The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has a tough job — especially during a presidential election. As the governing body of the Democratic Party, the DNC not only organizes and referees the primary process, it also coordinates support for Democratic candidates at the national, state, and local levels. Keeping voters engaged across every state, demographic, and interest group is a tall order for a single organization — that’s where the DNC’s Chief Mobilization Officer, Patrick Stevenson, comes in.
A former Blue Stater, Patrick worked on both the Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016 campaigns, with a stint at the DNC in between. Matt Compton, Director of Advocacy and Engagement in our Washington, DC, office recently caught up with Patrick to talk about the opportunities and challenges the DNC faces leading up to the 2020 election.
What follows is an edited and condensed version of Matt’s conversation with Patrick.
You were at the DNC last cycle in a slightly different role, leading digital fundraising. Can you talk about what you focused on in 2018?
It probably won’t shock anyone to learn that the Democratic Party was fairly shattered after 2016. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I have to think that the DNC had problems even getting people to enter credit card numbers into donate forms, just because people might associate the DNC with hacking.
So not only did we need to build trust with supporters that was lost in 2016, but we also lost that election. Any organization that doesn’t achieve their objectives has to figure out a way to fix it. There’s that big picture element — how do you communicate with your supporters in a way that fosters transparency and accountability? But after 2016, we also needed to get our team back to a place where people feel good about their work and feel like it matters.
Let’s talk about that work a little bit. What were the conscious choices that you made to rebuild some of that trust and show your supporters that the Democratic Party was worthy of their investment, their time, and their attention?
When we ask for anywhere from $3.50 to $350,000, you have to go to people and explain to them exactly what we do with that money. One of our most successful campaigns was when we told people that we’re suing Arizona over a voter suppression measure, and we’re spending about $2 million in legal fees. The email popped, because it was so clear: “Arizona is suppressing voters. We’re suing them. Please give us money to help.”
One of the interesting things we see across a wide range of our clients doing advocacy work is that people are more likely to act if you can give them something concrete to do — that people need an easy-to-grasp rationale for giving.
I really think that it goes back to the trust thing. You can’t just say, “Donald Trump is the president. Give us money.” Our supporters understand that Donald Trump is bad — explaining that to them is almost irrelevant. It’s the baseline. We have to clearly lay out the following to our supporters: Donald Trump is bad, here’s how we’re fighting him, and here’s how you can join in.
Much to our own detriment, we almost never made this type of argument during the majority of the Obama administration. It was generally enough to pop a smiling photo of Barack Obama on something and then ask people to donate if they supported him.
One of the things that is definitely different from previous cycles is that you are no longer a part of the digital team. You’re on the mobilization team. Can you talk a little bit about why that difference is meaningful and how that affects the work your department is responsible for?
The biggest difference is that while we’re still the digital team, we’re also the direct mail and marketing team. After all, the people you’re talking to online are also, generally speaking, the people you’re sending mail to. Because we have a lot of legacy donors, direct mail is still the DNC’s primary form of fundraising — it accounted for about 42% of our fundraising last year. But the biggest predictor of whether or not someone will donate to a direct mail piece is if they are also on the DNC email list.
Not having those two programs integrated with each other has been a huge missed opportunity. For example: If you make a monthly sustaining donation to the DNC, you’re one of our most important donors. But sustaining donors offline were treated much differently than sustaining donors online. If you are an online sustaining donor, you get a different email flow that acknowledges your sustaining support. If you are an offline sustaining donor, you get a welcome kit in the mail and some thank you merch here and there. But until recently, online sustainers didn’t get the offline treatment, and offline sustainers didn’t get recognized online.
That sort of segregation is silly, and it’s a really easy fix. Well, I shouldn’t say easy. The data required to take those two things and include the right sustaining donor logic in both places are very complicated. I can’t tell you the incremental amount we’ve raised by integrating these two tracks, but the result is that our messaging to people is less chaotic.
How about departments outside of mobilization? How do you think about your responsibilities supporting the various operations of the DNC?
I feel much more aware of how our success or failure impacts the organization than I used to. Part of that goes back to being more clear on what the DNC does, and how our budget is structured. Now I know that if we miss our fundraising goal in a particular month, we might have to delay 10 hires for our battleground state organizing program. Understanding the real impact of our fundraising really helps us communicate with our donors better — and we were missing that until recently.
When we started thinking in those terms, we became more aware of what our colleagues are doing and have been better able to inspire our donors to invest in that work.
While we’re still the digital team, we’re also the direct mail and marketing team… The biggest predictor of whether or not someone will donate to a direct mail piece is if they are also on the DNC email list.
When you talk about your work with the DNC, you’re talking about a program with massive nationwide reach and institutional memory and data stretching back for decades. Is there anything you’ve learned because of that scale that might be useful for a smaller organization or a smaller campaign?
I’ve talked a lot about fundraising, but I haven’t talked about social very much. When I first started doing this, organizations posted content like publishers. Now, it’s very clear that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram really reward accounts that behave like… people: accounts that “like” tweets, or reply in comments — basically, the accounts that don’t exhibit the behaviors of a giant publisher that just wants to talk at people. If I were a candidate or a smaller organization, I would take advantage of the nimbleness and voice you have to engage with your supporters in a more direct way on social.
What’s one thing that you’ve seen a brand or a nonprofit do online that you want to take and try for yourself?
One day, I would love to try charity: water’s small-dollar model for politics. They say to donors, “Our overhead is all paid for by super rich people. Don’t worry about it. When you donate a small amount to charity: water, it goes directly to impact.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to figure out a way to do a model where we can tell people that the high-dollar donors paid for the other stuff — your donation just goes to hire organizers and pay for advertising.
Across every sector, the volume of email just keeps growing and growing — particularly around a big moment or a deadline day, like end-of-year. What’s the best strategy you’ve found for sticking out in that crowded environment?
When I hear people talk about stuff like this, I feel slightly confused by it. We just don’t send emails to anybody who doesn’t open our emails. When I got back here in December 2017, our aggregate open rate was under 9% — in January, it was 21%. Identify your inactives, isolate them, send the email to people who want to open your email, and then spend some time thinking about how to reactivate those people. Should you reach out to them through another channel? Mail? Paid social? Texting? That’s one of the virtues of our integrated program.
You also sometimes see people say that the amount of people who would donate to a given campaign is finite — but once every four years, someone emphatically proves that wrong. It just happened in the last election! It’s not like it’s been 20 years. Beto O’Rourke did it last year, Jon Ossoff the year before — it might be every year at this point. Go make new donors! People do it. If you’re not doing it, there might be a problem with your cause or your candidate — or your content.
When we think about the challenges organizations face, we think about three buckets: we think about people/process, we think about story, and we think about technology. So when you think about your plans for 2020, what are the changes you’d like to make in those areas — how you’re staffed, the story you’re telling, and how the DNC is using technology?
We’ve already chatted a bit about how we’re staffed and structured differently, organizing ourselves around the mobilization of people versus siloed channels — and that’s the sort of thing that’s going to pay off more and more as time goes on.
To the point about story: When you call Donald Trump an “orange Cheeto liar,” you’ve probably convinced zero people of anything. When we get opinion research back on Donald Trump, we find out that Donald Trump’s single biggest strength as a politician is that his opponents hold him in such low regard that we literally can’t imagine how he appeals to anyone — and that’s his single biggest strength. You and me, underestimating him, dismissing him — literally unable to wrap our heads around why he might appeal to a person.
But a lot of swing voters with Donald Trump love that he “owns” or “triggers” the “libs” — even some people who aren’t even necessarily going to vote for him. Some people that are going to vote for the Democratic nominee actually like that he “owns the libs.” Think about that: A lot of people who will vote for the eventual Democratic nominee really don’t like smug liberals. How do we not play into his hands with stuff like this? Not being smug is right up there. Pointing out Trump’s typos isn’t changing people’s minds. It is bigger than the typos on Twitter, it’s bigger than the soybeans in Iowa. How do we tell people that he’s not fighting for us? Sure, he is fighting the system. But he’s fighting the system to benefit the establishment more because he wants to be a part of the establishment.
In terms of technology — I went to college at Xavier University in Ohio, and I remember Sherrod Brown’s 2006 race when he ran against an incumbent. At the time, it felt like no one knew it was happening. It made me wonder what percentage of people in America know who their senator is. It’s definitely not 100%, right? How many people know when their senator is up for election? People assume that everyone has a baseline knowledge about basic things about politics in their area, and I don’t think that’s 100% true. When you send someone an email like, “Hey, did you know that JB Pritzker is the Democratic nominee for governor running against Bruce Rauner, who’s a Republican?” I think you’re helping educate people about what’s going on in their community. Telling them that sort of personalized information has civic virtue — and it requires a lot of work. Because you’re not just targeting that one state, you’re building up a dataset of various positions in various states by hand, but then you need to put those pieces of information in communications and tell people that — accurately and quickly. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that sort of thing is contributing to civic knowledge in our country.
I can definitely tell you it boosts fundraising results.
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