Nobody likes to lose elections and when you’ve put has much heart and soul and time and effort into it as I and many of my friends have, it’s particularly depressing. I started working with a team of people in Washtenaw County to organize at the local level in February of 2013. From that moment until 8:00 p.m. last night, I was never worried about the election. I always had something I could do to affect the outcome. I could write something. I could make a phone call. I could compose an email or create training materials or or plan a meeting or any number of an endless list of things organizers do. It allowed me to focus on the moment I was in and not get stressed out about the potential outcome.
At 8:00 p.m. last night, however, there was nothing more to do except pour a glass of Eclectagrog and hope for the best.
After stopping by House Rep. Gretchen Driskell’s post-election party in Dexter to congratulate one of the only candidates we supported who won, Anne and I made our way to the MGM Detroit to join with so many of the friends we have made over the past couple of years as a rewarding benefit of being politically active. By the time we got there, Gary Peters had already made his victory speech, Terri Lynn What’s-Her-Name had already botched her concession speech (staff claimed it wasn’t a concession speech), and the Detroit Free Press had already called the gubernatorial race for Rick Snyder.
As the results rolled in, it was clear it was going to be a Democratic bloodbath. And it was.
So, why was it a bloodbath? That was the question almost everyone I talked to at the party was asking. “What did we do wrong?”
- We raised way more money than in the past.
- We got started much earlier on grassroots organizing and emphasized it far more than in past midterm elections.
- More groups were working to help Democrats win than every before.
- The Democratic Party reached out to and activated minority groups and women and groups focused on issues like LGBT civil rights and marriage equality, the environment, and labor far better than it ever has.
- The anti-Obama backlash was not nearly so prevalent as it was in 2010.
So why? Why the blow out?
I can tell you what it was not. It was not because the Michigan Democratic Party screwed up. Former MDP Chair Mark Brewer stormed around the MGM Detroit last night, publicly embarrassing himself by blaming current Chair Lon Johnson for losing a “winnable race” and refusing to shake the hands of people who supported Johnson in the 2013 Chair race. Those of us on the ground who have spent the past decade organizing at the grassroots level know that this is absolutely ridiculous. What the MDP did this year was truly outstanding. We had more resources, more coordination, and more new and innovative ideas than the MDP has ever had in my experience. It was a refreshing change to have a Chair who actually understands the concept of “Field”.
Consider this: Rick Snyder got over a quarter million votes less than he got in 2010 while Mark Schauer got about 190,000 more than Virg Bernero. In Washtenaw County where I live (as does Rick Snyder) and organize, Snyder got 7,636 fewer votes this year and Mark Schauer got 8,401 more than Virg Bernero. Bernero won Washtenaw County by a slight 2% margin in 2010. Yesterday, Mark Schauer won by a whopping 14 points. In 2010 Bernero got beat statewide by over 18 points while Snyder won this year by only four.
Was everything executed perfectly? Of course not. Any effort of this magnitude, particularly a new effort, is going to make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. But what Johnson accomplished in his short year and half at the helm of the MDP is impressive and to suggest that the blame for these losses can be laid at his feet is absurd. Mark Brewer’s pathetic public display of sour grapes reflects poorly on him. He could learn from the example of Jennifer Granholm who has refused to criticize her successor now that she’s no longer governor.
But still, we did get blown out in Michigan and across the country in general. Why? I think it was a perfect storm of several factors:
Tea party hatred of Democrats + corporatist love of malleable Republicans = marginalized Democrats
The 2010 Republican wave can be attributed almost entirely to anti-Obama tea party vitriol and organizing. While Democrats rested on their laurels after a resounding win in 2008, the tea partiers, funded and aided by wealthy corporatists like the Koch brothers, were loosed upon our electoral landscape and dominated the conversation. When all was said and done, they were the ones who got their people to the polls by out-organizing and out-hustling Democrats.
This year, the tea party presence was there but not nearly so potently. However, the corporatists were much more involved than ever before. The insane amount of money spent by Koch brothers front groups and other fake groups put together for the sole purpose of protecting the profit statements of corporate America was astonishing. Even in Michigan’s 6th District where a crowd-funded effort shepherded by MaydayPAC spent over $2.1 million to defeat Fred Upton, it couldn’t compete with the massive spending by Upton’s friends, friends who he protects with his votes and, more importantly, with his actions as Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.
While there were a few PACs spending on behalf of Democrats, it was a lopsided equation and the combination of tea party vitriol and corporate funding of candidates swamped out efforts on behalf of our candidates.
Michigan Democrats have been in the minority during the last two census years – 2000 and 2010 – when Congressional, state House, and state Senate districts were redrawn (both during Mark Brewer’s tenure as MDP Chair I might add.) That allowed them to draw districts in very clever ways that make sure Democrats are corralled into areas with almost all Democrats but with low voter turnout and Republicans are in control in areas where the turnout is high. Consider this: of the 110 state House districts, 75 of them were won by a margin of 60% or more. 12 of those were won by 80% of the vote or more, all but one of which were won by Democrats. In other words, 68% of our state House districts are simply not competitive.
These same trends are duplicated in our state Senate and Congressional Districts.
This sort of tilting of the playing field, which allowed more Congressional seats to be won by Republicans in 2012 despite Democrats winning the popular vote, means Democrats have to win by incredible margins just to squeak out a victory. In close races, the task is often insurmountable.
This is all the more reason for us to make sure we win big in 2016, 2018, and 2020.
Republicans are benefiting from the successes of Democrats
When Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm took office in 2003, she inherited a hot mess left to her by corporatist Governor John Engler and his Republican cronies in the legislature. Engler had neglected to spend money on road and bridge repair in order to funnel it into other things like tax cuts, leaving us with crumbling roads and devastated infrastructure. During the final lame duck session, Republicans went hog wild and spent down every fiscal reserve available and passed laws putting Granholm and her administration on the hook for future spending that they had no revenues for. When she was elected, I never believed that Granholm could ever be elected for a second term because she would have to take such draconian steps to repair the damage by Engler and his pals that she’d be unelectable. That turned out not to be the case and, in an event that I doubt could ever happen today, she beat skabillionaire Dick DeVos in 2006.
During her tenure, Granholm put an enormous amount of effort into diversifying Michigan’s economy. This is an ongoing effort and something that can take years to pay off, but she knew it simply had to be done for Michigan’s long term economic health. When the Great Recession hit, Michigan took it on the chin harder than any other state. Yet, the steps that Granholm took helped us to begin recovering jobs before she even left office.
Here’s a graph from Michigan Public Radio that shows what Granholm, working with the Obama administration, accomplished:
Then Rick Snyder came along and took credit for that, despite the fact that we had 5th highest unemployment rate in the country when he took office and remain 5th highest in the country today. In fact, as MPR’s Lester Graham points out, of the “300,000 new private-sector jobs” Snyder takes credit for creating, only about 10,000-15,000 per year are the result of anything he has done. The rest of it can be chalked up to an overall better national economy and payoff from the initiatives put in place by his predecessor.
It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, right? Republicans come in, slash spending and services to pay for huge tax cuts, and then Democrats have to come in and clean up their mess later. After things begin looking up, Republicans come in, point to “tax-and-spend Democrats” as demons to win the election, and take credit for the improvements that were begun by Democrats.
That’s exactly what Rick Snyder and his Republican colleagues did this year.
So, what do we do about this? Clearly we need to continue to put our energy in to organizing and getting out the vote. Bridge has an excellent interactive map that shows two things. First, overall vote was down from 2010. Second, Democrats voted in much larger numbers than in 2010 in nearly every county. Check it out:
While the increase in Democratic midterm voters wasn’t enough to win this year, it is a trend that we can and should continue. Investing in grassroots infrastructure, starting at the county level, is crucial. While we did turn out 190,000 more Democratic voters for Mark Schauer than we did for Virg Bernero, that’s less than a quarter of the over 900,000 drop-off voters we were targeting. In other words, we have much room to improve.
The fine activists at CREDO SuperPAC look at things from a more national perspective and give this assessment:
Statement by Becky Bond, president of CREDO SuperPAC:
“Democrats have lost the Senate, and what happens next is going to depend a lot on what President Obama is willing to stand up and fight for,” said Becky Bond, president of CREDO SuperPAC. “If the President had fought for the priorities of his base, and if the Democratic party had invested in voter mobilization on the ground instead of vaporizing hundreds of millions in negative television advertising, Democrats would not have lost the Senate.”
CREDO INVESTED IN BOOTS ON THE GROUND — NOT WASTEFUL NEGATIVE TV ADS
CREDO SuperPAC was the first outside group to open field offices in multiple key states, hire local organizers, and recruit local volunteers to talk to progressive drop-off voters in Colorado, Michigan, Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. CREDO SuperPAC volunteers made over 2 million local phone calls to voters and knocked on 63,766 doors in our target states.
CREDO SuperPAC’s on the ground voter mobilization work helped put Gary Peters over the top in Michigan, where organizers set up a field office and organized local volunteers to get out the vote against extremist Republican Terri Lynn Land. Local volunteers made 282,069 phone calls and knocked on 12,489 doors.
CREDO SuperPAC’s local volunteer voter contact campaigns helped turn out the progressive base by working on the ground for months engaging voters and getting them to the polls to vote against Terri Lynn Land. In North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, and Georgia, there simply wasn’t enough investment across the board in voter mobilization to put Democratic candidates over the top.
In contrast to the billions spent on television ads on the Democratic side by candidates, Party Committees and outside groups – CREDO’s substantial field effort cost only $1.5 million, raised with an average grassroots contribution of $23.
VOLUNTEER FIELD > PAID NEGATIVE TELEVISION ADS
Research has shown that having local volunteers make personal contacts to voters at the doors and on the phones is the most effective way to influence voters at the polls. There is virtually no research that shows a strong mobilization effect generated by negative television advertisements — and voters remembrance of television advertisements starts to decay almost immediately. A quality conversation at the door or on the phone, on the other hand, has been shown to have impacts that last for years.
The contrast between 2010 and 2014 in terms of this sort of midterm election ground game was stark. My own experience was truly profound. In 2010, I ran a GOTV canvass station near downtown Ann Arbor with its dense concentration of liberal Democrats. Over the four-day push to get out the vote, we had probably 6-8 volunteers, most of whom did one shift and never returned. The only reliable canvassers we had were my wife Anne and our field organizer’s boyfriend Eric.
This year we had more volunteers for our first Saturday morning shift than we did in all of 2010 and we were in Dexter, eight miles from liberal Ann Arbor. This scene was repeated across the state. No, of course we can’t abandon the airways to Koch/DeVos-funded attack ads. But we absolutely must continue to organize heavily at the grassroots level, focus on person-to-person contacts, and put in place a sustainable grassroots infrastructure that does not have to be re-created every two years.
And, above all, we cannot lose faith or allow momentary losses to keep us from fighting for our values and beliefs. I’ll leave you with a quote by Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes of the civil rights movement in America. He posted the quote after yesterday’s Democratic losses and it was reposted on Facebook this morning by my dear friend and Mark Schauer staffer Stephanie Anderson-White (who is also the wife of Eclectablogger Emma White):
You cannot become bitter or hostile. You have to keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. This is not a struggle of a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.
Yes, it’s a depressing day. But do not allow this to make you quit or abandon the fight. The political battles we fight for our values and beliefs are never completely won. But neither are they ever completely lost. We only lose completely when we give up. That’s what our political opponents are hoping for.
Do NOT give them that satisfaction.