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Why do we settle for mediocrity when we should be insisting on excellence? Having spent the past few weeks working on a report card grading the Democratic super PACs and the more than $600 million they’re planning to spend on the fall elections, my main takeaway is that we tolerate far too much mediocrity in progressive politics.
The grades given in the report cards span the spectrum from D+ and C- (American Bridge 21st Century and Senate Majority PAC) to A and A- (Fair Fight, Next Gen Climate Action, and the Progressive Turnout Project), and the underlying analysis clearly shows that tens of millions of dollars are being wasted on spending strategies that are unsupported by—if not directly contradictory to—what the empirical evidence says we should be doing. A summary chart is below, and you can read the full report here.
Beyond the specific grades of the particular groups is the much larger issue of how low the standards of excellence are in political investing. From minimal transparency and accountability about strategy and spending to the incorrect and inadequate use of data to elevating leaders with little insight into the communities they are targeting, progressives fall far short of proven best practices. This reality is problematic enough when super PACs are being entrusted with the smart spending of hundreds of millions of dollars, but the situation is especially dire when those dollars needed influence an election where millions of lives are in peril depending on who wins in November.
Transparency and Accountability
Transparency and accountability are cornerstones of any high-functioning organization. By clearly and forthrightly articulating a plan of action, the underlying rationale for that plan, and the expected outcomes, an organization and its leaders can avail themselves of the best thinking, insight, and feedback from their critical stakeholders.
As Starbucks expanded globally, for example, the company realized that its success was predicated on being open to and receiving feedback from a broad cross-section of interested parties. Former CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz explained, “We’re…trusting that the people in the marketplace know better than the people in [the headquarters in] Seattle.”
If you invest $100 in Coca-Cola company, you will get two shares of stock and then you will receive quarterly reports about the company’s revenue and expenses, plans and strategy for the next year, and an extensive narrative report from the management discussing and analyzing how things have been going. If you invest $1 million in a Democratic super PAC, on the other hand, you generally get no further updates, plans, explanations, or written analyses (I happen to know people who have, in fact, made million-dollar contributions to the party and its super PACs).
Those wanting to know how their money is being spent are forced to scour Federal Election Commission filings, read between the lines of vague emails and press releases, and piece together whatever information they can find from friends or on the internet. If they’re lucky—and rich enough—they might get a call from a super PAC’s principal offering a general oral explanation, but rarely are written plans or election debriefs offered.
Notably, Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy was quite transparent, as campaign manager David Plouffe gave regular updates on strategy and plans via YouTube. Perplexingly, no one has carried on this tradition in the progressive ecosystem. As a result, the decisions about how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars are made by a tiny handful of people who are insulated from the kinds of meaningful feedback and accountability that sharpen, refine, and improve an organization’s plans and operations.
This is no way to run a railroad, let alone a political party. One would think that progressive millionaires would insist on the same kinds of transparency and accountability that they receive for their investments in the private sector, but they don’t. And it’s not just millionaires. Much of the money that flows to progressive organizations comes through small-dollar donations from ordinary people. These folks are investors too, and they deserve better. The whole movement deserves better.
When big decisions are made by a small group of people who are shielded from scrutiny, it can result in the kinds of methodological sloppiness, intellectual laziness, and political plans that are based on feelings and not facts. Effective organizations root their decision-making in rigorous data analysis about what works and what doesn’t, which markets to target and which ones to avoid. If you’re selling Black hair-care products, for example, it doesn’t make sense to blanket white neighborhoods with advertising for Afro Sheen.
Democrats need to flip four Republican-held seats in order to gain control of the US Senate. A data-driven approach to determining where to concentrate resources to achieve that goal should analyze and incorporate multiple, state-based data points, including the closeness of the 2016 election, competitiveness of the 2018 mid-terms, recent changes in the composition of the eligible electorate, and current polling data. Such an analysis would logically lead to placing Georgia in the top tier of target states, especially since the Peach State has two Republican-held Senate seats on the ballot this year, effectively creating a “2 for 1” opportunity in terms of dollars invested in boosting Democratic voter turnout.
Despite this clear road map revealed by the underlying data, the largest Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, had invested $0 in winning Georgia as of August 1, while plowing $8 million into the contest in Iowa (in September, Senate Majority PAC did begin making some investments in one of the Georgia races). The following table comparing the respective states shows how the Iowa investment—and the Georgia omission—are completely unsupported by the underlying data.
Reflect and Know Your Target Market
In successful organizations, the leadership and management have real and deep insight into the minds of the people who comprise their core market. Those managers draw on their lived experience and accumulated knowledge to develop carefully targeted strategies and plans. Apple, for example, sells more iPhones in China—the largest market in the world—than it does in the United States. It’s no accident that the head of its China operation, Isabel Ge Mahe, comes from China, knows the people, and speaks the language. Cultural competence and experiential insight are critical components of success.
In the Democratic ecosystem, nearly half of all Democratic voters are people of color; logic would therefore dictate that a commensurate percentage of the people in leadership come from those cultural communities. Unfortunately, the near-apartheid state of the top of the Democratic ecosystem sadly persists. Of the ten largest Democratic super PACs, nine are run by Caucasians, little improved over the state of affairs I flagged in the wake of the 2016 election debacle. And this despite the widespread protestations of fealty to diversity and people of color that freely flowed a few months ago in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
As a general principle, words are nice, but actions are better. In terms of smart spending in order to win critical elections that depend on large and enthusiastic support from people of color, giving check-writing authority to people who come from the communities being targeted is the best course of action.
The world is falling apart around us, and people are counting on progressives to win this election and pave the path for the kinds of large-scale changes this country’s multiple crises demand. The forces arrayed against us are enormous and ferocious, so we must be at the top of our game in order to prevail. That means embracing and adopting best practices in how we spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that people are entrusting to the leaders of the Democratic Party and its allied super PACs. The times demand excellence. Mediocrity is unacceptable.