In 2018, I resolve to accept that as a political professional, I know almost nothing.
I say this knowing how counterproductive it is to my work. As a campaign hack, cofounder of Run for Something, and author of a book by the same name encouraging people to get into politics, I should just pretend to have all the answers.
Professional political insiders like us know how to run campaigns. We know the mechanics to go from candidacy to election day — how to talk to voters, how to get an ad on airwaves, and how to structure a team with volunteers.
But let’s get real: We have no idea what’s going to happen in any given election.
Sometimes that's for the worse: Donald Trump’s trouncing of 17 opponents in the GOP primary and then his upset win in November should’ve been our first clue that all bets are off. Conventional wisdom told us he’d barely make it past his announcement speech, when he declared that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. Instead, he groped his way to White House and made all the pros look foolish.
But sometimes, our ignorance leads to pleasant surprises. Time and again, we’ve underestimated the potential for victory driven by progressives fired up by rage and optimism. No one could’ve predicted Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama on Tuesday. Professional politicos couldn’t predict that Democrats would win 12 special elections for state legislatures in 2017. We didn’t know that a young lesbian schoolteacher in Oklahoma would win a special election by 31 votes, flipping a state senate seat in a district Trump had won by 40 points. We didn’t predict that 15,000 people would find their voice and sign up with us to run for office since inauguration day.
And we certainly didn't predict that two transgender women would win groundbreaking elections in 2017, that a proud Sikh man would be elected mayor of Hoboken, or that the amount of women contacting Emily’s List to run would increase 22 times this year. (As an aside, 2017 hasn’t been all bad!)
We’re in uncharted territory and this is great news.
Instead of pretending otherwise, the Democratic Party and the operatives who make the wheels turn each day (myself included) should make a 2018 resolution to accept the things we cannot know and change our strategy accordingly.
Here’s what I mean.
We don’t know for sure what makes a winning candidate. In the past, fundraising success has been a shortcut for determining viability, so insiders would look for someone who can raise the money needed to run. You can see how this systematically excluded women, people of color, and anyone besides wealthy white men.
The reality is, what makes a good candidate is someone who understands their community, who cares about problem solving, and who’s willing to do the work. It doesn’t matter if I find them thrilling from my couch in Brooklyn. What matters it that their voters meet them face-to-face and find them to be relatable, compassionate, and committed. For an institution to say to a voter, “Pick this person — they best represent you!” is the height of hubris.
That’s why the criteria for Run for Something endorsements is not fundraising, policy issues, or even viability. It’s whether or not the candidate who shares our values is doing the work to talk to voters themselves. They’re in control; we should enable them to do the most efficient work possible.
We don’t know what districts are worth investing in. Obviously, resources are limited, but when we limit our engagement to places we think will result in short-term wins, we cut off our nose to spite our face. In the past, Democrats wouldn’t have meaningfully invested in an Alabama Senate race — or fielded a strong candidate. Can you imagine if Roy Moore had gone unopposed?
In Virginia, most folks focused their efforts on five or six “flippable” seats. And we won those! Great! But few folks got involved with Kelly Fowler in VA-21 or Donte Tanner in VA-40. Kelly won by a hair, Donte is in a recount. No party institution beyond the Democratic Socialists of America got engaged with Lee Carter, a millennial and former Marine running in a long-shot race against the VA House majority whip. In a come-from-behind campaign, he won by putting in the work. All the data and modeling in the world can’t predict the future — so we’ve got to play the field and run good candidates in as many places as possible.
We don’t know what the public polls or even the in-house models are telling us. This feels like a no-brainer after 2016. But: If you hear a pundit or an operative talking about the public polls, ignore them. Polls and data are helpful in identifying directional trends, but cannot in any meaningful way predict the outcome of an election and can damage the outcome by providing either a sense of security or fear into the electorate. See: The 2016 election, when polls were horrifically and famously inaccurate, and, arguably, the narrative that Hillary was going to win in fact played a part in her ultimate demise. Polls for the November 2017 elections were inaccurate, too — no pollster predicted Democrats would win 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates or that Ralph Northam would win in a landslide nine-point victory over Ed Gillespie.
That’s not to say we’re all dummies. We know two important things that should inform our strategy.
First, we know that direct, in-person voter contact gets people to show up to vote. Social media can inspire conversation and is a way for supporters to go from passive observer to active supporter, but the best way to create a voter is through old-fashioned canvassing.
Second, we know that our best wins come from candidates like Doug Jones in Alabama, who kept his head down and talked about how he’ll fight for Alabamians in the Senate. Our best candidates are people like Danica Roem in Virginia, who, even when she could’ve made a larger argument about trans representation or equality, stayed focused on local issues like traffic. No big branding campaign or fancy tech app can make up for someone who knows the problems in a community and is offering clear, realistic solutions.
The only path forward for Democrats is simpler than any professional political insiders might admit: Run good people. Run them locally. Run them everywhere. Get as many people as possible doing direct voter contact and run up the score in as many places as we can.
This isn’t a sexy strategy. But we don’t need sexy. We need wins. More Democrats running means more Democrats campaigning, which ultimately means more Democrats voting. It’s time for the pros to put our egos aside and focus on the mission at hand. The only way we win in 2018 is by letting go.
Amanda Litman is the cofounder of Run for Something and the author of Run for Something: A Real Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself. She was the email director of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.