Analysis of the fate of the "Great Slate"?
November 20, 2018 5:29 PM   Subscribe

I was intrigued by the "Great Slate" tech effort to raise money for candidates the DCCC didn't fund. But only 1 of the 13 candidates on the slate won their elections. As 2020 approaches, I'm trying to figure out how to invest my political resources, both dollars and hours. Has there been any expert analysis/critique of why the "Great Slate" failed? Conversely, is there evidence that Sister District, another grassroots group pairing blue-staters with purple enclaves, was more effective?

I'm interested in perspectives and analysis from people who are involved with politics, media, and/or who study elections. I couldn't find much info upon Googling beyond puff pieces pre-election about both the "Great Slate" and "Sister District." Is there anything else?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Law & Government (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is a slightly tangential anecdote.

Swing Left is somewhat similar to Sister District. Sister District worked to flip state House seats. Swing Left worked to flip U.S. House seats. But both groups partnered safe districts with purple districts.

Anyway, I did a little volunteering with Swing Left in my area. We helped flip NM CD-2.Even though it was initially called for the Republican candidate, it was won by the Dem, Xochitl Torres Small. People were regularly phone banking or traveling an hour or so south to canvass. The weekend before the election, we even took a bus trip, three hours each way and did two canvassing shifts.

Since 1981, NM CD2 had only been in Democratic hands for two years.
posted by maurreen at 6:05 PM on November 20, 2018

I mean, I'd imagine the reason the DCCC didn't fund those candidates is that they were considered unelectable or in impossible districts. But the Great Slate still built up Dem campaign infrastructure and community goodwill, plus I think it's good that we don't give up even in impossible districts.
posted by storytam at 6:05 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

My husband was into the Great Slate. If you donated to first time progressive Democratic candidates in very Republican districts expecting that they’d all win, the candidates weren’t the problem with your strategy. The next candidate who runs in that district will be able to build on the infrastructure they started. It’s a long term plan.
posted by kat518 at 6:09 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

I'm not sure I would apply the term 'failure'. Many of those candidates were longshots; some (all?) of them were refusing PAC money. I didn't donate to the slate, but it did inspire me to create my own slate of candidates and make some donations. Of the slaters, I donated to Golden, Bush, McCormick, Scholten, and King - but I also did research and donated to others, including Rouda, Sinema, and Rosen, who all won. In that sense, the Slate was a win - it got me to donate, even though the candidates didn't win - I believed the argument that even a small donation to a candidate who only has $100,000 makes you a big spender, and hey - Jared Golden won!
posted by scolbath at 6:12 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Whoa, who said the Great Slate failed? Are you measuring success by elections won in a single cycle? These were first-time progressive candidates running in tough districts and no establishment support. Of course they lost. (Except Jared Golden wooo!)

But you know how you turn a deep-red district blue? You want more progressives to run for office? You support them even when they aren't "competitive." If you want money to go to candidates who are probably going to win, there are many organizations that can help you out.

Running these campaigns builds infrastructure and identifies supporters and volunteers.
posted by meta_eli at 6:16 PM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]

Also, there was a real chance of a Democratic wave election. That didn't happen -- but it could have! And if it did, this support could've been the difference between these progressive candidates winning and them still losing. It was a calculated risk; it was never a sure thing.
posted by meta_eli at 6:22 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Basically what storytam said. If you look at 538, for example, it gave many of the candidates on the slate less than a 20% chance of winning; several had single-digit odds of winning. Maicej states the methodology he used to find candidates, and it had little to do with polling data:

"Over time, some Great Slate Theory emerged. We looked for districts with a CPVI (a measure of political inclination) between R+4 and R+14, where a woman was running for office, the per-capita income was fairly low, the district was geographically large, and there was a significant disparity in fundraising between the candidate and her Republican opponent. We tried to favor candidates who would spend money on field organizing and local political infrastructure, rather than hand it to D.C. consultants who specialize in draining the campaign funds of novice candidates."

Also, I want to add that the collateral published by Tech Solidarity and by Ceglowski is very explicitly about winning in 2018. Ceglowski's stated goals in his blog post, Act Blue, and Tech Solidarity are "See what can happen when progressive candidates from outside the political establishment are given an adequate campaign budget....With your help, these candidates can not only win seats, but change minds within the Democratic Party about the kinds of policies and tactics we need to win national elections" and "increase our chances for victory by raising money for candidates in marginal districts, who would not otherwise have the money to mount a serious challenge." I think that by the measures set out by its creator, the Great Slate essentially did fail, as it did not win house seats and it did not appear to present a compelling counter-example to the DCCC regarding the kinds of tactics and policies needed to win elections. (It did succeed however in the sense that it collected experimental data.)
posted by phoenixy at 6:24 PM on November 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

I don't have any good links for you, but I'd take a step back and look at the districts the Great Slate targeted. It's easy to look at races in hindsight, so I'll ignore polls and just use factors that were known before the post-primary Slate was established: Cook PVI and 2016/2012 Presidential results. Those aren't a guarantee of a particular outcome (Mia Love just lost her R+13, Trump/Romney seat by a few hundred votes), but they weren't bad predictors. Of course, the Great Slate could have been adjusted based on polls closer to election day, but it wasn't.

Of the 13 targeted districts, all but two voted for Romney and Trump in the last two Presidential cycles, and the average PVI lean was R+7.8 (median R+9). These were never particularly likely wins. Golden, who won ME-2, was one of the most competitive, with an R+2 Trump/Obama district. There was a darn strong blue wave this year, but these districts were always outside bets on the outside end of the wave. Plus or minus a candidate, it did about as well as was reasonable to expect.

There's nothing inherently wrong with supporting longshot candidates in rural areas in order to build a foundation for the future in areas that have been neglected. I think that's what the Great Slate set out to do, and it's hard to evaluate how successful that endeavor was without looking at what happens in these districts over the next few years. But the Great Slate was sold as "winnable district[s] that [have] been neglected by the Democratic Party," since advertising it as "not particularly winnable districts where we can build a base for the future" was never going to attract much love. This was never a secret—anybody could have run the same numbers I just did anytime—, but the Great Slate was often hyped as a "take back the House" effort (sometimes by Ceglowski, often by others for whom he's not responsible) and not a basebuilding one. It was advertised as "Tech Solidarity believes that helping these campaigns is the single most effective use of political money at the national level," when, frankly, nobody believed that tossing money at a PVI R+16 district like UT-2 was an effective use of money if your goal was to take back the House.

The Great Slate failed in the sense that it purported to identify winnable races and only won one. That happened because it largely focused on rural conservative areas with a strong record of voting for Republicans (Dems won most of the competitive GOP-held districts won by either Obama '12 or Clinton; they won only a couple of those won by Romney and Trump). I think there's a broader still-unanswered question as to whether it accomplished anything that can be of lasting value in these districts—I hope so—, but that wasn't necessarily what a lot of people went into it thinking it was for.
posted by zachlipton at 6:48 PM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Thanks all, I am appreciating reading these analyses, especially with links to sources. I maybe should not have used the word "failed" in my question, I don't mean to imply that it was a waste of resources, just that it did not achieve its stated goal.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 6:54 PM on November 20, 2018

meta_eli: "Also, there was a real chance of a Democratic wave election. That didn't happen -- but it could have! "

Dems are going to pick up 39-40 seats. That's a wave.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:59 PM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

Here's my analysis of the Great Slate districts; I compare the vote share the D candidate got (dark green bar) versus two sets of expectations. The orange bars are districts with similar Cook PVI scores (+/- 1; so PA-11 with a PVI of R+14 is compared to districts with R+13, R+14 and R+15 scores, i.e. districts where Republicans historically did 13-15 points better than the national average). The yellow bars are a model that includes PVI as well as the effect of a Republican incumbent and the urban-rural classification developed by CityLab.

The first four have green bars shorter than the yellow and orange, ie the candidates underperformed what might be expected. The next four have candidates pretty close to what might be expected; the last five have Great Slate candidates overperforming, in particular UT-2 and IA-4. The former was a super red district that would be difficult to win under any circumstance; the latter reelected literal Nazi Steve King and was not just targeted by TGS.

It might be worth comparing the last minute Vote Save America appeal, which targeted 20 districts. These were picked closer to the election, were picked because they were plausibly winnable -- the PVI for these districts averaged R+6 where the PVI for the Great Slate averaged R+8, which is actually more of gap than it might seem (Democrats won 1 of the 13 R+8 districts but 3 of the 11 R+6 districts). They also didn't have any eye-test or philosophy behind them; they were 20 people with D who had fair chances of beating Rs and that's about it. Democrats won 8 of these 20, and performed about 1.4% better on average than would be expected from PVI alone -- in the Great Slate districts, their candidates only did about 0.4% better.

The Great Slate supported candidates in moderately strongly partisan Republican districts, mostly in rural or semirural areas. This was always a tough sell given increasing partisanship and that the biggest shifts seemed to be suburban voters. Perhaps these will do better in the future with some groundwork laid; perhaps their eyes were bigger than their stomach -- they picked districts that were pretty red, and while I think they raised a couple of million or so -- split 13 ways that's maybe $200K per race in an election where billions of dollars were spent.\
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:19 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I can't find a public copy of it, but Maciej sent out a note titled "The Great Slate Post Mortem" which was a long summary / apologia after the race, on Nov 9 or 10. It's a pretty downbeat summary of each specific election and concludes
I thought this first election after Trump would persuade voters, especially Republican women, to cross party lines to repudiate Trump, but it did not. I thought we were witnessing a great realignment in our politics, but we were not. In terms of the races won, this was a completely normal midterm election.
FWIW, Great Slate was always an underdog battle. "Let's pick a bunch of races deemed to be unwinnable and see if we can win them". In retrospect that may have been an awkward way to start a new movement. Maciej's email does include some comments about "building capacity" and hints there may be more organizing to come.

One of the hypotheses of the Great Slate was "a large infusion of money will make a difference in these races". I think that may be a testable hypothesis, if you do an analysis like Homeboy Trouble posted here but add into it the amount spent on the campaign. Great Slate ended up being a significant chunk of funding for some of those campaigns and their candidate greatly outspent the opponent; did those candidates do proportionately better than expected? Ie: did the extra money really help? (I have not seen this analysis).
posted by Nelson at 8:17 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

There is not yet a expert analysis/critique, and there likely won't be one that specifically focuses on this project. But it's not that unprecedented for wealthy individuals, religious groups or unions to spend similar amounts with similar ambitions, it's just this particular effort was relatively transparent and open. This is a field I have worked in and want to expand a bit about the other parts of elections beyond that primary concern of moving voters to actually vote for your candidate and winning a specific race. And I think others have covered the importance of building party infrastructure, which I don't think this project was really about. Three factors that should also be considered is that the system of marshaling resources and election spending are very important are; one, because donating $$ changes political behavior, two, as part of a broader electoral defense strategy and three, as key metrics in dictating an individual candidates political power.

For example consider that Beto's ability to raise significant capital is more important than just a proxy for how popular his campaign with individuals is, it's a metric of how invested his supporters, both individuals and groups are, in that particular 'brand'. In politics money follows money, and this type of money buys a critical form of political capital.

Beto can do two things with this ability to raise cash- he can directly support other campaigns with cash or he can show up and help other candidates raise money with fundraisers. This buys Beto valuable political capital with these candidates who depended upon him for assistance, even though lost his own race. Remember that these are the very folks who choose who's in the armed services or budget committees. Candidates do not generally end up on important committees or with significant political positions just because they have some prior experience or skill (mostly they all do) - they often get elevated to important political positions because they were able to marshal campaign resources for other candidates, and your reward for this work is plum positions. Incumbents have a massive advantage in this system and every effort is made to keep a district 'safe' (gerrymandering, voter suppression etc) which provides incumbents both the time and resources to go around helping out other candidates.

Now consider that the GOP must spend significant amounts of energy and money to defend Texas. Texas.

So the Great Slate didn't follow other peoples money, it created 13 competitive races. The Slate was massively outspent, and that is actually a great thing. Every dollar I spent cost some idiot GOPer a lot more? I love that asymmetry. Money spend defending races that would otherwise be considered safe precludes those resources in cash and time from being used to support other GOP races. This also serves to rob these candidates a key form of political clout and signals their weakness. Instead coming from a position of safety and able to contribute resources these candidates will owe a political debt to everyone whose help they needed to squeeze out a win.

The Great Slate was, is, idealistic to a fault. Just like politics. It set out on the premise that a great re-alignment was happening, and could happen in those 13 districts. It gave resources, and more importantly, hope, to a group of people who started this journey knowing the odds were against them. Certain that they would all lose, and for them it's not just a lose in their time or money. Lose face. Lose friends. But they were all willing to fight anyway. Fight with nothing but idealism in their pocket. Professionally I could not possibly endorse the Great Slate as the most effective use of limited campaign resources at the national level.

But I am an idealist and it's just money. And most importantly I know that everybody who donated cash to this campaign for the first time will come out of the process with a greater commitment to political engagement. And one candidate even won their race.
posted by zenon at 12:39 PM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

What kat518 said. The effort was a failure based on its goals. But I donated money anyway. As I commented in an earlier mega thread: most everyone’s track record for organizing is mixed. These are all first-time candidates. I want to give them money not because I necessarily think they will win this time, but because they are preparing the ground in red districts for a future Democratic win. Perhaps they will run again in the future; perhaps others will run. At least I can help those first-timers show the incumbents that someone is willing to challenge them. That alone is worth something to me when the challengers are progressive candidates. No argument that these folks will probably lose this time around. But it took a lot of losses and a lot of work for those wankers in the Federalist Society to finally get what they want.

I totally respect anyone's desire to support candidates more likely to succeed in future races than those in the Great Slate. I am still happy I donated. Those candidates were prepping the field for future victories, IMHO. Victories beyond 2020. Like you, for 2020, I will be focusing my money and attention on more promising races with better odds.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:04 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Losing in the right way can have value.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:20 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also can't find Maciej's post-mortem online, which I think is a shame because, whatever the Great Slate and Maciej's faults, it is a candid and clear-eyed document. It's long, and it goes through every race, so I won't paste the whole thing, but here's the intro...
The election is over, and it has brought us the ultimate in mixed feelings. On the one hand, Democrats won the House! This was the one overriding goal of all our organizing, fundraising, effort, and hopes for the past two years. Failing to win the House in 2018 would have been a disaster for the country.

But the Great Slate got stomped. Since these races were long shots, we expected to lose most of them, but the magnitude of the loss was a bitter surprise. We went into this election with six races within the margin of error. We came out having lost 11 races by a large margin, one race narrowly, and with one race undecided.
and the conclusion...
So that, my friends, is what happened to the Great Slate. I thought this first election after Trump would persuade voters, especially Republican women, to cross party lines to repudiate Trump, but it did not. I thought we were witnessing a great realignment in our politics, but we were not. In terms of the races won, this was a completely normal midterm election. I poked relentless fun at pollsters and spreadsheet watchers, but the spreadsheets were vindicated. I thought American voters whose grandfathers had fought in Normandy would balk at electing a Nazi sympathizer, but they voted for him with gusto. I thought competent field organizing could activate large numbers of non-voters, the great dark matter of the American electorate, but it did not. I was certain that populist progressives, given adequate funding, would be able inspire voters in neglected rural districts, but I was wrong about that, too.

In the end, we got one working class candidate through an incredibly tough primary, and on the cusp of winning a Congressional seat in Maine. We also came close to beating the Nazi, and that is worth something, too.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of understanding politics less than I ever did, while having persuaded you to spend an awful lot of money.

But this was an emergency, and we treated it like an emergency, and for that I think we can be proud. We did not stand by, we acted.

As for the future of this effort, and the effect it had on these districts that is not reflected in the vote count, I will write about that soon. I gave you a frank accounting of our electoral performance because I think you deserve it without further cheerleading.

But I also don't think that the money we raised was spent in vain. The campaigns are gone; the people who worked on them are all still there. Our fundraising effort built an unlikely bridge between the tech community and people in Lancaster, Anchorage, Allentown, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, rural California, Iowa and Maine, all of whom want a different and better future for our country. That seems like something valuable and worth preserving. After everyone's had a chance to rest and recover, we should figure out how to build on it.

I'm thinking—blockchain!

But for now, let's reflect and rest a bit.

A lot of you gave an amount to the Great Slate that really hurt to give. I am sorry I can't write to you today about a better outcome. The candidates you gave to worked their hearts out, and spent the money well. In the end, we won the House.

On behalf of every candidate whose campaign your donations made possible, and on my own behalf, I can only say thank you for all that you did.
Maciej did not present himself as a sage or source of wisdom, or the next Nate Silver in terms of his ability to predict things. He was clear that he didn't know if the plan would work. But I also think it's worth noting that his final overall prediction — that the democrats would lose the house — was extremely wrong (unless the prediction here is something else; he didn't decode it before he announced his twitter retirement). He rightly criticized the grifter liberal pundit class for painting a complacent and rosy picture in 2016, but getting it spectacularly wrong in the opposite direction is not necessarily any better. Basically, nobody knows anything.
posted by caek at 9:22 PM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ah, too bad I missed this thread.

Just as a point of interest: I live in NY-23, where Tracy Mitrano was challenging Tom Reed (R). Mitrano was part of the Great Slate, to which we donated a bunch of money (as well as giving to her separately).

Just for context, our district consists of our dark blue liberal university town and a wide open swath of light red rural land with the occasional Trump signage - in 2016, Tom Reed won every county except ours on his way to winning by 16%. So - as I said in every comment leading up to the election - we *knew* this was a long shot. But we gave money, and wrote postcards, and hoped anyway.

And come election night, Tracy racked up a huge vote share in our county (D+51) but fell short in all the other counties again - in 2018, Tom Reed won by 10%. That's a huge swing - just not enough.

The sad thing is, as the votes came in, once our county reported, it looked like it was going to be competitive - Tracy within 3%! But we could see that it was not enough, and (warning: Megathread link) I resigned myself to the loss just as the national media took notice of "an unexpectedly close race in NY 23". That was some whiplash on election night - do they know something I don't? Nope, they're just seeing the topline numbers.

So anyway.

Knowing what we know now, should we have spent the money on Tracy's campaign? Yes, absolutely yes. I'd do it again - will do it again, in 2020, for whoever wins our primary. (Tracy wasn't my primary choice.) And if the rest of the Great Slate races were anything like ours - entrenched incumbent, energized electorate, solid challenger - then I'm happy that we donated to them, even if we fell short on all of them.

(I don't know Maciej - but if he sees this: thank you. Please do it again.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:36 AM on November 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maciej here—I just wanted to thank everyone for their contributions to this thread, essentially all of which I agree with. The key question for me in 2018 was whether we would have an ordinary or extraordinary election. In other words, whether Trumpism was here to stay in American politics, or whether voters would repudiate it at the polls, even if it meant crossing party lines. My work was predicated on the belief that this would not be a "normal" election, but that turned out to be wrong.

I agree with people who say there is value in long-term capacity building, and I think those will be fruitful conversations to have with the people who ran. But I also think it's wrong to redefine failure as success, and with the very important exception of Jared Golden, our new congressman from Maine, what we tried didn't work.

That said, I am grateful to everyone who participated in this experiment with me! It was important to try. Thanks especially for the many kind words of support after the election.
posted by idlewords at 1:24 PM on November 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

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