Thoughts on Last Night's Election

 

Last night, Democrats narrowly lost two pickup opportunities in congressional special elections -- one in the nationally prominent Georgia 6th and one in the lesser noticed South Carolina 5th.  I will use this space to give a few quick takeaways.

1. The electorate is swinging Democratic

In both elections, Democrats dramatically outperformed historical trends. To illustrate the swing, here's one graph from FiveThirtyEight (Using Decision Desk HQ data).

Now, imagine I was getting married in November 2018 and had 20 pounds to lose in two years to fit into my tux. If I lost 16 (or even six) of those pounds in the first six months, I wouldn't declare victory -- but I would consider that progress extremely promising. Indeed, patience is one of the hallmarks of a successful dieter. The same should be true of campaigns.

2. No outcome last night would have changed the balance of power

No legislation or other congressional action was hinging on Democrats picking up either seat. These seats, Georgia in particular, were instead seen by many pundits as symbolic battlegrounds to determine "morale" heading into 2018 and "momentum" around the GOP healthcare repeal.

But morale is totally within the control of Democratic activists, donors, and leaders. We have full control over how we react to these results and can't just throw up our hands because we didn't get all of the way there in a few special elections.

Some folks say Democrats "needed a win." Why? We have to be more disciplined than that. We wanted a win; we didn't need one. We lost, and we are still here. We have just as many important battles ahead.

There will be many ups and downs over the next four years (and beyond). For Democrats to win sustainably, they have to follow a pattern of self improvement for every election cycle and special election:

  • Everyone gives what they can -- time, expertise, and/or money -- to the institution(s) they most trust to provide the outcome they desire. That can be individual campaigns or the DCCC, DNC, DSCC, DLCC, Swing Left, Sister District, Indivisible, etc...
  • Win or lose, those institutions evaluate successes, failures, and opportunities after every election (and hopefully on a more regular basis) while supporters perform their own self-assessment -- evaluating whether they truly gave all they could to the cause.
  • Those institutions communicate to supporters what they learned/what they can do differently unless said knowledge is confidential due to strategic importance.
  • Supporters recommit to the same institutions, find new ones to engage with, or start something new to fill the gap.

If everyone calmly and productively asks what they can do differently after each of these opportunities and truly dedicates themselves to improvement, we will inch ever closer to victory.

So what can we do differently? I've identified at least two major challenges -- one that The Arena is of limited ability to help overcome and one that we can play a more significant role in shaping.

3. Republicans continue to dramatically outspend Democrats in independent expenditures

I spoke to a Democratic friend last night who complained about the heavy spending in the GA-6 race:  "We outspent them so much and still lost. I am not wasting my money anymore."

This seems to be a common enough sentiment that we should take it seriously. Many folks seem to think Democrats outspent Republicans because of graphs like this.

Source: New York Times

It's true that, due to a surge of Democratic enthusiasm, Ossoff received dramatically more direct contributions than Handel. This is a big deal.

However, as anyone who has read Jane Mayer's Dark Money is all too familiar with, the GOP has historically trounced Democrats in spending by outside groups. That imbalance continued in GA-6.

Source: New York Times

When independent expenditures are accounted for, Handel actually outspent Ossoff.

But it's not just the amount of money that matters. These independent expenditures often yield the most nasty, unethical ads in each cycle because they give a candidate benefitting from the spending plausible deniability over the content. Handel was able to say she had nothing to do with ads suggesting a loose connection between Ossoff and the shooting at the congressional baseball game. Ossoff,  by contrast, had to take full ownership over most of the ads run in his campaign.

The lesson of this asymmetry is not that we should slow down direct contributions to campaigns. Those contributions matter and have their own strengths. For example, though Ossoff may have been frustrated that he didn't have as vicious an independent attack dog in his corner, he probably benefitted from having direct control over so many resources.

However, we have to remedy this imbalance in outside spending or we will watch strong candidate after strong candidate drown in a sea of unaccountable negative ads. Major Democratic donors have been more reluctant thus far to give large sums to Super PACs. Either that must change, or someone must invent a tool to motivate and aggregate grassroots funding to independent work in ways similar to how Swing Left has done so for direct contributions for campaigns. I suspect both must happen for us to achieve the change we seek.

4. There's widespread recognition that Democratic messaging still isn't landing with voters

I don't draw any conclusions about Democratic messaging from the Georgia 6 runoff. I don't know the district well and wasn't following the back-and-forth between the two candidates closely.  Most Democratic leaders and pundits are in the same position as me, but that didn't stop many of them from declaring that the core Democratic message in the race didn't work.

Though I don't have strong opinions about Ossoff's message, I firmly believe Democrats must spend significant time between now and the heart of the 2018 season (which is fast approaching) crafting values-driven messages that communicate real improvements to people's lives. These messages must be vibrant and simple.

At Arena, our theory of the case is that this work of identifying an effective combination of values, stories, and policies will come from direct work with candidates in districts around the country. For 2018, there won't be one Democratic message but instead many different messages that best reflect the realities of the communities across the country. Of course, there will be some unity in these messages and some of this work will inform the 2020 platform, but we can't yet ask for homogeneity.

In short, we at The Arena believe in a bottom-up approach to determining the story of the Democratic Party. We are spending the bulk of the foreseeable helping candidates across the country to hone their values, story, and policies. If you are interested in this work, check out our spotlight program, donate to our efforts, or reach out about how to help with our fellowship program.

Ravi Gupta