What Iowa Democrats can learn from 2020 down-ballot candidates

A deep dive into the experiences of down-ballot candidates provides much food for thought for Iowa Democrats hoping to improve on last year’s dismal performance.

The authors of “Playing to Win,” released last month, are three activists with professional backgrounds in marketing. Dave Miglin was a candidate for the board of trustees for Polk County’s public hospital, Broadlawns. Kathryn Kaul-Goodman chairs the Mahaska County Democrats and ran for supervisor in that rural southeast Iowa county. Jean Kaul-Brown helped with both Miglin’s and Kaul-Goodman’s campaign and (along with Miglin) is communications co-chair for the Polk County Democrats.

I recommend downloading the full report. It’s a quick read:

The authors created an online survey and also interviewed candidates and campaign managers, sometimes for an hour or more. They asked about their backgrounds, why they ran for office, whether they received campaign training, and other nuts and bolts like fundraising and messaging. They tried to gather a diverse range of experiences: those running for state House, Senate, or county supervisor, those who won and lost, people campaigning in each of Iowa’s Congressional districts, first-time candidates as well as experienced office-holders, and people “ranging in age from 25 to 72.”

A few of the takeaways:

Recruiting is “an area of opportunity.” None of the interview subjects had been recruited by the Iowa Democratic Party or their county party organizations. Nevertheless, these candidates–mostly women who had been involved with some other Democratic group or cause–sacrificed time and sometimes part of their salaries to run for office. They “felt strongly they needed to do so, often because no other Democrat was stepping forward. We shouldn’t count on that bench always being there.”

The authors have a few suggestions:

To help with recruitment, candidates in these tough districts and races could get started with a $1,500 signing bonus from the IDP; for county-level races, it could be a $500 or $750 bonus. Candidates in these races could unlock access to additional funds if their campaign accomplishes certain key benchmarks: number of doors knocked, voter contact totals and good data management. The IDP could also partner with political science departments to get campaign experience for underclassmen by having them help on campaigns for internship credits.

“Money wasn’t the issue.” Having closely followed many state legislative campaigns in which Democrats were outspent by a lot (sometimes two to one), I was relieved to see candidates in many battleground races able to match their opponents financially in 2020. But many well-funded campaigns were not successful. Miglin, Kaul-Goodman, and Kaul-Brown observed,

In 2020, Democrats showed they became the masters of small-dollar fundraising and many of the state-level candidates, especially those in targeted races, raised eye-watering amounts of money in addition to the in-kind contributions from the Truman Fund and Senate Majority Fund. However, the heavy financial focus on media didn’t necessarily seem to drive results, and some of the candidates bemoaned not knowing what to do with the money they received. Meanwhile, non-targeted and county-level races often had very small amounts of funds and/or were often primarily self-financed, especially on the county level. While hindsight is always 20/20, it seemed like investments in longer-term organizing efforts may support overall candidate success better than incredibly heavy media spends on a handful of races in a very fractured media environment.

The party can’t devote the same resources to every race, of course. But the “Playing to Win” report indicates even campaigns that receive a lot of financial help don’t always get the support they need. The authors noted, “this was the area of our research and interview sessions that garnered much of the feedback from candidates, and seemed to be where the Iowa Democratic Party had the most opportunity to make immediate impacts or ‘quick wins’ that could positively affect our Democratic candidates’ election results.”

“Feast or famine” approach isn’t helpful. The authors argue, “While we will not be able to overcome these deficits and challenges in one or more campaign cycles, we can start making changes that can make a difference for our longer-term success”–losing “smarter” to help the party win later.

Iowa Democrats currently operate in a “feast or famine” environment, with lots of oversight and support for targeted races and almost no help for others. “There seems like there’s an opportunity to reach more of a middle ground to meet candidates where they need to be met in order to feel like they can succeed – win or lose.”

Outside Iowa’s Democratic strongholds, candidates often “felt like they were competing with their fellow candidates for volunteers.” In addition,

Most candidates felt like they were running their own race, and not tied to a larger Democratic strategy. Staffers for candidates felt like they were competing for volunteers amongst their fellow campaign staff. After speaking with candidates, we’re confident this is an area the party can overcome, and campaigns can be run more efficiently at the state-level.

The authors put this sentence in bold: “After poor experiences, most of the candidates we spoke to mentioned feeling burned out and unsure if they would ever want to run again.” That not only takes talented people out of the game for future races they might be able to win, but also hurts the party’s data collection, especially in red areas. County-level candidates had almost no interaction with the Iowa Democratic Party, but they could have benefited from some guidance on essential tasks, such as how to use the voter file.

A sampling of suggestions:

Provide intense, but productive campaign training that is practical and deliverable-focused. Host well-promoted, intensive hands-on workshops that are really focused for candidates to get their hands wrapped around getting the basics of their campaign infrastructure up and running ahead of the primary season. If candidates attend, they know by the end of the weekend they will have a logo, a basic website built, their social media calendar created, and a campaign plan in-hand. These workshops could be available to local, county-level, and state-level candidates. Candidates we spoke to mentioned preferring a hands-on, deliverables-focused campaign training to some of the other candidate trainings they had been a part of that were generic and left candidates still needing to do all the work on their own following the training. […]

Another idea: the state party could create a database of Iowa Democrats “with skills in graphic design, web design, videography, and other areas” who are willing to work for campaigns, as well as contact information for union printers. Candidates for county offices would particularly benefit from that kind of resource manual.

The “Democratic brand” is severely damaged. Candidates need help drawing distinctions between themselves and Republicans “outside of broad strokes and generic slogans,” the report notes. But more broadly,

A theme that came out repeatedly with candidates at all levels was that merely being labelled a “Democrat” put them at a significant disadvantage. Even dedicated, smart campaigning, and in cases of the targeted state House and state Senate races, major financial investments over $200,000 (cash and in-kind contributions) were too late and too fragmented. In short, it was not enough to overcome the negative narrative created in the market for the Democratic brand. […]

What Democratic messaging there was was often generic and anodyne and failed to clearly draw distinctions between us and Republicans. Additionally, even down to the county level all races are now effectively nationalized. […]

Candidates repeatedly mentioned how they had to spend a lot of time and energy responding to hot button Republican messaging especially around charges of socialism and defunding the police. These were not put out by the local candidate, but were so prominent in voters’ minds from national coverage they were a significant factor in the race nonetheless. As one state Senate candidate said regarding the top issues of concern to voters: “It was COVID, COVID, and fund our police.”

I would guess that Fox News and conservative talk radio play a large role in this branding problem. Conservative voices dominate most Iowa media markets. Republicans don’t even have to spend money to get negative messages about Democrats to Iowa audiences 365 days a year.

The “Playing to Win” report notes that GOP candidates often used campaign materials to nationalize local races.

Negative mailers from Republicans often invoked figures like Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders when talking about their Iowan Democratic opponents. Conversely, we were not aware of any Democratic messaging that tied state or local-level Republican candidates to Trump or other high-profile Republicans.

Of course, tying local Republicans to Trump would not be an effective strategy for Democrats running in red counties or districts.

The party over-managed communication in targeted races.

Looking at the offensive side of messaging, it also suffered from the “feast or famine issue” discussed above. Many non-targeted candidates struggled to effectively and concisely identify or articulate their messages and did not have resources available to help them do so.

Meanwhile, the candidates in targeted races often felt they received too much direction and prescription from the IDP in their messaging. The message topics and tone seemed to be set before the campaign manager came onboard. Messaging didn’t seem very nuanced or aware of differences around each candidate, or sometimes even of the local conditions on the ground in Iowa. For example, one state House candidate mentioned that consultants assisting her campaign with mailings wanted to include messaging around getting businesses back open following COVID restrictions and were unaware that businesses in Iowa were already open.

Another line from the report tracks with what I’ve heard from some state legislative candidates over the years: “For those whose races were targeted, it often felt like the IDP was so concerned with projecting a moderate image that candidates didn’t feel like their authentic selves were being communicated via the IDP-mandated campaign materials.” The “often felt pressured to accept what was created for them and like the messaging produced in that material was either too generic or felt uncreative.”

The “Playing to Win” authors suggest “more collaboration around messaging at the beginning of the campaign” would help alleviate this problem.

The last several pages of the report provide more recommendations worth exploring. Some could be executed in a short time (pulling together resources for candidates in non-targeted races), while others are long-term projects (work on building the Democratic brand year-round).

This one echoes comments I’ve heard from many activists around the state:

Hire local operatives and activists who are from Iowa or are committed to staying in Iowa to serve as the campaign managers hired by the Iowa Democratic Party on behalf of state House and Senate candidates. In cases where local operatives aren’t as politically sophisticated as an out-of-state campaign manager, they can be trained to overcome these gaps, and the party’s investment will be kept in-state to help build the party from within here in Iowa. Many of these local operatives may have backgrounds that differ from the prototypical campaign staffer, but they do exist on the ground in Iowa. It may just take a reframing of what’s the best fit for the role in order to find and encourage these folks to step up. We spoke to several candidates who had highly-talented volunteer campaign managers and volunteer candidate staff who did work very worthy of being paid. There are many wonderful volunteers and activists who are already doing tremendous work supporting candidates and organizing for candidates already and know our communities well – let’s pay them for that hard work.

This part of the report may surprise many.

Do a debrief.

Win or lose, this is our simplest recommendation, and the one that may be easiest to implement. We spoke to candidates from December to February, and during that time, no candidates mentioned having any sort of opportunity for a formal debrief with the Iowa Democratic Party about their experiences as a candidate. This lack of outreach from the IDP was very concerning for candidates, and contributed to them feeling like IDP wasn’t willing to learn or hear from someone other than consultants. This debrief could take the form of candidate roundtables, surveys and 1:1 interviews, but it needs to happen. There’s great feedback and learnings that can be gleaned from candidates if they are asked. This debrief should happen with both state and county candidates.

The last recommendation draws on the authors’ marketing backgrounds.

Our Iowa Democratic brand image also needs a major reboot. As Democrats, we like to pride ourselves as being factual and logical and avoiding emotions but then our messaging either becomes so dry or so insipid (“Education is great!” “Healthcare is great!”) that it does not give Iowans a compelling reason to vote for our candidates. Any marketer will tell you that emotions are key to inspiring a response, so we need to stop being afraid of them. We also need to take our gloves off and not hesitate to spell out how our Republican opponents’ policies will have negative consequences on the lives of everyday Iowans. There seems to be a major aversion against “negative campaigning” by the current party decision makers, but avoiding pointing out true negative things about the policies of our opponents is not taking the high road, it’s walking around with our head in the clouds while we’re beaten on the ground.

Miglin, Kaul-Goodman, and Kaul-Brown are happy to continue the conversation with readers who have ideas or feedback. You can contact them via email at DaveMiglin@yahoo.com, mkkaul@hotmail.com, and kaul.Jean@gmail.com.

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