting into a community, not seriously engaging there or investing valuable resources with the people that live and vote there. “Field’s an afterthought,” the organizer said. “It’s like ‘oh we’ll run a three week field program’ or ‘we’ll run a nine week field program,’ we’ll do this, we’ll do that, which that’s not politicization.”

The result is that communities and their native activists often feel talked at, not with. “Communities really do hate it when you show up only four weeks before an election,” she said, “and you only go to one part of town and you only talk to people who vote blue or who gave money in the past and you’re really just swooping in, that’s really hard.”

By now the connections between these bad habits and the Democrats’ recent bad outcomes should be obvious. One shocking report in Politico published a month after the election noted that volunteers showed up in Michigan field offices looking to canvass only to be told that this was not a “scientifically significant” way of improving her election outcome, a bizarre claim in light of the evidence noted above. Clinton and the DNC did, however, spend over $335 million with campaign consultants, all of whom helped her to lose to a man less popular than she was.

The solution to all of this is obvious to anybody: institute basic conflict of interest rules that kick the consultants out of their formal power, shift investments into basic field organizing, put rank-and-file organizers and activists in charge and shift to a grassroots funding model so that no major donor can dictate terms to campaigns. This is sort of what Perez and others have promised with a “57 state and territory campaign,” but the immediate opportunities to put these promises into practice have shown that they are actually much more comfortable saying one thing and doing another.

The fact is that the grassroots of the party have a growing skepticism with the political and economic status quo of this country, and that recruiting and retaining organizers will be hard to do with the militaristic, corporate message espoused by the Clintons and Obama. The choice before the party is then whether they will do what it takes to win and take on the powers that be or stick with their wealthy and powerful class base and lose a lot of elections. Every bit of history shows that the Democratic Party would rather lose with the ruling class than win against them.

There are glimmers of hope—the grassroots pressured the party into investing in the Montana race where the candidate is a Bernie Sanders-endorsed populist running an organizing-centric campaign, for example. But as long as the party believes that they can lead a “resistance” that doesn’t threaten the wealthy interests driving their decision-making to date these will all be exceptions to the rule.

In the era of Trump’s reign we can’t tolerate this, and we simply can’t stay silent while this opportunity is missed. The good news is we know exactly what it takes to win this fight whether we choose to try and fix the Democrats or start with something new: organizing. The bad news for the consultants is that more people are doing it than ever before, and that’s what a real resistance looks like.

Andrew Dobbs is an activist, organizer, and writer based in Austin, Texas. You can follow Andrew on Medium: @andrewdobbstx