November 2020

It was past midnight in Pennsylvania, two days after the most consequential election of our lifetimes. Mail-in ballot counts were still underway, swing states had not yet been called, and a president and right-wing media apparatus were spewing false claims about voter fraud in a transparent effort to undermine the electoral process. Even though the presidential vote count was not yet final, the down-ballot carnage was clear. In race after race where passionate volunteers had phone-banked, text-banked, and, eventually, door-knocked, progressives had fallen short of expectations.

Many of those volunteers had been new to voter outreach work in 2016 but were seasoned hands by 2020. They were part of the explosion of civic activism in reaction to the election of Donald Trump sometimes called “the Resistance,” as places and demographics that had not previously been hotbeds of activism — in particular, suburban women of middle age or older — formed local groups and threw themselves into political action. Though some of these grassroots groups are nominally affiliated to national umbrella organizations like Indivisible, Swing Left, or Sister District, those that have thrived often have a locally-driven focus and identity quite distinct from national leadership.

And as national media focused breathlessly on the presidential ballot count, Facebook groups and Slack channels where these grassroots groups do internal communicating and planning were blowing up with a single question: who had a line to a source of addresses to send postcards to Georgia voters — because all the usual organizations had run out of prepped addresses within hours.

In many ways, the hustle to help the Georgia Senate run-offs embodied the very best of the post-2016 grassroots ecosystem. Quickly identifying meaningful electoral targets and concrete avenues for action. Never letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Embracing multiple communications spaces (all those overlapping Facebook groups) within which knowledge and connections spread laterally. Ensuring that group members support and reinforce each other — around kitchen tables, pre-COVID; now via Facebook and Zoom meet-ups — as they take up tools for distributed organizing, like postcards, text messages, and phone-banking. Pouring hours and dollars into thankless hidden labor with no expectation of recognition or reward.

But the feeding frenzy over address lists also suggests a progressive volunteer universe that may misjudge the levers of political change and is at risk of misallocating its efforts as a result.

The simultaneous surge of volunteer energies and new digital platforms for distributed voter outreach in the era of Donald Trump has brought hundreds of thousands of people into the enterprise of voter contacting. Virtually channelled contacting doesn’t require place-based infrastructure, whether organizational or brick-and-mortar, so it can be nationally aggregated and redirected at the drop of a dime. Just ask any swing state voter how many unsolicited texts they were getting by the time October arrived. As a resident of Pennsylvania, I counted twenty different groups texting me in a single week.

The effort to support campaigns far away when everything feels urgent and precarious is an understandable response to the absence of more enduring local infrastructure on the Democratic/progressive side. But it’s not a response that solves that absence. And, when it diverts attention and energy that could be doing the work of local building, it becomes part of the problem itself.

The basic point is a truism among organizers: messages conveyed in the context of pre-existing relationships are far more impactful than anything anonymous ever could be. Your relationships are your superpower. And using them intentionally — alongside other people doing the same — can transform the political landscape around you.

In contrast, when you focus on distant battlegrounds, you are resigning yourself to only the most attenuated tools of political impact and missing the opportunity to address emerging needs closer to home, where your ability to shape outcomes, and to do so in enduring ways, is far greater.

 

OK, But Do Postcards Work?

Since the election of Donald Trump, writing postcards to distant voters has become popular.

Very popular.

Sometimes postcards from strangers are experienced as empowering invitations to play an active role in the political process. Sometimes, not so much. There’s always a risk with a distributed operation that quality control may fail. For instance, a social pressure script that’s already heavy-handed — "whether you vote is public information" — can go awry, as in the case of a Kentucky voter who received what he understood as a threat: "who you vote for is public information." 

The level of impact of postcards in elections is relatively small, although, notably, not that much worse than alternatives like phone-banking and text-banking. Direct voter contacting is a centerpiece of modern professional political campaigns, but the best available evidence shows the impact of anonymously applied campaign voter contact methods can be vanishingly small. Randomized trials of the impact of postcards range from 0.2 to 1.2 percentage point turnout bumps. Door-to-door canvassing has been able to yield a turnout increment of as much as three-to-five percentage points — or as little as zero.  

When a recent carefully crafted and time-intensive deep canvassing experiment generated a three point increment in support of the candidate via follow-up polling, study designers noted this increment was over a hundred times larger than standard voter contact programs, a sobering comment on the latter as much as an endorsement of the former. 

The impact of anonymous long-distance contacting is likely to be particularly minimal in a case like the Georgia special elections, where so much money will already be flooding the zone with "light-touch" campaign outreach: paid ads and voter contacting by a swarm of independent organizations as well as the candidates’ campaigns.

Meanwhile, communicating along lines of pre-existing connection is far more impactful than anonymous contacts. Indeed, even just having canvassers knocking doors in their own zip code rather than elsewhere in the same city has been shown to make a measurable difference

In this sense, to restrict volunteers’ understanding of the ways they can make political change to the kind of one-off anonymous voter contacts most easily reported as metrics or evaluated by experiments does a disservice to those volunteers — and to the organizers seeking to build longer-term political power. 

It's like going to a doctor and saying, I know you have all this knowledge of antibiotics and surgery and so on, but if I had to treat this staph infection just by choosing between Lucky Charms, Cheerios, and oatmeal, which should I choose? 

The right answer is to change the question being asked.

 

What works better?

Here’s the message that volunteers need to hear: you and your networks will maximize your impact not by treating yourselves as interchangeable units in anonymous scaled action but rather by assessing the scope of your existing relational leverage and identifying the urgent political targets that the voters you can reach will decide. 

Sometimes volunteers do this organically. I know a powerhouse organizer south of Pittsburgh who first got involved in politics through a pop-up “Resistance”-focused Facebook group in 2017. Through the group, she knocked doors for a congressional special election and then state legislature campaigns in her region. She also became a postcarding dynamo. By now, she has personally coordinated hundreds of volunteers to write postcards to voters for a dozen down-ballot campaigns over the course of three election cycles: scores of thousands of postcards in total by now. Along the way, she met like-minded folks in her own community. One of them was the chair of the newly revitalized local Democratic committee, who recruited her to fill an empty precinct-person slot. Her first act was to send every voter in her precinct a postcard introducing herself and sharing her contact info for feedback and questions. She now sends follow-ups before each election. Turnout is way up.

Attention to the power of existing relationships can shape not just the application of tactics or techniques but mid-range and long-term strategy as well. If you are a member of a local grassroots group like those I’ve been describing here, you can make relational networks central to your consideration of next steps.

Map out — literally, on a map — the networks of people your group members know, people who know people they know, and people with whom any of you have some concrete connection. That’s the map of your high-impact universe. Then ask yourselves: which electoral target can be impacted by persuading people within that universe to vote differently or vote more often? And also ask: which local or regional organizing campaigns (candidates? issues? referenda?) are underway in areas where our high-impact universe will make a difference, and how can we join up as partners, with “our” voters as our responsibility to move?

Let’s say you’re a member of a Unitarian church in a purple suburb of a purple state, and you are part of a group interested in doing voter engagement in support of racial justice. Abstract writings about the “rising American electorate” might suggest you should focus on voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote doorknocking in the majority-minority neighborhoods of a nearby city. In contrast, a relationship-outward assessment would recognize that your existing social networks offer a rich target vein of people who are not yet voting for criminal justice reform — people who may be susceptible to scare-mongering about “rioters” and “radicals.” Develop plans that start there instead.

A strategic relational framework puts the following trio of questions front and center in evaluating any tactic — or campaign — you are considering:

1) How much impact will it likely have on the outcome?

2) Will it build internal capacity (knowledge, skills, bonds)?

3) Will it strengthen external connections? 

These questions help reveal specific weaknesses of time spent postcarding to distant voters. You send your painstakingly written cards into the void and never hear anything back, about how well they were targeted, how well the script worked, or whether they were even read at all.

The same questions also underline what can be so valuable about face-to-face canvassing (and phone- and text-banking at their best): the canvassers themselves learn so much about how people around them think (or often, don't think) about politics. And, when the targeted race is nearby, volunteers are building connections to each other and other allies along the way.

When volunteers build knowledge and connections that outlast individual campaigns — and work together to make strategic choices about targets for their relational power — everyone, including future campaign staff and movement organizers in their districts, benefits. Local groups immersed in hands-on campaigning build organic understanding of the electorates around them, which pays off in wiser candidate recruitment and better targeted donations. These groups can also intentionally build relationships with activists in adjacent communities who don’t look just like them — working towards the broad-based, multi-racial coalitions needed for long-term change. 

 

The Urgent Task Ahead

There is urgent work to be done exactly within the electorates where America’s post-2016 grassroots groups — the ones formed at the start of Donald Trump’s first term, which have worked so hard to bring it to an end — have the most relational leverage.

These groups are densest in suburbs that moved strongly to Biden but often rejected Democratic candidates down ballot. What is that going to mean for the backlash-against-Biden election of 2022 or, even more immediately, judicial and municipal elections in 2021? Suburban grassroots group members need to build capacity and connections within their own and adjacent communities.

Look at what's happened in the wake of November 3, as bad-faith accusations of voter fraud cascaded from the president downward. Every elected judgeship or county commissioner in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Georgia mattered. Every failed opportunity to elect — two or four or six years ago — a representative who'd feel accountable to a broad constituency to uphold the rule of law added risk. Concerned citizens don't have a time machine to go back and change those races, where even a fraction of the attention cascading into Georgia now could have been transformative. What they can do is recognize what a time traveler from the future would tell them: build everywhere.

To anyone who says "there's no local or state politics around me that needs my involvement; it's all Democrats everywhere here," I would say: if you had talked to a Wisconsin Democrat in the summer of 2010, they could have said the same thing. Wisconsin voted Democratic in every presidential election from 1988 through 2012. It wasn't a battleground until it was. The best time to start building capacity and engaging — and learning from — the electorate around you is before the failure to do so creates a four-alarm fire. 

The lesson isn't "act locally" because that’s all that matters. It's: act locally because that's where you maximize your capacity to build the knowledge, capacity, connections, and leadership pipelines that will drive regional and state-level developments and, in turn, shift the incentives, constraints, and possibilities for national actors.

 

The Bottom Line

Yes, writing postcards offers a way for regular people to feel that they are making some contribution to urgent elections far away, at a time when so much in our political system seems beyond our control. Group leaders or campaign field staff sometimes integrate postcarding into volunteer-building, so it becomes part of a ladder of engagement that includes canvassing, phone-banking, donating, and more. All on-ramps are good on-ramps: agreed.

But it is also critical that we challenge assumptions about what’s beyond our control and widen volunteers’ awareness of the tools through which they can shape political change. Volunteers and those who lead them need to know that existing networks of connection are volunteers’ superpower. Channeling that superpower toward actions that builds local infrastructure to sustain political change needs to be a guiding goal, now more than ever.

 

Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue.

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