At an event on May 20th organized by Way to Win, communications activists, data analysts, and organizers came together “to share lessons across the narrative and messaging landscape and hear new ideas as we get ready for 2022.” The conference was called M3—short for media, math, and movement.
Way to Win is a network of progressive and liberal donors that supports grassroots, long-term mobilizing. In the 2020 cycle, the network raised over $100 million. Among other things, these donations supported large investments in Arizona and Georgia that helped shift those two states to the Democratic column, helping Joe Biden win the presidency and Democrats narrowly eke out a majority in the US Senate.
The 2020 election outcomes are mixed. Joe Biden’s election as president, was, as Way to Win vice president and chief strategy officer Jenifer Fernandez Ancona put it, a “huge electoral victory.” Yet, as Fernandez Ancona acknowledged, of 27 congressional seats rated on Election Day as “toss-ups,” Democrats won none of them.
Overall, Democrats achieved control of both sides of Capitol Hill, but barely. Famously, the net gain of three seats in the Senate (including two in Georgia) resulted in a 50-50 split, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. In the House, the Democrats lost 12 seats, but maintained a nine-seat margin, the narrowest in 20 years.
What lessons did activists at Way to Win’s conference draw from these mixed outcomes? Some themes that stand out are the following:
- While conventional wisdom often calls for attracting swing voters, election data suggest that clear messaging beats moderation pretty much every time. Left-versus-right is rarely the right frame. Fernandez Ancona notes that House Democrats who lost their races focused on protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions, a phrase that policy wonks love but which often leaves voters unenthused, when a “values frame of universal healthcare” would have likely been far more effective.
- In the age of social media, television ads matter less. Successful campaigns rely on microtargeting, for which media like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok are far more effective.
- Polling’s focus on individual voters leads analysts to mistakenly assume voters decide how to vote on their own, observes Michael Podhorzer of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations). Podhorzer contends most people make voting decisions not in isolation, but rather based on conversations with their peers (“reference group”). That is why campaign strategies which aim at persuading “influencers” can be effective.
- In 2020, with some important exceptions (e.g., Arizona, Georgia), Republicans did a better job of turning out voters than Democrats. This had a lot to do with Republicans’ more effective use of microtargeting techniques.
- Latinx voter trends varied by state. In Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, Latinx voters strongly backed Biden and Democrats. But in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York, the trend favored Republicans. Reasons for this shift are complicated, but variation in state-level organizing was identified as one key factor.
- Organizing, notes consultant Emmy Ruiz, takes time and requires patience—or, as Ruiz puts it, “the long game.” As she observes, “Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Georgia didn’t happen overnight. It is going to requires continual investment.”
- Deep organizing matters. Nsé Ufot, CEO of New Georgia Project, which registered over 400,000 Georgia residents to vote last year, notes that “research throughout 2020 showed us that COVID was the number-one issue.” But in the runoff, in one-on-one conversations with voters, organizers learned that receiving stimulus checks had displaced COVID. The slogan “Mitch better have my money,” Ufot notes, became “way more effective than the COVID messaging.” And pivoting to that message was central to the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as senators.
Liberal Myths: Mistaking Corporate Power as Right-Wing Messaging Brilliance
By and large, the conference provided level-headed analysis of both strengths and weaknesses, with a forthright acknowledgement of the organizing and base-building work ahead. But not everything hit the mark. For example, some speakers suggested that Republican donors give to support their economic interests (e.g., to get tax cuts), while Democratic Party donors are values-driven. Data suggest a more complicated reality. Fun fact: In the 2019–20 election cycle, business donors gave $2.48 bil