What Wins Elections? Field Organizing.
Paid media is great, but what about field organizing? An over reliance on paid media is no substitute for recruiting an army of volunteers, and it is leaving too many Democratic voters behind.
Think back to the last time you watched an evening of television, can you remember the name of each of the products for which you saw a commercial? If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t remember a single one. We all just tune out whatever we’re not interested in. This is the dilemma that Democrats faced. In the last election cycle, when they spent a reported roughly $800 million on media, and probably much more, but who was listening?
We now have a partial answer to that question, thanks to one of my favorite polling and think tanks, Data for Progress, which conducted a national exit poll of 1,332 likely voters from November 8 to 10, 2022 that seems to show that Democratic messaging on the economy cut through the noise.
At first glance, this chart looks reassuring when you add together the people who have heard a lot about the issue and the people who have heard some about the issue. However, once you get past abortion, the issues become increasingly complex and subject to Republican distortion. We really need people to have heard a lot about all of them, not just some. Notice also, how quickly the a lot category diminishes and becomes overshadowed by the people who have only heard some.
The “economy and inflation” is a pretty broad category, so the pollsters tried to get deeper to see just which messages came through. When you read the chart below, match up the color of the message with the color on the bar that shows what percentage of voters had heard of the message.
Notice that although they may have heard about these messages from different sources, there is not a great deal of difference between the percentage of Republicans that have heard about them and the percentage of Democrats. What is surprising however, is the dark red column on the right hand end which shows the percentage of voters in the survey who heard of none of these messages.
Paid media isn’t getting through to many voters, or not getting through deeply enough. Then, what about field organizing? We can’t tell just what was spent on field. Campaign expenditures aren’t reported that way. Look at the chart at the top. Take some of Campaign Expenses (most of which are actually candidate and staff travel), take some of Salaries and a little of Administration, and credit that to field. Clearly, very little is spent compared to media and fundraising. Rafael Warnock and his supporters understood this. He had more than 900 paid staffers on the ground, and several grass-roots organizations not affiliated with the Democratic Party also knocked on doors, made calls and otherwise enabled his victory.
Field means opening staffed storefronts in every community and recruiting hundreds, in state-wide races thousands, of volunteers. Volunteers buy into the campaign. They try to convince family, friends, and co-workers. Volunteers put up a lawn sign, and neighbors they didn’t even know come to ask where they can get one. Volunteers are canvassing door-to-door, writing postcards and letters, distributing lawn signs and attending rallies, phone banks, house parties and much more. Here in Manhattan we do visibility at subway stops and “Dear Neighbor” building letters. In the suburbs they hit the commuter railway stations.
If paid media isn’t complemented and reinforced by field, it is only 30 seconds of noise while the viewers have gone to the bathroom where they can avoid being bombarded by one candidate’s commercial after another.
The best campaign practice is to touch every voter at least six ways.
- A media spot.
- A mailing.
- A canvasser visit.
- A letter or postcard.
- A phone call.
- Something visible like a poster, lawn sign or street campaigning.
There are lots more, like meeting the candidate in person, but six types of contact are the minimum. It can’t be done without field.