Mobilizing the progressive movement: Lessons from a battleground state

Mobilizing the progressive movement: Lessons from a battleground state

In the wake of the stunning women’s marches across the United States and the planet last month, President Donald Trump articulated a thought that was on the minds of many marchers: “Why didn’t these people vote?” We will never know how many marchers did not vote in the 2016 election. But the remarkable enthusiasm gap between this new protest movement and the recent Clinton presidential campaign raises a pressing question: How can progressives learn from defeat and more effectively mobilize their moral energy and numerical strength into future electoral victories? The story of what happened in the battleground state of North Carolina suggests important answers.

Explanations for Clinton’s loss thus far have focused primarily on messaging failures, FBI director Comey’s investigation, Russian meddling, and the importance of a profound rural/urban split across the nation. A closer look at the ground game in North Carolina reveals a simpler explanation for her loss there: top-down organizing that ignored local knowledge and an urban focus that wrote off most rural areas. While Russian emails may have demoralized some potential voters, the lack of effective outreach to N.C.’s rural regions had truly dramatic consequences. Indeed, Hillary Clinton lost North Carolina because her campaign largely neglected recently mobilized rural voters.

Clinton performed well in N.C.’s urban counties, expanding Obama’s already impressive advantage there. The emergence of these Democratic majorities did not happen in just one election, but has been growing over the past five election cycles. In 2000, Republican George Bush carried five of the state’s largest seven urban counties. By 2008, all seven counties possessed large Democratic majorities that delivered 345,000 more votes for Barack Obama than for John McCain. In 2016, those same counties grew even bluer:  Durham County cast 93,000 more votes for Clinton than for Trump, an increase of 22,000 over the 2008 tally, while Mecklenburg and Wake Counties saw increases of 39,000 and 43,000 votes over 2008 respectively. In 2016, Democratic votes in urban counties also expanded by between 2 to 3 percentage points over 2012, with Durham County, already the bluest in the state, leading the way.

These stunning new Democratic majorities were not merely the result of in-migrations from the North or demographic trends. More importantly, they were a direct result of massive voter registration efforts that turned North Carolina blue for the first time in a half century in 2008.  More than half a million new voters joined N.C.’s voting rolls in 2008, and nearly 70 percent of them voted Democratic.  A similar upsurge of new Democratic voters occurred in N.C.’s cities in 2016, thanks to the work of local people and organizations. In Durham County, more than half of the 50,000 new voters added in 2008 and 2016 were organized by local groups, which were registering new voters long before national campaign staff arrived and after they left.

But why then, with dramatically expanded urban majorities, did Clinton lose North Carolina so conclusively? The answer is not a messaging failure or an increasing and irrevocable divide between urban and rural voters but a simpler fact. In 2016, the vast majority of North Carolina’s rural counties had no dedicated Clinton field office. Clinton’s few rural organizers, most of them young people with few local ties, were scattered across large geographies with little logistical support, in sharp contrast to organizers in the state’s urban counties. The cost of this approach was steep: Clinton hemorrhaged 200,000 votes across 90 rural counties, completing erasing the 140,000 vote gain she made in urban centers.

In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the Obama campaign opened field offices in most rural counties across the state. Voter registration campaigns were spearheaded by field offices in small towns like Oxford and Elizabeth City, and sizeable rural Democratic wave emerged. In 2016, by contrast, a Clinton campaign-sponsored website featured a neat graphic informing internet users where to find the nearest Clinton field office based on their zip codes. For Democrats in Granville County, that office was in downtown Durham, 31 miles away. Absent dedicated field offices and consistent voter registration drives, Democratic turnout in Granville returned to 2004 levels, when George Bush carried the state.

Nor is there much evidence of a Trump wave in eastern North Carolina. In Pasquotank County, where Elizabeth City is located, the number of Republican voters remained constant between 2008 and 2016, but the number of Democratic voters dropped by roughly 20 percent. Absent a dedicated Clinton field office coordinating voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in the black belt, recently mobilized Democratic voters in many rural counties stayed home.

Even in urban counties, the Clinton campaign could have fared better still. Unfortunately, national presidential campaign managers largely ignored the wisdom and expertise of local actors and organizers, putting their faith instead in the power of “big data” to locate and turn out “sporadic” voters. While such data certainly helped national organizers create walk lists for local volunteers, even the best lists left out voters who had moved recently or who were unregistered. And data did not mobilize voters or find new ones. In Durham, a diverse cohort of organizations such as the NAACP, MoveOn, neighborhood churches, student groups, and volunteer-led citizens’ groups did much of that work.

Like Obama’s national organizers in 2012, the Clinton ground game ignored people in motion or those living at the wrong address, missing opportunities to grow the democracy. Local Clinton organizers made the best of a bad script, but were hamstrung in their efforts. The national campaign’s focus on door-knocking and metrics demoralized volunteers who had been key actors in building the Obama wave of 2008. Put simply, progressives could have grown an even bigger majority in N.C.’s urban counties had national campaign managers trusted the insights of local activists and their own organizers. “Big data” did not in fact grow N.C.’s democracy in 2012 or 2016; local people did.

If progressives are to win, they need to learn from both the successes and mistakes of recent national campaigns. Rural America is not one unified region with one cultural narrative and one political preference. In rural North Carolina, there are progressives aplenty, as Obama’s rural wave underscores.

And big data alone will not provide solutions, especially for N.C.’s 800,000 unregistered, most of them Democratic-leaning. Only sustained voter registration drives and collaborations between local and national organizers in both urban and rural counties will build an enduring progressive majority.

The good news for progressives is that there is a path forward. Fighting for the voting rights of sporadic voters and mobilizing them in both urban and rural counties will be key to their success in North Carolina and other states.

Progressives know how to win; they just have to bring their organizing skills and respect for local knowledge to their latent majority in North Carolina and elsewhere. If they can do that, they will tap the moral energy so vividly on display in recent protests, and translate that energy into victory at the polls.

Gunther Peck is an associate professor of American history at Duke University and at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He was active in the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Democratic presidential campaign efforts in Durham, North Carolina.