washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Washington Monthly Illuminates 2018 Democratic Political Organizing

The April/May issue of Washington Monthly includes three outstanding articles addressing facets of Democratic organizing:

Voter Registration Won’t Save the Democrats: Progressives needs to target the large pool of citizens who are registered but don’t bother to vote” by Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris focuses on a frequently-overlooked constituency. As Glastris explains, “data limitations make it hard to prove causal connections. But based on the evidence so far, the law seems mostly to have added to the substantial pool of citizens who are registered but don’t bother to vote.” Further,

…A few weeks before the 2016 elections TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, released a report showing that fifty million more Americans were registered to vote than eight years earlier, a whopping 33 percent increase during the presidency of organizer in chief Barack Obama, himself a big proponent of voter registration. The data showed that the newest voters leaned heavily Democratic.

It goes without saying that these new voters didn’t show up in sufficient numbers, or in the right places, to give Hillary Clinton a victory. In fact, an analysis recently published in the New York Times found that some four million voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 simply failed to vote at all in 2016. What doomed Clinton was not a lack of registered voters, but a lack of turnout.

…But if the chief goal is helping the Democrats win, then concentrating on unregistered voters makes little sense. Consider the arithmetic. There are approximately fifty million Americans who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. But there are far more “episodic voters”—citizens who are registered but often don’t show up. More than 100 million registered voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2014 midterms. About 145 million didn’t vote in the primaries.

These episodic voters are not only far more numerous than unregistered voters, they are also much likelier to change their behavior…A 2016 Pew survey asked people to explain why they don’t vote. Compared to those who were registered-but-infrequent voters, unregistered voters were nearly twice as likely to say that they dislike politics and don’t believe voting makes a difference. Registered-but-infrequent voters, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to say that they don’t vote because they are not informed enough about the issues or candidates to make a good decision.

“If you were designing a system to maximize the Democrats’ electoral chances,” Glastris writes, ” you’d want it to be primarily focused on educating and mobilizing these episodic voters…Episodic voters are the orphans of American politics, ignored and unloved. But they are also the lost continent of American politics, just waiting to be developed. As for potential solutions, Glastris adds:

…One such reform is universal vote by mail, otherwise known as vote at home. With vote at home, polling places disappear. Instead, every registered voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail several weeks prior to an election, which they fill out at their leisure and either mail back or drop off at a secure site. As Washington Monthly contributing editor Phil Keisling has documented in these pages, turnout rates in the three states where the system has been implemented statewide—Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—are among the highest in the country. In Colorado, which launched its vote by mail regime in 2014, overall turnout grew by 3.3 percentage points, and by even more among young and low-propensity voters.

If Democrats were smart, they’d be funding ballot initiatives in at least a dozen states in 2018 to implement universal vote by mail. Instead, nearly all of the available money is being spent on drives to pass election-day and automatic voter registration at the state level. Again, these are worthy reforms, and they will do some good. But betting the farm on registering new voters while ignoring the far larger and easier-to-mobilize population of episodic voters is utter folly.

Also in Washington Monthly, Sahil Desai’s “The Untapped Potential of the Asian Voter: Asian Americans are the Democrats’ fastest-growing constituency, but the party has failed to mobilize them. That’s a major missed opportunity” takes an in-depth look at another neglected group of voters who have begun trending Democratic in recent elections. Desai explains how David Reid, an observant Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, won his election by focusing on Asian-American voters in the district, and adds:

The GOP’s increased nativism after 9/11 has long been a turnoff for Asian Americans, even before Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. Trump has spent the better part of three years fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants—one out of six of whom is Asian. Asian Americans are the biggest beneficiaries of family reunification policies, which Trump and other prominent Republicans have taken to bashing as “chain migration.” (Family reunification is how nearly all Vietnamese and Bangladeshi immigrants have come to America.) Asian Americans might not be the direct target of Trump’s disdain as often as Hispanics, but the modern Republican Party’s increasingly overt hostility to nonwhite immigration can’t help but push them away.

All of which is good news for Democrats. But here’s the problem: Asian Americans have among the lowest voting rates of any racial group in America—49 percent of eligible voters, in 2016, compared to 65 percent among white people and 60 percent among black people. Not coincidentally, they also are less likely to be contacted by parties and campaigns. “Democrats are leaving a lot of votes on the table,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an expert in political demography. “They don’t need 100 percent Asian turnout, but if Asians could come close to what whites vote at, or even blacks, it could have a big difference.”

True, Asian Americans still make up only 4 percent of eligible voters. But they are the fastest-growing racial group in the country and increasingly vote as a Democratic bloc. In other words, Democrats’ failure to mobilize them has been a major missed opportunity for the party. As the Asian American population booms, and as state and national elections continue to be decided by the slimmest of margins, correcting that failure will only become more urgent.

Desai adds that “Of course, it’s crucial for Democrats to turn out Latinos, especially in places like Florida and Arizona. But while there are far more Latinos nationwide, Asian Americans nearly match them in a number of swing states—Michigan and Ohio, for example—and reddish-purple states like Missouri and Georgia.” He notes that “campaigns generally aren’t doing the work to engage with Asian voters. According to a survey following the 2016 campaign, only 29 percent of Asian Americans said that they had been contacted by a political party, compared to 44 percent of whites…non-voting Asian Americans rarely receive the nudge that could push them to the ballot box on election day. Low voting rates beget low voting rates.”

Desai spotlights Asain-American GOTV in Virginia as the exemplary success Democrats should emulate, and the efforts of one group in particular, the Democratic Asian Americans of Virginia (DAAV). Among their strategies:

Democratic campaigns provide DAAV, which became an arm of the Virginia Democratic Party in 2013, with lists of eligible Asian American voters. Then the group, with a phalanx of hundreds of volunteers speaking a variety of languages, targets those voters by phone banking and campaigning door to door. “One of my friends who tags along with me speaks Vietnamese, but doesn’t like to door-knock himself,” said Soeharjono, who immigrated from Indonesia. “There are times when he has to speak. It’s much easier to connect with someone who can speak your language.”

Northern Virginia, where DAAV focuses its efforts, has a substantial number of older voters with limited English proficiency. So the group prepares sample ballots and pamphlets in multiple languages, and has volunteers pass them out at community festivals, such as the annual Korean festival each autumn in Chantilly, Virginia, which attracted 30,000 people last year. Weeks before the November 2017 election, DAAV organized a Diwali celebration for gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, and helped him court voters by writing op-eds in Asian American newspapers. Northam would go on to win in a landslide, buoyed by higher-than-expected turnout among minorities, including Asians.

In his concluding paragraphs, Desai noptes, “The reason to invest in Asian American turnout isn’t just for electoral gains in 2018 (or even 2020). The Democratic Party desperately needs to be thinking beyond the prospect of unseating Trump, to building the type of durable coalition that will deliver victories a decade or even a generation from now…“If Democrats show up, and Asian Americans get to know the party and have contacts with the party, that’ll pay off over the longer run for sure,” said Ruy Teixeira, the political scientist. “But you can’t reap that harvest unless you’re there at the beginning of the growing season.”

Yet another noteworthy article in Washington Monthly’s May/June issue is Gilad Edelman’s “Planet Earth Gets a Ground Game: Political operative Nathaniel Stinnett’s brilliantly simple plan to turn out environmental voters.” As Edelman makes the case, “polls show that the environment is a very low priority for most voters. And persuading them to care more is devilishly hard…The stereotype of an environmentalist is someone deeply engaged in politics: the young Greenpeace volunteer gathering signatures on the sidewalk, the Birkenstock-wearing Baby Boomer who never misses a town hall meeting. But when it comes to voting, the stereotype is backward.”

Edelman relates how a Democratic operative, Nathanial Stinnett came to grips with a central problem facing envirnmentalists in the political realm:

…it’s a lot easier to get someone to vote than to make them care about an Antarctic ice shelf. And it gave him an idea. If there were all these registered voters out there who already prioritized the environment, and simply weren’t voting, then the problem wasn’t really about persuasion; it was about turnout. The size of the gap between the two polls suggested that a potentially huge number of environmental voters, perhaps millions, were routinely sitting out elections. If he could find these people and get them to vote, Stinnett reasoned, they would start getting picked up in models of likely voters in future elections. The environment would climb higher in those likely-voter issue priority polls. Climb high enough, and politicians would start feeling that they can’t win without catering to environmentalists.

…In October 2015, he launched a nonprofit, the Environmental Voter Project (EVP). Traditional environmental activism includes turnout, but it centers around advocacy: coordinating rallies, lobbying elected officials, endorsing candidates, and the like. Stinnett wouldn’t bother with any of that. His organization would have exactly one objective: push environmentalists into the electorate, and trust politicians to respond in their own rational self-interest.

To address the problem, Edelman writes,

Stinnett hired Clarity Campaign Labs, a Democratic-leaning analytics firm, to build a predictive model, beginning in Massachusetts. They conducted thousands of phone surveys, asking people to rate their political priorities. Once they had a big enough sample of people who prioritized the environment, they matched it to a voter file—a list of names, addresses, and voting histories—that itself had been matched up with demographic and consumer data. That revealed correlations between personal information—like your age, what magazines you subscribe to, what stores you shop at—and political priorities. It’s akin to the way online advertisers use our browsing histories to figure out what we’re likely to buy.

Because the data sample is so big, the correlations have tremendous predictive value. The model, which is built anew for each state that the Environmental Voter Project expands into, assigns each registered voter a score from 0 to 100, representing the probability that they would pick environmental issues as a top priority. This allows Stinnett to isolate likely environmentalists, which he defines as people who score at least two and a half times higher than the average registered voter in their state. Then he zeroes in on the ones who are unlikely to vote in the next election. That’s his target group. (Technically, the EVP builds two models per state, using two different measurements of voter priorities, and combines the results to generate the target populations.)

The data indicated that “environmentalists make up around 10 percent of registered voters nationwide—which tracks with recent public polling numbers. In any given election, however, their turnout rate lags between 10 and 20 points below the national average.” Further,

In Florida, about 547,000 registered environmentalists stayed home in 2016. Donald Trump’s margin of victory there was about 112,000 votes. In Pennsylvania, just under 300,000 environmentalists sat the election out; Trump won there by just over 44,000 votes. Both states have gubernatorial and senatorial elections this year, and because turnout is lower in midterms, the number of targets will be much higher than in 2016.

What Stinnett has not figured out is why so many environmentalists don’t vote. There’s no obvious demographic overlap that explains it. Within any given population slice, environmentalists almost always have a below-average turnout rate. When Stinnett surveyed a few hundred of them on a battery of civic participation–related questions, the always-voters and the never-voters gave identical answers.

However, “people who sign a pledge card are 21 percent likelier to vote than the control group, compared to 14 percent for people who say they will vote but don’t sign.” Also, “where the EVP combined remote outreach with in-person canvassing; nothing beats face-to-face interactions for boosting turnout.” Looking ahead, Edelman notes,

…In 2018, Stinnett says, the organization has identified 3.05 million environmentalists in six states who are very unlikely to vote, and will be targeting about 2.4 million of them. (The rest go into control groups.) Most of that will be through direct mail, online ads, and texting, because door-to-door canvassing, which requires boots on the ground, is much harder and more expensive to scale up. Extrapolating from his 2017 results, Stinnett expects to add “anywhere from 67,000 to 108,000 new environmental voters to the electorate,” depending on whether the results are more like Atlanta or more like St. Petersburg.

Edelman’s concluding paragraph brings it all together: “It’s fair to have contempt for politicians who take their cues from opinion polling rather than what’s best for the country. But since we know they do, there’s no excuse for not using it to our advantage. Our political life is besieged by anti-democratic distortions—big money, gerrymandering, nihilistically partisan right-wing media—that threaten to swallow the system whole. But they haven’t yet, quite. On climate change, as with so many other issues that bedevil us, votes are still the most powerful weapon we’ve got.”

And regardless of your top issue priority, that’s the message Democrats must make resonate in every state during the next six monhs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.