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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

 

Collective sigh

by Tom Sullivan

Did all the money thrown into the Georgia 6th District congressional runoff between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff matter? For Democrats, not enough. Handel won the heavily Republican district formerly held by Newt Gingrich by just under four points. Not bad for Ossoff in a district Tom Price won by 20 points before leaving to lead Donald Trump's Department of Health and Human Services. Less impressive if one considers Hillary Clinton only lost it by one point. Name recognition and a track record counts for something.

As Nate Silver predicted cannily, there are hot takes aplenty this morning. Democrats are demoralized. Republicans are buoyed. Does the outcome really matter? The first thing we do, let's kill all the consultants. (There might be something to that one.)

But it's early and the numbers haven't all been crunched. Josh Marshall had these observations last night:

My take is that the most realistic way to see this result is that it is one of a string of special elections in which Democrats have dramatically over-performed in Republican districts. Yet they haven’t been able to win any of them yet. There were two before this (Kansas and Montana) and another tonight (South Carolina) where the Democrat also lost but got a lot closer than people expected.

If you take the average Democratic over-performance in these districts and apply it to the entire House, Democrats are quite likely to take the House next year. What I take from this is that Republicans are struggling under Trump and Democrats are energized. But Democrats need to keep refining both their message and improving their electoral infrastructure. The most challenging takeaway I take from these races for Democrats is that even though Republicans have lost substantial ground and are operating in a tough environment they’ve nevertheless been able to mobilize money and partisan affiliation to hold on in tight races. That can’t be ignored. It’s also very significant.
As several of us saw on Twitter, there will be a reflex to demand Democrats get "a total overhaul on every single level." Certainly, Ossoff ran an uninspiring campaign from a message standpoint (cut wasteful spending?), and a very Clintonesque one, "relying on the same 'new majority' voters that put Obama in the White House."

But there is also the improving "their electoral infrastructure" part of Marshall's equation. There is certainly an over-reliance on a priesthood of consultants, data geeks, and technological terrors for solving what are essentially human relations problems. Voters are human beings, not data points or cattle to be herded. It might help if campaigns treated them as such. But if my area is any indication, there is also this. Few county organizations have built up the institutional memory and skills for running effective get-out-the-vote programs year to year, mid-term to presidential to municipal. Activists age out of high-intensity campaign work and take what they've learned (if anything) with them. Many smaller counties rely on national coordinated campaigns to parachute in every four years (if they do) to tell them what to do when the ambitious twenty-something staffers don't know themselves.

Winning an election is not just a contest of ideas; it is a contest of skills. At a meeting recently, one county Democratic officer expressed interest in learning about all these "high-tech" tools we use. I think that meant computers. Democrats need an upgrade from the grassroots up as much as from the top down.

All that aside, Charlie Pierce had the perspicacity not to lose sight of what really happened last night: