Apologies and firing squads

Friendly fire isn't that friendly
Friendly fire isn’t that friendly
I was all wrapped up in pre-wedding festivities yesterday, so there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t get to react to.

Since my last post, Chairman Carson has apologized for his off the cuff remarks.

It takes strength to admit when you’ve made a mistake.

I applaud him for that.

Ready, shoot, aim

The circular firing squad that has been the hallmark of Democrats this election started long before the voting even really got kicked off.

A slew of Facebook posts from folks in and around the Democratic Party establishment, took aim at other Democrats for things that were, quite honestly, petty.

We put each other in the crosshairs in a primary election, instead of banding together to put Republicans in the crosshairs in the general. We suffered for that.

We fought internally instead of working together to get the most electable members of our slate elected (which is what the party should always do…its called campaign triage). We dragged friends into debates about minutiae. We lodged full frontal assaults on each other.

It was stupid.

But those distractions are part of why we got our asses kicked. Those distractions didn’t pop up overnight. They have been percolating for months…only to be brewed into a sour pot of failure in the only real election the Party is supposed to be preparing for…the County general election.

Watching the Vote

Over the course of early voting, I was watching who was turning out, and where. I’ve been working on a predictive model based on past performance, and I wanted to gauge how it was working. It still needs work, but there’s one thing I saw that alarmed me from the very beginning.

See, there’s this group of voters called “other”. Its a racial classification the Election Commission uses when someone doesn’t fill out that part (its optional) of the voter registration form.

“Others” make up about 42% of the total voting population. There are services out there you can subscribe to that will help you figure out this mystery one way or the other. I used an unnecessarily complicated formula based on census data, age, and turnout statistics from previous elections to figure out an estimate of the true racial breakdown of the voting population.

Here’s what I found. There were over 37,000 African-American early voters that pulled a Democratic ballot. Looking at the early voting numbers from the Commercial Appeal, that’s around 8000 more voters than our top two candidates on the ticket received from early voting. I calculate that there were about 6000 (+/- 5%) White Democratic voters (classified as other) in early voting. Those two combined are still less than the total our top two candidates lost by in early voting.

The long and the short of it is, crossover was rampant, and crossed just about every demographic line imaginable.

These numbers are preliminary. Once the all detail report is available, I’ll be able to better measure this against lists provided by private companies.

What it should tell us is, our candidates didn’t connect with voters well enough to be successful. Actually, that’s what every election loss should tell you.

Reflections on 2012

When you make the decision to run for office, you have given yourself the opportunity for the kind of self-discovery that few other things can provide.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what you’re good at, and what you’re really bad at.

Delegation is not my strong point. I found that out in spades. But I am willing to literally work myself to death (I’m not sure what that says about me, but its true).

I made field the cornerstone of my campaign…to the detriment of fundraising and just about everything else (I believe in field and will still do it, but I sacrificed money, and ran out of time). Its a mistake I won’t make again if I ever decide to offer myself up.

I knocked on thousands of doors myself, and talked to so many people. I loved it.

By election day in August, I knew I wasn’t likely to win. I had expected to be running against Marilyn Loeffel…a perennial candidate in that district. I had ample reason to believe that if Loeffel was the GOP nominee, I would get some GOP crossover (even though she didn’t win, I did still get some support from Republicans…even though I’m about as liberal as they come).

But after I had time to look at the results, I found something. Lots of people in the old District 1 didn’t vote in that election. In fact, 1460 people who pulled Democratic primary ballots didn’t vote for me, or anyone. That’s 13.6% of all the Democrats in the old District 1 who participated in that election.

The cross-section of voters based on race isn’t particularly instructive. Lots of white and black people didn’t vote for me.

Why is that?

Is it because they made a decision about me based on my race/class/other arbitrary determination? Possibly. But that’s not the lesson I chose to learn from that experience. The lesson I took away from that was that I didn’t communicate effectively enough with those voters to earn their vote.

Its that simple.

I was angry for months after that election.

I was angry at other Democratic elected officials who I’ve supported for years, who didn’t see fit to endorse me (I was and still am very grateful to the ones who did). I vowed to never support them or even give them so much as a courtesy vote.

I was angry at the thousands of voters whose houses I canvassed, who didn’t even bother to show up and vote.

I was angry at myself, for spending so much time on a stupid campaign and putting my family’s finances in jeopardy.

I eventually got over myself…for the most part.

But I learned something about campaigning and about voters:

1. No one is paying as much attention to the issues as you want them to. Its your job to make your platform resonate.
2. No one will do it for you. You have to be smart and work your ass off if you want to get elected to anything.
3. Communicating your priorities means doing more than sending mailers, setting up websites, and yes, even canvassing. You have to make opportunities to make your case on the substantive issues of the day.
4. Its not the voters fault if they can’t find a reason to hit the button with your name on it…its your fault. You didn’t connect. You didn’t get your message out there effectively enough.

There was no way I was going to win that race under the circumstances. I didn’t effectively campaign enough (even though I’m still proud of my efforts) and the cards were stacked against me (in terms of ideological participation).

And while I didn’t get the outcome I wanted, I did get a valuable lesson in running for office…striking a balance between the resources you need to get elected (people, time and money) and the things you must do (communicate, contact, and capitalize on the issues) is critical.

This is a lesson the Shelby County Democratic Party need to try to take from this cycle, instead of continuing the circular firing squad that has been the hallmark of the organization since 2010.

Critical Analysis

Its natural for people to get angry after a loss. Its natural to assess blame, and seek out scapegoats. Its easy to do that based on demography. But the hard thing to do is step away from that anger and honestly critically analyze what just happened.

The truth of the matter is, blaming a demographic group for a loss is the best way to alienate that group…and eventually lose them forever. People don’t take kindly t voting their conscience than then being blamed for not doing what someone else wanted them to do.

That’s not a path we should travel.

White Democrats have taken the brunt of the abuse over the past two cycles for the party’s losses.

One could just as easily blame African-American voters for not showing up in August (in terms of turnout, White voters far exceed their countywide demographic balance based on population in August elections).

Here’s the truth. In early voting “white” voters out-voted their percentage of the total voting populace by 10 points. That’s huge.

“Black” voters, out-voted their overall percentage by just under 2%.

“Other” voters (I’m one of those), under-voted their percentage of the total voting population by 13 points.

Why not just blame the “others”? They didn’t turn out. Its their fault, right?

Others are typically younger (under 45), have diverse racial and class backgrounds, and, apparently, don’t vote in August.

How many “others” did Democrats target?

Or maybe you could look at it like this.

Of the 7 solidly Democratic County Commission districts, 5 had turnout that severely underperformed their percentage of the electorate. In all, that means 8.62% of the total vote in safe Democratic districts didn’t show up.

Why not blame the Democratic County Commission candidates in those districts for not working hard enough to turn out the vote? (6 Republican districts over-performed by nearly 7 points, making a +15 point advantage…or 65 to 35…which miraculously is about the margin of victory for Luttrell and Weirich).

There are a million ways to slice and dice blame.

But that doesn’t help us as we try to figure out how to win in August of 2018 any more than blaming one demographic group for not voting the way we think they should.

The truth is, they got their vote out better than we did, and we lost because of it. Plain and simple.

They connected with voters where we didn’t.

I don’t know what else can be said about that.

But the smart thing to do, is hold fire…especially on your allies. Then work on a plan to turnout enough voters…especially those who don’t normally turn out in August. That’s what I told members of the SCDP executive committee in February, and I stand by it today.

We didn’t match GOP voters on a 1:1 basis by Commission districts, and we (predictably) lost because of it.


Politics is a passionate business for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time practicing it.

That passion can manifest itself in both productive and unproductive ways.

Its our job, as folks who pay attention to this stuff, to try and find productive, actionable solutions to losing.

Blame-storming isn’t productive.

How do we get more people to participate, to balance against GOP strongholds who have a culture of participation? That’s the question we need to be asking.

How do we find the voters, who push (D) every time in November, but don’t show up in August to show up? That’s the pathway to success.

Blaming one group or another isn’t productive. It’s a diversion that brings division and more losses in the future.

We can choose to ask ourselves these questions, and learn from the past two cycles (2010 and 2014) or we can keep doing what we’ve been doing…at our own peril.

We have an opportunity to learn and grow from this, if we will only accept it.

I hope we’ll choose to grow, instead of turning on each other and continuing to decline.

15 Replies to “Apologies and firing squads”

  1. Steve,
    I think theres a bipartisan factor in the mix as well. Voters across the state and especially in west Tn seem to have a more open minded approach when it comes to supporting candidates in both parties for county offices than they do for state and federal offices. Look at Chester and McNairy counties for example. Its now been 20 years (and still going)since the GOP last won the county mayor’s office in Chester. Democrat backed Independents also won 3 other seats in Chester the other day while the GOP Sheriff won reelection with no opposition. All this despite Chester being a very reliable GOP county in state and federal elections over the last 20 years and its biggest employer being Freed Hardeman University which is one of the most hardcore conservative schools in the southeast. Next door in McNairy pretty much the same happened there as well….the vocal GOP Sheriff won reelection in a landslide despite a heated race with his democrat opponent but the democrats in McNairy won the County Mayor’s race,General Sessions Judge and two other races as well. McNairy though went overwhelmingly for McCain and Romney and come November they’ll do the same for Lamar! and Haslam. In Weakley, the longtime democrat Sheriff there easily won despite Weakley’s drift to the right over the last decade in state and federal elections. Im sure it would help you guys if you wouldnt nominate bad candidates like Brooks and Brown. But still I think the GOP would do ok in Shelby because of the belief among a lot of voters that you should look at candidates for county office with a more open mind….

  2. In other words, to quote and old Arkansas Leadership Academy saying: “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.


  3. It is clear after Thursday’s debacle that the Shelby County Democratic Party needs a complete restructuring, with new leaders and a different direction. Our county is on paper 70% Democratic, yet we keep getting trounced. And I don’t believe it is difficult to determine the reasons. First, our party has a racial problem. You may doubt me, but Ricky Wilkins’ decision to oppose our ranking incumbent Democratic representative Steve Cohen is prime evidence that even within our Democratic Party, we have not solved our racial problems. Most of the Democratic contenders for county-wide office were African-Americans, and most of them endorsed Wilkins against our incumbent. Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because he was preoccupied by the need to fight for retention of his own seat, Cohen made no effort to campaign for Deidre Malone or other Democratic contenders for office. So Cohen, who should show a willingness to be a party leader didn’t, and the African-American candidates spent more effort opposing Cohen than they did Mark Luttrell and the GOP. But it only gets worse. In my Bartlett constituency, the Democrats did not even run anyone against David Reaves, an annoying Republican who was instrumental in the municipal school effort which has helped further segregation in Shelby County’s schools. At a time when the Shelby County Democratic Party is threatening to “kick out” crossover voters, I was forced to not vote for the Shelby County Commission because my party conceded the seat to the GOP. Finally, the quality of candidates offered was pathetic, frankly. The Democrats ran candidates for some offices that challenge the loyalty of the staunchest Democrats- a DA candidate that went to jail for contempt of court for insulting a judge, and who called his Republican opponent a lesbian, and a Juvenile Court Clerk candidate who has been involved in bizarre and violent confrontations, laden with profanity and racial slurs, and who has been less than truthful about her place of residence. Furthermore, all too often, our party is running candidates whose views are completely inconsistent with the national party on issues such as interracialism, same-sex marriage, abortion or many other issues. Four years ago, when Dr. Willie Herenton ran against Steve Cohen for the 9th Congressional District, Herenton espoused anti-gay and anti-abortion views, and argued that the 9th Congressional District was 90% Black and that those constituents deserved to “have a representative that looks like them.” Such views are far more consistent with the GOP than the Democratic Party. I have been a Democrat since I was old enough to vote. I proudly consider myself a liberal. In my view, it is important that we have a strong Democratic Party in Shelby County, but right now we do not. We desperately need new, charismatic leadership, and a new effort to mend the party’s racial wounds, or the losses will just keep mounting.

  4. Steve: Thanks for your customary wise words, insights, constructive criticism and recommendations for the future. All of us who care about Democratic politics should be listening.

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