To Persuade or to Turn Out Voters — Is That the Question?

There is a great debate raging in the Democratic Party between two competing schools of thought: what I’ll call the persuasionists and the turnouters.

The persuasionists wax nostalgic about changing the hearts and minds of voters who are already going to vote in 2020. They obsess about the 206 pivot counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but backed Donald Trump in 2016. They focus on the suburban voters — especially professional, college-educated white women — who fueled the flip of 37 suburban House districts to Democratic control in 2018. From rural diners to suburban office parks, persuasionists think our path to victory in 2020 relies on persuading these voters.

The turnouters see the world the other way. Instead of changing hearts and minds, they want to change motivation and behavior. They obsess over the 30 percent of the country who didn’t vote in 2016 — more than half of whom are nonwhite and two-thirds of whom are under 50. They fondly remember the breathless coverage of a rising American electorate that fueled Obama in 2008 and 2012, hoping we can replicate it.

The reality is that persuasionists and turnouters are both right — and they’re both wrong.

The stakes in this election are too high to bet our chips on any one strategy. This isn’t “Sophie’s Choice” for the Democratic Party: Rather, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but only if we do it right.

Looking at the 2018 election results, Democrats have reason to believe there are still significant swaths of persuadable voters. According to post-election analysis by Catalist, 4.5 percent of the 5 percent margin change from 2016 to 2018 came from consistent voters who changed which side they voted for. In other words, 89 percent of the margin came from some form of vote-shifting. Some of that shift may endure in 2020, while some was likely just the perennial rejection of the status quo, the party in power in Washington.

The best argument for investing in persuasion comes from simple math: the multiplier effect. If you persuade one voter to switch from Donald Trump to the Democratic nominee, you take one from Trump and you add one to the Democrats, expanding our lead by two votes. For every one person persuaded, we win twice.

On the other hand, the biggest advantage of a turnout focus is that the opportunities abound. While finding the right persuadable target is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, identifying turnout targets is as easy as looking for corn in a cornfield. Thirty percent of the country didn’t vote in 2016, and those non-votes include Democratic-leaning demographics like people of color and younger voters. Motivating younger people and people of color to vote was critical to creating the winnable midterm electorate in 2018, unlike what we saw in 2014 and 2010 midterms.

But while turnout voters are easier to find than persuasion voters, turning them out isn’t easy, because it requires changing their behavior. It takes hard work and a sustained conversation — you can’t just show up the weekend before the election. And here, the multiplier effect works in reverse: Increasing turnout by 10 percent among younger voters who oppose Trump by a factor of two-to-one only increases your margin by 3 percent.

In the end, we need to work on persuasion and turnout simultaneously, and to do that, we need to find the through-thread that works for both. Viewing them as segments — telling turnout targets one thing and persuasion targets something different — won’t work. We don’t need to pick either a message of motivation or a message of persuasion. Fortunately, blending these messages is easier than conventional wisdom might lead us to believe.

The least-discussed reality of politics is this: Voters are less dissimilar than we think. The turnout targets — the Obama voters who didn’t show up in 2016 — are progressives, but they’re more moderate than many habitual Democratic voters on issues from health care to the environment to fiscal policy. Democrats won’t bring them to the polls just by checking all the right boxes or litmus tests.

On the other hand, persuasion targets are actually more progressive than we might think. For example, many non-college-educated white women (who largely voted for Trump) are concerned about health care, support background checks and believe climate change is real. They’re not the stereotypical MAGA hat-wearing white guys in the diner.

Whether we’re looking at persuasion or turnout, we must remember that voters aren’t checking off boxes, and they aren’t making decisions in silos. They’re deciding based on their emotional response to a candidate’s story. From Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” to Bill Clinton’s “For People, For a Change,” it was their stories that both persuaded voters and got them to the polls.

If Democrats want to win in 2020, we need to find a candidate who can tell their story, share their values and be the antidote to what we’re seeing from Trump.

Instead of endlessly arguing about our focus, we need to move past the porridge that is too hot or too cold, and find one that is just right.

Jesse Ferguson is a veteran Democratic strategist and general consultant who was deputy national press secretary and senior spokesman on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and served as deputy executive director and director of independent expenditures for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult