Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: We learn lessons every election

Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: We learn lessons every election

Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns or explain issues that impact our party.

For people who remember in-person Nuts & Bolts panels at Netroots Nation—and trust me, I missed having a fifth and sixth the last two years—we put forward candidates there who talked about their experience so they could go back over their results and discuss what they would do differently, and the campaign moments they were most proud of looking back at their race. A few years ago, I sat in a panel discussing the outcome of elections. On the panel were a few fantastic political scientists, myself, and a few activists. I said at the time, and I still mean it: Political science is often not a science, it’s an art. The ability to understand the electorate and what can motivate them doesn’t come from a data perspective at all times, and some of the most effective campaigners in history have been people who were, well, not exactly steeped in college-level science coursework. Even with that being true, everyone will tell you that we learn something from every election. I’m not talking about “hot takes” or forecasting for the future immediately. I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of campaigning we learn in every single race.

Identify your strongest volunteers and support system

A win is a win, a loss is a loss. The discussion of issues that motivated people and the candidate who ran will always come up and should come up when you look at election results. Something else that should be addressed? Who were the volunteers and support system that put in the most work? Who was most effective at reaching voters?

A few state parties and county parties around the country have established an award system that rewards volunteers who work the hardest. It can be a plaque, a nice public recognition at a party dinner, or their place on a wall as “Volunteer of the Year.” Identifying successful volunteers also helps candidates in the next cycle know where to start, to recognize what motivated volunteers in successful campaigns, and gives staff a reason to look at how they can involve the right community to build their election efforts.

Outside groups and their success

There are many Democratic organizations that put a lot of work into an election. They can help raise money, build name recognition, or help drive a topic narrative. Campaigns should remember which groups have a loud voice among supporters, but donors should especially pay attention.

In the last 24 hours of the Virginia campaign, I received 13 emails asking me to donate to the McAuliffe campaign. Outside activism groups in Virginia built up war chests in the year beforehand, and when the time was coming down to the wire, they weren’t busy trying to burn money in a fire— they were out spending the money they had, or they had already spent it in the best way possible.

Outside organizations are often a better investment to win races, especially if you invest early before you have a candidate. You give a district or a state an opportunity to build up the voter base they need to win.

Go through campaign finance reports

One of the most underappreciated acts that donors should pay attention to is the campaign finance report. After an election, whether a candidate wins or loses, take a look at the campaign finance report once it is available. You can learn a lot about the district. What does it take to win, financially? Did a campaign that lost raise too little money? Did they spend the money they had poorly? Did a campaign that spent significantly less prevail over a campaign with a large amount of money in the bank? Did someone raise funds by asking repeatedly for money and then let it sit in the bank through an election cycle? 

These are all questions that donors should make themselves aware of so that they know how they should invest in the next election. If you know the answers to some of these questions, you can ask a future campaign more informed questions before you give money and have better insight as to what it takes to win an election near you. 

What lessons do you take from an election win or loss?

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