Democrats have long way to go to get out of the hole they’re in. In the last seven years, they’ve lost both Houses of Congress and the presidency. They’ve lost 1,000 legislative seats and Republicans now control two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country. In addition, thirty-three of the nation’s governors are Republican.
In North Carolina, after devastating losses in 2010 and 2012, Democrats have done a little better. They’ve added seats in the state House in 2014 and 2016 and unseated a Republican incumbent governor, no mean feat. Still, there’s work to be done.
Before they will become competitive again, Democrats need to reform their election machinery from top to bottom. Party committees and caucuses have developed a consultant-driven campaign model that restricts innovation and rewards failure. As the world moves through a communications revolution, Democrats continue to rely on tools that worked well a decade or more ago, but don’t get the job done today.
The party has created a top-down approach to campaigns, with direction coming from caucus organizations in Washington or state capitols. They control the structure, the hiring, the message, and the budget. Strategic decisions are often driven by consultants who have more interest in tactics than strategy. A great ad or 2,500 points of television or 10 pieces of mail are tactical. Figuring out the coalition necessary to reach 50% plus one and determining the most cost efficient ways to reach and persuade the various audiences is strategic. Democrats have become more of a tactical party than a strategic one.
Television and direct mail continue to be the primary vehicles for message delivery in Democratic campaigns from state legislature to the White House. While they certainly still have a place in the toolbox, their impact is becoming increasingly limited. Both mail and television depend on driving a message instead of engaging voters. The rise of cable news and social media is creating an audience that is suspicious of messages delivered by campaigns or third party groups.
Democrats should spend more resources on digital communications, especially to reach the younger voters important to their coalition. Social media is more about creating sharable content than force feeding a message to a target audience. It’s as much about organizing as it is about persuading but it’s far more decentralized than traditional message delivery. It’s using supporters to encourage people to join a campaign.
Democrats prided themselves on their data operations but there’s evidence that Republicans, or at least Trump, surpassed them in 2016. Data that Democrats have needs to be more fully integrated into campaigns. It’s not just to target messages. Data should drive canvassing conversations, improve fundraising, and become more part of the research now dominated by polling and focus groups.
To succeed, Democrats need a new generation of operatives trained in modern techniques of organizing and communicating. Instead of sending managers and staff from other states, the party needs to train campaign operatives in states where they live. Democrats need to build an army of people, particularly in competitive states, who can run campaigns and build on their knowledge cycle after cycle.
We still need party committees, but they need to be updated, too. Their role should be more oversight and less micromanaging. They should be working to build local operatives and consultants instead of protecting the consultant class in Washington. Instead of centralizing messaging and operations, they should be tailoring them to specific districts and campaigns.
Democrats need to retool. Republicans have built campaign organization that are more decentralized and use more local talent. Democrats should do the same. They should also do a better job of keeping up with modern communications. This year, businesses will spend more on digital advertising than they do on television. Most campaigns continue to put far more than half of their advertising budgets on TV. Consultants who have a vested interest in communicating on a particular medium have no business driving budgetary decisions in campaigns.
These changes will be difficult because they require an organizational culture change in a risk averse industry with an entrenched group of stakeholders. Unlike businesses, campaigns only get one shot at a sale. If they make mistakes, they’re out of business. That mentality discourages risk and experimentation. In addition, the party would need to pry itself loose from the grasp of consultants who’ve created a billion dollar industry and have a vested in interest in preserving the status quo. It’s not going to be an easy journey.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant.