Sunday, April 28, 2013

Don't Bring an Action Alert to a Gunfight

The population of New York City is roughly 8.2 million. The combined population of Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Maine and Nebraska comes in at 8.6 million. Those conservative states sport 16 Senators, a veritable tyranny of the tiny, while denizens of the Big Apple share two  Senators with the rest of New York state.

So, why are we shocked that it’s difficult to shepherd a progressive agenda through Congress? Even Democrats in those small states are going to be pretty conservative. A national poll may show overwhelming support for gun buyer background checks but you wouldn’t know it by perusing the poll's North Dakota segment.

We put gun background checks up for a vote in this environment, and we got clobbered.

We are capable of amazing things (the 2008 and 2012 elections) because when we are good we are very, very good…but when we are bad we are terrible. We mounted an abysmal lobbying effort on this bill. Once we’d lost, a slew of groups pounced on Senator Harry Reid. We would’ve won, they argued, if only Senator Reid had killed the filibuster. Setting aside the inconvenient truth that Senator Reid never had the votes to end the filibuster, the gun bill moved forward under the filibuster rule. We all knew we needed 60 votes win—including a handful of Republican votes. But in examining our lobbying efforts, we sure didn’t act like we knew it.

We pretty much did everything wrong:

1)      We waited too long to rally the troops. Because big liberal email lists love to weigh in on every issue, they jump in on most issues at the very last minute. We waited until a day or two before the final vote to blast out most of our email alerts.  Last second appeals seem oh so savvy and enticingly "urgent," but by the time we were hitting “send” the press were already reporting the jig was up—we didn’t’ have the votes. 

Dirty little online organizing secret: many same-day-of-the-vote petition blasts are never delivered to their intended targets, and Senators are seldom truly undecided on the eve of a vote. Last minute activism is Kabuki Theater. A visit from a Senate leader might change a wavering Member’s mind at the 11th hour, but partisans putting their name on a petition or shrieking at an 18 year old Congressional office receptionist will not.

2)      We cannot persuade a moderate Republican Senator with Democrat activists alone. The size of a liberal email list is moot: if a group has 5 million names, but 99% of those names are liberal Democrats, that list will be useless. Evangelical churches came out in support of background checks, but they don’t subscribe to MoveOn. Senator Heller, the Nevada Republican, who is typically a reliable “nay” vote on our issues, doesn’t need to hear from MoveOn, he needs to hear from churchgoing GOP hoi polloi, but those folks didn't call him because we never bothered to ask them.

 3)     We won the 2012 election by targeting, targeting, targeting. Team Obama was a sophisticated, data driven crew, with (like it or not) a complex top-down strategy to organize thousands of canvassers and phone callers when and where we needed them. With action alerts, we send a two-sentence blast to everyone, and make no distinction between folks that have a “swing” Senator and folks living in safe-vote California. Our major online lists seldom if ever coordinate efforts or divide turf, and we never try to get more activists in states like North Dakota, where we desperately need them to sway conservative Democrats.

4)      We rely on the online grassroots and ignore the offline grasstops. To persuade a member of Congress, we need to couple serious citizen activists with business, religious and community leaders as well as local elected officials who carry personal weight. Encouraging donors from the Senator’s last campaign to weigh in is crucial, too, especially for folks like Heidi Heitkamp, who counted on out of state low donors to win her seat. Two sentence “sign the petition now” drives don’t build those offline coalitions.

5)      We didn't distribute serious talking points to our email subscribers. Indeed, as much as it pains me to admit, the Tea Party alerts had dramatically more sophisticated advice for their grassroots. When the tin-foil hat crowd is out-lobbying us, it’s time for some soul searching.

6)      Instead of organizing a few major events or protests we delight in encouraging everyone to stage their own, with no cohesive messaging strategy. We wind up with 30 tiny events in states that don’t matter. The average number of participants at these microprotests typically fit comfortably into the backseat of a Prius. We get no press at all or a scant paragraph buried beneath a story about someone stealing a puppy from a pet shop.

7)      We rely far, far, far, far, far too much on the email petition (I’d put in 35 more “fars” but you get the point). Email is the least effective form of communication to Congress. Surveys of Congressional staff by the Congressional Management Foundation find that only 4 or 5 percent of staffers consider email petitions "very important". Staff dismiss online petitions because they are too numerous; darn near anyone can collect a few hundred thousand signatures for or against any issue. Petitions are too simply worded to convey real conviction amongst the signators, and the accompanying "personalizing" messages our activists tack on are mere Internet snark, often as uninformed as they are crude.

Petition-oriented progressive groups often take a spokesperson to visit a few Hill offices with the mass petition results. They’ll grab a staffer by the elbow and say "1,000,000 people support gun control," capturing the affair on fashionably amateur-looking video which they’ll post online. These stunts are ignored by the press--we've done too many of them, even when the spokesperson is very compelling (MoveOn used the mother of a Virginia Tech victim).

8) When we use email to urge our activists to phone Congress, we send them to the phones with too little background information and no tips on how to lobby Republican staff.  

9)      Even the best players on our team were curiously inept. Obama For America (OFA) the President’s much praised campaign shop, is now a 501c(4) organization designed specifically to lobby for the President’s agenda, under the new banner "Organizing for Action."  Their alerts were better than average (they organized some real phone banks and had actual substantive talking points). But the timing!!!! OFA sent out a useless action alert on the day of the vote. Even worse, mine didn’t hit my inbox until 8:15PM, several hours AFTER the vote. That’s a rookie error.

10)      We encouraged folks from out of state to pile on. CREDO, on April 17, exhorted its members "Even if you are not represented by one of these Senators, make a call anyway." This is a singularly useless tactic, aggravating the very staff we are trying to persuade. How do you think Senators Boxer or Sanders react when gun toting Nebraskans call to give them a vitriol-infused piece of their mind? Do we think those calls persuade them to vote with the NRA?

11)   Very few groups bothered to thank the folks that supported us in the losing effort; the right was all over it, they take care to give praise when it is due. 

12)   The Tea Party ramped up an effort to lobby House members (hey, a bill has to pass both chambers of Congress) in the days before the Senate vote. We didn’t do crap. I suppose we’d have fired up some alerts on the day of a House vote, or perhaps the night before.

In 2012, Mr. Romney learned that his much-vaunted campaign was a clueless mess, driven by emotion rather than real data in the real world. We are staring down the same abyss with our allegedly awesome online activist infrastructure. But do we have the maturity to see it? How many alerts have folks received about the "next steps" in the gun violence campaign? Any at all? And NOW is the time to gear up for the Dream Act vote--it's not too early, but if your inbox is like mine, you are hearing crickets on that issue.


  1. All good points - especially on next steps on gun control now. The momentum has already faded from what I can tell.

  2. By the way, to address the question raised by the blogger on Facebook about our performance, meaning the performance of those who think there is an amendment other than the Second Amendment (as opposed to those who think it is absolute either way), I think we get a D-, but I'm an easy grader.

  3. De-trolled. The purpose of this enterprise is NOT to function as the scream, counter scream that is far too much of the Internet...

  4. These are all very good points. I often lament how well organized the teaparty seems to be in comparison to those of us on the other side.

    I just want to point out that Maine does not belong in that list of conservative states. Both Maine senators voted for background checks. Susan Collins was one of the few Republicans to do so. Maine also voted to legalize gay marriage a couple months ago, recently joined the list of states pushing for an amendment to overturn Citizens United, and has gone for the democrat in every presidential election since 1992. I assume it is on the list simply because it is a state with a tiny population that still has the same representation in the Senate, but so are Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and New Hampshire - all states with an even smaller population. I'm not a hardcore Mainer (I only moved here from Wisconsin, a state with a senator who did vote against background checks), but Mainers are more moderate than I had previously believed and I think it does them (and liberal people like me who live here) a disservice to be grouped into a false category.