To Win in Georgia, Ignore the Data and Follow the Signs

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A few days ago, a colleague encouraged me to check out the donation page of Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 6th district. The graphics were simple and clear, the Apple Pay checkout appeared to be smooth, the increments of pay accessible to all. It was a slick operation. “But whatever you do, DON’T sign up for the emails,” he warned. “I get, like twelve a day.”

What part of the Democratic audience development machine has decided that 12 (or what feels like 12) emails a day is an appropriate measure for success? The one, it seems, that throws everything at the wall.

Georgia’s special election has become the most expensive House race in history, in which the the battle between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel has cost $48 million, according to the latest federal election filings. Democrats are “sweating the small stuff,” which is understandable — they’ve been burned before. But in the final weeks of the campaign, the best strategies have turned out to be ignoring Democratic strategists.

In the new issue of Harper’s, Andrew Cockburn traces the long tail of failed Democratic strategy to their loss to George W. Bush in 2004.

It became fashionable to ascribe the party’s continuing losses to a “data problem”—which in turn generated calls for a more centralized organization that could produce better data and voter models and thus lead to victory. Naturally, this proved an expensive operation, lucrative to some. In no time there appeared a glut of “donor advisers”—professionals dedicated to recruiting and advising major contributors—along with specialized consulting firms hawking their expertise in voter-data analysis. The result: While the consultants got rich, the state parties were starved of resources.

The data-driven voter model boomed under the Obama campaign, but it only served Obama, not the Democratic Party as a whole. “In addition, once Obama became president, he maintained his campaign organization, Obama for America. Headed by well-remunerated consultants, O.F.A. competed with the national party for donors’ affections. Not until 2015 did the group (rechristened Organizing for Action) share its invaluable email list with the D.N.C.”

Notoriously, the 2016 Clinton campaign put all its trust in a data-driven voter model. In Nebraska, Kleeb remembered the Clinton team working hard. “But what they were missing was the real grassroots person-to-person campaign. They had these sophisticated voter models and their organizers had very specific numerical goals they had to hit at the end of every day. It had no heart. That matters, you know. People vote for people because they think they care about them. It’s not a transactional process, which is exactly what the Clinton campaign was.” (It didn’t help that the voter model failed in many ways to reflect the real-life electorate, fatally underestimating, for example, the number of Trump voters.)

Such withering critiques might warrant major changes in a defeated party’s way of doing business. But indications are that many leading players see no reason why business should not continue as usual.

Business as usual means listening to well-paid Democratic consultants, who in March 2017 held a conference at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, that Cockburn attended, hoping to hear the next great strategy session:

“The meeting, billed as A Time for Action: Rebuilding and Resisting, was supposedly devoted to “winning the states.” There was a great deal of earnest protestation to this effect in the closed-door meetings, but as one dispirited participant commented later, there was little in the way of self-examination. Instead, the message he received was: “We did nothing wrong, we’re going to do it the same way with the same people, and this time we’re going to win. Fund us.”

Fortunately, in the race for the Georgia 6th, charged-up volunteers for Jon Ossoff — and Ossoff himself — are ignoring the advice of Democratic consultants that arrive with DNC money.

With the money came a slew of high-powered Democratic consultants, who, as such people tend to do, cautioned Ossoff to hew to the political center—advising him, for example, to stay away from the Women’s March on January 21. (He had the good sense to ignore this advice.) Equally tellingly, they cautioned him against investing in yard signs, thus following election-industry wisdom that dismisses such cheap campaign tools as unscientific…

[Jen Cox of PaveItBlue] recalled how Ossoff wonkishly informed her that “the data” decreed yard signs ineffective. In response, she told the candidate that if he didn’t “reach us up here on an emotional level and give us hope, we have a hard time getting engaged. If you put signs out, we feel that someone is paying attention, and that our voice matters and our votes matter. We haven’t seen yard signs that weren’t Republican in decades.”

The yard signs became a point of pride for the suburban women volunteering for the Ossoff campaign, writes Rebecca Traister in New York Magazineand they would do anything to defend their ground.

As Ossoff signs have routinely, in recent weeks, been stolen from yards and even set on fire, the LMRC and Pave It Blue women have taken to attaching American flags to discourage arson, as well as smearing the signs with Vaseline and dusting them with clear glitter, making sign removal a slippery and messy process, and leaving sign-bandits’ clothing marked by greasy, sparkly reminders of women’s determination to elect a Democrat.