This article is part of the Prospect’s series on The Future of Organizing.
There have been countless research projects conducted over the years that prove when we talk to voters, we get them engaged and participating in the political process. This really isn’t something new. The first PAC in the U.S. was formed in 1943 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in response to the disastrous 1942 midterm election in which Democrats lost 45 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate.
PACs today are associated with campaign finance. The original PAC’s mission was to build community organizations to mobilize working people. It was quite a novel idea at the time; workers’ organizations created and sustained community-based groups to advance everyday people’s interests. Included in the CIO political organizing manual were directions on how to do it:
1. Identify people from the community to be your organizers.
2. Have them make up a list of people they know in their neighborhood.
3. Provide voters with materials (included with the manual) to give them some background on the issues to organize around.
4. Have your organizers spend time talking to the folks on their list, first identifying the issues their neighbors care about and then connecting the conversation to the CIO agenda.
5. Ensure the organizers keep a notebook with notes about their conversations, including information about important dates (birthdays, etc.) in their targets’ lives.
6. Once they’ve established relationships, begin to inform them about their elected officials’ stands on the issues.
7. Get them registered to vote if they are not already.
8. Turn them out to vote.
Sound familiar? Some people now call it “relational organizing” and “deep canvassing.” I call it organizing. The tools have changed, but the methodology has essentially remained the same. In the 78 years since the CIO launched that effort, countless iterations with “tables” have been formed; coalitions built; c3s, c4s, and c6s launched; and tens of millions of dollars invested in building organizations to do the work. Some have been successful, some not so much, and very few have sustained the funding and capacity needed over several cycles.
Progressives constantly jury-rig systems to compensate for the lack of deeply rooted, well-funded groups on the ground. For the past several years, many individual and organizational donors have talked about only “investing in building permanent infrastructure.” Yet there is a severe lack of permanent infrastructure to point to in most states. Too many donors tend to be fickle and want immediate results. They move from supporting one organization to another, funding the shiniest new object. And most organizations in recent years have been heavy on staff and light on volunteers.
And while the progressive community has now repeated the mantra that we cannot just talk to voters at election time and expect them to participate, talk is cheap. There are too few examples of these types of investments. One notable exception was the organizing work that led to victory in Georgia in 2020. In early January, The New York Times reported that an extraordinary group of mostly women, led by Stacey Abrams, had a ten-year plan to flip Georgia. They executed their program, and donors stood with them instead of bailing after Republicans stole the governor’s race from Abrams in 2018. But what happened in Georgia shouldn’t be the exception.
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I was involved in two focus group projects over the past month. One consisted of voters of color who voted in 2020 in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia and were eligible but did not vote in 2016 and 2018. The second was with persuadable white working-class voters in competitive 2022 House districts who support unions, based on a model we built with Catalist. Two things were painfully clear across both groups: (1) they are not hearing about what the Biden-Harris administration has been doing on the issues they care about, and (2) these voters crave information from people and organizations they relate to and trust. Voters across the groups expressed an interest in staying informed but had no idea where they could get unbiased and unfiltered information from trusted sources.
And on this point of trust, let me be clear and underscore that the level of skepticism about fake news and unreliable news is high and cuts across both sets of voters. To be successful and cut through the noise, the behemoth Big Tech and phony news propaganda machines, we need sustaining and fully funded outreach from trusted organizations around issues that appeal to these voters. And no, outreach does not mean just running millions of digital ads—what is also clear from these groups is that there isn’t a single mechanism to reach them. We need a multilayered approach with targeted digital, mailings, field, phone calls, and text messages. The messaging may look different, so may the organization providing the information, but the mechanics, much like in 1943, are the same.
So, where do we go from here?
- Progressives need well-developed state voter contact plans for voters of color, suburban voters, young voters, and union members/supporters in six states that will likely determine which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2023: Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And not coincidentally, five of the six (minus Ohio) are definitely among the states Democrats must win in 2024 to keep the White House—and honestly, we can put Ohio in play too. Add to that list Michigan, which is also a desperate must-win state again in 2024.
- We must start organizing in those seven states NOW. And when I say now, I mean yesterday. Invest in grassroots organizations at the state and local levels that prove they can successfully communicate with and mobilize communities of color, young voters, and union members/supporters. They must have detailed plans to talk to people at their doors, by phone, by email, regular mail, and digitally, identifying the issues they care about, informing them where elected officials stand on those issues, and mobilizing them to help hold their elected officials accountable. Then as 2022 approaches, the shift into more partisan communications will be natural and welcomed. And we must do it with people who are like them and from organizations with which they either have or can develop an affinity. This is the anchor of our success.
- We need to fund organizations that have a connection to the voters they are organizing. As stated previously, voters are looking for trusted organizations on the issues that matter most to them. We did this with a project called Union 2020 over the last cycle. With the help of a group of unions, we developed a database of 480,000 former union members in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They were 90 percent white. We added to that a universe of 1.5 million more white working-class voters across those states who were middle partisans and who scored high on our union favorability model. After nearly a year of intensive communications with these voters, in a poll we did election weekend, 73 percent said they were voting for Biden-Harris. It was entirely predictable with hard and sustained work over a long period. It’s not rocket science; it’s organizing.
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- We must help nourish the indigenous organizations that grew out of the Trump resistance. Following the election of Trump in 2016, something unheard-of happened. Thousands of progressive, volunteer-led groups spontaneously burst on the scene to mobilize to stop Trump’s agenda and defeat Republican candidates: Groups like Indivisible, Flippable, Run for Something, Sister District, and the Sunrise Movement with something of a national profile; and local groups, like Rooted in Resistance in California, Fems for Dems in Michigan, and Liberal Women of Chesterfield County in Virginia, seemed to pop up everywhere. Those of us who have toiled in the organizing vineyards for decades were shocked and uplifted. These groups played an invaluable role in the 2018 midterm election successes Democrats enjoyed, particularly in suburban and exurban areas. There is no denying that the impacts of COVID-19 profoundly impacted the ability of these grassroots groups to implement their strategies in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t resurrect their efforts or that we should ignore other grassroots organizations and organizers that were born out of this movement.
- Organizing solely around Trump is not a strategy to win. While there is no shortage of ammunition that we can use against Trump and radical Republicans up and down the ballot, keeping our voters engaged and energized cannot rest on Trump. Progressives need to articulate to our voters that when we vote, it matters, and change can happen, and it will.
Of course, progressives won’t get everything they want all of the time, and there will always be inequities we need to fight against in this country. Still, we have one of the most pro-worker, racially diverse, and science-believing administrations in our nation’s history. And we have an all-too-rare unified Democratic control of Congress. If we can’t articulate change to voters and keep them informed about how their vote made a difference, what reason will they have to vote for us in the future? Winning in organizing matters—let’s not just tell voters what we will do; let’s be sure to inform them of what we have done and how this is just the beginning.