What we talk about when we talk about winning.

We often use euphemisms to describe voting–both the act itself and the work that goes into getting others to vote. We call it exercising our civic duty; we call it participating in democracy; we call it GOTV operations. Occasionally, we slip and call it field work, a more accurate etymological reference to the hard labor of tending to the delicate chore of growing something meaningful.

Voting Booths
Joe Shlabotnik, 2012

If Democrats are to continue winning moving forward, we would do well to remember the mundanity of voting. Elections are won simply on the strength of who receives the most votes.

Admittedly, more than just hubris causes this chronic forgetfulness. We distrust tautologies because they offer little insight beyond the obvious. The rise of data-analytics and advanced methods and modes of polling and mapping have also made the political classes smarter and more sophisticated. Armed with progressively more complex information, we often take the simplest rationale for granted. Yet, the beauty of tautologies is that they are, by definition, true.

The November 7th Democratic victories across the country prove something. Some are saying that these results prove the efficacy of prediction models that emphasize fundamentals like party control and approval numbers. Likely, they’re right. But even if they are right, this perspective obfuscates the all-important tautological lesson–you have to get votes to win elections, and to get votes you need to mobilize the electorate.

Yes, President Trump is unpopular. Yes, the college-educated and minority portions of the electorate are angry and motivated. Yes, there are real policy stakes driving people to the polls. Still, the massive voter mobilization efforts–in these November races specifically, but also in all the special elections since the 2016 general–deserve more than a passing reference.

Turnout was the highest it’s been in the last 20 years in the Virginia off-year election. The fundamentals supported an excited, motivated electorate, but boy did they show up. As simple as it may be to explain this mass movement to the polls with some throwaway lines about how angry suburban college-educated people are at the president, those of us involved in GOTV efforts do so at our own peril.

Instead, let’s acknowledge the powerful fundamental advantage, and also celebrate the herculean GOTV effort that translated opportunity into victory. The votes are what matter. Getting motivated voters to the polls is easier than getting unmotivated voters to the polls, but recreating a general election electorate in an off-year gubernatorial election on a rainy day is a monumental task.

Democrats succeeded in turning out voters last week. Since then, there has been further evidence of positive Democratic fundamentals moving into the 2018 mid-term elections. But these fundamentals will only be meaningful if Democrats turnout. By whatever name, those efforts that turn support into votes will be the most essential ingredient in future wins.

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