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- Biased models:
Models which guide campaign resource allocations, such as partisanship or vote propensity models, may tend to under-represent minorities, young people, and other marginalized people. When they do, they tend to push campaigns away from reaching such people. As a consequence, these communities can feel un-appreciated and may not turn out or engage as much as they otherwise might have; worse still, their needs are not well-represented in government. Benjamin Oh wrote about this problem in Campaigns and Elections in Sept 2022.
- Corporate fundraising:
Corporate fundraising for progressive tech firms is difficult for at least three reasons: a. partisanship is confusing to potential fundraisers, who imagine that the firm is ceding half the market (i.e., by not soliciting conservative clients); b. cyclicality makes it difficult to measure growth and sustain the enterprise; c. some funders are not mission-aligned and/or actively wish to support conservative causes. Great discussion of this problem in the Great Battlefield interview of Jeremy Smith, around 8:46.
- Digital as fundraising:
We tend to shoehorn digit organizing into a fundraising function - i.e., email lists and SMS lists are used almost entirely to raise money. That means that we are underutilizing these tools, as they could be used for persuasion and mobilization, and even candidate recruitment instead. This problem is starting to mitigate somewhat - for example, Snapchat’s collaboration with RunForSomething is an exciting approach to candidate recruitment - but more needs to be done. In some ways this problem boils down to attitudes among senior staff, as well as metrics to better measure the impact of non-fundraising digital efforts.
- Digital organizing ethics:
Digital organizing tends to become a “race to the bottom,” since some unethical tactics appear to have short-term success in raising money from individual donors. However, these tactics can lead to donor fatigue, distrust in progressive institutions, and in some extreme cases lawsuits alleging outright fraud.
- Insufficient organizing:
Most of the money in progressive organizing is focused on swing states and key races in a handful of months before Election Day. What’s more, a lot of this organizing is too narrow and fails to mobilize key elements of the base - especially marginalized communities. (In part that is because of the problem with biased models.) Often, these communities need a different approach to organizing, such as a “deep canvassing” approach, as Karundi Williams discusses in her Great Battlefield interview, at the 11:32 mark. Finally, we tend to ignore constituencies and jurisdictions that don’t support us - such as senior citizens and rural areas. However, doing so means we leave potential allies unmobilized, since we often have common cause with people in these constituencies and jurisdictions. We need to organize year-round, across a broader range of geographies, and across a wider swath of the population.
- Lack of celebrities:
There are relatively few “celebrities” in progressive politics, setting aside elected officials. There are fewer still who are “non-legacy,” i.e. native to digital media, as Yashar Ali pointed out in July 2022. Tara McGowan describes a similar kind of problem in her Great Battlefield episode at around 44:24.
- Late money:
A high proportion of donations to electoral campaigns tends to arrive toward the end of an election season, between September and November. By that time, it’s usually too late to deploy resources effectively and efficiently - for instance, ad space on TV is cheapest when bought far in advance. This problem also impacts sales cycles in progressive tech, since clients tend to have limited funds until late in the cycle, when they are unable to make sound technology choices.
- Low pay:
Democratic campaign staff tend to be low-paid and in some cases poorly-treated, especially with respect to their Republican counterparts. Similar problems are found in every corner of the progressive movement, including progressive tech firms (which tend to pay better than campaigns but not as well as other tech firms.) These problems can spill over into morale and staff churn, which in turn hamper the effectiveness of the movement overall. There are two encouraging trends in this area: a) an emerging cultural norm within the movement to post salary ranges in job postings and b) a wave of staff unionization efforts, especially in the proggressive tech sector.
- Message coordination:
Progressives lack effective means of message coordination, especially around key policy initiatives. It’s difficult to measure message coordination, but relatively easy to see that conservatives coordinate better. Progressives lack a “messaging central,” as J Toscano discusses in his Great Battlefield interview at the 52:10 mark. In particular, there is no long-term plan for communicating a policy agenda. There have been attempts to resolve this problem on the progressive side, by creating “war rooms” for particular policy proposals, but by and large these have faltered.
- Misaligned incentives:
One of the most important incentive structures in Democratic politics is around ad placement. Consultants usually get paid a percentage of their ad placement, which in turn incentivizes them to encourage the campaign to place more and more ads, even if that is not the best way to win the campaign. In Republican politics, consultants are generally incentivized with win bonuses, which helps better align their incentives with the campaign’s. (On the flip side, it may discourage consultants from working with races which are more difficult to win, thereby starving marginal races of useful talent.) Bruce Sinclair discusses consultant incentives in his Great Battlefield interview at the 42:42 mark. Kalani Tissot also discusses proper alignment of consultant incentives in his Great Battlefield interview, at the 46:46 mark.
- Misallocated money:
Donations tend to pour toward campaigns which grab the most headlines - especially in the case of candidates who oppose high-profile “bogeymen” on the right. However, in some cases these candidates are highly unlikely to win their races, and the money might have been deployed to more “winnable” elections. Similarly, most donations tend to accumulate towards the end of a campaign, but spending money earlier in the cycle yields far more value.
- Narrow ladder of engagement:
Our ladder of engagement is fairly narrow and not sophisticated enough to engage supporters in the best way possible. For example, as David Slifka discusses in his Great Battlefield interview at the 51:45 mark, progressives don’t attempt to turn donors into donor organizers. Relatedly, in field organizing, supporters tend to get herded into voter contact, even if these activities do not match their skills best. There are a handful of carve-outs for specific skills - some campaigns seek lawyers who can assist with voter protection work for instance. But these attempts are limited; there is no substantial effort to marshal skills like software engineering, design and creative skills, and so forth, to benefit the campaign in general. This problem is understandable to the degree that campaigns often lack the time to marshal these skills well; and moreover, the need for voter contact work is substantially larger than the need for other types of work. However in the aggregate, this problem means that many highly-skilled supporters lack suitable engagement in the progressive movement at large.
- Polling accuracy:
There is significant uncertainty about polling accuracy. It’s widely perceived that the polls did not accurately predict the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 - in each case the actual results favored Republicans relative to the prevailing polling heading into Election Day. These problems with polling accuracy tended to impact down-ballot races as well; for instance, Republicans did better in the Senate in 2020 than polls predicted. Some argue that the problem is due to declining rates of response on landlines, and that pollsters should begin incorporating online panels in their methodology; others claim it is a symptom of partisanship; others contend that elections with a strong theme of anti-establishment sentiment are likely to reduce polling accuracy, because pollsters are thought by some respondents to be part of the establishment. In any event, this problem significantly impacts campaigns, because it is difficult for them to efficiently allocate resources. As a result, entrepreneurs have an opportunity to experiment with new methodologies, as PredictWise has done.
- Tooling overload:
The proliferation of new tools aimed at campaigns has created a sense of bewilderment among campaign staff, who are charged with deciding which tools they will adopt, and subsequently suffer from sync issues and other vendor coordination challenges. On the flip side, tech vendors face numerous integration challenges and must pay the cost of customer acquisition.
- Undermining the opposition:
Conservative policy has, as one of its main goals, the unraveling of the progressive coalition. Hence, conservative policy agendas tend to focus on minimizing unionization, tort reform which undermines trial lawyers, voting restrictions which tend to disproportionately impact marginalized communities, and so forth. Progressive policy proposals do not, as a general rule, seek to undermine the conservative coalition in quite the same way. While going too far in this direction can produce a very corrupt style of governance, it’s clear that there are some reforms progressives could undertake - such as trade association reform, or corporate governance reform - which could likewise disrupt the conservative coalition.
Image courtesy of Nathalia Segato