What The Hell Happened In Florida? 5 Weeks That Doomed The Gillum Campaign
Nov. 6, 2018, was one of the worst days of my life.
I had spent the prior 5 months working to get Andrew Gillum elected Governor of Florida, first as a Regional Volunteer Lead for his campaign during the Primary, and then as a Deputy Regional Field Director for the Florida Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign, which was running the field operation for his and the other statewide races, during the General.
I genuinely believed it was going to happen. The “Blue Wave” was going to sweep a whole host of Florida Democrats into Tallahassee and Washington D.C. And then it didn’t.
I was out of the country for the 2016 election and it was basically over by the time I got any news of it, so it was a huge shock, but it was a singular one. I know now what it must have felt like watching those results come in: the creeping sense of dread at the early results; the waiting for things to get better; hoping and imploring Broward and Dade counties to come through; thinking the votes were still out there…until they weren’t. It was crushing. It took days, weeks really — and a trip to China — to get over it.
Enthusiasm had been so high for Mayor Gillum and we had all worked so hard, volunteers and staff alike, during both the Primary and the General.
What the hell happened?!
Like with any election loss, there will never be a single answer as to what transpired, why we didn’t win. There is always a multitude of things that went wrong or could have been done better. I don’t have all the answers or even know all the problems, but I have some insights and ideas, in particular in regard to the campaign itself, since I was directly involved with it.
I intend to discuss, in a series of upcoming posts, issues I saw with the campaign and with the Democratic Party, both at the state and the local level. While there will be criticisms, I assure you, they will not be directed at individuals as my goal is not to point fingers, but to illuminate the issues so they can be addressed and hopefully fixed for the future. We could have done better, we can do better, and I plan to work so that we DO better.
Time is the only campaign resource that is truly finite
More money can be raised; more volunteers can be recruited; more ads can be bought; more doors can be knocked; more phone calls can be made. But once time passes, there is no getting it back or creating more of it.
The Florida Primary was on Aug. 28, 2018. The Florida Democratic Party held its statewide training for its very-newly-hired Coordinated Campaign field team on Sept. 24-25. Add on the couple days following, when we were back in Palm Beach County getting our local team organized, and we did not start making voter contact until Sep. 28. Take into account the fact that we didn’t get our voter targets or precinct priorities until the following week, and we weren’t making targeted voter contact until five weeks after the primary and the same week that mail ballots were being sent out.
I believe this lost time was as responsible as anything for the outcomes on Nov. 6. It led to a cascading series of events that both caused and compounded other problems.
The first impact was the loss of momentum we had with the army of volunteers that had helped lead Andrew Gillum to victory in the Primary. It’s understandable that there would be a transition period, but as a week turned into two weeks, into three weeks, into four, with no support or resources to keep volunteers active and working, frustrations grew. In fact, some of the resources volunteers did have — such as the events map on the Andrew Gillum website or Hustle, the peer-to-peer texting application — were shut down or transitioned in a way that alienated them (I intend to cover this in greater detail in a post about digital resources).
The volunteer opportunities that did exist within the FDP structure even four weeks out from the Primary were still on behalf of Senator Nelson’s campaign. This is not to say that Gillum volunteers didn’t want to help Senator Nelson, but he wasn’t the reason they were donating their time and energy, Mayor Gillum was, and it made them feel like the FDP wasn’t very interested in supporting Gillum. Many of these volunteers eventually helped with the Coordinated Campaign, but I know some volunteers who were frustrated, sought other volunteer opportunities with outside groups, and never fully came back. And with those who did, I felt a distinct loss of energy and enthusiasm relative to during the Primary.
The second impact was a loss of quality staff candidates. By the time the FDP got around to hiring, many individuals who had worked on the various campaigns during the Primary had taken other jobs. This left the campaign scrambling to hire, in many cases, unproven and inexperienced staff and, in some areas such as Miami-Dade County, struggling to hire enough staff at all. Given the shortened timeframe, there was also virtually no opportunity to properly train them and get them up-to-speed. A majority of the field organizers in Palm Beach County had never worked on a campaign before and were learning on-the-job during crunch time of the campaign. This is not to say that the staff that was hired was bad or ineffective, but it’s hard to discount the loss of knowledge and experience. Even if only a small portion of the staff from the Primary campaigns had been hired in a more timely fashion, it could have helped to keep tools functioning and volunteers engaged.
I intend to cover issues with messaging in greater detail, but the delay cost us the ability to identify and follow up with undecided voters about why they should vote Democrat. Because voters already had ballots in-hand, we jumped straight into “mobilization” and never did any targeted voter “persuasion”. How do I know we weren’t trying to persuade voters? Because we had a “Persuasion” target list which had zero people in it, statewide. It’s not like we didn’t ask plenty of “Support ID” questions (ie, “How likely are you to vote for [X]?”) and I assume this data was used to create our GOTV targets (more on data later), but there was no effort to circle back to wavering voters to make the case for voting for Democrats. The loss of time also impacted our ability to talk to voters about down-ballot candidates, and by “down-ballot” I don’t mean local races, I mean the Cabinet positions. I don’t remember any of our scripts ever mentioning Sean Shaw, Nikki Fried, or Jeremy Ring.
So what took so long?
I wasn’t in the room for the post-Primary discussions, so I can only guess as to why it took as long as it did. I expect there was a variety of things and blame to go around, but what is plainly obvious to me is that the FDP was not prepared for the General Election. I can’t imagine the idea of a “coordinated campaign” was thought up on Aug. 29 and yet basic things that would be expected of any functioning campaign — like gas cards, for one — were not ready even four weeks later. It took a month after our training to get those. That may seem like a trivial issue, but it wasn’t to the field organizers who didn’t get paid for three (and in some cases four) weeks after they started and were barely scraping by. Speaking of, if the FDP knew they were going to be hiring 200 field staff, which you would have expected them to, why weren’t they prepared to onboard them? Why weren’t offer letters and new hire packets ready to go on Aug. 29, let alone mid-September? Given that the FDP doesn’t involve itself in the primaries, what exactly was it doing with its time?
The Gillum campaign is not blameless here. Though I doubt any campaign spends significant resources planning for the General during the Primary — all effort is being put into winning the Primary — the extreme lean-ness of the Gillum campaign (which had, I believe, 14 paid staff statewide during the Primary) was evident during the transition period. Much more work needed to be done to prepare for the substantially increased scope of the General and there were fewer people to keep the machine running while planning was going on. A few hires made immediately after the Primary would have gone a long way to keeping lines of communication open and efforts ongoing. Instead, the entire campaign seemed to disappear for weeks, leaving volunteers scrambling to try to organize themselves, leading to confusion, frustration, and wasted effort.
The delay, along with the problems it caused, weakened the campaign and made it less effective than it could have been. Given the margins of loss on Nov. 6, it’s impossible to feel that this wouldn’t have made a difference.
In an effort to keep these to a reasonable length, and because I think many of the solutions to these and other issues overlap, I am going to focus my initial posts on the issues and leave the discussion of solutions for later.
This article was originally published as two articles on Medium. They are reposted here with the permission of the author, Misha Nadel. You can read the originals here: What the Hell Happened in Florida?! and The Five Weeks That Doomed the Campaign