Winter Waypoint Reflection
By Tory Gavito, President of Way to Win
As prepared for Way to Win’s Winter Waypoint event on December 8, 2020.
We made history in 2020.
It’s been repeated often that this election has been like no other — Trump is the first president in U.S. history to impede a peaceful transition of power. Trump has done lasting damage to our democracy — from undermining the power of a free press to the power of the ballot box, there is much to do to continue to heal democracy as we head into the next two years, and enter our first Midterm in the Biden/Harris Administration. This is the state of our democracy. And for this reason, I fully understand why it is so hard to celebrate what we have accomplished. But we should pause and celebrate. Because the actions you took this cycle, specifically believing in additional paths to the White House by centering new states, was precisely the move that blocked Trump from stealing this election. And try, try he has. Let’s not let our opposition steal our joy.
Because the politics of joy are politics that win. We just experienced this truth.
So let’s rebel against the confines of COVID and celebrate as a community. This community has the power to forge new paths to make history. And let’s not forget that we made history this cycle. We can track shifts in power by using our signals of success, these are the metrics we co-developed with organizers to mark progress to goal beyond one election cycle and beyond the horse race.
Together you helped expand the electorate, thus electing Joe Biden, making Trump a one-term president; it’s only the 10th time in our 244-year history that we’ve defeated an incumbent president after their first term.
And this incredible community did that — you helped the organizers here bring new voters into the electorate. You all invested in communities left out of traditional campaigns in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, and you invested in new places like Georgia and Arizona before institutional Democrats believed they were even within reach, giving local organizers the time and runway they needed to invite new voters into democracy. And you helped local organizers from North Carolina to Texas keep making progress in their states. Our work in expanding the map to the White House was the single greatest intervention that saved this election by keeping Trump away from the Supreme Court in a single state challenge. And all of our work helped push against a tide of an energized right-wing movement. With margins as close as they were, we know that everything we did to expand the base mattered. And despite the tremendous institutionalized racism of the gerrymandered races, we held the Right to a stalemate on the down ballot, even in their strongholds. Holding the line is not a loss, it is just the beginning.
You helped advance reflective democracy, by electing Kamala Harris, our first woman, first woman of color, and first person of color to become the next Vice President, a massive stride forward for reflective democracy, paving the way for a woman to hold the ultimate responsibility of the presidency in our lifetimes.
You trusted local organizers to lead with bold policy demands — you supported the local organizers in Colorado to beat back an anti-abortion ballot measure that, had it succeeded, would have been replicated around the country. You trusted local organizers to lean into movement policy demands — from Dreamers to the Movement for Black Lives — around the country these local organizers elected several anti-ICE sheriffs, they elected reform District Attorneys, and in Florida they won a much needed minimum wage increase! For each of these bold issues there is a Blue Dog democrat urging progressives to stand down. But you trusted the locals on the policy agendas they knew would inspire new voters and it made all the difference this cycle and will bear fruit in future cycles.
You helped ensure that there was a robust voter protection infrastructure and vote-by-mail education campaigns federally and in every key state where it mattered, in an election that shattered turnout records. And it mattered that we counted every single vote.
I could go on and on about how this community made the most strategic interventions this cycle. And for all those interventions, we thank you. But our time will be better served if we also review the big questions we have to resolve to improve future results. While we double down on our strengths, like listening to local organizers to expand the electorate, we must hone in on the next set of interventions needed to challenge a formidable opposition.
We know for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The GOP knows our win strategy relies on base expansion. They understand the signals of success are our greatest strengths — they know we have a growing multiracial coalition on our side, that reflective democracy wins, that bold progresive policies from addressing climate change to healthcare are in fact attractive to a majority of Americans, and that advancing democracy reforms does not help them. Yet they still made gains this cycle. How?
Demographics are not destiny. We cannot take for granted any member of our winning coalition. So while multiracial coalitions delivered new swing states like Georgia and Arizona, and helped solidify the old blue wall in Pennsylvania and Michigan, it’s our charge to keep our coalition together and expand it. In the 2020 cycle, the ties that bind our winning coalition is their rejection of Trump, not their belief in the Democrats’ vision or leadership per se. That’s tremendously shaky footing that was just enough to win the presidency, but not enough to win gerrymandered federal or legislative districts. We must listen to and engage all voters in our multiracial coalition. And all while our multiracial coalition is under tremendous cross pressure from the Right — there are at least three things Republicans are doing that we must counter:
- First, they create pathways for diverse leaders to shape a narrative on economic advancement. These leaders focus on how individuals can, through hard work, get ahead. And they tell this story over and over, like Nicki Haley did at the Republican National Convention this past summer.
- Next, they take the long view, investing for years in shaping the ideology of voters who are often not communicated with by campaigns or Democrats, including rural voters no matter their color. Like the Kochs do through their latino outreach program, the Libre Initiative, led by Daniel Garza. NYTs just featured Garza in a long piece describing how their impact on Latino voters this cycle is just the start of their organizing campaign, and how they are doubling down on Latino outreach in Georgia as we speak.
- Finally, in addition to other forms of voter suppression, the Right pumps all our communication channels — from Facebook to Youtube to mainstream outlets — with disinformation, Tucker Carlson of Fox News is just the tip of the iceberg.
Everything the Right does is designed to divide and conquer the power of our multiracial coalition. We’ve got to do better at tying our diverse coalition together by emphasizing their shared economic interests to strengthen and multiply our wins in future cycles.
These three strategic interventions, that I’m about to walk through, outline our current thinking about how we can dismantle Right-wing progress in order to win. These reflections are really the point of our time with you today. They will kick off conversations that we will carry on into the new year to help us improve our plans to undermine our opponents. So, in addition to carrying on the successful work Way to Win has always done of trusting locals to increase voter power, these are the three specific interventions we believe must be made in 2021 to reshape history in the 2022 midterms, and the are as follows:
- We must stop letting the Republicans set the narrative.
- We must dismantle turnout versus persuasion models.
- We have to back power builders to get the best candidates on the ballot, using primaries when necessary.
All of these interventions are equally important, but I want to spend time specifically on the narrative. We cannot continue to take voters of color for granted by calling them turnout targets — thinking we only need to tell them how to vote and not why they should vote for Democrats. And why to win on a base expansion theory of change we must fight harder to align with movement-backed candidates earlier on in the primary process for incumbent challenges and open seats (or we end up with more bad candidates like Cal Cunningham in North Carolina). But my whole career in politics, we consistently point our finger at Dem’s failure to tell compelling stories as one of the reasons we lose, and we cannot afford to keep giving Dems a pass on this front.
Democrats had advance warning in 2019 that the GOP was going to vilify Democrats as radicals. And Democrats sat on their hands for a year. We have a strategy that effectively vilifies the GOP — it’s the Race Class Narrative — it is a storytelling framework that unites a multiracial coalition and vilifies Republicans for using race as a tool to divide us while they rig the economy. Democrats failed to implement the Race Class Narrative, and so they failed to create a national, unifying message anchored in economic AND racial justice.
Movements are our greatest strength — and in 2020 the Movement for Black Lives uprisings brought a surge in voter registrations among Democrats and Independents, reinvigorating a drop in voter registrations at the outset of covid — in fact voter registration was boosted by 1.1 million registrants in just the first half of June. During Election Season, Black voters turned out in historic numbers from Pennsylvania to Georgia, delivering Biden the win. We cannot blame the movement for Democrat’s failed message strategy.
Additionally, Biden’s message by design clipped his own coattails. Biden’s campaign was almost singularly focused on the following message — I am a nice, reasonable guy — it gave permission to Republicans to cross over and vote for him. That strategy was never designed to help down ballot candidates. That combined with the right’s massive mis- and dis-information machine and their superior marketing of bad ideas that targeted our own communities, created a tide too strong for down-ballot Democrats to swim up against.
We have the next two years, between now and the next midterm election, to get the narrative right. And it starts with marketing and implementing policy ideas about how to improve people’s lives, while maintaining our efforts to trust and support local organizers as they continue to engage new voters, break down barriers to democratic participation, and lead bold policy campaigns.
Way to Win was founded in part to correct the mistakes Democrats made in 2016. If you are one of the folks that was around in those foundational years, you likely heard me say that the silos in philanthropy and political funding limit our relationships to transactions — where some of us are only treated as checkbooks and others of us are only treated as organizers. These silos create barriers that limit our communities’ full potential when we come together, and keep ideas and resources from finding each other.
Way to Win’s best moments have come from when we break down those barriers. Together we reflected on 2016, and we successfully challenged the idea that there is only one single path to the White House. What more can we do in 2021 to shift history in 2022?