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It wasn’t just Trump: How the DFL harnessed a massive get-out-the-vote effort to win the ’burbs

The DFL spent $21 million on its ground game, which is the most it has ever doled out for such efforts. But the party also had help. 

DFLers savoring victories last Tuesday night
DFLers savoring victories on Election Night included Rep. Betty McCollum, Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Suburban Republican candidates who lost bids for seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives might be wondering what else they could have done.

After all, at least nine incumbents lost last Tuesday despite winning more votes —  in most cases, a lot more votes — than they had collected as recently as 2014, when they had won. Roz Peterson of Lakeville, for example, won in 2014 with 7,856 votes. Tuesday, she received 9,014 votes — and lost to DFL challenger Alice Mann. Similar stories can be told Republicans in Plymouth, Woodbury, Maple Grove, Rosemount, Chanhassen, Eden Prairie, Savage and Stillwater.  

And while he might not consider it a salve for losing his second campaign for governor, Republican nominee Jeff Johnson did receive the second most votes for governor in state history. His 1,097,715 votes Tuesday would have been more than enough to have topped Mark Dayton’s total from 2014 of 989,113. 

The problem: The candidate for governor with the most votes in state history was Johnson’s opponent this year: Tim Walz, who got 1,393,057. And while, yes, there are more registered voters in Minnesota now than in 2014 — 178,000 more — the number of residents who cast ballots last week jumped by 618,000. 

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Taking advantage of ‘external factors’

Andrew Wagner,  a top House Republican staffer who helped lead the caucus’ campaign effort, gave DFLers credit for what is often referred to in politics as the ground game or get-out-the-vote.

The ground game is lingo for the kind of work that is often drowned out by the louder TV and digital advertising efforts: the hard work of identifying voters who might support your candidates and then getting them to the polls. Lots of door knocking, lots of phone calls, and lots of texts. That work, done by both the state DFL organization and affiliated groups, helped drive voters to the polls this year — and was likely the difference maker between 2016 losses and 2018 victories.

“There are external factors such as presidential disapproval numbers,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “The mood of the electorate is something we can’t necessarily control and at the end of the day a lot of what drove voter turnout in this country on Tuesday and in this state was real displeasure with what they were seeing nationally.”

The DFL  was poised to take advantage of those external factors, with an apparatus that included 43 “action centers” around the state and more than 17,500 volunteers. “We had 2 million voters who were contacted in the last week alone through door knocking, phone calls and texts including 200,000 on election day,” Martin said.

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The DFL spent $21 million on its ground game, which is the most it has ever doled out for such efforts. But the party also had help. Labor unions, environmental groups, Planned Parenthood and others put part of the campaign effort into grassroots organizing to get like-minded people to vote.

“They say in politics that victory has 1,000 fathers and defeat is an orphan,” said Martin. “But in this case victory really does have 1,000 fathers. It’s not the DFL’s alone. There were many institutions and partners who were instrumental in our success. We saw a lot of groups that historically haven’t engaged in politics at a high level really operating at a high level and throwing everything they could into this election.”

‘This is not a settled electorate’

Working America is an affiliate of the national AFL-CIO that was begun in 2003. Its purpose is to organize among people who are not covered by union contracts and are not union members, and it currently claims 3.2 million members nationally and 280,000 in Minnesota.

Heading into the Nov. 6 election, Working America’s organizers say their 65 professional canvassers spoke to 87,000 voters, while another 60,000 voters were reached via digital contacts. All of that effort was on behalf of Walz plus 10 targeted state House races.

Among those House targets, nine flipped to the DFL.

“This election transcended the reaction that so many of us had to Donald Trump,” said Working America national executive director Matt Morrison. “It was about extending the conversation, connecting the dots for people around the economic concerns that are right there at their doorsteps.”

Working America works year around but pivots to campaigns in election years, Morrison said. While partisan politics might have been on the minds of political insiders and activists, Morrison said that Working America’s canvassers heard more practical concerns from voters. The biggest: access to affordable health care.

“The ground game, from our perspective, was about helping people who by and large think very little about politics,” Morrison said. “They’re thinking about their lives. They’re suspicious. They think, ‘I don’t see the system working for me.’”

Morrison said his takeaway from 2018 is that “this is not a settled electorate.”

“It was a great night for Democrats in Minnesota and nationally,” he said. But that, “this is not because voters have said, ‘Wow, we have all become Democrats.’ They are alienated. They are zig-zagging. While Democrats have a lot to celebrate, we need to take heed that there are a lot of voters are not all-in. It’s time to deliver.”

Targeting ‘the people we serve’

Planned Parenthood was another big practitioner of door-to-door politics during Minnesota’s 2018 election. It raised and spent $2 million, an amount it said is triple previous campaigns, and its combination of paid staff and volunteers made nearly 128,600 door knocks and phone calls this year, compared to around 22,000 in 2016. Much of that work took place in the 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts, where two DFLers — respectively, Angie Craig and Dean Phillips — defeated incumbent Republicans.

In addition to face-to-face campaigning, Planned Parenthood sent out 191,000 pieces of mail, 618,000 emails and 21,000 texts.

Tim Stanley, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota Action Fund, said the organization decided early in the campaign to focus on suburban areas, young voters and people of color.“It was an accumulation of knowledge and history tempered by the common knowledge of the wedge that Trump is driving between his base and suburban voters, college educated voters,” Stanley said.

The targeting also resulted in thinking about who are the people who have used Planned Parenthood health clinics or knew people who did. He estimates that one of five women in the state have been a patient. “We thought, ‘These are the people who we served,’” he said.

Among those they serve are also two demographics — young people and people of color — that tend to be less active in midterm elections. “We really wanted to make sure that we brought a program to those communities and made sure that they understood what was at risk on the ballot,” Stanley said.

Rather than use more wholesale techniques — such as mass mailing and media advertising — Planned Parenthood built the campaign on door-to-door contacts, a tactic that was aided by Minnesota remaining what Stanley termed a “door-to-door friendly” state. People still open their doors and talk to canvassers. “It is the face-to-face that gives us the leverage and then we bring it home with the digital ads and the mail,” Stanley said.

A large part of the campaign made sure that voters who had expressed support for Planned Parenthood actually voted. Stanley said DFL-leaning and affiliated groups such as Indivisible, SwingLeft and environment campaigns like the GreenHouse Project were on the streets. But it was Planned Parenthood and Working America that had the most-noticeable, and most coordinated, door-to-door efforts in 2018, he said.

“We want to make sure we’re not touching voters too many times on too many messages,” he said. “We make sure voters are not being saturated when they don’t need to be.”

Planned Parenthood believes that the 2019 state House will have a pro-abortion-rights majority for just the second time in its history, and the first since 2007.

After a short post-election break, the campaign will start again in anticipation of 2020. “It doesn’t start three or four months before the election,” he said.

Carnahan: ‘We need to look at … fundamental coalition changes’

Republicans in Minnesota realize they have work to do to match the get-out-the-vote efforts conducted by the DFL and its coalition groups.

State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan said she did try to get the party to focus on door knocking more than it has in the past. “Republicans in Minnesota have typically had a culture that is focused more on phones and lit dropping,” she said. “What we we’re trying to do this year is go door to door to door and talk to people at their doors because you can actually turn a vote at the door. You can correct a misperception at the door.

“We made over a million direct voter contacts this cycle in the state of Minnesota and that was a combination of doors and phones and we have never hit those kinds of numbers before from the state party,” Carnahan said. “But I think there’s further opportunity for the Republican Party to move towards in the future. We need to look at some fundamental coalition changes within our enterprise or Republican organization in Minnesota.

“I know the Democrats simply raised more money than us and they’re able to outspend all of our candidates on all of these key races. So not only do they have organizations and groups within the state of Minnesota on the Democrat side that all work together and provide that added financial input.”

While Democratic-affiliated organizations did outspend the GOP for governor, the GOP did raise enough to outspend the DFL in state House races. But those groups, led by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, buy TV and cable ads and pay for direct mail.

They don’t knock on doors.