The Making of a Wave

This week, MoveOn members will send more than 20 million text message to targeted voters. That is, on its own, nearly as many voter contacts as the 2012 Obama re-election campaign made in the climactic last four days of that contest. As of the end of October, the Beto O’Rourke Senate campaign reported that its supporters alone had made 19 million phone calls to Texas voters, and that they were generating more than one million text messages a day to voters. With 435 House races, a third of the Senate, and thousands of local races being contested, there is clearly a huge wave of campaign and grassroots organizing underway to mobilize voters.

While 2018 is not a presidential election year, the best benchmarks available for trying to judge the scale of all the grassroots organizing underway are the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. Obviously the size of the electorate has grown, but just for comparison: In 2008, the Democratic National Committee claimed a total of 68 million voter contacts, including robocalls. The 2012 Obama re-election campaign said it made a grand total of 150 million direct voter contacts, including personal calls and door-knocks, and not counting robocalls.

To be a little more apples-to-apples, consider that in 2008 the Obama campaign tallied 200,000 off-line campaign events organized by supporters using its myBO online platform, and in 2012 it upped that number to 358,000. These were typically things like fundraising parties, phone banking, and canvassing. Alfred Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of Mobilize America, which is a new (post 2016) clearinghouse for volunteer organizing, tells me that so far in 2018, organizers have created 82,000 events spread over 515 campaigns and 641 organizations using its platform. (You can find more impact metrics from Mobilize here.) Obama 2008 reported that 3 million phone calls were made to voters in the last 3 days of that race using its virtual phone-banking platform; it’s safe to say that far more are happening now.

While polls are showing that American voters are expressing more motivation than is usual for a mid-term election year, and that people’s stated propensity to vote is almost as high among Republicans as it is among Democrats, the common wisdom among campaign professionals is that a strong field operation that identifies supporters in advance and then makes lots of contacts to insure that they vote can increase turnout by several percentage points. So in the last few days I’ve been asking people in both the older and newer organizations focused on building the so-called “blue wave” what they were seeing in terms of actual engagement levels, and how much the wave might compare to the last big Democratic surges of 2008 and 2012.

“My first instinct is it’s clearly the biggest grassroots groundswell in our lifetimes for a midterm,” Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn, told me. “An obvious difference is that ’08 efforts were largely centralized and tracked by the campaign (hence even being able to look at that number of volunteer signups in MyBo — and many organizations, like MoveOn, pushed our members to volunteer directly with the campaign, scrapping plans for independent canvass efforts), while the Resistance and broader progressive mobilization has what, thousands?, of nodes — organizations, Facebook pages, local unnamed groups, etc.”

Galland is right. The 2018 picture is a lot messier than in those presidential years, precisely because there is no one national campaign centralizing the energies of many organizers. But there are all kinds of other indications showing that intensity among Democratic-leaning voters is way up. MoveOn has more events in its system than in any prior cycle, including 2008, and if you just look at the number of RSVPs for those events, 2018 is matching 2008, despite it being a mid-term year.

Getting a mid-term to mid-term comparison is near impossible. Matt Ewing, the CTO of SwingLeft, says, “From where I sit, it’s certainly safe to say this year is already clearly way ahead of the last midterm I worked on, 2006. That year MoveOn members made 7 million calls (back before dialers were readily available). This year Swing Left members have already made over 3 million door-knocks and dials–and a) that’s mostly knocks not dials so the relative effort is waaay higher b) our biggest days are still ahead of us c) our email list is large, but fraction of what MoveOn’s was.”

Ewing adds, “2006 was the anti-war movement pouring its heart out to take back Congress, so surpassing that energy isn’t a small thing. But, it seems to be happening.”

Nonpartisan election-related activity is also way up. “Every year Common Cause recruits volunteers for our nonpartisan Election Protection campaign — working with the Lawyer’s Committee (who focuses on the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline) Common Cause recruits and trains (in partnership with state-based groups) volunteers to be nonpartisan poll monitors at polling places around the country,” Jesse Littlewood, the group’s national campaigns and digital director, tells me. “Every year we recruit in 25 or 26 states for this field volunteer program. I manage the website where we ask volunteers to sign up, and it places them in contact with the local organizer–ProtectThevote–in 2016 we had a total of 3,000 volunteers signed up. This year we have over 6,000 signed up.”

While it’s clear that a significant organizing muscle has been built this cycle, less is generally known about its internal make-up. Yes, women are predominantly the backbone of this movement: 65% of the more than 315,000 people volunteering through Mobilize America are women, the group reports, with even higher ratios in places like Georgia and California. But are a truly representative group of voters being mobilized? Yes, more young people appear to be engaging in the election, but what about communities of color? Color of Change, the country’s biggest online racial justice organization, says its PAC has done more than one million voter contacts focused on Blacks who have a low propensity to vote. That’s a big deal. But on the other hand, the polling firm Latino Decisions found that seven weeks before the election, six in ten Latinx voters said they had not been contacted by a candidate or political party asking for their vote.

Clearly the amount of political engagement occurring around the 2018 election is reaching presidential year levels, albeit in a much more distributed fashion. But with regards to the data various groups are sharing, right now it’s hard to know clearly what these numbers are really counting. As Josh Nussbaum, co-founder of The Movement Cooperative (and a former Civic Hall organizer-in-residence) commented, “An additional problem with all of the mobilization and activity being spread across multiple organizations, as opposed to primarily under one Presidential campaign, is that it’s hard to reconcile and de-dupe the totals. CountLove has the total count of attendees at different rallies last year and this year at just under 10 million, but they’re pulling that by scraping news reports on attendees, which is not exact, and if I’m showing up to multiple rallies than I’m being double, triple, quadruple counted, etc.

Nussbuam says that one of the valuable things happening as The Movement Cooperative helps several dozen organizations access the voter file is the ability to de-duplicate some of those data points. “We don’t have a standard ontology for ‘super-volunteer,” or agreement on what truly counts as a ‘mobilization,’ which is work we hope to drill into next year. But, at this point, just looking at the groups at TMC who have opted into de-duped comparison, the overall number of volunteers who have been mobilized currently in some way across our 35 groups certainly exceeds 2 million. That’s over a year-and-a-half time-span, though, and incorporates a number of different forms of online and offline action.”

Again, as a point of comparison, in 2012, the Obama re-election campaign claimed a total of 2.2 million volunteers on its rolls. If Nussbaum and the Movement Cooperative’s data is right, the left has essentially rebuilt Obama’s lost army, and in a form that will keep going. That, in and of itself, is a huge achievement. Indeed, whatever the results of the election next Tuesday, it may be the most important civic accomplishment of the last two years.