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Saturday, October 07, 2017


Lack of planning on your part

by Tom Sullivan

Nimbleness is something one rarely encounters in Democratic establishment circles. A complaint one hears from local Democrats around the country is their county organization is calcified and resistant to change. The insiders are in control and there is no room for new activists. No matter what the challenge, once a successful pattern is established, that becomes conventional wisdom. Democrats love conventional like a comfortable, old chair. It takes a shock to reset the rules.

Obama's data-driven field campaign from 2008, for example, was earth-shaking. So, when NC Sen. Kay Hagan ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 2014 against Thom Tillis, her campaign tried to replicate it. She was successful, other than losing. It was a solid campaign. But whatever the technical sophistication, an Obama-style campaign needs an Obama-style candidate to inspire the volunteers that make it work. Her campaign might have looked like Obama's, but Hagan did not.

Point is, Democrats will stick with a familiar, winning formula even when it is the wrong model for the situation. I feared last fall that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency using Robby Mook's field plan. It would then become the template for winning for decades when, from our vantage point, it was abysmal. All numbers. No heart. Volunteers here hated it. They found what they were asked to do senseless and a waste of their time. Coordinated campaign staffers here hated it through gritted teeth.

Stanley Greenberg reviewed the Clinton campaign this way:

The campaign relied far too heavily on something that campaign technicians call “data analytics.” This refers to the use of models built from a database of the country’s 200 million–voters, including turnout history and demographic and consumer information, updated daily by an automated poll asking for vote preference to project the election result. But when campaign developments overtake the model’s assumptions, you get surprised by the voters—and this happened repeatedly.

Astonishingly, the 2016 Clinton campaign conducted no state polls in the final three weeks of the general election and relied primarily on data analytics to project turnout and the state vote. They paid little attention to qualitative focus groups or feedback from the field, and their brief daily analytics poll didn’t measure which candidate was defining the election or getting people engaged.
Maybe that is just pollster Greenberg grousing about Team Clinton not using more of his services. But what really got Clinton into trouble, Greenberg believes, was not adjusting when adjustment was necessary, and her reason for it (emphasis mine):
The models from the data analytics team led by Elan Kriegel got the Iowa and Michigan primaries badly wrong, with huge consequences for the race. Why were they not then fired? Campaign manager Robbie Mook and the analytics team argued, according to Shattered, that the Sanders vote grew “organically”—turnout was unexpectedly high and new registrants broke against Clinton. Why was that a surprise?

Campaign chair John Podesta wanted to fire Mook, but Clinton stood by him. She rightly admired previous campaigns in which big data and technology were big winners, yet in 2008 it was the candidate and his appeal more than the technical wizardry that pushed Obama over the top. David Axelrod told me that analytics adds a “great field-goal kicker”—no substitute for a strategy and compelling message.
The point here is not to criticize Clinton (or Hagan), but a culture within the Democratic Party that regards veteran comrades-in-arms as the go-to advisors, a kind of priesthood, institutions, even when they lose. (Bob Shrum comes to mind.) It is a clubby culture that sticks to the familiar, shuns the new, and listens only to itself. Such a culture tends to stagnate and not grow new leaders within the ranks. There is no room for them at the top.
"I don't get it. When a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot them. You guys — keep hiring them."
— Nationally prominent Republican official

"Crashing the Gate," by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (2006)
Martin Longman remarks on the chatter about Nancy Pelosi needing to retire for the good of the party, noting that Pelosi and Jim Clyburn are both seventy-seven-years-old. Steny Hoyer is seventy-eight. But why should she retire? he asks. "[W]hat is Pelosi doing wrong that someone younger would correct?" Where are the leaders ready to step into the shoes of a leader who has been "remarkably effective in nearly every facet of the job"? Longman writes, "If there’s a leader as capable as Pelosi on deck, show me who this person is. I don’t see them."

Exactly. Why isn't there?

Answer: No transition planning.

It is because Democrats love their veteran hands, and love being veteran hands more than they know when it is time to step aside to make room for fresh leadership. That is not a knock on Pelosi's considerable skills, either. Nor is it to say there are not younger players in the Democrats' ranks. But the party lacks dynamism. Plus, as I have written before, by the time party is ready to embrace new leaders, the party establishment — if not the nature of the business itself — has molded them into new establishment politicians. They've been institutionalized. Voters sense it, and they don't want it.

The anti-establishment mood of the country favors a political product Democrats, as a party, are with rare exceptions unprepared to offer. American auto manufacturers were long content to limp along on stagnant styling, aging technology, and a comfortable model for making automobiles. Not until they faced crises did they begin to reinvent themselves. So far, Democrats have not recognized they have a crisis on their hands. It is still business as usual. Many veterans long for the days of the Big Dog. That is not the way forward.

It is common to blame the party's losses across the country on its over-reliance on Wall Street money and lack of a populist message, and those certainly play a significant role. Certainly, in the sense among growing ranks of registered independents that there is no difference in the two major parties. But there is a structural component as well. Lack of long-term planning leaves experienced leaders in place, as a friend observes, past their expiration dates. This leaves Democrats with no one to replace Nancy Pelosi when she does retire, and with a shallow bench across the country.

Here in North Carolina, the legislative caucus has targeted a handful of districts its leaders hope to flip in 2018. For long-suffering friends in the legislature who are all but powerless, regaining power is a priority. It has to be.

But. At a conference in Durham two weeks ago, an aligned Indivisible group made its pitch for how it planned to help break the Republicans' veto-proof majority in the NC House. Those districts would receive field assistance and money from the state caucus. Flipping three seats would give Roy Cooper, the state's Democratic governor, the ability to stop some of the revanchist legislation that has turned the state into "a banana republic."

When it came time for questions, a woman from Cabarrus County (east of Charlotte and not on the list) asked how that would help where she lives. Democrats are struggling out there. In the longer term, yes, it would be important to provide support to the other counties, but right now it is vital to win three of the half-dozen or so House seats (of 120) the leadership has targeted.

That is another way of saying this is the most important election of our lifetimes. As is the next one. And the next. And the next, etc.

I keep hammering on this nugget from then-Governor Mark Warner (2005):
I think the Democratic Party does more than just the party, the country a disservice if the Democrats are only competitive in 16 states and then try to hit a triple bank shot to get that 17th state.

Because even if they elect a president under that scenario, could someone really govern with that kind of mandate? I think a healthy two-party system, a place where the Democrats can be competitive in every state does - is good for the Democrats. But it's also for the Republicans in that it would force the Republican Party more back to the center as well.

What Warner said of the country is true in the states. Democrats might muster enough votes in the cities (if a state has enough cities) to win some statewide races. But if Democrats hope to break the GOP's control in the majority of state legislatures, both at the leadership and the grassroots level they need to start thinking more granularly. They must get beyond triple-bank-shot thinking and do some longer-term party-building and outreach in places they have long ignored. Maybe Democrats will reinvent themselves as a national party in the process.

This isn't about sacrificing the party's soul or its urban base or pursuing voters it can never win. But it is about the math. States legislative and congressional seats are awarded locally, not statewide. U.S. Senate seats are awarded by state, not by population. And in districts and states where Democrats simply have not competed effectively in years, or at least since Howard Dean was the national chairman.

If you don't show up to play, you forfeit.

Election-cycle thinking and lack of transition planning are in part what led Democrats to these straits in the first place, not just in North Carolina, but across the country. The leadership's focus is not on party-building, but on caucus building. The two are not the same. And more of the same is not the way back.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.