This phrase became a mantra for me over the course of this election year, a sentiment I shared in conversation and on social media. It was first crafted in response to a tweeter who was kvetching about not having a candidate that they loved.

To me, it also strikes at the heart of the organizing work that was accomplished in Louisiana in this 2019 election cycle for the governor’s race.

Two years ago, I met with Gov. Edwards to pitch to him my belief that early and robust field efforts would be required for his re-election bid given two significant shifts in the landscape since his 2015 victory:

1) He was now the incumbent, no longer the underdog candidate, a known quantity. Actions he had taken in office as governor that had disappointed those on left and angered those on the right were going to be used against him. It would be helpful for us to expand our voting base, and

2) There has been a change in the mood of the country, an increased polarization, and the Republicans were not going to sit back without a challenge. As he himself said, he had a big target on his back. I had always said if I could get John Bel in a room with someone, he’d win their vote, but he was not going to be able to speak to each voter himself. Instead, he needed teams of regional organizers who could engage in direct voter contact and to use his sizable volunteer base as proxies to help him connect on the ground, get his message out, build enthusiasm, and alert low-propensity voters that the election was on the horizon. 

From my experience with national and statewide races, I knew that this kind of machine would take time to build. Having the number of trained staff and volunteers necessary to canvass, call, and text voters in sufficient numbers to secure victory wouldn’t magically happen overnight. I also knew that modern field campaigns that use data for targeting and accountability- and those that allow sufficient time to build capacity- can shift elections by about five percentage points. That’s significant when the polls are tight, or when you’re trying to move the needle a few percentage points to get over the requisite 50% vote threshold that allows a candidate to win outright in a jungle primary.

A sign encouraging people to vote outside of Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Morgan Clevenger, President of the Fairgrounds Triangle Neighborhood Association, raised money to print signs that their organization could post throughout their community. Photo credit: Morgan Clevenger.

In January of 2019, I set about to formalize the plan that I’d been knocking around in my head since that meeting, to calculate our Win Number and how we would reach it and to strategize how we could bring on field staff in an intentional way (that is, a staff that was team-oriented and diverse based on geography, ethnicity and gender). Importantly, we also needed to identify the existing coalitions we had in our corner that could help us reach our goals.

While there was a level of field experience we’d want for regional leaders, we’d also want to include some younger, less experienced organizers who could be trained in their own community on recruiting and retaining volunteers, navigating our database, staying on message, and implementing best practices for modern campaigns. If we did that effectively, we would be able to leave behind some sort of infrastructure for the party and future candidates, even after the campaign closed up shop. As the most successful field efforts are integrated with communications, digital, creative, community outreach and political work, those elements were included in the masterplan as well. 

Traditionally, this sort of supportive field effort for a statewide race would be housed in a coordinated campaign through the state party. Knowing that both Louisiana Democratic Party Chair Karen Carter Peterson and Executive Director Stephen Handwerk are proponents of mobilization through direct voter contact, I felt confident we would be on the same page. And indeed, we were all fired up and ready to go. However, by the spring of 2019, it became clear that, for a variety of reasons, the program I designed would not be funded. So, by definition, this story is not about me.

This story, the story that must be told about 2019, is how community groups and grassroots leaders stepped up to fill in for that missing piece of the puzzle.

This is about a few of the many folks who made a tremendous impact on the results of the Louisiana governor’s race, ensuring John Bel Edwards will serve a second term in office.

Volunteers for Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Action New Orleans preparing to knock on doors in advance of the 2019 Louisiana runoff election. Source: Action New Orleans

ACTION NEW ORLEANS

Action New Orleans is the 527 political organization born out of LaToya Cantrell’s successful campaign for mayor of New Orleans. This year, because Mayor Cantrell had propositions on the ballot, her team had geared up to support those issues. However, the mayor stepped up to support Gov. Edwards’ re-election in a big way and then redoubled her efforts for the runoff, with an intended goal of increasing turnout in the city by 30%.

Republican candidate Eddie Rispone had broadcast his intention to rain political fire on New Orleans, so it was only natural that the crew supporting the mayor’s initiatives wanted to do all they could to stop that from coming to pass. Edwards was also a solid partner for Cantrell on her Fair Share plan, and unlike Rispone, he recognized that the city is an economic driver for the state.

Action New Orleans’ Executive Director Maggie Carroll and Deputy Executive Director Sam Barton set about strategizing how to increase voter turnout in New Orleans in the runoff, serving as a central contact for local groups like the Power Coalition, the National Urban League, and Together Louisiana so they could avoid duplicating efforts. They also adopted Step Up Louisiana’s plan to focus on a different city council district for each day of Early Voting.

For their own initiatives, they started earlier this year with a group of thirty fellows, whose only compensation would be political experience. Because of their early investment in training them on fieldwork and messaging, they were able to ramp up relatively quickly for the runoff election by growing their organizing army to 250 fellows and volunteers, with their initial recruits acting as trainers for the newcomers.

Further, because of their own fundraising efforts, they were able to hire four full-time experienced field organizers, and eventually pay 100 college fellows for their work, thus opening up the opportunity for young people who might not have otherwise been able to have access to that campaign experience.

By building this capacity in a smart, well-planned way, they were able to speak to voters one-on-one by knocking on more than 70,000 doors, making more than 50,000 contacts by phone calls, and sending approximately 350,000 text messages.

In addition to direct voter contact through field, Action New Orleans also integrated some community outreach efforts through the city’s churches, campuses, senior centers, and greek organizations. They hosted several visibility events to make sure the public was aware of upcoming election dates and what was at stake, including a large music festival with donated entertainment from some of New Orleans’ most popular musicians. And there was a vibrant media movement to make sure New Orleans voters were getting the message that it was time to go vote in every format available. Facebook ads alone were seen 1.2 million times.

On Election Day, they were able to mount a quick response effort so that by monitoring where voting was happening (and not happening) across the city, they could shift resources to where backup support was needed. Every goal they set for themselves they were able to pass.

Action New Orleans notes that the city’s 90% vote for Gov. Edwards – a margin of nearly 101,000 votes – helped give him his 40,000-vote margin.

Ashley Shelton, Will Harrell, and Raegan Carter at a Power Coalition meeting. Photo credit: Lynda Woolard

THE POWER COALITION

Grit and power are the two words Ashley Shelton, Executive Director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, attaches to the team of people who work alongside her. She is quick to point out that it was the organizers, the boots on the ground, who deserve the credit for boosting voter turnout.

The Power Coalition has field offices in Shreveport, Alexandria, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Houma, and Jefferson Parish/West Bank.

This year, more than $80 million was spent on a governor’s race. Yet, for a fraction of that, Shelton’s coalition continued on its path to building a permanent infrastructure of black-led organizations that work at scale to turn out the best candidate for the issues that matter to their communities.

Their intentional focus is on low-propensity voters in neighborhoods who often feel forgotten.

“We knock on doors, and it’s like Christmas. People tell us no one has knocked on my door before,” Shelton tells me, illuminating just how starved for engagement many of these voters are. This busts the myth that voters don’t turn out simply because of apathy.

People do care about healthcare, better jobs, higher wages, and equal pay, Shelton explains. She is guided by the belief that when you can show someone how their voice can make a difference, they show up.

The Power Coalition’s modus operandi is to connect with voters and solve their real problems in real time, whether it’s paying fines or procuring proper IDs. Continuous engagement for them means not just electing candidates, but, importantly, also holding elected officials accountable on the issues that are meaningful to their base. 

According to a press release distributed by the group’s Communications Director Peter Robins-Brown, in this election year, member organizations made 1.1 million attempted voter contacts, with the approximate split being 325,000 door knocks, 310,000 phone calls, and 510,000 texts.

While a significant portion of the coalition’s work was concentrated in black neighborhoods, they also connected with communities that are often overlooked. VAYLA’s (the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association) field work included Vietnamese communities in New Orleans East, and Asian American and Pacific Islanders statewide.

The Workers’ Center for Racial Justice connected with Spanish language voters in Kenner. Jericho Road worked with students at Xavier University, reaching out to college-aged voters who, by definition, don’t have a history of voting.

While Democratic candidates can point to black women as their most reliable voting block, Women with a Vision focused their integrated voter engagement program on black women, specifically those who are registered to vote but do not tend to show up at the polls, in a hyper-targeted set of New Orleans districts.

The Power Coalition also served as a convener for other groups looking to do this community work. They hosted statewide organizational calls once a week for churches and faith groups, exploring ways they could activate their congregations. They worked with fraternities and sororities across Louisiana to strategize how they could be most effective this year. When nonprofits who were doing non-partisan voter outreach needed printed materials, the Power Coalition was there to make sure they had ballots, flyers, and push cards. They helped groups write their press releases, and hosted regional community forums.

Unlike the old guard political machines, the Power Coalition has invested heavily in technology and data, so that they can have a smart, modern, targeted strategy that provides them with feedback on where they are making the most advances.

Their goal has always been slow, sustainable growth, and Ashley Shelton identifies a 10% voter increase in the primary that she feels they contributed to, but believes that was offset by low-propensity conservative voters who may have been motivated to vote by Trump. Therefore, they knew they needed to accelerate their efforts for the runoff.

In addition to their year-long non-partisan (c)(3) canvassing efforts in all the cities in which they work, they also activated their (c)(4) political arm and supported its endorsement of John Bel Edwards through canvassing in Caddo, Orleans, and East Baton Rouge. Additionally, they ran radio ads on urban radio stations in all of the state’s major media markets.

For those who are looking for hope for the future of Louisiana, this is where it lives.

There is talk of breaking the political machine, of guarding against supermajorities and oppressive gerrymandering, and of making sure no seat goes unchallenged in future elections. With all these great organizers awakening the political passions of voters, the next step is leadership development and building the bench for future generations of progressive candidates.

Members of VOTE outside New Orleans City Hall celebrating reinstatement of their rights to vote as Act 636 took effect on March 1, 2019. Photo credit: Lynda Woolard.

VOICE OF THE EXPERIENCED (VOTE)

If you’re unfamiliar with Voice of the Experience (better known as VOTE), they work with formerly incarcerated people (FIP), helping them with re-entry and re-enfranchisement. Their organization spent the early part of 2019 reaching out to the tens of thousands of Louisianians on parole and probation who were newly eligible to register to vote as of March 1st, because of bipartisan legislation passed last year and signed into law by Gov. Edwards as Act 636.

As Election Day approached, they shifted their focus from registration to voter turnout, making phone calls to voters, text blasting, and knocking doors. Like the Power Coalition, their targets were low-propensity voters in areas where there were competitive state house races, and their goal was face-to-face conversations, letting people know why this election should matter to them and explaining how the policies the current governor’s administration supports are advantageous to their communities.

They underscored that the results of this election cycle would be a game-changer for the next twenty years in regards to protecting the progress they had already made, and guarding against unfair redistricting practices after next year’s decennial Census. VOTE chapters are located in places that are feeders for the correctional system: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport.

Part of their strategy was to have their 30,000 members who live in the correctional system contact their friends and family and ask them to “vote for those who are not enfranchised.” They knew that criminal justice reform was important to their constituencies because it directly impacted them, but they also realized that the other issues on the ballot – healthcare, SNAP, teacher pay raises – affected those who were related to the people “on the inside.”

VOTE worked closely with the Power Coalition, and jointly spent close to a million dollars of their own money towards these voter turnout efforts.

When I ask Norris Henderson, Founder and Executive Director of VOTE, how their strategy changed for the runoff, he explains that they simply doubled down on their efforts, moving more people onto the streets in the parts of the state where they have a physical presence. They personally asked those voters who do not turnout for every election to make their voices heard.

After the election, Henderson says it is important to let those people know how much he personally appreciates them for voting.

In addition to their members reaching voters where they are, in person, shaking hands, Henderson leveraged his relationship with musician John Legend, which is a consequence of their advocacy for criminal justice reform, to produce a robocall that made an appeal to targeted voters to get out to protect the reforms that had been made. Legend also sent a tweet endorsing John Bel Edwards the day before the General Election.

Listen to John Legend’s robocall on behalf of Gov. John Bel Edwards.
A Step Up Louisiana canvasser making one of their 50,000 door knocks during this year’s election. Photo credit: Ben Zucker.

STEP UP LOUISIANA

Step Up Louisiana is a democratic (small d), membership-based organization with a focus on economic and education justice. The brain child of Maria Harmon and Benjamin Zucker, Step Up is a member organization of the Power Coalition.

It was founded in New Orleans in 2017, with a game plan that included as one of its core goals to impact the 2019 elections. To that end, this year they hosted candidate forums for down ballot races, and employed twenty paid canvassers from September through November 16th.

Their contributions to the Power Coalition’s field totals were over 50,000 doors knocked. Their members also volunteered for phone banks and text banks, and helped organize busses for Early Voting. For the second year in a row, they partnered with Dillard University’s service outreach program through legendary organizer Ronnie Moore of Catholic Charities, and had the entire freshman class on the doors all over the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.

Last year, Maria returned to Baton Rouge, where she had previously organized for a decade, to open up their second office. Between their New Orleans and Baton Rouge activities, Step Up was able to deploy 90 people on the streets to canvass voters on Election Day alone.

Ben called the results of the primary a Wake Up Call, and realized they had to ramp up their efforts in the runoff. Step Up saw the same data the rest of us did. While they deal in the “(c)(3)” world of nonprofits, a large percentage of voters in the areas where they organize will pull the lever for candidates who support the issues they advocate on year round, namely raising the minimum wage, and supporting public education.

Ben said Step Up Louisiana had one imperative, “Just get everybody out to vote.”

TOGETHER LOUISIANA

Faith-based organizations were mentioned by every single person I spoke to for this piece, with pastors and ministers being repeatedly credited with doing heavy lifting for voter turnout. I was eager to speak with Broderick Baggert of Together Louisiana because, in addition to being a faith-based coalition that comes from a theological perspective of caring for the least of these, they utilized targeting based on data from the Secretary of State for their voter engagement plan.

The focus of their work ended up being in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Alexandria, and a few other places that had the capacity, like Pointe Coupee and Lake Providence.

Baggert described the runoff efforts as trying to aim a firehose of energy, trying to direct work that should have started nine months before Election Day. However, he says, “It was one of those rare moments that the civic sector roared to life.”

1,200 people from faith-based organizations, civic institutions, and HBCUs across the state made the commitment to organize precincts in mostly low-income, African American communities, many of which carry a historical legacy of violence and oppression. Their targets were voters who voted in the last presidential election, but not in the recent gubernatorial primary. Each volunteer would be responsible for thirty voters, with a goal of five contacts per voter before the election.

To incentivize the volunteers, they created a scoring system for various forms of contact. Any attempt at contact, like a text, would get you a point. A phone conversation gained two points, and a face-to-face, in person conversation would net you five points. The points were just for bragging rights, but helped underscore the importance of the various methods of direct voter contact.

“If voting is an abstraction for someone, you can make it real by connecting a real person to it,” Baggert explained.

While Together Louisiana is a non-partisan group that saw an urgent need to act in whatever way they could, he personally credits John Bel Edwards with doing “one helluva job tactically.”

After Election Day, Baggert created this map, showing what he calls a “vote bomb in the cities,” which he believes confirms the success of the targeted, organized actions from all the coalitions that focused on voter turnout in those areas.

Some members of the Governor’s staff took annual leave to assist with everything from constituency outreach to texting voters. Photo credit: Lynda Woolard.

MEMBERS OF THE EDWARDS ADMINISTRATION

Many members of the governor’s administration took their annual leave to do some grassroots work on behalf of the campaign.

Bruce Parker, Director of Community Programs, and Tina Vanichchagorn, the Governor’s Executive Counsel, used some of their annual leave to visit with progressive and pro-choice women across the state. Parker additionally put in some work with LGBTQ groups in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as HIV/AIDS advocates in Shreveport and Lafayette.

Their message was simple: The cavalry is not coming; you’re the cavalry. They met with small groups and encouraged them to take ownership of the campaign and initiate person-to-person conversations amongst their own network of contacts.

Having been included in one of these meetings coordinated by Charmaine Caccioppi, Chair of the Louisiana Women’s Policy and Research Commission, I saw how it played out. Young, white progressive women had unofficially surveyed their friends and discovered that many of them had sat out the primary, believing the results wouldn’t impact them personally. Once the conversation turned to what was really at stake for their generation, a fire was lit to find creative and personal ways to engage nonvoters. Inviting friends over for wine and cheese and talking John Bel became an organizational tactic.

Parker says he had several text chains operating throughout the runoff, concentrating on regional and constituency activities to turn out pockets of voters. Talking points and news reports were passed along by text to group leaders to be shared widely. And whenever he was asked for graphics and memes from the campaign to share on social media, Parker would reply, “Don’t wait for the campaign.”

Cacciopicci’s daughter Candice had brought her friend Marcelle Beaulieu along to the meeting I attended. That directive was all the latter needed to launch You Can Ring My Bel on Instagram, which became an overnight sensation (and which is covered in detail later on).

Bambi Polotzola had deep connections in the disabilities advocacy community before taking on the role as the Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs. Like other staff from the administration, she took annual leave to coordinate efforts with other Disability Advocates for John Bel Edwards through their Facebook group.

Their members shared their stories at Medicaid meetings and on social media. They made calls and sent texts on behalf of the governor’s campaign, because they have seen first hand the effect Gov. Edwards’ policies has had on their families in the last four years. The reprieve from having to go before the legislature every year to ask for Medicaid waivers alone has been a saving grace for many of those with young children who have a disability.

Polotzola also worked with women’s groups in her home parish of St. Landry through sororities, local members of the National Association of University Women, and Democratic women’s organizations that implemented a program for volunteers to adopt a precinct on Election Day. Additionally, she worked within the campaign structure, prioritizing canvasses and phone banks in her parish on the six Saturdays of voting for both the primary and the runoff.

Katina Semien is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Children’s Trust Fund and the South Central Regional Director of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She saw sororities and fraternities working in silos on their individual efforts on voter turnout and launched a project dubbed “The Collective” to bring African American-led organizations together for a more concerted plan.

The initial connections were through the Divine Nine, the nine historically Black Greek letter organizations: Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity. The circle widened to include The Links Inc., 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, Jack and Jill of America, Top Ladies of Distinction, and faith-based leaders from the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Semien credits the NAACP as instrumental in bringing folks on board. They strategized with the Power Coalition and focused their efforts on transporting voters in nursing homes to Early Voting on weekdays and Souls to the Polls efforts on Saturdays. They encouraged members to “Drive Five” and find five voters who needed rides to the polls. “The Collective” spoke to voters via canvassing and phone calls. They encouraged member engagement through conference calls.

The first day of Early Voting happened to fall during Homecoming Weekend for Southern and Grambling, so they pitched tents among the tailgates and shuttled voters to the polls. The stated mission of The Collective was to come together quickly for this year’s initiative, but the plan is to continue to work together beyond this election.

“Our organizations have more than a century of Civil Rights leadership from people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Rosa Parks,” Semien says, “and our members today are on the front lines keeping their spirit alive by fighting for the right to vote.”

Chaunda Mitchell, Executive Director for the Governor’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, spent her free time during the runoff working with the state-recognized tribes of Louisiana Native Americans. The leadership she helped organize represented communities along the coast in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

They were interested in impressing upon their own members how important voting is, in general. However, they also wanted to highlight the governor’s recognition of their tribes through proclamations establishing Indiginous People’s Day and Native American Heritage Month in Louisiana. They used their own lists to reach out to their voting block and share information about the governor’s support for the indigenous people of our state.

YOU CAN RING MY BEL

Marcelle Beaulieu saw the percent turnout in New Orleans the day after the primary, and knew she needed to get involved. She didn’t feel like anyone had spoken to her demographic. Her targets were millennial voters and pro-choice women who were still angry over the governor signing the abortion bill after legislative session. She wanted to speak to them in a way that validated their views, yet didn’t conflict with the messaging coming from the governor.

The post-primary meeting she attended was seen as a green light to launch the campaign. Beaulieu was aware that Instagram was the primary social media platform for younger voters, so she built @YouCanRingMyBel in that format (although there is also a Facebook page and a website).

Her recurring image of Christopher Walken was borrowed from the popular Saturday Night Live sketch where he relentlessly demands: More Cowbell. She transformed that to #MoreJohnBel. The tagline deemed most appropriate to reach an ambivalent voting block was: We don’t love him, but we need him.

While sharing this branded meme, Beaulieu slipped in facts about John Bel Edwards’ record as governor and warnings about what Eddie Rispone was admitting he would do if elected. She was careful in how she drafted her message, so that, while it was designed as a progressive leaning account, it was also a friendly space for moderate voters.

Beaulieu thought getting the message out through this vehicle was particularly important, because most of the people she knows don’t watch TV so were not seeing the ads running there.

Feedback was immediate and wildly positive. Proof that she stayed on message was that many of the folks on the governor’s team would share her posts on their personal accounts. Post shares exploded, in general, with New Orleans restaurants and musicians boosting their reach. In the final week of the election, You Can Ring My Bel reached 13,000 accounts and made over 90,000 impressions on Instagram alone.

Like the efforts of the community groups who focus on outreach, Beaulieu saw a need for her demographic of voters to become more engaged. Her belief is that humor is an important tool in achieving that goal.

“Being able to make someone laugh is instrumental in keeping them engaged as they are processing information that might be overwhelming or despairing,” Beaulieu tells me. She wants to make sure that people know there is “no shame in not knowing the basics” about our political system, and moving forward, she wants to use the account to continue to empower voters with information about legislation and elections.

GumboPAC ran ads on television and social media encouraging people to vote for Gov. John Bel Edwards

GUMBO PAC

While I’m not including data from Gumbo PAC in this report, if digital efforts are being mentioned at all, a shout-out must be given to Trey Ourso of Gumbo PAC, who ran sustained digital efforts in support of John Bel Edwards for over five years. Ourso’s extraordinary, nationally-acclaimed work will be featured in an upcoming Bayou Brief article that publisher Lamar White, Jr. is assembling, which specifically focuses on how Edwards and his supporters won the messaging war.

Organizer Alvin Anthony and his volunteers with Victory for Louisiana phonebanking in Baton Rouge for John Bel Edwards’ reelection. Photo credit: Kaleb Harmon.

VICTORY FOR LOUISIANA

Voter outreach and visibility was more of Team JBE’s style. They had, for example, a long-standing parade krewe for festivals run by Lynda Guidry and a tailgating squad for this fall’s football games. Nevertheless, there were some earnest field efforts that took place, mostly through Victory for Louisiana, the coordinated campaign between John Bel for Louisiana and the Louisiana Democratic Party.

From winter through late summer, all organizing was being done in Baton Rouge. In the final three months, six regional offices and a remote phone banking operation were added. Supporters had the opportunity to contribute by making phone calls every day but Sunday and canvassing on any Saturday when voting was taking place.

Democratic Parish Executive Committees (DPECs), Democratic groups, women’s groups, and College Democrats of Louisiana, as well as Louisiana High School Democrats, pitched in to open satellite offices, produce their own ballots and radio ads, and host voter outreach efforts on their own initiative.

Members of Team JBE at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival . Photo source: Lynda Guidry.

Added up, the volunteers and various organizations that worked directly with the governor’s campaign this year made a total of voter contact attempts leading up to the primary in these rounded numbers: 4,200 door knocks, 137,000 phone calls, and 500,000 texts. We filled in some of the gaps in our field program with paid firms whose business model allows them to spin up mobilization efforts rapidly.

Their paid work boosted pre-primary contact attempts by: 231,000 door knocks, 192,000 phone calls (during Fridays and Saturdays of voting only), and an additional 500,000 texts. The point of data-driven, goal oriented, measurable field efforts became clear when we got to the runoff.

For candidates, collecting data matters, because if you go into a runoff (or plan to run for re-election or another office in the future), it’s a strategic imperative to know who your supporters are from the first round of voting. That saves you time and money in the long run. 

As I wrote my mobilization plan back in January, based on past gubernatorial elections, I was predicting a 42% voter turnout for the primary. Most of the modeling experts expected a lower turnout number than that. As it happened, we all undershot. The actual percent of registered voters who voted on October 12th, 2019 was 46%. The reason this number matters for a field program is that you are attempting to calculate just how many conversations with voters you need to have to identify enough supporters leading up to election day. Ideally, you would already know by the time voting starts that you have enough voters who support you so that all you need to do is get those people to the polls. In campaign parlance, if you’re still trying to persuade voters to vote for you in the last four days of an election, you’re doing it wrong.

At any rate, I had assumed we’d need to find just over 645,000 voters during the primary. In reality, we would have needed closer to 672,000. Still, it would have been beneficial to have had many more conversations with voters over the course of the year, as turnout increased to 51% in the General Election and the final number of votes John Bel Edwards needed to win exceeded 750,000. Yet we went into the final turn with only 100,000 identified supporters from the campaign’s combined voter contacts, both volunteer and paid, throughout 2019. It takes a lot of attempts to actually reach a voter. That’s why this process is so time consuming and laborious.

As I mentioned, I realized my big mobilization plan would not be funded and that instead we’d end up farming out much of our field work to paid firms as we got closer to Election Day. I was fortunate, then, to have the opportunity to switch my role to do some constituency outreach work directly for the governor’s campaign, reporting directly to campaign manager, Richard Carbo. I was happy to have a way to continue to contribute to the cause. That said, once we found ourselves in a runoff with Eddie Rispone- with polls tightening, our strategies and my role shifted once again.

An integrated field effort I could get excited about was embraced when Scott Arceneaux joined the team in mid-October. I was grateful when he and Carbo approached me about running the Early Vote program. Arceneaux, rightly, pointed out that with thirty days left in the campaign we couldn’t exactly build our own canvassing apparatus.

“My Governor is out here phone banking again!!! #organizerfeels #teamjbe” – @lyndawoolard. Photo credit: Jayce Genco

While the gold standard of direct voter contact is a face-to-face conversation through canvassing, statistically speaking, the less habitual voting is for a person, the more reminders to vote they’ll require. For non-chronic voters, the number of “touches” they need ranges from four to ten across a variety of formats.

So, Arceneaux’s premise was that we could create a program that would prime our voters for the knocks on the door they were receiving from those who were already doing turnout work. His idea was to layer a communications effort that included a digital campaign, direct mail, robocalls, paid live calls, and texting. Additionally, a big push on radio made sure that voters were alerted to when the election was happening.

Arceneaux perceives a rare benefit to the Louisiana jungle primary system is that when you advance to the General Election, you essentially get a do-over. You can look at your pool of voters and see who they are.

“It’s very difficult in a short period of time to get someone to do something they have no habit of doing. Therefore, we identified folks with an Early Voting history and found our targets there. Then it just became a numbers game,” Arceneaux explains.

Could we identify enough of our voters? And did we have sufficient time and resources to reach them? Given that our most reliable voters are black Democratic voters, that’s where our first contacts started. But as results were coming in during the second round of Early Voting, data suggested we would need to expand our conversations to include young, white Democratic voters as well. While it was too late to adjust our direct mail and digital buys, we had much more flexibility with our paid phones and volunteer texting programs. 

A critical contributor in the implementation of this plan was the coordinated campaign’s Data Director, Calahan Riley. Riley was a whiz with finding our voters in the database and was also committed to updating our data as quickly as possible for each day of Early Voting. This gave us incredible agility as we worked this program.

The centerpiece of direct voter contact for the runoff was the texting program, in which we sent almost two million texts in the final two weeks of the campaign. Such was the efficiency of the work we were doing with countless volunteers on the front end and a small group of dedicated volunteers responding to texts on the back end, that with a few hours left to vote on Election Day, Riley informed us that we were out of numbers to text. 

In that last month, our volunteers and Democratic organizations upped the number of call attempts they made to 76,000 and door knocks to 3,500. We boosted those numbers with paid live phone calls on the last two Fridays and Saturdays of the election to add an additional 262,000 call attempts. Again, what made this program effective is that it was considered a supplement to the work of the community groups on the ground. In turn, the foundation those groups had been laying for two years or more allowed them the capacity to rapidly escalate their efforts in the final weeks of the General Election.

As they do for each election, the Louisiana Democratic Party hosted a voter protection unit and operated the perennial 225-255-3401 voter protection hotline during each day of voting. This year, this effort received support from Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight.

A few Democratic state parties and presidential candidates (past and present) used their networks to recruit volunteers to phone bank and text bank in the runoff. Legislative candidate volunteers reported that they reminded people to support John Bel, too, when they spoke to voters. Labor and teachers’ unions organized their members. The NAACP paid for Uber to give any voter a ride to the polls. Untold numbers of neighborhood groups raised money to print and post signs, pass out flyers with voting information, and cart their neighbors to vote.

The story of the 2019 election is one of a full team effort by, on one side of the political wall, the campaign and the party, and on the other side, all the progressive and community groups who knew their members would be impacted by the results.

A homemade yard sign promoting the reelection of Gov. John Bel Edwards on Election Day in Uptown New Orleans. Photo credit: Nick Albares

CODA

Right now, all we have are numbers of votes and the places where those votes were cast. We’ll understand more about how all this played out when we have individual voter data from the Secretary of State later this year.

Nationally, the narrative of this election shifted from being about a pro-life, moderate Democrat who the left was hesitant to get behind, to being about continuing Democratic momentum on the heels of victories in Kentucky and Virginia. For most of the folks who organize in Louisiana, though, there was no such swing of investment.

The import of this election was always about protecting healthcare for 450,000 Louisianians, securing harm reduction for our most vulnerable communities, and providing a shot at fairer congressional and legislative districts after the 2020 census.

Still, this story of who showed up to turn out voters illustrates the vast patchwork of efforts that had to come together to keep a Democratic governor in office in the Deep South. It was no small feat, and clearly required an extraordinary amount of energy and resources. This is significant because many of these groups are building permanent infrastructures and training future leaders.

MoVE (the Millennial Voter Engagement Project) partnered with the Urban League on their nonpartisan Wake Up Geaux Vote initiative. Using organizers from 7 college campuses – LSU, Southern, SUNO, Dillard, Tulane, Loyola, & Xavier. They focused on pushing students to vote during Early Voting. Photo credit: Noa Elliott.

As a state, we’ve proven that, with the right candidate or cause, we have the ability to come together and accomplish what, at first, might seem out of reach. Most of the people I spoke with intend to continue the work they did in 2019 and build on it. Their sustained efforts deserve to be amplified and funded.

If you are reading this and wondering how you can continue in this moment to work to support progressive issues in Louisiana, these groups and individuals are really good places to start. 

I was asked earlier this year about a municipal race where a candidate won using a strong field program that only resulted in about 30% turnout of the whole electorate. The question was, “If field was so successful, why didn’t more people turn out to vote?”

It would be a misconception that low turnout in general is a failure of field.

“Getting out the vote” does not require you to get out all voters. It just requires you to motivate enough of your own supporters to get to the polls. That’s the goal of these efforts overall: To increase participation and engagement among those who share our values, the very most basic of which state that everyone deserves a living wage, access to healthcare, and an opportunity for a quality education.

Not for the first or last time, I’ll say, I am firmly on Team #FieldWins. Democratic hopefuls should be looking at this year’s election through this lens and plan to integrate these kind of direct voter contact methods with every other element of their campaign plan. And we should all be supporting these coalitions and community groups who do the year round work of voter engagement, even if it doesn’t center on Democratic candidates.

Because while candidates do need to focus their turnout efforts on their own voters, the simple fact is that higher turnout tends to favor Democrats.

More importantly, elections with more voters favor a better democracy.

To every voter, volunteer, intern, staff member, and candidate who showed up this year, take a bow. You own a piece of this historic accomplishment. Thank you for stepping up.   

Featured image: Mayor LaToya Cantrell with volunteers and fellows for Action New Orleans get hyped to canvass on Election Day for Gov. John Bel Edwards and the #BallotofYes. Photo credit: Action New Orleans
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Lynda Woolard
Lynda Woolard’s political life started with Barack Obama, in a campaign and advocacy relationship that lasted from his 2007 announcement to his 2013 inauguration. She was then recruited by Louisiana Democratic Party Chair Karen Carter Peterson to create and run their grassroots mobilization effort, Team Blue Dat, until Governor John Bel Edwards’ election in 2015. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign selected her to serve as State Director, as well as Whip Captain to Louisiana’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention. In 2017, she joined the Resistance, and organized against Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In 2018, she led statewide field efforts for the Unanimous Jury Coalition to pass Constitutional Amendment 2, ending Louisiana's discriminatory practice that allowed a defendant to be convicted of a felony with a non-unanimous jury. She also received the Organizer of the Decade award from the Louisiana Democratic Party. In 2019, she received the inaugural Felicia Kahn Citizenship Award from the New Orleans Coalition, and spent the year obsessed with re-electing Governor John Bel Edwards. In her free time, Lynda raises Monarch butterflies, cares for her many rescue pets, plans trips to cities where Hamilton the musical is playing, and enthusiastically supports the New Orleans Saints.