By Carl Carter
The bloodletting of Alabama Democrats on November 6, 2018, had its origins in the shock of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Rattled and dazed, we cast about for a way to explain and respond to the defeat.
We rallied around the only game in town – Doug Jones, who saw an opportunity to capture an empty Senate seat. He won, and it felt good, and we moved on to planning for the big election cycle of 2018, hoping to get back the control we lost eight years earlier when the Republicans poured megabucks of dark money into the state and took control.
People stepped up for all the congressional races and most of the State House contests, but we were short on people running for state Senate seats. After very briefly considering a House run, I qualified to run for State Senate District 11 – a district that had been gerrymandered to hell and back.
Finding myself on the other side of the looking glass, I had my share of “Oh shit, what have I done” moments and started putting one foot in front of the other. A PR counselor by trade, I had managed campaigns and had been writing about messages that Democrats could use to win over Republicans. I decided to view the race as a laboratory of sorts. It’s been a few weeks since the test tubes blew up, so I can finally get some perspective. So without telling the whole story (maybe someday) let’s skip to the bigger mistakes. Trigger warning: I’m going to toss out some things that a lot of people still believe. Maybe they’re right. They can make their case, but today it’s my turn. So here are the bigger ways we went wrong. Some are things we did collectively, and others are uniquely my screwups. But I bought into them all won’t dodge the blame. Here goes.
Contesting too many races. We fell for the whole “run for something” notion, implementing a scattershot approach that diluted both volunteers and money. House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels assembled a team to run a “coordinated campaign” to provide Democrats running for office with tools, media help and money. Most candidates eventually got access to Votebuilder, the Democratic Party’s voter database. Fundraising turned out to be much tougher than anybody imagined at all levels, and only a few candidates got money from the coordinated campaign. Media and messaging support also fell short. It became clear much too late that the Republicans had us outclassed in advertising and campaign strategy. Some Democrats eventually figured out Facebook, more or less, but only a handful made much use of digital advertising beyond that. (One of my priorities for 2019 is building my skills in this area.) Our reach exceeded our grasp at every point.
Over-reliance on canvassing. With Votebuilder to help us build sophisticated lists of voters likely to respond to our messages, we focused our efforts on recruiting and training volunteers, and sending them from door to door. Candidates ended up jealously competing for precious volunteers, especially in metro areas, as it became clear that there were too few to support the large number of candidates. We ran our people ragged from early spring into the fall, whining when they burned out or had to pull away to attend to their own family needs. We used our people recklessly and often foolishly. From the outset, we focused on known and likely Democratic voters, without bothering to engage the rest, who made up a large, red majority. In my canvassing, starting with likely Democrats, we were reaching homes at a success rate of 40% on a good day, and getting good responses out of about half of those. We pretended not to notice that even if we canvassed 100% of the homes in a district, we were only securing commitments from a very small percentage. Nobody knew (or maybe nobody wanted to talk about) studies in which an analysis of 49 races found that canvassing simply doesn’t win elections.
Blind belief in candidates and campaigns. In general, I still believe candidates and campaigns matter, but they didn’t in 2018 in Alabama. I’ve looked at the results across the board from numerous angles. I’ve turned my head and squinted. We had great candidates (some lousy ones too, but let’s not go there) who started early, outperformed everybody in fundraising, worked full time and had armies of volunteers, and yet most of them fell into a range between 25 to 35 percent. A few got into the 40s in less gerrymandered districts, or those with more favorable demographics (e.g., more minorities, higher education), but that seemed to be about the ceiling. Our statewide candidates clustered in the 40 percent range – 10 percent higher than legislative candidates, because you can’t gerrymander the whole state. Urban voters gave them a fighting chance, just as they did for Doug Jones. Ultimately, in terms of winning or losing, nothing mattered but party. We were all buried under a tidal wave of older white voters who voted straight tickets.
Emphasizing message over party. This one’s mine. After a few fits and starts, I settled into a campaign focused on one big message (eliminating Alabama’s tax on groceries, which is the highest in the nation) and a couple of smaller ones (education lottery and roads). These were non-partisan messages on which most voters agreed, and I got good responses while campaigning. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Sixty percent of the voters in St. Clair County, which made up most of the voters in Senate 11, cast a straight Republican ballot. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been Mickey Mouse running on a platform of Swiss Cheese for All. It was revealing that in a mailer, the senator I sought to displace simply identified himself as a supporter of Trump. On the back of his mailer was a photo of Nancy Pelosi, and the message was clear: Democrats are dangerous. All Democrats. Everywhere. No matter what they campaigned on. In hindsight, I’d have done the party more good if I’d just flown the Democratic flag high and sat home for nine months, like the Republicans did. I’d have probably gotten about the same 24% of the vote but might have branded the party a little.
Assuming Republicans would stay home. I knew from the outset that my only chance was to have an extremely small turnout. I thought we had a decent shot at that, with Donald Trump’s low approval ratings and a Republican governor who wasn’t exciting anybody. I was far too slow in grasping the impact of the statewide amendments on abortion and the Ten Commandments in turning out the red base. On top of that, the Republicans got their base worked up over the “caravan” of immigrants, who were presented as murderers, drug pushers and thieves. (After election day, the Republicans dropped the subject completely and the danger apparently dissipated.) Was 2018 an aberration or a new normal?
I’m betting on it being an aberration, fed by a tidal wave of Trumpist anger and resentments. But based on my recent track record, you shouldn’t count on it.