Did Relational Organizing Do the Job for Dems?

Ideas and Issues

November 25, 2020

New Orleans      Now that the transition has finally begun to the White House, the post-mortem on the recent national elections in the United States will begin in even more earnest. One theme that has been on constant replay already has been the underperformance of Democrats all down the ballot compared to the expectations of a blue wave.

My two cents continue to be that the Dems lost the edge to the Republicans on the doors. They hit them like gangbusters, while Democrats and their allied groups tried to rely on social media, texts, phones, this, and that, avoiding the doors either completely or until the fall, ceding the entire primetime summer to the Republicans. Factor in some squirrely polling and the Democrats were facing the perfect storm of expectations and optimism overwhelming good judgement and experience.

Before the election, I had red circled a quote in The New Yorker for an appealing candidate running for Congress in the Houston suburbs named Srinivas Rao Preston Kulkarni, an early 40’s, experienced, well-traveled diplomat running in one of the most diverse districts in the country.

Kulkarni said that the polls didn’t capture the extent of his supporter network. His campaign’s approach to relational organizing meant that, months earlier, it had moved away from the traditional door-knocking model. Instead, his supporters were using apps to send out reminders to friends, family members, and neighbors. Kulkarni hoped that those voters would feel obliged to people they knew and be glad not to be badgered by volunteers they had never met. “It goes from being an electoral campaign to being a community-organizing project,” he said. “And our goal is to be the largest community-organizing project you’ve ever seen.”

You can imagine when he both slams door-knocking and says he’s trying to build the “largest community-organizing project you’ve ever seen,” he would have my full attention.         He was pinning his whole campaign on relational organizing, which had shown some interesting promise in the 2016 mid-terms.

So, what happened? According to press in India that followed him closely,

…Kulkarni lost the congressional race to his Republican rival Troy Nehls in a hotly contested battle in Texas’ 22nd district, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse in the US. According to the latest election result update, Nehls garnered 52 per cent of the votes at 204,537, while Kulkarni got 44 per cent with 175,738 votes in the November 3 election.

That’s a shame! Great candidate in his second shot at the seat caught in a pandemic and put all his eggs in the relational basket. Would he have won on the doors? Who knows?         Would he have come closer?         I think so. If you’re going to successfully move new voters to the polls, which was his strategy, you need the best methods to win, and that’s face-to-face, even if it’s from the porch with a mask.

Relational political work makes sense. It’s a great tool, and it will get better. Nonetheless, at best it’s a supplement to the so-called “door-knocking model,” and it simply didn’t deliver as a substitute in this election. The Republicans knew that, and, frankly, so did any organizer worth their salt. We needed to keep our masks on and maintain our distance and hit the doors for all we were worth, and now we’ll be paying the price for not having done so for the next several years.