Where Should We Put Our Political Energy?

Getting mad about Beto’s campaign finance gamesmanship is barking up the wrong tree.

When voters start to pay attention to a coming election — particularly a presidential election — what do they pay attention to? And how is what they pay attention to different than what we political junkies, or those of us who work on campaigns, pay attention to?

I’m not just talking about first-time voters. Of course, the main news about first-time voters comes from data about young voters. The hype is real about their force and influence — which I’ll address shortly in extremely stark terms. One of those voters told NPR on voting day of last year’s midterms: “I was the fourth person in my town to vote. I was too young to vote in the presidential election of 2016, and I didn’t want to wait until 2020 to cast my vote and make a difference.” Makes sense: 2016 seemed really messed up and scary to any young person in America paying attention. It must have been painful for young folks with political consciousness not to have been able to vote (maybe the voting age should be lowered).

But I’m wondering here about voters who are not always or intensely politically active, even if they regularly vote. Of these, Republican voters are starting to care about national security more than the economy, probably because their leader has told them the economy is doing well but that we should be scared of this or that bogeyman. Voters across the political spectrum really care about healthcare — certainly more than they’ve cared about the possibly-now-culminated probe of ties between campaign personnel and Russia in the 2016 election.

Voters are sharply divided on oversight of the Trump administration, but a majority both want oversight and don’t want too much of it: According to Pew, “A majority of voters (64%) say if Republicans keep control of Congress, they are very or somewhat concerned that the GOP will not focus enough on oversight of the administration. A smaller majority (55%) are concerned that if the Democrats take control of Congress, they will focus too much on investigating the Trump administration.” So although there’s a vague fear of the administration abusing the executive office, there’s an aversion to spending too much time doing something about it.

So . . . issues mostly, and some concern with the abuse of power. But it feels like that’s about it. If you want an example of something those voters aren’t concerned about — and that the political class is way, way too concerned about, it’s the rules and spats over the primaries. For the first Democratic debates, the DNC has established a new, interesting threshold: 65,000 donors from 20 states gets you in. The rule itself encourages upstart candidates to get creative — doing smart selective outreach in sympathetic enclaves, or whatever.

In bigger candidate races where that threshold can get reached in hours, the question turns to donor amounts. Take the kerfuffle with how Beto O’Rourke recently tried to game Bernie Sanders in their respective first-24-donations. The traditional metric for success has been how much a candidate can raise just outside the gate of their announcement — hence the 24-hour question. Bernie was overwhelmingly ahead on this, having raised $5.9 million — from donations of $27 or less. Beto out-raised Bernie in that first 24 hour window, netting $6.1 million (and waiting a while to report individual donor amounts of $47). Some Bernie supporters got upset about this, pointing out that Bernie’s donations were smaller than Beto’s or anyone’s, that the 24-hour metric was arbitrary and capricious, and that Beto was “cheating.”

Most people are opposed to big money in politics, and sure, a chunk of Bernie voters get angry about primary voting rules with respect to assigning delegates. But getting angry about the kind of front-end gamesmanship Beto is awkwardly trying to play? That’s irrelevant to most people voting. It’s also not immediately important to the future of the country — or the planet. The energy emanating from such outrage is almost always applied inconsistently. It diverts attention from candidates’ messages and policy agendas — which, in addition to personality and a sense that a candidate will fight for you, is what the non-political-junkie voter is going to make their decision on, whether they’re really aware they’re doing that or not.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about the political process. I’m saying we should be conscious of where we put our energy. What people who do electoral and campaign work for a living, particularly on the left, should be caring about is not so much the gamesmanship as getting voters out who are under 40 years old. This is because if we bring out young voters at same rate as voters of 70 and above will be out in this and any election, we will win it all. If we don’t bring those voters out, conservative voters over 70 will probably re-elect the president.

So we might say the fate of the world hangs in that balance. Much of my own focus in this election cycle personally and professionally will be devoted to just that: getting as many young people to vote as voters in their 70s or older, including use of consumer data to filter by age and reach less likely younger voters across the country. Getting mad at Beto, on the other hand, just because he tried to game the system, is barking up the wrong tree. Better to focus on saving all the trees — and all of the rest of us.

Adriel Hampton is a marketing consultant and founder of The Really Online Lefty League. Photo via BreatheNewWinds.com