Democrats around the country were hopeful that they could win two special elections Tuesday in what had long been “safe” Republican districts in Georgia and South Carolina. Instead, both Democratic candidates — Jon Ossoff and Archie Parnell — narrowly lost. Why did they lose? Pundits and politics will be debating this question for a long while, but here’s one factor that made a huge difference: Low turnout among African Americans. If this sounds familiar, it should. It explains why Hillary Clinton lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to Donald Trump last November by a total of 77,000 votes. Had she won those three states, she would have won the Electoral College and would be occupying the White House today.
Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign in the Atlanta suburbs attracted the most attention and the most money. Last November, no political expert expected Georgia’s 6th Congressional district to be a hotly-contested swing district. For many years it was represented by right-wing Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich. When he retired, he was replaced by Tom Price, his ideological twin. But after Trump picked Price to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, Ossoff, an unknown 30-year-old documentary filmmaker, jumped into the race to replace Price in a special election.
The national Democratic Party did not initially support Ossoff’s campaign. The party leaders viewed it as a long shot at best. What propelled Ossoff’s campaign were hundreds of local volunteers – many of them political neophytes – who formed new local groups like PaveItBlue, Johns Creek-Milton Progressives Network, Roswell Resistance Huddle, and Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb to support Ossoff. Progressive groups like MoveOn and Daily Kos, and a strong endorsement from civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (who represents Atlanta in Congress) helped Ossoff raise millions of dollars, mostly in small-size donations. In the April primary, he came in first among 18 contenders, with 48 percent of the vote, only 3,700 shy of winning the 50 percent needed for victory. Instead, he faced a run-off with the second-place finisher, Karen Handel, a conservative Republican. At that point, in part because of the contest’s symbolic value, the national Democratic Party began helping Ossoff. In fact, Democrats and Republicans from around the country poured money into the race, making it by far the most expensive U.S. House race in the nation’s history.
A week before the election, polls showed Ossoff with a narrow lead. But on Tuesday, Handel narrowly beat Ossoff by a 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent margin.
In Tuesday’s special election in South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell by a 51.1 percent to 47.9 percent margin. Last November, Republican incumbent Mike Mulvaney beat his Democratic opponent by a 59.2 percent to 38.7 percent landslide. Mulvaney gave up his seat to become Trump’s budget director. At the time, few thought that this seat was up for grabs. Moreover, the race attracted less attention and money than the Georgia contest, but it had many of the same dynamics — an upsurge of Democratic volunteers (particularly women) inspired by anti-Trump sentiment and fears of what the Republican-led Congress might do to health care and other issues.
But another dynamic was a work in both contests. A few days ago the Los Angeles Times described Ossoff’s last-minute effort to drive up the Black vote. Ossoff’s campaign, the Times reported, “are scrambling to engage with black voters, who make up 13% of the district’s electorate,” but a much smaller percentage of those who actually vote. Ossoff’s campaign probably made some inroads in increasing Black turnout since the April primary, but fell short of the number needed to prevail.
The Wall Street Journal described a similar dynamic in South Carolina. On Tuesday morning, before the polls had opened, it reported, “South Carolina Democrats have spent recent weeks trying to build a machine to turn out the districts black voters.” In that district, Blacks represent 28 percent of the potential voters but a much smaller percentage of actual voters.
In other words, the Democrat candidates in both races ignored the Black vote until the last minute. Then they parachuted organizers and operatives into the districts to rev up Democratic-leaning but low-propensity voters, particularly Black voters. Had Black turnout been higher, both Ossoff and Parnell probably would have won.
Clinton’s losses last November in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania could also be attributed to low turnout by Democratic-leaning citizens, especially African Americans. In Wisconsin, Trump beat Clinton by a mere 22,748 votes out of more than 2.9 million votes cast. Statewide, Trump received about the same number of voters as Mitt Romney in 2012, but Clinton received almost 240,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. The statewide decline in voter turnout was particularly devastating in Democratic strongholds. In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature adopted tougher voter-registration laws, including a requirement that voters provide a photo ID to vote. This election law change had a chilling effect in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which has a large African American and low-income population. According to Neil Albrecht, the Milwaukee Election Commission’s executive director, voter turnout in that city declined by 41,000 people between 2012 and 2016, with most of the drop-off coming in high-poverty districts. But the Clinton campaign also failed to invest sufficient resources in those areas and Clinton herself barely campaign in Wisconsin, because her advisors mistakenly assumed that it would be a slam-dunk win.
The Democrats’ mistake in Wisconsin last year and Georgia and South Carolina this year wasn’t simply failing to focus campaign resources on Black and other Democratic-leaning but low-propensity voters. Most Democratic leaders suffer from a kind of short-term-itis that limits their ability to think beyond the next election cycle.
Studies of voter turnout reveal that people are more likely to vote if they’ve developed trust and social relationships with other people through ongoing activities (including churches, sports activities, and issue-organizing campaigns), that people are more likely to vote if someone they know contacts them one-on-one, and that people are more likely to vote if they’ve been involved in some kind of activism in-between elections. You can’t build that kind of trust and organizational capacity by dropping into Congressional districts a few months before election day. The Koch brothers and their fellow Republican billionaires understand this. They’ve spent the last decade investing in building a conservative and Republican political infrastructure that turns out the vote on election day but also engages people in-between election cycles. It isn’t just about last-minute TV ads.
Other factors were at work in both the Georgia and South Carolina races. Ossoff didn’t live in the district, providing Handel with an opportunity to call him a “carpetbagger.” Her allies also ran last minute ads ridiculously linking Ossoff (and Bernie Sanders, who gave him a lukewarm endorsement for not being “progressive” enough) to the shooting of Republican politicians and staffers participating in a baseball practice in Virginia last week. Plus, it rained on Tuesday in the most Democratic parts of the Congressional district, which may have dampened turnout. The South Carolina race received much less attention, and less money, than the Georgia contest. Parnell raised $763,000 compared with Norman’s $1.3 million. The national Democratic Party didn’t invest in Parnell’s campaign until a month before the election. Parnell, a tax attorney, might also have been handicapped by his brief stint with Goldman Sachs which, even in South Carolina, is not a popular brand. Also, South Carolina’s 5th district was redrawn to heavily favor Republicans after the 2010 elections.
Ossoff ran on a liberal but not overtly progressive platform. Parnell was even more moderate, supporting mainstream Democratic but reluctant to identify with the Democratic Party’s Sanders/Warren wing.
Still, it isn’t clear how important their policy ideas mattered in determining the outcome of both races. In evaluating the lessons of these two close losses, pundits are split between those who emphasize message (policy agenda, themes, talking points, TV ads, and whether to attack Trump) and those who emphasize movement (grassroots organizing around issues in between elections, voter engagement and turnout [especially among Democratic-leaning but low-propensity voters], training volunteers, and knock-knock-knocking on every door). Both are needed, of course, but they reflect different approaches to winning elections.
Both the Georgia and South Carolina races were long shots for the Democratic candidates. It was remarkable how close they came to victory, given the huge obstacles they faced in these longstanding GOP strongholds. Ossoff’s and Parnell’s defeats in these special elections don’t necessarily portend similar results in the November 2018 House races, but they do offer some important lessons.
Democrats need to win a net 24 seats to have a majority. In November, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in 23 House districts that were won by Republican candidates for the House. At the time, those 23 seats seemed the upper limit of potential Democratic shifts. But the number of “swing” districts has grown in the wake of the Trump meltdown. Between January and May, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee expanded its list from 59 to 79 GOP-held seats it intends to target, hoping to take advantage of Trump’s historically low popularity, the upsurge of activism, and the growing local protests against House Republicans. Only 18 of those contests are in the South — six in Florida, four in North Carolina, three in Virginia, two each in Texas and Georgia, and one in Alabama. Nine are in California, including three in Orange County, once a Republican bastion but one that Hillary Clinton won last November — the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.
But If liberals, progressives, and Democrats are going to win these “swing” races ― to take back the House next year and the Senate and White House in 2020 ― they have to invest in grassroots organizing in-between election cycles. That means paying for year-long, multi-year organizers to build local organizations and movements, not just occasional protest marches and last-minute get-out-the-vote drives. As Pete Seeger sang, “When will they ever learn?”
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).