2018 Year in Review:
Preliminary Lessons that Propel us into 2019 and Beyond
In 2018, we focused on two political priorities: taking back Congress and supporting the candidacy of Stacey Abrams for Governor of Georgia. As we reflect on these efforts and develop plans for 2019 and beyond, we offer the following preliminary lessons from this year.
The math is clear. High Democratic turnout flipped the House (with an assist from suburban women repulsed by the president). When we commissioned a team of data analytics and statistical experts to identify the Congressional districts that were most winnable in 2018, we knew we needed 23 pickups to take back control of the House of Representatives.
Over several months, these experts refined an algorithm that incorporated 22 data points into a detailed and meticulous analysis of voter behavior in all 238 Republican-held Congressional districts. They simulated turnout in each of the districts using individual-level voter data and examined factors like the district’s PVI and the racial composition of the citizen voting age population, building those data into quantitative models. They also considered whether a strong civic engagement infrastructure and potential partners existed in the district.
We then mapped the donor landscape at the individual and organizational levels to understand where there were gaps in funding. We also tracked qualitative factors — like retirements in the wake of sexual harassment allegations or other indictments and inspiring leaders making history — that presented opportunities for Democrats to win in districts represented by Republicans.
As a result of this analysis, we identified 57 competitive House races and five Senate races in 24 states that presented the best opportunities to flip seats from Red to Blue. Also through this process, we developed the new Sandler Phillips Center Rating.
Of the 40 House seats that Democrats gained on November 6, 36 were identified on the Take Back Congress Hub, a tool we created for the progressive movement and donors to facilitate coordination and synergy of our resources and efforts. Democrats won two of the five Senate races we identified on the Hub.
This year’s turnout was the highest recorded rate for a midterm election since 1914, with 49.2% of the eligible voting population — nearly 116 million people — casting ballots. While deeper analysis is still in development, we do know that Black women were again the most dependable demographic for Democrats, with 92% voting Democratic. Forty-nine percent of white suburban women turned out for Democrats this year, up from 2016 when Republicans had a 10-point advantage. We also know that in at least 11 of the districts flipped by Democrats, the population of people of color exceeded the national average. With many barrier-breaking representatives now heading to Washington, DC, the 116th Congress will be the most diverse in U.S. history.
The math was clear. There were enough infrequent Democratic voters in enough districts to flip seats in the House and Senate [see example of AZ-2 at left]. The key was to listen to and mobilize these voters through strategic and well-coordinated turnout efforts led by effective civic engagement organizations.
For example, we invested meaningfully in effective community-based organizations working in eight winnable Congressional districts, and we succeeded in winning seven of those eight contests (and lost the eighth, TX-23 in San Antonio, by just 900 votes). Our partner organizations — Communities for a New California, New Virginia Majority and Texas Organizing Project — led smart, sophisticated and successful efforts to engage and turn out low propensity voters and ultimately win state and federal races. By doing so we learned new ways to work with these partners and to tangibly evaluate their work and our investments. Sustaining organizations like these to build lasting infrastructure and partnerships is essential. These groups are not just focused on winning elections. They are building the pipeline of strong leaders and a well-informed electorate that holds their representatives accountable for good governance. They will be the critical factor in taking back the White House in 2020.
While there was Democratic improvement with suburban women, it is critical to remember that it is the groups that bear the brunt of inequality who bring about political and social change. If Democrats want to win back the White House, we should again look to the data, listen to and engage the voters most impacted by inequality. When we do, we win.
2. Important lessons-learned and evolving thinking in Georgia. After years of being critical of campaigns that over-emphasize paid advertising, we surprised ourselves by doing significant television advertising in the Georgia gubernatorial primary election. When we looked closer at the data, we saw that turnout wasn’t the problem, since 60% of the voters in the primary were going to be African American. The problem for Stacey Abrams was that 51% of voters were unclear about which Stacey was which (Abrams’ opponent was also named Stacey). Stepping into that breach — and recognizing that Abrams was likely to be outspent by her independently-wealthy opponent, we helped underwrite a seven-figure television campaign that clarified for the electorate who the candidates were, and Abrams romped to victory in the primary.
The maturation of our thinking was to see that the issue isn’t as simple as TV vs. field but rather a recognition that turnout tactics must be centered on the voters we are trying to reach, while civic engagement organizations must be flexible enough to change course when necessary. These voters — infrequent Democratic Black voters in the case of Georgia — needed a multi-dimensional approach, including TV, radio, digital, text, phone and field canvassing, in order to find the information and inspiration to turn out. Nowhere was this more critical than in Georgia, where voter suppression was on full display.
Through our investments in Stacey’s campaign, the state party and PowerPAC Georgia, a political action committee associated with PowerPAC.org, we were the largest individual donors aiding in Stacey's gubernatorial bid. We invested meaningfully for a number of reasons.
After meeting Stacey six years ago, we saw that she was the kind of leader who could transform the state of Georgia, establish a model for Democratic success in the South and be a compelling national progressive leader. Plus, she’s one of the smartest and most sophisticated people we’ve met in national politics. We believed that she could unleash the power of the demographic revolution to turn the tide in national politics, lay the foundation for 2020 and take our country back.
We also knew that our investments could make a bigger impact in Georgia and that we would find strong partners among other donors and local civic engagement organizations. While deeper analysis is now underway, we know that our investments resulted in more than 269,000 IDs for Stacey and put more than 700 canvassers on the ground to talk with voters whose doors had never been knocked on before. Our goal was to increase Democratic turnout by 200,000 people. We were proud to be a meaningful part of an ecosystem that increased Georgia Democratic turnout by nearly 800,000 votes, making Stacey the highest Democratic vote-getter in Georgia history.
As we moved through this year, we were delighted to see that Stacey was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of inspiring gubernatorial candidates with strategic campaigns and unapologetically progressive agendas that centered education, health care, immigration reform and gun control. Nine candidates of color made gubernatorial bids this year, including three African Americans — Ben Jealous in Maryland, Andrew Gillum in Florida and of course Stacey Abrams. David Garcia in Arizona and Lupe Valdez in Texas significantly increased turnout over 2014 numbers, while Michelle Lujan Grisham is the new Governor-Elect of New Mexico.
We expanded our strategic focus to support the campaigns of Gillum, Jealous and Garcia, in particular. In the history of the country, there have only been two African Americans elected governor, and we could see that if we could get all three into office, that accomplishment could shatter conventional wisdom about Democratic electoral strategy and result in redirecting tens of millions of dollars toward candidates and campaigns focused on mobilizing the New American Majority. While we fell agonizingly short, an incredible foundation was laid for these young leaders and their networks to play key roles in delivering their states in 2020 and running again themselves in 2022, when the composition of their states will be even more Democratic and more diverse.
The strategy these leaders followed is still the best strategy for Democrats: inspiring, mobilizing and turning out voters of color and progressive whites by listening and engaging them authentically.
3. America is facing enormous and ferocious racial backlash. It is no accident that Trump was elected president immediately after the nation’s first African American president. Multiple academic studies have shown that the racial fears and anxieties of white voters were critical factors in support for President Trump.
Trump’s policies have an indisputable impact: They are reducing the number of people of color in this country. His defense of white supremacists is correlated with an increase in hate crimes based on race, gender and religion. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a not-so-thinly-veiled battle cry to make America white again. This moment, in other words, is in many ways a resumption of the conflicts that unfolded during the civil rights movement.
We wanted to increase turnout in Georgia and successfully did so, but conservative turnout also surged, particularly inflamed by Trump and opposed to a Black woman as governor. This surge in turnout, in spite of long-standing and institutionalized threats to voting rights in the state, demonstrate that we are in a period of both profound engagement and profound backlash. Failure to recognize and adjust accordingly will make us less effective.
The good news is that more people of color, particularly women of color, ran for office this year. In fact, there was a 75% increase in women of color among nominees for Congress in 2018 compared with 2012. And they performed well. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) will be the nation’s first Muslim women in Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) will be the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. House.
Three African American Lieutenant Governors won their bids this year — Garlin Gilchrist II in Michigan, Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin and Juliana Stratton in Illinois, joining Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax in their roles.
Conventional wisdom dictated that both Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams did not give Democrats their best chance. More traditional, moderate white candidates were seen as the most competitive. In this view, moderate candidates can better appeal to and win over “swing” white voters. Midterm results laid bare the fallacy of that view. Both Gillum and Abrams received a higher percentage of vote share than recent gubernatorial candidates.
4. Most of the Democratic funding ecosystem is shockingly non-transparent and unaccountable. 2018 presented a moment of truth for the donors and institutions who comprise the core of Democratic spending. Long frustrated by the lack of empirical data used to make spending decisions, the lack of investment in tactics that actually win elections and the lack of transparency and accountability around spending, we were forced to engage in intense struggles with party and Super PAC leaders around strategy, priorities and the allocation of resources. Our analyses this year built upon work we had previously commissioned, including a 2014 Fannie Lou Hamer audit of Democratic party spending on political consultants and a series of Fannie Lou Hamer report cards in 2016.
For example, we closely examined the most competitive gubernatorial races across the country, and our statistical analyses determined that there were enough infrequent Democratic voters to win the gubernatorial elections in 10 Republican-held states. In three additional races, effective voter mobilization efforts could get the Democratic candidate within striking distance of winning, especially in a wave election year. All told, eight of the 17 races we identified as most competitive resulted in a Democratic win.
Yet the party establishment spending did not align with statistically-determined winnability, nor did it take into consideration the proportional size of each electorate. In fact, how decisions were made remained opaque, in spite of multiple attempts to understand the strategy and to work in partnership.
Consistent with what we have seen in the past, there is a fundamental failure of basic organizational best practices among Democratic institutional funders — clear and comprehensible budgets and financial reports, accountability to stakeholders, post-election reflection and analysis. Few donors would give a $10,000 grant to an organization that functioned this way, yet many hand millions to Super PACs and other parts of the party ecosystem with nothing but crossed fingers. As a result, at best, we have no idea how tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars are spent. At worst, we are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. Either way, we lose, and the trust and financial management that is essential to winning elections is eroded.
If we are to have a real shot at taking back the White House in 2020, Democratic donors must demand political plans based on empirical evidence — not conventional wisdom or blind faith — to make intelligent, data-driven investments in the places and people most likely to win elections and take back our country. We must immediately demand a much higher standard of functioning and partnership heading into the 2020 season.
5. The Democrats *should* win in 2020. Mathematically, structurally and demographically, the Democrats should win back the White House in 2020. Seventy-seven thousand votes in three traditionally Democratic states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — determined the Electoral College outcome in 2016. Michigan and Wisconsin just elected Democratic governors, putting in place leadership that will encourage rather than suppress voting. Furthermore, the incredibly strong campaigns of Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Kyrsten Sinema and David Garcia have laid the foundation for victory in Florida, Georgia and Arizona if we continue to invest in what’s been built. As we analyze what worked this year in taking back the House and winning a number of key statewide races, there are some common themes — inspiring candidates running well-organized campaigns on progressive policy platforms; the centrality of mobilization, not persuasion; a civic engagement infrastructure that was created and strengthened over time, not overnight (the Democratic sweep in Orange County congressional races was the culmination of a decade of patient political capital and investing); and the resources to execute comprehensive, multi-dimensional voter turnout efforts.
We have set the table for winning the White House and Senate in 2020 by attracting, training and elevating thousands of volunteers, activists, organizers and operatives. The conditions are ripe to win Florida, Georgia and Arizona in 2020. But this will not happen without our sustained investments.
Many would-be presidential candidates will surface in the weeks and months to come. While the jockeying for position plays out, donors can hold our newly elected officials accountable to their campaign promises, build relationships with strong leaders at all levels of government and civil society and invest in organizations that are building the community power that generates new candidates and mobilizes voters.
With so many progressive people now in office across the country, we can also begin the work of rebuilding and reimagining the democracy we know this country is capable of, and we will be devoting time and attention to that challenge in 2019.
2019 and Beyond
This year taught us many things about this political moment and our investments. Our core beliefs about the changing Democratic electorate were affirmed, challenged and subsequently refined in 2018. What we learned now informs our next steps as we consider how to invest in and influence strong governance in 2019, the 2020 Presidential Election and the future of the Democratic party.
We were heartened by the shifts we saw in the discernment among many individual Democratic donors and the role that empirical evidence and strong due diligence played in their funding decisions. We were pleased to offer our recommendations for strong candidates and civic engagement organizations and to align our funding with like-minded donors and funders for greater leverage and impact. We saw promising examples of strong partnership between donors and the party establishment. And we know we have a long way to go.
We will continue to seek out data and analysis that informs our investments and serves as a tool for the donor ecosystem. We will continue to lead the drumbeat of accountability, transparency and objective inquiry in the quest for justice and equity.