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If the crowds at the recent congressional town halls are some indication, grassroots activists and even relative newcomers are fired up months after the presidential cycle wrapped.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, much of this activism is organic, and may present a unique opportunity for grassroots consultants to capture early-cycle spending, several practitioners told C&E.
Many 2018 candidates are now getting their organizations off the ground instead of playing wait-and-see like they did last cycle when fear of being hit by the Trump Train caused spending paralysis down ballot, according to Tim Saler, a consultant with the GOP firm Grassroots Targeting.
“There’s a lot of smart people that are starting earlier than they normally do,” Saler said.
He pointed to Republican members holding Hillary Clinton-won districts, which by one tally, there are 23 of these. “A lot of people are looking at what happened in 2016 and thinking, ‘the conventional wisdom was so wrong this past time.’ They’re thinking it’s better to start earlier.
“The combination of people not wanting to wait, and not wanting to trust someone else for their decision making is going to result in more people engaging and doing projects at the grassroots level for targeting and information flow.”
He added that the rise of digital hasn’t eroded the market for grassroots consultants. Rather, it may have enhanced it. “The growth of doors in general over the past two-three cycles is, in part, [a result of how] technology has gotten so advanced that the only common denominator is the door. The only thing that’s consistent about everybody is face-to-face.”
While Republicans are seeing their side gear up, one Democratic consultant said potential clients were adopting the other side’s wait-and-see approach from last cycle.
Reed Millar, a Democratic grassroots consultant, said that many organizations who are would-be clients are still shell shocked by the results last November. As a result, they’re still on the sidelines waiting to see how the next few months play out.
“They were forced to go back to the drawing board on a lot of what they thought they would be doing this year,” said Millar, who worked for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries. “So what is now springing up is planning. The Democratic Party and progressive organizations are trying to figure out how to be part of the resistance to Trump's agenda and how to start channeling the energy generated by the opposition into longer term efforts to win elections and push issues.”
On the left, there’s a new model for decentralized activism leftover from the Sanders campaign, which used things like open-source software designed by supporters to help power its primary run. The question is, how do consultants and advocacy groups incorporate those lessons into 2017 and beyond?
“We need to talk to our clients about how old and new tactics can tie into a landscape that is different from any in recent memory,” said Millar. “Part of the story of last November was that we had fewer and smaller paid canvasses in several of the traditional swing states. One lesson we should take from the election is that even when things look good we need a robust paid and volunteer turnout operation in place as a backstop. A big part of why we win some states regularly over decades is that we have consistently invested there cycle after cycle, and cutting back when our numbers look strong [made] us vulnerable should our numbers soften.”
On the right, Ian Patrick Hines, whose consultancy blends digital with grassroots organizing, said he’s getting calls about fundraising. “As President Obama used to say, people are fired up and ready to go — and that’s true on both sides of the aisle,” Hines said. “We’re hearing from advocacy groups, fledgling 2018 campaigns, and even folks overseas. Everyone’s trying to figure out how they can navigate this evolving political realignment we’re seeing across the Western world.”
Hines said the majority of those conversations have revolved around copying the Sanders-Trump-Cruz-McMullin model of small-dollar donations raised online. “If you want to raise big money online, you have to bet big on online fundraising. It has to be a core part of your strategy. You have to be a ‘digital-first’ campaign. Bernie did it. Trump did it. McMullin did it. Three unlikely candidacies, and each saw massive per-email ROI numbers that would make most candidates do a double-take,” said Hines.
Another area where GOP grassroots consultants are finding success is tie-ups with pollsters. Surveyors are looking to “regain the clarity of their crystal ball,” according to Chris Turner, CEO of Stampede Consulting.
“While their polling wasn’t way off [last cycle], their narrative was,” Turner said. “A lot of strategists and polling firms are talking to us to integrate door-to-door.”
Turner noted that that his firm was able to get a read on President Trump’s support while running paid canvasses in Michigan during the 2016 campaign, despite polls showing Clinton having a lead in the state. “There’s going to be a role for field [in polling] because we’re going to be able to get these tough-to-get interviews and capture their stories.”
Turner said he wasn’t experiencing an influx of business so early in the cycle, but he anticipated a “trigger moment” when it could come suddenly. “The left is going to keep pushing the situation as much as they can,” he said. “But there’s going to be a trigger moment when leadership says, ‘we’ve got our supporters, let’s hear from them, too.’”