This is the first in a series of posts I’ll do on the 2020 Democratic Party primaries.
On a Saturday morning in March 2016, I stepped out of my Chicago home, got into an Uber, and took a ride to the Ukrainian Village. My destination was a small field office for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which only that past Tuesday had pulled a shocking upset in the Michigan primary.
Despite polls showing Hillary Clinton leading by double digits, Sanders had pulled off a narrow win, buoyed by good margins in the state’s predominantly white rural areas and suburbs. Meanwhile, Clinton hadn’t been able to run up the score enough in Detroit.
The sheer size of the polling error had made me and likely millions of other Bernie supporters question if the race had fundamentally shifted in his favor, despite his struggles not long before on Super Tuesday, when he had only been able to salvage his home state and a few low-turnout caucuses. So I decided to go all-in on the Illinois primary that coming Tuesday.
My task that Saturday was simple: Canvass a list of homes – mostly apartment buildings – in the Ukranian Village. I got a clipboard, addresses, and campaign literature, and set off on my way with a few others.
That morning, I probably canvassed 100 addresses. The response rate was abysmal – I think maybe 2 or 3 people actually answered, and none of them even needed convincing. The number of non-answers was so high that I ran out of literature long before I had exhausted the list.
Basically, it was a huge waste of time. Bernie lost Illinois.
And yet, canvassing is a staple of any serious campaign, right?
The left’s nostalgia for a lost world
In the past, this sort of strategy was indeed integral to numerous high-profile campaigns, Obama 2012 among them. Obama’s “ground game,” as it was called, was painted as one of the key reasons for his narrow win over Mitt Romney. And it’s even more important in low-turnout local and state elections, where vital offices can be won with just a few thousand votes.
But in presidential races? I don’t think it’s important anymore. My March 2016 morning would have yielded better results for the Sanders campaign had I simply been paid to write a blog post critical of Hillary Clinton and gotten it picked up by media personalities on Twitter.
The absolute best case against the value of the so-called ground game, intensive as it is on canvassing, is the Donald Trump 2016 campaign. Despite Donald Trump being a billionaire, his campaign was notably light on the paid advertisements and overwhelming field operations that people traditionally expect from high-budget operations. He had no ground game, or at least much less so than Ted Cruz and especially Hillary Clinton.
But he did have earned media. Every day, his face was all over CNN, Fox News, Twitter, you name it – he didn’t have to pay for any of that exposures and it all amounted to him getting billions in free coverage. The narrative was conducted on his terms, playing up issues he cared about most – immigration, Clinton’s email server – and never really veering out of his control except for the brief Access Hollywood cycle.
Now flash forward to 2020. Did the Democrats learn from this? For the most part, no.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in particular ignored Trump’s success with earned media and instead went hard on field operations – i.e., lots of local offices and canvassers, like me and the team in 2016. Warren’s Iowa operation was called a “field of dreams,” while Sanders’ team knocked half the doors in Iowa (at least) and were ubiquitous across the Hawkeye State in the weeks leading up to the primary.
To me, this approach reflected the left’s own nostalgia for something that can’t be recaptured: The days of people-powered campaigns, with lots of (often unionized) labor on the ground knocking doors, making calls, leaving flyers, etc. Carrying around a clipboard and talking to people about solidarity and universal healthcare is invigorating! But it’s also a 20th century notion, and politics have changed immensely. Just ask Donald Trump – and Pete Buttigieg.
Pete’s earned media
Alone among the 2020 Democratic candidates in the early part of the race, Buttigieg showed a remarkable ability to stay in the headlines despite having much less money and supporters than either Warren or Sanders. He went on every TV show, podcast, or other media opportunity he could, and the press loved him in response. It was McCain 2000 – another successful insurgent candidacy, at least relative to what it was up against – taken to the nth degree, and it almost worked!
While Warren and Sanders were making untold numbers of calls and door knocks in Iowa, Pete was chilling with the guys on Pod Save America and various Sunday morning shows. On election night in Iowa, he overperformed his polls, the other two underperformed, and he won, gaining another wave of media attention that nearly won him New Hampshire, too – and might have succeeded had it not been for a vicious takedown by Amy Klobuchar in the debate a few days before the primary.
Pete eventually ran aground in Nevada because his base was far too white, but the power of earned media that he – like Trump – had exploited was still there for the taking. And instead of Bernie tapping into it with some overtures at unity, it was Joe Biden, who generated a bunch of good news cycles from his pivotal endorsement by James Clyburn and his blowout win in South Carolina. Despite having essentially no presence in any Super Tuesday state, he won 10 out of 14 them – far outdoing Warren and Sanders, who between them had invested extensively throughout the country.
The earned media over that Feb. 29 – March 1 weekend did it for him. And it should make the left rethink its strategy and probably focus more on controlling media narratives going forward, as uncool as that seems.