Democrats Need a Long-Term Persuasion Machine. Here’s How to Build It.

Leading a Republican to water

Top Photo: Leading a Republican voter to water

Between now and Election Day 2020, Democrats have a lot of persuading to do. It won’t be easy — and Donald Trump is already well ahead of us.

First, the problem: outside of the suburbs, Democrats aren’t winning many white voters. We’ve perfected different voter-contact and turnout models, but they usually work by identifying sympathetic voters and making sure they go to the polls. But as we saw on Election Day last year, turning out OUR voters may not get us far enough — yes, we could run up the score in the popular vote and take over the House, but Republicans could still win enough Senate seats, governorships and state legislative races to keep us from getting much done.

Short of amending the Constitution to allocate power by population, Democrats can’t just talk amongst ourselves if we really want to expand healthcare, stop voter suppression and make our tax system more fair. We HAVE to peel at least some votes away from the Trump coalition, enough to make us competitive beyond the cities and close-in suburbs. We have to change some minds.

Which brings us to the second part of the problem: most of Trump country won’t give Democrats the time of day. If you live in a place like East Texas (where I grew up), you can go a long time without encountering a liberal/progressive/Democratic idea in its undistorted state, at least if you’re white.

Waiting in the doctor’s office? Fox News is on. Waiting to have your brakes fixed? Fox News is on. Clumping on the treadmill at the gym? Fox News is on. You can switch the channel, but you can’t change the narrative: before Sinclair brought Boris Epsteyn into millions of living rooms, local news in places like Texas was already out-Foxing Fox. Meanwhile, conservative talkers fill the radio dial, mocking straw-man liberals to their advertisers’ content.

If you’re a white Democrat in Trump country, you learn to keep your mouth shut — which only compounds the problem. As political science research has shown for decades, most of us make voting decisions based largely on what we hear from friends and family. The current crop of Trump voters may have no one in their lives presenting an alternative to the vision put forth by the Right-wing media machine.

Does it matter what policies Democrats champion or even enact? Not really — actual Democratic ideas can’t make it through the Fox/Limbaugh/Breitbart filter bubble without mortal damage. A “death panel” lurks in every progressive idea as it’s portrayed on Fox, and no Democrat’s motives can possibly be pure. So how can Democrats chip enough voters of the Trump monolith to make us competitive in areas we need to win? It’ll take people, money and technology — and we need to move fast.

Persistent Persuasion

If part of the problem is that liberal & Democratic voices are rare in Trump Country, let’s make them more common. Step one: hire long-term field organizers, perhaps a dozen or two in small states and more in a place like Missouri. For an example, look to Michigan, where after 2016, Democrats invested in a field program reaching the entire state:

When Stabenow, already thinking of how to pull off a fourth term, showed up to meet with party leaders in January, they were already cutting the budget in search of $300,000 to cover the salaries of 10 field organizers at about $40,000 each. For the rest, they took a chance: hire the organizers, and make hosting small fund-raisers to pay their salaries part of the job. Stabenow cut a check for $150,000 from her campaign account for the very inventively titled Project 83 — because it was about getting the party active again in all 83 Michigan counties.

By April 2017, organizers were knocking on doors all over the state, earlier than the party had ever activated before. It had always waited to see who the candidates were, what went down in the primaries. It had always sent people out with a list of talking points to promote. This time, they were told to have a conversation, to find out what people were talking about.

That last line is critical: field organizers shouldn’t just talk to the converted. Instead, they have to meet people where they are. They should be at the coffeeshop where the old guys talk politics every day, at the barbershop and the beauty salon, at the town holiday festival, at the church social — at the places where people both express and form opinions.

Grassroots Persuasion

Of course, party-paid field organizers can’t be everywhere, but they don’t have to be. Millions of Americans have joined some part of the Trump Resistance since the 2016 elections. They’ve shown up at rallies, donated to Democratic candidates and volunteered to knock on doors and call potential voters. If we need to pick off the people at the edges of the Trump coalition one by one, friends and family are likely to provide the most effective route to their hearts — they know what motivates their individual targets. Why can’t the party mobilize its activists in the long months between election seasons?

Once again, we have a good example close at hand: Barack Obama created a comprehensive digital toolkit more than ten years ago that helped local activists organize themselves, with basic training often delivered online. They could set up events, invite friends, sign up for volunteer shifts, build individual fundraising campaigns, join training webinars and strategy conference calls — they could become active members of the campaign. As elections drew near, field staff could step in and coordinate a vibrant volunteer network, not create one from scratch.

Combine the Obama model with innovations from groups like Indivisible and new technologies like peer-to-peer texting and relational organizing and you’d have a powerful, coordinated mechanism for reaching voters year-round — a persuasion machine based on human relationships, not just data.

Not that data doesn’t have a role to play! Field organizers will both gather data and put it to regular use, creating the kind of feedback loops that have helped Democrats refine and target persuasion and GOTV in state after state (though apparently not in Michigan in 2016). Data will help this kind of persistent persuasion campaign identify and prioritize voters most likely to be disenchanted with Trump and possibly open to new ideas, and it will underlie the third component: persuasion advertising.

Long-Term Persuasion Advertising

If we can’t pierce the Fox bubble with good policy and good candidates, let’s use money instead. Paid digital advertising on Facebook, YouTube, Hulu and a host of content websites can reach people who never speak to a live Democrat in the course of a given day. Take note: the Trump campaign is already investing heavily in persuasion advertising, with his messages on immigration and other topics ringing loud and largely unanswered in the Rust Belt and other areas where his team wants to shore up his support.

Democratic digital ads aimed at wavering Trump voters would likely work best if they combine policy ideas with appeals to basic American (and often Christian) values. The goal? To open people’s mental doors to the idea Democratic policies may have actual value, and to prepare the ground for later field outreach and TV advertising.

Like Trump’s persuasion campaign, these ads would need to start as soon as possible and keep rotating at least until the Democrats have a nominee. Ideally, though, some version of this persuasion machine would persist between elections. Democrats have a terrible habit of building infrastructure for presidential years and letting it die of neglect in between, and a persuasion campaign depends on a constant drumbeat of messaging.

Naturally, just like Trump’s 2016 Facebook ads, Democratic digital content would also yield data. What messages are resonating, and with which slices of the targeted electorate? Which messengers seem to be the most effective? What images catch the eye and generate clicks? On Facebook, each piece of persuasion content creates a new audience for engagement, since everyone who interacts with the content becomes part of a reengagement audience.

Naturally, Facebook content targeted at Trumpy demographics can attract nasty reactions that undercut its effectiveness, so a persuasion campaign may benefit by building a core of support in a given area before running ads (a “beachhead” model). Banner ads and pre-roll video don’t suffer that problem, and they can be targeted with great precision, but they lack the possibility of peer-to-peer social sharing. Smart campaigns would mix channels to reach voters through many different angles, knowing that persuasion is ultimately as much about repetition as the quality of the content (for an example, see Limbaugh, Rush). One-and-done outreach will rarely cut it.

An Integrated Persuasion Campaign

An ideal persusion campaign would therefore combine professional field staff, volunteers and data-targeted digital outreach to reach voters where they live — and anywhere else they’re likely to spend their time. Note that Trump’s reelection campaign is starting to look a lot like the integrated outreach operation I’m describing!

His persuasion work has an obvious home, since he’s starting his 2020 campaign earlier than any incumbent president in history. For Democrats without a nominee for another year, the question of where a long-term persuasion campaign would live is less clear. Ideally, the Democratic Party would coordinate it, and the DNC’s digital team is apparently building an internal team for digital advertising and targeting.

But when I’ve discussed the idea with experienced digital Democrats, I’ve often heard that the party simply isn’t set up for a campaign like this. Perhaps it would have to live in an outside group, and it’s noteworthy that an organization like PrioritiesUSA is building out the kind of digital analytics team that could support large-scale persuasion outreach. Still, something like this would surely need to integrate at least with the state parties for field organizing. Perhaps a large-scale investment in long-term field staff and grassroots organizing tech paid-for by the party, plus digital advertising run by an outside group?

Even After Trump, Democrats Need to Persuade

At this point in the 2020 campaign, it appears that Democrats may be able to rely on anti-Trump sentiment to win the White House — after all, we won the popular vote in the House by 8.6%, a margin that would yield a near-landslide for a Democratic presidential candidate. But what if the situation changes and squishy Trump voters come home? And perhaps more significantly, what about 2022, and 2024, and 2026, and what about state-level elections? Democrats have traditionally dropped off more than Republicans in non-presidential years, and a Democratic president can’t do much without a friendly House and Senate. Look what happened to Barack Obama once Mitch McConnell controlled the Senate, and also look to the terrible policies now being passed by arch-conservative state legislatures (looking at you, Alabama). Presidential turnout alone will not fix these problems — Democrats need to turn out every year, and we need to grow our ranks in critical states and regions.

The Republicans have run a persistent persuasion campaign for decades, in the form of talk radio and Fox News. To have a chance to win outside of our urban bastions, Democrats need an equally persistent campaign to connect voters with some semblance of the truth. We know how to do it — we know how to build a modern grassroots toolkit, we know how to hire and deploy field staff, and plenty of digital Democrats know exactly how to run data-driven persuasion advertising on a large scale. What we need is the will to create a system to put the pieces together and put them to work. Because Trump and the Republicans already are.


Written by
Colin Delany
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