The last year taught us plenty. For one thing, who knew face masks come in so many colors? In politics, the lessons were a bit more practical. Here are three that future campaigns ignore at their peril.
Lesson 1: Money can’t buy love.
For decades, Democrats were used to being outspent by Republican campaigns. Big political money flowed more to the right than the left, and Democratic candidates generally had to outperform their bank accounts to win. Grassroots donations helped Barack Obama flip that dynamic twice at the presidential level, and 2018 showed that Democrats could do the same down-ballot. Inspired by that success, activists poured money into races for the House, Senate and state legislatures in 2020, helping campaigns spend sums that would have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago. They cruised to easy victories, right?
Wrong! Even insanely well-funded candidates like Jaime Harrison in South Carolina got crushed, despite vastly outspending their opponents and the independent groups supporting them. What happened? Money can buy ads, but not love, particularly in a year when politics saturated American televisions.
I suspect that the paid-media blitz may even have backfired in some cases. Democrats’ high-volume advertising made the stakes in the election clear even to people who abhor politics, many of whom sincerely believed that Joe Biden was going to come for their guns, unleash anarchists in their living rooms and abolish hamburgers. Note: secret weapons usually work best when they’re secret, not when they’re blaring out of every screen in sight.
Of course, President Trump’s unique charms had the same magical effect on conservative voters that they did in 2016, creating a personal connection no TV ad could break. The pandemic also blunted Democrats’ grassroots organizing advantage, pushing canvassers off the streets and limiting them to remote tactics like mass-texting beleaguered battleground state voters. But Democratic grassroots donors still gave and gave, hoping that their dollars could drive Republicans out of office up and down the ballot. Unfortunately for them, money alone won’t win elections — Democrats also needed messages that could reach beyond people already inclined to agree with them.
Lesson 2: Likes and tweets don’t vote.
Democrats fought many of their battles in-house and on Twitter, with the prominence of AOC, the Bernie Bros and the cancel-culture team suggesting that the party’s center of gravity had moved firmly in their direction. If purity tests were the new normal on the left, would the resulting circular firing squad shoot down the party’s chance to drive a historically unpopular president from the White House?
Meanwhile, Trump ruled those parts of the social internet not obsessed with refighting Hillary vs. Bernie circa 2016. Trump’s Twitter has functionally programmed cable news shows for years, and his Facebook fans routinely filled the nation’s news feeds with “swole Trump” memes and the like. Joe Biden? Not a tweeter, not a Facebook star, and definitely not swole. Obviously, the former VP was doomed to fail in his third try for the leadership of the Free World.
Wrong again! If social media determined our elections, Bernie Sanders would have replaced two-term President Ron Paul in 2016. But in the real world, likes and tweets don’t vote — people do. More pragmatic and diverse in their views than the activists on Twitter, the actual Democratic electorate voted for a candidate who offered steadiness over revolution. When Biden took on Trump, though, would he be outgunned online? Would he cede the digital battlefield to a right-wing disinformation machine?
Knowing they couldn’t compete head-to-head with Trump online and win, Biden’s team sailed a more subtle tack. Unlike many Democratic campaigns of the past, they worked with activist networks and individual creators to reach niches of the internet they didn’t have time to try to penetrate themselves. They also tried to peel off voters with content designed to counter the smears without reinforcing them in the process. Their strategy didn’t work everywhere, and it didn’t help down-ballot Democrats enough to set up a national governing coalition. But it did the job well enough to help Biden win.
Lesson 3: Democrats have a lot of persuading to do.
Biden’s victory ultimately depended on a simple fact: Democratic campaigns and grassroots organizations know how to turn out their votes. Over the past fifteen years, they’ve tried, tested and optimized strategies to get their voters to the polls. The 2020 results showed a fundamental problem, though. Democrats know how to preach to the choir, but they’re not so good at bringing new people to church.
I have my own ideas about how to reach out, from long-term field organizing to targeted digital advertising, but the details matter less than the commitment to expanding the base in every community in the country. How could Republicans paint so many perfectly reasonable state-legislative candidates with a socialist brush? In part, because Democrats didn’t have anyone advocating on their behalf on the ground.
Too many years of neglect and too much focus on the big races have left local Democrats alone and often reluctant to speak their minds. If you’re from a community like the East Texas town I grew up in, virtually all of the public discussion veers conservative, often of the rabid variety. Democrats learn to keep their mouths shut or face the social consequences.
If they want to have a chance to win more than the bare minimum of Senate races or avoid another redistricting disaster, the left has to learn from the years-long effort to organize Georgia and start showing up for the long term. They also have to learn another lesson from the Biden campaign. They have to listen, particularly since it’s an article of faith among grassroots Republicans that liberals do nothing but condescend to them. Rather than talking down to worried voters, Biden’s team took the very real fears that helped right-wing smears resonate seriously. Good political organizers do this as a matter of course, but too much of the Democratic party establishment and too many left-leaning Twitter activists do not.
Successful political messages must speak to people’s real concerns, or they can’t counter the fake ones put out by political actors with no scruples about how they hold power. Democrats can’t persuade everyone, but they don’t have to — they only have to persuade enough people. But if they don’t try, they’re likely doomed to frustration and failure. If too many voters won’t trust you with power, all the good policy ideas in the world won’t help a soul.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.