After the 2018 mid-term elections, I was talking with a consultant who had helped a Democrat win a traditionally Republican US House seat. In our exuberance about the Democratic wins that year, we both shared stories of volunteers who had knocked on doors for the very first time. “They want to keep going, but we just don’t have anything for them to do!” she said.
Oh, but you do, I thought.
So, then I got to thinking. . . these red-to-blue House seats are not ours forever. Some of those voters went blue for the first time ever. They are never going to agree with the Democrats on the issues, so there has to be some other way to authentically connect with them if we want to keep winning.
Also, there are potential progressive voters who believe that politics just isn’t about them so they don’t bother. We can show them memes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King all day, but without a relationship, they still feel in their hearts that their votes don’t matter.
Then I started thinking like an organizer. I bet we have experiences and values in common. If Democrats wanted to win again in 2020, they must start building relationships with voters. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)
As it turns out, I was right. Democrats lost 11 seats that they’d flipped in 2018.
Seeing those results, a plan started to take shape in my mind: engage energized and inspired volunteers to bring people together to build relationships with Democratic leaders and potential candidates.
Train volunteers on deep canvassing techniques. This tactic involves engaging a voter in a conversation. Really. Standing on the front step talking for about 15 minutes. By itself, this conversation can open a space for people to change their opinion. When national organizing network People’s Action opened their deep canvassing results to an evaluation by data scientists, the scientists found that 3.1% of voters moved to Biden support. The conversation moved 8.5% of Independent women voters. (Read the whole 14-page report.)
Invite those deep-canvassed voters to a community meeting. Taking the building-relationships theme up a notch, these meetings are small group conversations, not town halls. In each small group, a facilitator asks discussion questions that provide opportunities for participants to tell a story. The facilitator guides the discussion so everyone has a chance to speak and the conversation doesn’t go off the rails.
After the small groups have finished and the groups have come back together, a speaker asks for reports back from each group. In that way, that leader has an opportunity to connect with everyone in the room by telling their own story to relate to each group.
Would this plan lead to a tidal wave of support for climate change measures or abortion rights? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The point is to build relationships.
One of the most important lessons from the Georgia runoff this year is about off-year organizing. We can’t parachute into neighborhoods four months before an election and expect to keep winning. Building real strength requires investment.
If all we do is scramble to win elections every two years, that’s all we’re ever going to do. If we invest in building relationships with voters, we will not only win, but we might also win on the issues that brought us in to politics in the first place. Let’s invest in building sustainable, lasting power.
A plan for a pilot project is coming together. To get involved in building this experiment, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or fill out the contact form.