Lessons From Winning

As it turns out, the best way to win an election is to get as many votes as possible. Amazingly, the American punditry and vast swaths of the American political class seem to forget this lesson in between elections.

In slightly more sophisticated terms, the lesson should be how important it is to capitalize on fundamental advantages in the electorate.


President Trump’s dismal approval numbers should have been (and were) a good indicator of Democratic success on November 7. Had the right voters not shown up, however, Tuesday night would have been very different.

While it is true that college-educated white voters in suburban Virginia padded Democrat Ralph Northam’s gubernatorial victory, Democrats should be loath to ignore the youth and minority turnout numbers. These constituents alone might not have been responsible for Northam’s victory, but if one has any doubt about how essential these voters were on Tuesday–and will be next year–they need only look to the results in northern Virginia’s Prince Williams County.

No one should be surprised that Democrats picked up seats in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where demographics have been shifting for years, but the candidates who won these contests are exemplars of a paradigm shift. Danica Roem, Jennifer Foy, Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, and Lee Carter–a transgender woman, two Latinas, an African American woman, and a Democratic Socialist–all unseated middle-aged, white incumbents. These are the types of races that Democrats will face if they want any chance of taking control of the House. According to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, statewide youth turnout was up 8% from the previous gubernatorial race and those voters (aged 18-29) made up 14% of the overall vote–an astounding number in an off-year election–and broke decisively towards Northam. Minority turnout was also up, and non-white voters were overrepresented against their percentage of the state population.

Tuesday’s good results for the Democrats were a success of organizing. The State Delegate candidates who won did so by activating low propensity voters in effective ways. They reached the voters who are most difficult to contact in creative ways, and they leveraged massive volunteer engagement not just to knock on doors, but also to speak directly to voters they knew over the platforms they normally use, like Facebook and texting. It might have been easier to turn out these voters than it normally is, but the results of their turning out are self-evident.

If they want decisive and impactful victories in 2018 and beyond, Democrats will need to continue to turn out young and minority voters, and they need to be making decisions now to ensure they do. Turnout matters, who turns out matters, and how Democrats turn out those voters matters.

These are not votes Democrats can nor should count on; these are votes that Democrats need to earn. Low-propensity voters are, by definition, difficult to turn out. This means that Democrats need to invest in strategies to reach these voters and do so in a way that engenders trust and enthusiasm. Democrats should specifically focus on building digital networks. Candidates and campaigns will need to establish themselves in digital communities so their volunteers can help persuade and activate people they know. Organizing online may be the only way through which Democrats can connect to their consistent voters and expand the electorate by reaching previously unengaged demographics. An operational and effective digital infrastructure – one that combines social media, text, and friend-to-friend contact and is designed to drum up low propensity support – could be the difference between good turnout and great turnout. We saw on Tuesday what happens when these strategies succeed. Great turnout, and our future fortunes, will depend on the party’s ability to recognize our grassroots momentum online as the future of organizing.

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