Netroots – Turning Red Districts Blue: Organizing for Change
One of my favorite panels at Netroots Nation was the panel discussion entitled Turning Red Districts Blue: Organizing for Change. Panelists were David Atkins (moderator), Darcy Burner, Adam Lambert, Democracy for America’s Arshad Hasan, Matt Browner Hamlin, and Eden James.
Matt Browner Hamlin spoke about his time as Mark Begich’s online communications director in the 2008 campaign.
MBH: The challenge in Alaska is how do you get from a population which is only 23% Democratic to a vote of 50% +1. It was a big hurdle. Most Alaskans are registered as Non-Partisan. What helped the Begich campaign was the narrative that this was a “change election.” The nation, but Alaskans in particular, were ready for some accountability in their state government. This is a message that we wouldn’t have heard 2 years earlier.
The Obama campaign had 35 staff in the state of Alaska. There was lots of internal polling that put Obama up 2-3 points or down 2-3 points between March and August of 2008. The campaign didn’t ever put resources in the state in a public way, but they were feeling optimistic about taking the state. Even if they hadn’t won, it would have forced McCain to spend money in a traditionally red state. “Instead,” he laughed, “they nominated Sarah Palin and used the VP pick to secure those 3 electoral votes.”
Q. “You think you’ve got a candidate. What does it take? How do you message and win in red districts?”
Darcy Burner:There are two ways to do this. 1) Try to find ways to answer questions that won’t be offensive to anyone. There are candidates who win using this. 2) The other way is to be clear about your values, and hope they appreciate that you are principled and honest, because there aren’t many politicians like that. But you must make a choice of one way or the other. You can’t do both. And once you make the choice you have to stick to it. You can’t start wishy-washy and then go principled because people won’t believe you. And it works the same the other way.
Either way, it’s always helpful to focus on the things you have in common.
Q. How do you change the way people think? There’s a difference between electing a Dem and turning a district blue.
MBH:He thinks that Mark Begich missing a huge opportunity to fundamentally change how Alaskans think about the Democratic Party. His campaign chose to go for getting 50% +1 of the vote instead, and worry about reelection in 6 years.
Arshad Hasan – You have to listen to voters. You must go out into the district and see what is important to people, whether it’s property taxes or schools or whatever? Organize people where they are. If you figure out what people want., you may find commonalities even in conservative districts.
Adam Lambert – Take what you hear about shared values and figure out how to connect. Why are you any better than the one that’s in there now? You’ve got to find a way to do it without ticking off someone who has voted for an incumbent 10 or 12 times, and also not alienate your party.
Eden James – In a red district it’s imperative to change the psychology of your supporters. They will feel like it’s hopeless. It means challenging the conventional wisdom. Have the data to support what you’re saying and message it to everyone and tel them to message it to their friends. If you reflect the message back to the district and tell them the campaign is people powered, they will start to believe it. It may take more than one election cycle, because it has to be about the people not the candidate.
Darcy Burner– We need to learn how to use more carrots and fewer sticks. We’re happy to whack people who don’t do what we want, but they don’t get thanks enough when they do the things we do want. It won’t work with every Representative, but we can’t have them feel like “I’m all alone because teabaggers are out there but my friends are not.” If we’re not there for them to protect them, then they won’t want to take big risks for people who are not adequately thanking them.
Arshad Hasan – We can call and email, whether we use carrots or sticks. We need to flex our muscles. We can be supportive, or we can be annoying, but we must be there. Primaries are the ultimate “stick.” We can give pressure from the other side by supporting progressives who more accurately reflect our message.
Q– How do you know when you’ve got a good candidate who isn’t just treating the netroots like an ATM machine?
Darcy Burner – Running for office is an enormous amount of hard work. The question I ask is “Are they willing to do the work?” Most people really aren’t. “If you find someone who is wiling to do the hard work, give them everything you’ve got.”
Arshad Hasan – Yes. That’s more important than issues, or what they have in their bank account. If you aren’t willing to commit your life, then we shouldn’t be willing to commit to you. Back someone FIRST who will put in the hours.
Matt Browner Hamlin– The other thing to look for is a candidate who will spend a lot of time talking to bloggers. They need to have meetings with bloggers to talk about how the campaign is going. There is value in candidates hearing from the progressive base. People are influenced by who they talk to. Don’t work for anyone who doesn’t treat the online community with the same respect as they do traditional media.
Adam Lambert – To a number of candidates outside the bubble, we’re just this unknown mass of people who can be loud and intimidating. But, we are the same activists and the same grass roots people they know, but we have access to a lot of other people. The online activists can use email, blogging or any other social media tool. They need to realize it’s the same grass roots but with exponential power. We’re not all that scary.
Eden James - People who donate $25 to the campaign make an important psychological step in commitment to the campaign. Democracy for America runs a grass roots All Star Competition. You can sign up to win with benefits to the candidate.
Moderator – Go to a DFA training, and encourage candidates to go too!
Arshad Hasan – It’s helpful to build local progressive institutions. Before you call in the DCCC or whatever, go to unions or faith based organizations, or clubs. Get a network of people to go out. Both parties have used the “out of state donations” as an albatross around the neck of a candidate. Don’t fear the national organization.
Darcy Burner – There was a candidate who went door to door throughout his entire district identifying party members and creating an email list of names, which made him very successful in grassroots organizing.
Arshad Hasan – People should be running to win. Find an individual who is really motivated. Also, ask progressives to run for non-partisan offices.
Eden James – One thing to always remember is that sometimes “sacrificial lambs” actually win. Why? Because they are on the ballot. The incumbent can screw up at any time. Even a losing sacrificial lamb gets basic information they can give to the party.
Q. How do we fight against reflexive voting? There are people who vote for Republican just because they’re Republican. They don’t want to learn.
Matt Browner Hamlin – Push Republicans into a position where they say something stupid.
There was no “blogosphere” in Alaska a year and a half ago. You never know when those kinds of situations are going to arise. Thanks to the likes of Mudflats, Shannyn Moore and Linda Kellen Biegel and others, Sarah Palin is no longer in office. Don’t underestimate that force.
Darcy Burner – If the math is such that you can actually meet everyone in your district, do it.
Arshad Hasan – If you go door to door, you can rule out those who would always vote, or who would never vote and really focus on everyone else. Remember that we are dealing with generational and gender prejudices too.
Matt Browner Hamlin – You need to give someone meaningful ways to engage in the campaign, not just send them newsletters or just ask for money. It’s all about building community, meeting up, and going out. Supporters will take you up on opportunities if you give them.
Eden James – Build a blog team. Have weekly conferences with them. Make blog team part of the campaign.
Darcy Burner– The netroots is already good at changing the media narrative around a campaign. Reach out to local bloggers to frame things. “They can also be a good source of fundraising over the long haul. If you’re not willing to invest in building the relationships, it won’t work. It’s not instant. Spend money to make videos to give bloggers and start the relationship building. Those are the only two things we have proven. And those are two very big things.