How Democrats Can Win Back the Swing States

They lack a voter turnout infrastructure where they most need votes in 2020. This group wants to change that.

When Meg Ansara arrived in Brooklyn to become Hillary Clinton’s battleground state director in March 2016, her first task was clear: she had to go on a hiring spree. The campaign had virtually no staff prepared to do the work of registering voters and mobilizing turnout in the key states needed for a Democratic victory. In her first month on the job, there were just 300 battleground staffers in total. Over the next five months, she brought on almost 4,000. By then, it was already August 2016—just three months from Election Day. As Ansara would painfully learn, that was hardly enough to time to train the thousands of staffers she spent months recruiting.

“So much time was put into hiring that we didn’t have the time or space we ultimately wanted or needed to develop the skills on the part of our staff,” Ansara told me. “Every minute that you spend hiring is time that you don’t spend running programs.”

This has been aperennial problem for Democratic presidential campaigns—the lack of a permanent voter turnout infrastructure in key swing states. Consequentially, in every election cycle, Democrats have to effectively start from scratch each time to turn out the voters they need the most. As former president Barack Obama’s 2012 get-out-the-vote director Rachel Haltom-Irwin said, these efforts become “constant start-ups.” In 2016, that put the party at a particular disadvantage to Republicans, who created a permanent volunteer corps in 10 battleground states after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Obama. Since then, the Democrats have been playing catch up.

Ansara and Haltom-Irwin’s shared experience led them to recognize a vacuum in the Democratic Party’s advocacy ecosystem. There was no full-time, on-the-ground group committed to training organizers to boost turnout in the most crucial states to a Democratic victory until after the party had selected its nominee. Their answer was to create one.

In February 2019, they launched Organizing Corps 2020, with the Democratic National Committee and a political consulting firm and a political action committee, each founded by Obama alums. The idea was simple: to recruit college students, specifically juniors heading into their senior year, to start training during the summer of 2019, and prepare them to be formally hired as field organizers—either for the DNC, the eventual nominee’s campaign, or a state-based organization—once they graduate next spring. That way, they can get started full-throttle right away in one of the seven key 2020 battleground states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In other words, Organizing Corps 2020 is not only building an infrastructure for Democrats to increase turnout where it’s most needed, but are developing a “college-to-career pipeline” in which progressive students can hone the skills of voter registration, data analysis, and digital mobilization, and then put them to use in places where they are already locally oriented.

If all goes according to plan, this won’t just help get Donald Trump out of the White House. It will create a model for Democrats to have a substantial presence in swing states for decades to come.

Longtime progressive activists have long been frustrated with the Democratic Party’s lack of investment in field organizing in swing states. Sandy Newman, who created Project Vote in the 1980s—and who hired Barack Obama to run its Illinois voter registration drive in 1992—said the status quo has made it impossible for Democrats to create an effective ground presence and turnout the young, low-income, and under-represented voters who can tip the scales in their favor in crucial states.

“It is really hard to ramp up from virtually no staff to maybe 3,000 staff,” he told me. “It says a lot about Tom Perez that the DNC realized the need to emphasize field work and was willing to make this advance investment that will help them be closer to where the incumbent campaign will be when the primaries end.”

Democratic organizers already face an uphill challenge going into next year. The Trump campaign is off to an early start. The president filed for reelection on the same day he was inaugurated, and as of July, his campaign already had more than $56 million on hand.

The time constraints on the hiring process for Democrats have historically made it so they only hire staffers from social networks of people they already know. That means they’re often bringing on unpaid—or poorly paid—young people whose parents can afford to subsidize them. As a consequence, they rarely employ staffers who resemble the populations they’re trying to organize. That’s why Organizing Corps 2020 is putting a special emphasis of bringing more people of color into the process. (Each student gets paid $4,000 for eight weeks of training.)

Organizing Corps 2020 looks to break out of the normal cycle. First, it’s moved up the timeline for recruitment. The initial training of hundreds of organizers began this summer. Starting mobilization efforts before a nominee is selected is a borrowed tactic from the political action committee Swing Left before the 2018 midterms: the group raised money for Democratic candidates in districts it expected to be up for grabs before the primaries there had even been held.

But Organizing Corps does more than just throw money at a problem. The participants were taught some of the basics in interpersonal organizing at a one-week gathering in Atlanta before going out and using those skills on the ground. They were also trained in data literacy needed to target voters. In the process, they hoped to gain an edge in local knowledge in the states where they may later be stationed.

But critics of the program have noted one issue: there is no actual guarantee of employment on a mobilization campaign involved in signing up for the program. Instead, Organizing Corps 2020 trains the students to organize in one of the seven states, with the hopes of landing them in an formal organizing gig once they graduate.  “It’s an admirable thing to try to do,” DNC member Yolanda Caraway told The Atlantic in July, but “what are you going to do with [students in the program] after” the training?

Haltom-Irwin, the group’s executive director, recognized that was a fair point. She said her team was currently in talks with individual campaigns and state Democratic committees to come to an arrangement about formalizing employment come next spring. She also said Organizing Corps 2020 is currently developing programming for students between now and next summer to keep them engaged with organizing during the interim.

senior at the University of Chicago, Gabrielle Bogert said she knew as soon as she saw the program advertised on Twitter that she wanted to do it. “The opportunity the program represented was something I know I couldn’t find anywhere else: the chance to have a mentorship and a program that would help foster my career and my interests,” she told me.

Students like Bogert, politically engaged and driven to make a difference, are the kind of candidates Organizing Corps 2020 has hoped to attract. It allows for a mutually beneficial tradeoff: the students get a resume boost and valuable training experience, while the party gains organizers who can help make a meaningful difference in the upcoming election.

Before this summer, Bogert had little political experience: she had phone-banked and knocked on doors in Florida’s 27th district during the midterms. But when she travelled to Atlanta, she learned the real mechanics of organizing, such as how to effectively engage with constituents, convince people to volunteer, and use voter tracking databases. After the first week of training, she and her cohort travelled back to Florida, Bogert’s home state, to do the actual work they had learned. “The chance to go back and get involved and foster more of a sense of political groundwork in Miami was really important to me,” she said.

Broadly speaking, the goal is to take more recruits like Bogert and jumpstart the range of organizing talent the Democrats have not fully tapped into. “In my opinion, there’s no talent gap out there—there’s an access support infrastructure gap,” Ansara said. “Unlike most other professions, Democratic politics doesn’t have a dedicated talent development program. That’s crazy. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

For its part, Organizing Corps 2020 has already shown some success at, well, organizing. This summer, its participants knocked on 50,000 doors and registered more 9,000 voters. The only hitch: it’s unclear how the group will ensure its students stay with the program between the time they complete the training and when the real turnout efforts begin next summer.

There’s cause to be optimistic, though.

After last summer’s training session, the participants returned to their campuses for the upcoming school year, with millions of other students who are intensely anxious about what their next move will be. Bogert, however, knows exactly what she’s going to do once the school year ends.

She plans to be back in Florida, working as a field organizer.

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Jake Maher

Jake Maher is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.