Why We Need to Fund “Losing” Races

We’re the losers if we don’t…

There’s a lot going on (understatement of the decade?) but we’re taking a break from talking about the goings-on in the federal government to talk about election strategy… in particular, why we need to embrace our Democratic underdogs!

Contrary to the Democratic “everyone deserves a shot” mentality, there is a distressing tendency on the left to over-fund high profile candidates and organizations while radically underfunding others. 

Cycle after cycle, we routinely neglect an average of 40-45% of the state and federal legislative districts, providing Democrats in these “forgotten districts” less than 1/20th of the financial support received by the other 55-60%.

This is … stupid.

While we may have little (or no) chance of winning most of these districts, winning and losing is not the correct measuring stick for the amount of funding we should provide to a district.

We bet that sounds crazy. It’s not.

We aren’t saying we shouldn’t spend extra in places where that extra might win us a seat. But the first tranche of funding–if we were really funding intentionally and efficiently on a national/statewide basis–wouldn’t be based on whether we are going to win or lose a seat.

Here’s why.

At the end of the day, votes are the currency of the American electoral system. We give money and time, and candidates use that money and time to turn out voters.

That’s because turning out voters is their “job” as a candidate. Whoever has the most votes wins. If they do their job really well and the stars align just so they win; but even “losing” candidates do the very important job of turning out voters.

Why is it important to turn out voters in a “losing” campaign? Because voters don’t only vote for the campaign that got them to the polls.

Almost every Democratic voter who is turned out by a state legislative nominee also votes for the better-known Democratic nominees for the US House, US Senate, Governor and President (not to mention progressive ballot initiatives, other statewide offices and the like).

Unsurprisingly, the reverse is not actually true.

A Democratic voter turned out by a Presidential campaign might know nothing about the Democrat running for state house – and some will skip that election on their ballot altogether. 

While a deep red district may be impossible for a Democrat to win, there’s always going to be at least 15% of the electorate who will vote for a Democrat.(In blood-red Alabama’s 2018 state house races, the worst a Democratic nominee did was 15% of the vote; most were 25% or higher.) In enough volume, the voters turned out by those “losing” campaigns can help put a Democratic statewide (or national) nominee over the top.

For example, say we divide up $20M, and invest $50k into each of 400 state house races that averaged $5k. (There are many of these.) The financial cost of turning out a vote is set by a number of factors, but it’s calculable and at least somewhat predictable. For the purposes of this example, let’s be conservative and assume that each marginal vote in these ignored districts would cost $100.

In our hypothetical, that means each state legislative seat would have garnered 500 more votes. 

Meh, you might think. That’s not even close to what you’d need to win any of those races.

And you’d be right. But collectively that’s a whopping 200,000 additional Democratic votes – and if 20 of those underfunded districts are in Arizona, that would have almost doubled Biden’s margin of victory in the state. 

Multiplied over a number of battleground states, that’s even more significant. That’s why from a strategy perspective, funding “losing” state legislative districts is one of the most important investments we as a party can make.

Still not sold? Consider this… You’ve likely heard of the economic concept called the point of diminishing returns. This is a principle that in every production curve, you reach a point where an additional input yields progressively lower output.

This happens all the time in Democratic politics.

The first 1,000 votes you turn out might cost $5/vote; but the last 1,000 cost a lot more. In high-profile, extremely well-funded races like Jaime Harrison’s campaign in South Carolina, they likely spend tens of millions of dollars to turn out the last few tens of thousands of voters (let’s say the last $20M they spend increases turnout by 20k, or $1,000/vote).

Now consider what would happen if we instead used that funding to support Democratic nominees in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Maine in state legislative districts where the GOTV efforts were, without a doubt, nowhere close to the point of diminishing returns. Would we be spending $1,000/vote to turn out those voters? 

No. And again, the net impact of those voters across the state could be dramatic.

And because most state house races can get to a level of a basic, professional campaign for $10-40k (depending on the size of the district), they can turn out a lot of reachable low-propensity voters for pretty reasonable marginal expenditures. Unfortunately, as a party we never discuss how their races get funded to that level — and we don’t do very much to help them get there.

Instead, the “rich” candidates (those with celebrity or incumbency or personal wealth advantages) are getting “richer” due to the efficiency of internet fundraising; and almost all our resources still go to high profile races where we think we can win, as well as longer shots that we fund because a charismatic nominee (Beto or Wendy Davis) or a serious villain as the opponent (McConnell, Graham, or Collins).

It’s just really clear that investing in state legislative districts – regardless of their likelihood of winning – is both effective and efficient. We should refocus our funding to the campaigns that can’t raise on their own and don’t have the celebrity to raise online.

We need to stop thinking that winning or losing is the proper metric of efficiency in campaign finance and, instead, think about how much each campaign needs to spend to turn out the next marginal vote.

If this were our lens, we’d find that we fail to fund a lot of campaigns that are nowhere close to the point of diminishing returns, and overfund a lot that are way way past it.

So why aren’t we doing that?

Great question.

For over a decade, Jonathan has spent a lot of time thinking about this, proposing solutions and getting nowhere. We wish we had made progress as a party in the last 10 years, but we have not.

So, we took it upon ourselves to do something about it – at least in one state (Missouri) where we have a pilot project doing exactly what we’re talking about here. And you know what? It’s working.

You might not have any skin in the game in Missouri (although we’d point to a certain Senator Josh Hawley as proof that what impacts one state impacts us all) but if you do – or even if you just want to help us prove the concept – sign up to join it right here: www.itstarts.today/the-missouri-project

What About Other States?

But, we hear you saying, what are you doing about state legislative races in states other than Missouri?

Great question!

We are eager to expand  especially to certain battleground states where squeezing every last vote out of every last district will prove critical in coming years. Sadly, we don’t have unlimited resources. (Sad trombone.)

That’s where you come in!

Will you help us build the organization we need to expand this proven modelto other parts of the country?

Yes! I want to help!

Expanding to more states is time and resource intensive. It’s on our 2021 goal list, but we just can’t get there without people like you. If everyone who got this email pitched in $25, we’d be halfway to our goal!

Just $25? That’s one night of takeout. No problem, I’m in!

I’ll double up for $50!

I can do $100!

If we don’t hit our goal, we’re not going to be able to go into states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona – states that we need to invest in now to be ready for 2024.

If you believe squeezing every last vote out of every last district will be important in 2024, kicking in a few dollars now to support our work will go a long way toward making that happen.

Support us with the links above, or with the button below. Thanks in advance for supporting our Wonky Work!

Stay … wonky!
Jonathan Zucker & Michele Hornish