This week I’ve been listening to The Wilderness podcast about the path to victory for Democrats in the presidential election. During the fourth episode of the second season, “Chapter 4: The Southeast,” the host of the show, former Obama head speechwriter Jon Favreau, interviews Stacey Abrams about how she accomplished her historic run for Governor of Georgia in 2018.
Abrams came incredibly close to becoming the Governor of Georgia even though there hasn’t been a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion for a decade, there has never been an African American woman Governor of Georgia (oh, wait that’s every state), and voter suppression is historically embedded in Georgia’s electoral system.
Abrams’ approach to her groundbreaking race in a very difficult state holds lessons for Democratic candidates here in Idaho and in Canyon County.
Work on both expanding the electorate and winning over existing voters
Abrams’ strategy included both registering new voters as well as campaigning in places where “Democrats had given up hope.”
Abrams’ campaign increased the youth vote in Georgia by 139% and the black vote by 40%. In fact, more black voters voted for her in 2018 than the total of all Democrats who voted for Governor just four years before. Abrams explained that only 20% of new registrants are likely to turn out to vote, so her team made sure people who were newly registered were educated on the importance of their vote as well as the process of how to vote.
Abrams did not stop with expanding the electorate. She also campaigned to “low-propensity voters,” those who are unlikely to vote, and “swing voters,” those who frequently change their political ideology.
Abrams explained that new registrants, low-propensity voters, and swing voters are likely to ignore political advertising on TV, radio, and social media. Instead she explains that “these voters need talked to,” which is why she made her field team the foundation of her campaign.
Focus on voter outreach and build the field team early
Abrams started building her field team in June and July of 2017 for her election in 2018. Because of this, “We were able to knock on doors and have thoughtful conversations months in advance of both the primary and the general.” As her team raised more money, they expanded their field team.
She explained that if her team didn’t talk to voters and “explain to them why their vote would matter, all the advertising in the world wouldn’t matter, because they would essentially ignore it.” They eventually bought TV and digital advertising, but “field had to be the baseline.”
Build local teams
Abrams’ team focused on addressing specific community needs instead of high-level ideas like “jobs and healthcare.” To do this effectively they hired their organizers locally. They didn’t hire organizers from Atlanta and bus them to Albany, they hired organizers from Albany. She explains, “We made sure we had people from community talking about community so that their connection to the vote was real and authentic.” This also ensured that she wasn’t just another politician showing up in a community asking for votes and leaving only empty promises behind, she was training local people in political activism and organizing.
At the end of the interview with Abrams, Favreau summarized some important points he’d heard from multiple politicians including Abrams while making his podcast.
“The people who aren’t voting may look like Democrats, but that doesn’t mean their views are aligned with Democratic activists or regular Democratic voters. They are more skeptical of politicians and more disappointed with politics in general. These voters can be persuaded to vote if organizers and candidates are willing to show up and listen to their concerns and not just a few weeks before the election.”
Our local Democratic candidates can learn a lot from Abrams. We need local organizers having important conversations about what is needed in each community, and we need these organizers on the ground early.