For the next two months, New Hampshire will have plenty of eager activists making phone calls, knocking on doors, and standing at pamphlet-covered tables trying to talk with Granite State Democrats about the February Presidential primary.
Some represent one of the 15 active major candidates for the party’s nomination. Others might work or volunteer with the state or national party, or one of the many interest groups with a stake in the outcome. Many swoop in from out of state—including plenty from Massachusetts—just for the privilege of walking the freezing Granite State streets.
This swarm of outreach, which began early this year and is accelerating rapidly as 2020 approaches, happens before every competitive Democratic Presidential nomination process in this crucial first-in-the-nation primary state.
They are being joined, this cycle, by a group who thinks that all this isn’t enough. Specifically, that these quadrennial efforts fail to seek out, and listen to, Democratic-leaning Independent voters.
The Welcome Party, headed by Massachusetts political hand Liam Kerr—best known as state director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)—launched in October with one staffer and a half-dozen paid part-time fellows. It partners with The Blue Lab, a political leadership incubator in Boston run by political consultant Scott Ferson; and ActiVote, also based in Boston.
The organization has since hired organizer Amy Bradley as New Hampshire state director, and brought on six new fellows. They are looking into expanding to South Carolina, another early primary state, at the start of the year.
The theory behind it, Kerr says, is that engaging Independent voters will lead to them voting in the Democratic primary—which, in New Hampshire, Independents can do—which will in turn make them more likely to vote in November.
That’s in part simply because voting tends to lead to more voting. You won’t find many Democrats who disagree with that part of the Welcome Party thesis, or with the goal of getting more likely Democratic voters to the polls for the general election in New Hampshire, one of the closest swing states in Presidential politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state by less than half a percentage point over Donald Trump in 2016.
The other part of the theory is a little more controversial. Kerr argues that the best way for Democrats to win next November is with a nominee who appeals to Independent voters, and that the way to arrive at that result is by having independents play a larger role in choosing that nominee.
That is: let swing voters of the political center choose the nominee this Spring, and their pick will be the one who with the most appeal to swing voters in November.
“A lot of people are talking about electability, trying to guess who can win swing voters,” Kerr says. “Why not have them help decide?”
That’s intended as a rhetorical question, but plenty of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders supporters are likely to get their hackles up.
Not that they disapprove of engaging Independent voters; Sanders in particular heavily relies on them, in fact. But, it doesn’t take much to view the Welcome Party approach as an attempt to steer the party toward the ideological center.
That’s not how Kerr is pitching it, but that doesn’t mean the skepticism is unfounded. “We need to change the conversation to make us a welcoming party,” Kerr says. Part of that means “communicating to this more broad Democratic Party.”
Breaking The Targeting Cycle
Political professionals are well familiar with the targeting spiral, and it’s not hard for everyday people to see it in action.
Campaigns want to devote their limited time and resources where they’ll get the most value: namely, frequent voters of their own party. These “super-voters” get flooded with phone calls, door knocks, mail, and other contacts from campaigns and interest groups. That, in turn, keeps them informed and interested in the next election, and thus more likely to vote in it—and stay on the super-voter roster.
The exact opposite sequence helps ensure that infrequent voters remain on the sidelines.
As Kerr puts it: “political professionals have gotten better and better at squeezing out anyone who’s not efficient.”
“In a primary, Democratic campaigns are talking to and fighting over a small percentage of voters,” Ferson says. “Who’s talking to the others?”
Welcome Party is targeting too, but in the other direction. The focus is roughly eight percent of the New Hampshire electorate, who have voted in Presidential and gubernatorial general elections, but not in primaries. That’s who has been getting their doors knocked in the Manchester area; a slightly wider net is cast in their state-wide phone calls. They get an even broader swath when they set up tables at farmers’ markets and other public events.
They’re not trying to pitch a particular candidate, or issues. They started out, Kerr told me in October, mostly listening; trying to find out why people don’t vote in the primary, and what might persuade them to start.
What they’re finding, he told me this week, is that “people feel like the Democratic Party is not particularly welcoming to people like them.”
Interestingly, though, those voters do agree that voting in a primary election is a civic duty. That is, most don’t view it as some separate function intended just for party insiders, but as part of the overall process that everyone has a role in.
They also tend to believe that a primary is where voters can often have the most impact. That’s a sense that might be heightened this cycle, where polls suggest a wide-open contest in New Hampshire.
That all means, according to Kerr, that these voters can be persuaded to see that they can, and should, participate in the Democratic primary—and that doing so could help shape the party to feel more like a place for them.
In just two months, with a small crew and minimal funding, Welcome Party has convinced nearly 1,000 of those people to sign commitment cards to vote in the February primary. Those cards will be mailed back to them as part of a get-out-the-vote effort before primary day.
That’s not insignificant in a state where Clinton beat Trump by just 2,800 votes in 2016.
In the long term, Democrats would love to see the Welcome Party’s efforts bolster that margin—and boost Democratic vote totals elsewhere in November.
The question for February is whether they’ll accomplish that by helping a centrist candidate, such as Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg—and how party liberals might react if that happens.