With the 2020 election looming, it can be tempting to view the presidential race as the be-all-end-all of American politics. However, down-ballot races are just as important — and arguably more so, in some cases.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) works to win state legislative seats and chambers for Democrats. Ivan Cheung, former Blue Stater, is the DLCC’s Director of Strategic Communications & Digital. He recently caught up with Matt Compton, our Director of Advocacy and Engagement, to talk about what’s at stake this election cycle and how the DLCC is gearing up for November.
What’s your number one goal in the build-up to 2020?
We need to make sure people understand what’s at stake in state legislatures this November — and then make sure they’re fired up to help local Democrats win on Election Day. Most people are wrapped up thinking about the presidential election, and that’s understandable — but state legislatures have a bigger impact on people’s daily lives than practically anything else. Things like reproductive rights, voting rights, and health care are all decided in our state capitals. With redistricting in 2021, state races this year are the last opportunity to elect Democrats who can stop Republican gerrymandering and fight for fair maps and representation.
What’s the thing you want to learn most in this election?
As much as we can! Our walls right now are covered with lists of ideas that we want to test and pilot — but two big things rise to the top for me. First, I want to understand which “best practices” are actually best practices and which are just tactics that have worked well for certain programs. For example, a lot of strong email fundraising programs emphasize powerful storytelling and narrative copy — but there are also a lot of successful programs that lean into blunt, urgent, and frequent appeals. Many people still push certain schools of thought and say “this is THE best solution no matter what,” but often it’s more limiting than it needs to be.
Second, I’d love to learn more concretely about the sort of impact we are making with organic content that isn’t as clearly ROI-driven or measurable in the long term — like newsletters, videos, podcasts, blog posts, or interviews. How do we judge which products are moving the needle the most? How do we measure the value of factors like originality or consistency when planning a series of videos?
What’s the biggest challenge for your program right now?
We face many of the same big challenges that a lot of organizations face: It’s a crowded space with a lot of voices. How do you break through?
Beyond that, the election cycle timeline is difficult. You have less than two years to introduce people to new candidates, new targets, and drive home the urgency of an election before a redistricting year.
Plus, there’s an issue of awareness — a lot of people don’t know that there are 5,874 state house elections happening just this year, and many of them will be decided by just a handful of votes. In 35 states, state legislatures draw the maps for state legislatures or for Congress — meaning whoever holds the pen will shape who gets elected to the US House for the next decade.
What’s your biggest opportunity?
I think we’re in a position to swing for the fences. We’re lucky that the leadership at the DLCC understands that you need to take smart risks to grow, and that means embracing new structures and encouraging creative freedom.
One of the biggest leaps we took this cycle was combining the traditional press, digital, multimedia, and research teams into a single holistic department — and it’s really paid off. The older, siloed model simply didn’t reflect how the world works anymore or how our audiences are receiving information. Content is being created across a lot of disciplines these days, and supporters are being reached on different timelines across different channels.
Now, when we’re developing a campaign concept, we have everyone at the table to think about how a new media pitch might benefit from a video or how we can incorporate the latest research stats. It’s easy for someone in a specific vertical, like digital or press, to see only the opportunities in their own lane. Working closely with teammates focusing on other aspects of the organization’s work helps surface opportunities and catch miscalculations.
We’ve built a team that’s young and diverse — we’re often starting brainstorms from a much more open-ended place of “how can we solve this problem” as opposed to “how it’s always been done.” Some of our most junior staff have had some of the highest-performing campaign ideas, and that’s because we’ve been intentional about breaking down that hierarchy.
The older, siloed model simply [doesn’t] reflect how the world works anymore or how our audiences are receiving information.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from campaign work that would benefit brands and nonprofits?
Until I started working in campaigns, I didn’t appreciate how impactful it is to craft messaging that connects your mission to what’s currently happening in the world. That means taking a minute to think about what’s going to be on people’s minds when they see your message in the wild and figuring out how to be relevant. It might require rebuilding your entire approval and production processes, but keeping your content in a flexible state right up until the moment it’s out the door has had a significant impact on our ROI. Political campaigns are especially news-driven, but most organizations and brands could benefit from moving more quickly.
What’s one thing that you’ve seen a brand or a nonprofit do that you want to take and try for yourself on the electoral side?
We put a big emphasis on our creative content, but the level of investment that you see coming from some brands now — like Glossier or Harley Davidson or Bon Appétit — is something I’d love to incorporate into our own program: things like dedicated photoshoots for a specific marketing email. Instagram videos that really look and feel like mini-documentaries. Entire style guides for specific campaigns.
Similarly, I’d like to experiment with reinventing offline integration, which in politics often is just synonymous for mirroring an email or advertising campaign in mail. I love what brands like Spotify have done with their localized billboards. We’ve experimented with some stuff this year — like our Summer Reading List which lived on Medium, Instagram stories, and other digital formats, but also as a limited-edition print ‘zine that we could mail to donors and have on hand at events, and we want to continue to build out those types of products.
At the end of the day, you’re responsible for the electoral outcomes of 7,383 partisan legislative seats across the country. What have you learned because of that scale that might be useful for smaller campaigns or organizations?
I try to think about the specific tools that can be powerful and resonant regardless of how big your organization is. First and foremost is investing in storytelling that is powerful and relatable to your audience. Testing has shown that emotional appeals convert higher than intellectual ones, and that means that you need to be able to illustrate your mission and impact in terms that have a face to them. For us that’s been largely through videos, photography, our weekly newsletter, and our podcast. Whether you’re working in a niche field or with a wide scope, stories are an important tool to tune your audience into what they should know and care about.
Another thing is to leverage technology to your advantage. Knowing how to use digital tools can really help a small organization punch above its weight. We’ve been working with big Democratic tech players to bring comprehensive digital tools and trainings to thousands of candidates, making sure that even a first-time candidate in a small district can reach thousands or millions of people when the moment is right.
Lastly, I’d say you have to take some chances. The smaller you are, the harder it is to break through the noise unless you’re doing things that are new and innovative. I think it’s okay to fail every once in a while if you’re trying something cool that you’re excited about.
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