Five months after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, it is time to stop looking backwards and start looking forwards at what Democrats can do to be more successful in 2018 and ultimately, the 2020 elections.
Despite the seemingly favorable demographics for Democrats, there is plenty of data that now suggests that electing President Obama was the exception rather than the rule. Today, I am here as someone who has worked on the past three presidentials and wants to start a conversation about the fundamentals of how we as a party approach campaigns.
To make progress in the upcoming elections, we need to be willing to acknowledge our shortcomings and think about how to adapt to what is ahead. Politics has no shortage of brilliant practitioners who joined the fight for the right reasons. Yet somehow, despite the flood of new, young, and diverse talent, we still run campaigns largely like we did 15 years ago. Much of today’s conversation is focused on technology. This is something we can and must continue to invest in, but not all problems require millions of dollars to solve. Before technology can save us, we need to restructure how we approach campaigns themselves.
Below are three places to start that don't require a huge war chest, but without which we cannot succeed.
Cultivate Great Talent – And Keep It. Like all organizations, campaigns are only as strong as the team of individuals. Today, many top tier statewide races are desperate to find qualified communications, digital, and organizing directors. What happened to the explosion of Democratic talent attracted by President Obama? We have succeeded before in attracting the best talent into politics, but now we need to find a way to keep that talent and develop those skillsets for future party leadership. Additionally, our campaigns must reflect the communities we hope to represent. We must seek a diversity of age, experience and background. Part of being able to do this, is that we can no longer pretend that professionals should feel lucky for the chance to put their life on hold for massive campaign wage cuts. The best talent may have student loans or children to support. We need to treat politics like the ongoing industry and career it is – and build a real path forward for our talent. This must extend beyond compensation, but also include professional development in the different specialties within campaigns, as well as management itself. Corporate rotational programs like those at General Electric or WPP are good models.
Revise Political Campaign Structures. Once you have the right team in place, you need to create the right environment for it to succeed. This is both a factor of how teams are organized, but also how they are incentivized and measured. Our campaigns are structured the way they were in 2000, which is by channel. We have a press team, a field team, a digital team, and a finance team. There are two problems with this. First, communications has advanced to a point where there is no longer any clear line between digital and traditional outreach. Second, there is no clear owner for the major functions of a campaign: money, message, and mobilization. Moving ahead, we should consider breaking this mold and organize by function. And finally, the right structure will only be effective if it exists within the right environment. This starts with the ability to take risks and learn. Today, the winner-takes-all stakes of campaigns create an aversion to innovation at precisely the wrong time.
Better Allocation Of Resources. Advertising still accounts for the majority of campaign resources and most campaigns still spend 90% of their budgets pushing content at voters mostly via broadcast television. I am not anti-television – far from it – but our advertising strategies must evolve in a few fundamental ways. Why are we still planning television, digital, and radio as if these programs live in isolation? The question should be how many times is a given voter seeing a particular message. And from a marginal utility perspective, how can we deliver the most efficient media mix rather than mortgaging the house and abandoning logic to match our opponent’s last minute television buy. Campaigns are starting to do a better job of tailoring each message to each medium, but none of this matters if voters don’t actually want to watch our ads. Voters are exhausted by the barrage of content being pushed at them and are now accustomed to skipping or changing the channel. Political content has to be compelling enough to watch voluntarily. It must be interesting, emotional, and informative, whatever it takes.
The challenges facing the Democratic Party are similar to the challenges facing any large organization. Our success is a matter of talent, structure and resources. Yes, additional resources will be needed. But they will be more effective once we rethink campaign fundamentals and change the way campaigns are run.