How Democrats Can Win in White Working-Class Districts: Let them control their own messages--and give them the resources they need.

AuthorJohnson, Robin A.

Ever since he narrowly won his race for the Wisconsin State Senate in 2018, Democrat Jeff Smith has never stopped campaigning--though he does so in unusual ways. For instance, he regularly parks his trademark "big, red truck"--a 1999 Dodge Ram pickup--on the side of a road, plants a six-foot handmade sign that reads "Stop and Talk With Senator Jeff Smith," and engages with his constituents on whatever topics are on their minds. These "Stop and Talks" help him in his role not only as a candidate but also as a policy maker. "Every conversation sparks a new idea," he told me.

Smith represents Wisconsin's 31st State Senate District in the western part of the state, which Donald Trump won twice. Half of the district's voters live in heavily Democratic Eau Claire, the rest mostly in six rural, and overwhelmingly Republican, counties. It is emblematic of the kind of geography Democrats have been losing in recent cycles and need to get better at to avoid being wiped out electorally in 2022 and 2024.

To win reelection in 2022, Smith needs to do what he did in 2018: maximize turnout in Eau Claire, his hometown, while keeping his losses down everywhere else. It's tough, though, because the Democratic brand has become so toxic in the rural and small-town parts of the district. Voters there, he says, identify the party with unpopular policies, like "defund the police," that he and most other Democrats never supported. They also increasingly bring up their belief that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

His best hope, he told me, is to build enough trust with enough individual voters in rural counties that they will overcome their partisan leanings. That's why he lets those who stop to chat lead the discussion. "If you listen to voters long enough, you can find something we agree on," he observed, pointing to negotiating down prescription drug prices as an example. "That starts the process of building trust." If he can engage with voters before the party label comes up, their response is often "You know, you are the only Democrat I can vote for."

This slow listening strategy is how he ran his canvassing operation in the run-up to 2018. The campaign consultants the state party sent to help him counseled a traditional method based on efficiency: Use out-of-district volunteers to provide voters a scripted message and move on as quickly as practical to reach as many voters as possible. Instead, Smith and his campaign manager (whom he hired and paid for out of his own campaign funds, the better to maintain control of his message and strategy) personally knocked on 20,000 doors, representing 75 percent of possible doors. They also took their time, letting voters lead the conversation. They used the information gained from this in-depth canvassing to refine their message and language as the campaign progressed instead of exclusively relying on polling.

Their door knocking paid off: The campaign overperformed in places where Smith and his manager knocked on the most doors compared to areas where volunteers knocked. His campaign also purchased radio ads and produced large hand-painted signs, which the consultants argued was a waste of money. Overall, Smith outperformed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tony Evers, who also won that year, by 3 percent in Eau Claire and 1 percent in the surrounding rural counties.

I asked Smith how he thinks he was able to surpass the top of the ticket. "Energy, visibility, out-of-the-box thinking, and control of my own messaging," he replied. I also asked...

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