How Can Democrats Win in 2020? Take a Page from the Abrams Playbook
Given the importance of the 2020 general election to the future of the Democratic party, there will be much discussion over the next two years about who is the best candidate to run in the election and what strategy they should employ. Nobody can tell you which of the 15 (plus or minus a few) Democratic candidates is the most “electable,” but there are many different ‘theories of the case.’ And while “visit Wisconsin” is a good start, to find an election strategy that can deliver the general election knockout punch Democrats desperately want, they need look no further than Stacey Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia.
It would be easy to dismiss Abrams’ campaign as a model by taking the end result as emblematic of the quality of the entire campaign: she did lose, in the end, by a little over 1% of the vote. But to do so would be to overlook the quality of what she achieved and the potency of the model that propelled her to that result. While she lost, Abrams won more votes than any Democrat in the history of Georgia thanks to historic voter turnout. Overall, Democratic turnout jumped over 50% from the last gubernatorial election, with youth turnout increasing 139% and more black voters showing up for Abrams than all the voters who turned out for the last Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Jason Carter--a state senator and the grandson of Jimmy Carter. Abrams didn’t just increase turnout among minority and youth voters; she also won a greater share of the white vote than President Obama or any Democrat since the 90s. She did all of this in the face of an election run by her opponent, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who employed tactics such as purging voters from the rolls, leading the The New Yorker to call him the “Martin Shkreli of Voter Suppression.” In the face of these challenges, Abrams’ campaign results are all the more impressive. Given the magnitude of what she achieved, the question arises: what lessons can Democrats apply to the 2020 race?
Stop Spending So Much On Broadcast
Ever since the invention of TV and Radio, broadcast advertising has been a mainstay of political strategy, devouring a large percentage of campaign budgets along the way. But, as the 2016 election demonstrated, broadcast advertising is far from a surefire way to get people to the polls: in the Republican primary, Jeb Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio each spent more than $70 million on ads, and in the general election the Clinton campaign outspent Trump 3-to-1 on TV advertising. All three went on to lose their respective races. The Abrams campaign recognized the shortcomings of broadcast advertising early, calling it a “losing formula” and plowing money instead into a record-breaking ground game of canvassers and phone bankers. She beat her primary opponent, Stacey Evans, who outspent her on TV advertising by a margin of 3-to-1. Abrams’ campaign preference for spending money on talking to voters face to face as opposed to through a screen likely played a role in her primary success. Speaking of talking to people...
Talk To Everyone, Wherever They Are
The single most remarkable feature of the Abrams campaign was the time and resources it poured into registering voters from under-contacted communities. Crucially, once these people were registered, Abrams turned them out on election day by coming to their communities and talking to them where they were. As Abrams put it in an interview with New York Magazine, “You have to go knock on their doors. Go to rural communities, to depressed communities, to communities where there is absolutely no trust in politics or in politicians.” Among other efforts, the Abrams campaign had specific programs to target Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and it was the first campaign in Georgian history to run advertisements in Spanish. Those efforts paid off in spades, as turnout more than tripled among the targeted communities. But Abrams also showed a willingness to talk to rural voters in the deep-red counties that Trump won by double digits, which likely contributed to Democrats’ improved performance among white voters after decades of decline. Such a strategy is backed not only by empirical evidence, but also by a common sense principle: voters, especially those who feel neglected by politicians, appreciate efforts to meet them where they live and talk to them about their issues in their language.
As 2020 Democratic primary fields begin to take shape in races that range from President to Senate to school board, the Abrams campaign model of spending money to talk to everyone where they are, rather than dumping money into TV ads that nobody watches, can serve as a template for candidates up and down the ballot.