The Democratic coordinated campaign in Michigan is routinely panned by activists, organizers, and party leaders every two years. For those unfamiliar, the “coordinated” is an opportunity for candidates running at the federal, state, and local level to share resources, create economies of scale, and increase overall democratic turnout. Most of this is led by the “statewide coordinated” program, which hires dozens (sometimes hundreds) of organizers, and the rest by congressional districts and local parties to fill gaps in the statewide effort. It’s a good idea in theory, but has repeatedly come up short in getting Democrats elected.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about the coordinated campaign is that while most acknowledge it has significant room for improvement, little is done to fix it. After the campaign is over, little systematic analysis is done to determine key problems and what can be improved on. We hear all of the horror stories, about the dysfunction, the lack of coordination, how it’s no wonder we keep losing, and so on. Then we hear who’s to blame, which usually falls on national organizations outside of Michigan that “made all the decisions,” absolving state and local leaders of responsibility for the debacle.
Every two years, the cycle repeats. Here’s a short list of things we have come to expect from the Democratic coordinated campaign in Michigan:
- A significant percentage (in some years over 50%) of campaign staff will be hired from out-of-state. Many organizers will have no prior campaign experience.
- The vast majority of staff will be hired in the last two to three months before the election, well past the point when the most experienced organizers are typically hired
- The vast majority of organizing and field work will occur in the two months prior the election, with little emphasis on long-term organizing to build the party and to develop long-term grassroots leadership.
- Much of the coordinated staff will work inhumane hours (12 hour days, seven days a week) and will quit before the campaign is over.
- While some counties and congressional districts run effective programs for candidates to share resources, most barely scratch the surface on the level of coordination that’s possible.
- Many activists will tell horror stories and pledge to never work with the coordinated campaign again.
- Little scientific research will be done to identify best practices for turning out voters. Also, little work will be done identifying best practices for organizing locally so we can learn for future campaigns.
This is an abbreviated list. A comprehensive survey of statewide activists would provide a lot more insight. It shows, though, that there are basic problems the party could address to win more elections. Yes, the party has a messaging problem, but it also has an organizing problem. This could be addressed in a significant way if leadership decided it was important enough.
At this point, many usually say, “Yes, we know it’s dysfunctional, but all the major decisions are made by national funders and large stakeholders, so we’re powerless to do anything.” This is a typical excuse and a flawed way of thinking, for a number of reasons. First, it fails to recognize that the coordinated campaign ultimately relies on us–activists, volunteers, and party officials in Michigan–to power it. Without us, there is no campaign, and we should leverage that. Second, it reflects an extreme deference to those with money and power. Publicly, the party opposes the idea that money and power should control who makes key decisions, yet when it comes to the operations within the party, we let “funders” call the shots. Third, it fails to recognize that the next coordinated campaign might be interested in learning from some of the mistakes of the last one. Many of these people who work on the coordinated campaign are talented organizers, but without post-election data and analysis to work with, many of the same mistakes are repeated. Fourth, a lot of campaign work occurs at the local and district level independent of the statewide effort, which presents an enormous opportunity for improved coordination. An effort to assist district and local parties in their coordinated efforts could go a long way. Finally, let’s not forget that we have already lost nearly everything to the Republicans in Michigan. What we have been doing over the last several years hasn’t worked, so what do we have to lose by trying something different?
So here are some basic, common sense things that could be done to begin improving the coordinated campaign in Michigan:
- Develop an organizer pipeline to recruit and retain some of the best organizing talent in the state for the coordinated campaign. This needs to happen anyway, and would help support campaigns across the state.
- Develop best practices for organizer training and management in partnership with organizations that have significant organizing experience
- Hire organizing staff early. The coordinated campaign should start at least one year in advance and integrate with the grassroots organizing team the Michigan Democratic Party is developing. It should work to engage progressive grassroots organizations from across the State to identify activists early. It should develop a strong precinct delegate program, and begin the work of connecting with low-propensity Democratic voters as soon as possible.The Democratic base consists of more sporadic voters, and so we don’t have the luxury to start organizing three months out from the election
- Develop a practical model for counties, congressional districts, and down-ballot campaigns to share resources and partner with races at the top of the ticket. This should include hiring shared staff and focusing on turnout, which benefits all Democratic races. Most campaigns and local parties are obsessed with persuasion, when the fact is that dedicating just a fraction of their resources to joint-turnout programs would be extremely cost effective. Higher democratic voter turnout benefits all down-ballot democrats, and there should be a statewide strategy for turning people out
- Develop a culture of scientific testing using control group research to determine which tactics were cost effective. Work to disseminate findings and train organizers in best practices and how to design effective campaign experiments to build the knowledge base, similar to the work of the Analyst Institute
- Conduct a comprehensive autopsy of the coordinated campaign from 2016 and 2014. Gather data and collect feedback about what can be improved from activists, county parties, clubs, congressional districts, clubs, previous coordinated campaign staff, previous coordinated campaign volunteers, and progressive organizations. Engage in a meaningful dialogue with those doing the work at the local level and develop a comprehensive report with recommendations for the next coordinated campaign.
No one person has all the answers on how we fix the Democratic coordinated campaign. I certainly don’t. Neither does the party leadership, or even those who have worked on the coordinated campaign and seen most of its problems first-hand. A statewide committee should conduct a comprehensive review of the previous coordinated campaigns and write-up a report. That means reaching out to everyone that was involved in prior coordinated campaigns for feedback. Through this outreach, the committee would discover issues that people had forgotten about, never thought of, or that are particular to a certain region of the state. But it needs to start soon. Otherwise, it’s just the same mistakes on repeat, and we cannot afford another decade of Republican control.