Of course, nearly every recent incarnation of the DNC has promised to revive its grass roots — to no avail. How might the Democratic Party do things differently today? Over the past decade, we have undertaken empirical analyses of the 2008 and 2012 Obama ground games (which became required reading for the 2020 Republican National Committee field teams — organizers had to pass an exam on the book). We also carried out a confidential analysis of the 2016 Clinton field program and have studied many of the statewide, grass-roots organizations in places such as Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan that helped fuel change in 2020. The one consistent finding is that the party succeeds when it builds sustained, multiracial organizations on the ground that are rooted in real people’s real problems.
Arizona offers some important lessons
To connect to communities, parties often have to work with nonparty groups, which may work for years to change politics. The organizations that helped flip Arizona, for instance, first came together in a decade-long fight against restrictive anti-immigration laws. This coalition started to emerge in 2010, when a group of mostly youth and immigrant leaders organized a 104-day vigil outside the Arizona Capitol to protest the sudden passage of the nation’s most restrictive immigration law. That vigil cultivated leaders and organizers who then incubated a large network of groups across the state.
As they matured, these organizations won local victories, helping elect a majority on the Phoenix City Council, winning the first statewide recall of anti-immigrant leader Russell Pearce, defeating Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and passing a landmark minimum wage and paid sick leave ballot initiative in 2016. These experiences laid the groundwork for 2020.
Such coalition-building requires the cultivation of long-term relationships with constituents and strategic partners. In Arizona, Latino leaders like Alex Gomez and Tomás Robles of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) built deep relationships with constituents, fostered new leaders and developed organizational vehicles that enabled these leaders to act. It also required action on concrete issues, which sometimes led to surprising alliances. Just as Stacey Abrams has partnered with the tea party on legislation in Georgia, Gomez and Robles built partnerships with business leaders to advance a minimum-wage ballot initiative. By fostering strategic relationships and delivering concrete benefits, Gomez, Robles and other activists could reach voters and communities in 2020 that the Democrats rarely reach, and become trusted sources of information in an era of disinformation.
People of color are emerging as leaders
There has been a lot of attention paid to the organizing energies of groups of primarily White women activated by 2016. These groups have played a vital role, but so too have groups led by people of color. Some have branded organizations grounded in communities of color as the “ideological left,” implying they are unstrategic because they seek to pull the party toward bold ideas, or accused them of being unwilling to work with the party. Implicitly or explicitly, White leaders are often assumed to be more “moderate” and thus more “strategic.”
Our research shows this is misguided. Often, the party resists leadership by people of color, only to ask later why they resist involvement with the party. When Gomez and Robles first sought to lead the 2016 minimum-wage ballot initiative, they got strong pushback from Democratic leaders. Party leaders wanted a White professional consultant to run the campaign. Gomez and Robles persisted, earning Robles the right to lead — and win — the campaign. In a pattern we saw repeated across many states, leaders of color had to fight so that they weren’t relegated to being mere foot soldiers for turnout operations, but instead, as Robles described it in 2017, “both brains and muscle.”
It may sound like a platitude to say that parties need to invest in sustained organizations rooted in the constituencies that constitute their base. If so, it is a platitude that is widely ignored. Typically, the national party expends most of its resources on advertising with dubious benefits. It also provides data and money to state and local parties, which are, in theory, responsible for building sustained relationships in the local community. Yet many state and local parties lack ideas about what to do between elections, and thus do nothing or run halfhearted voter registration programs.
Without strong grounding in a community, campaigns are left blind during election season. They then rely too much on big data to make crude estimates of voters’ preferences, which can lead to catastrophic errors and defaults toward focusing disproportionately on White, middle-class voters most likely to turn out. Actually expanding the base requires better voter lists that differentiate strong, middling and weak supporters, and that, in turn, requires humans talking to humans year-round.
When parties become disconnected from their base, they have a hard time connecting to the complex, practical issues that communities face. When they work with humans with concrete problems to solve, however, a different kind of politics, a politics that makes democracy work, can emerge. In Arizona, Raquel Terán, another organizer who emerged from the 2010 vigil, was just elected as chair of the state’s Democratic Party. Her election acknowledges the importance of the years-long work these Latino organizers led throughout the state. Perhaps this time, the Democratic Party will indeed start to deliver.
Hahrie Han is Professor of Political Science and Inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Liz McKenna is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the SNF Agora Institute and received her PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley in 2019.
This article is part of a seminar on the 2020 election and its aftereffects organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. See below for the complete list of contributions to the seminar.