I got my first real campaign job during the 2020 cycle. Last March, I joined Jennifer Childers’ team, as her campaign manager, in her contest for the North Carolina General Assembly. When Jen told me what district she was running in, I knew that calling it an “uphill battle” wouldn’t be sufficient.
North Carolina’s 111th state House district is occupied by Tim Moore, the speaker of the House. With the single most powerful state-level Republican as the incumbent, in a county that Trump carried by 30 points in 2016, countless people were wondering what on earth we were thinking.
To this day, I have found that people still wonder what we were thinking. Why invest resources and spend time on the ground in an unwinnable area? Throughout the course of the campaign I and the other members of our team developed a concrete answer to this question: Not every campaign is about winning.
I know that it sounds backwards, but if you go into every single race with winning as your only metric of success, you not only doom yourself to disappointment, but you also have a very short-term view of what it means to succeed. Faced with an almost-certain unfavorable result on Election Day, we decided to come up with our own metrics of success — ones that underscore the sheer necessity of running candidates in every district in the country. Here’s what they are:
Move the needle, even by a little.
While out-performing the candidate who came before you is an obvious metric of success, it’s far too often misunderstood as a competition. Campaigns and candidates who see the results of their election versus their predecessors as a score in a game are missing the entire point of participating in every cycle: sustained growth. The purpose of moving the needle isn’t to earn proverbial bragging rights on your party’s prior candidates, it’s to demonstrate that having teams on the ground as often as possible will continue to make an impact on the politics of the community. Each cycle that you move the needle is one cycle closer to an “unwinnable” district being flipped.
Increasing youth engagement in the party.
When we entered the race, the local Democratic Party was understandably on its last legs. Through meeting with its leadership, we realized a key opportunity for institutional growth. House district 111 is home to Gardner-Webb University, and yet there wasn’t any sustained interaction between the local county party and the students. That’s when we made the decision that our entire campaign staff would be made up of young people. Students drove our work, as a means of ushering in, for the sake of the party, a new generation of young leaders and volunteers in this community. When the current candidates and party leaders have moved on to other jobs and priorities, these young organizers will still be making investments in their communities.
Hearts and minds conversations.
The single most undervalued benefit of a campaign team is exactly this: the ability to have real conversations with real voters. In rural districts more than most, voters aren’t easily swayed by a TV ad or boosted social media post. If you want to change people’s politics, you have to get in front of them face-to-face and talk about what matters.
Each of these metrics underscore the true value of underdog campaigns: it’s not always about winning, it’s about building long-term sustainability through community investment. Did we win our race against a sitting speaker in an R+30 district? Of course we didn’t. Honestly, we were never going to.
But did we move the needle? Yes, by almost four points proving that over time, long-term community investments will eventually bring this district within reach.
Did we engage the young people of the district? Absolutely. In my four years at Gardner-Webb University, I had never seen young leaders on campus so invested in the community’s local politics. It’s an investment that’s certainly not going away anytime soon.
Did we have hearts and minds conversations? Without a doubt, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the highest value our team brought. Because without real conversations, no out-of-reach district will ever be flipped.
Gabriel Hoyle is a 23-year-old political organizer and campaign manager in North Carolina. He is currently working as the North Carolina State Coordinator with Secure the Ballot. You can find him on Twitter at @gbrlhoyle.