The Medium Rules: Media Strategies for Political Advocacy in the 2020 Election Cycle w/ Swing Left
How do you crack the code on effectively messaging political advocacy on social media? What is the right tone, what are the right platforms, and what is the right targeting? One organization that seems to be nailing this challenge is the progressive, grassroots political advocacy organization, Swing Left. Swing Left was founded in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. The initial, basic idea was to develop a tool by which individuals could plug their zip code into Swing Left’s website and quickly locate the nearest US House district whose seat was, in 2016, decided by a small margin and might be “flappable” from red to blue in the 2018 midterms. So the idea was to identify the “swing seats” in the 2018 midterm elections and to mobilize volunteers to help flip the US House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat. In and around this advocacy, Swing Left developed a highly visible social media campaign mixing in voters and volunteers with influencers and celebrities, all in service to Swing Left’s ambitious activist swing seat agenda. Those short videos with celebrities each speaking a line or two telling you how to vote? That was Swing Left. And, as we know, the 2018 midterms were a historic blue wave, particularly with respect to the House, and many observers credited Swing Left as a significant factor. In other words, mission accomplished. In this episode of The Medium Rules, Alan sits down with Michelle Finocchi and Marc Smrikarov, respectively the Chief Marketing Officer and the Head of Communications of Swing Left, for a discussion around Swing Left’s highly successful media strategy leading up to 2018 and, of more moment, and how it is thinking about creating and deploying media in the months leading up to 2020. We cover the shifting political landscape since the 2018 mid-terms, how Swing Left is evolving its advocacy for a Presidential cycle, its priorities for the coming cycle, as well as how Swing Left is developing and deploying technology in service of advocacy. We hope you tune in, listen and watch this very interesting episode by a group that represents some of the most skilled advocacy entrepreneurs in the country. We hope you tune in, listen and watch this chatty and informative episode with Michelle and Marc.
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Alan BALDACHIN: From the HBA podcast studio in New York City, welcome to The Medium Rules. I’m Alan Baldachin
Michelle FINOCCHI: We wanted to give everyone who was like us wanted to do something. Even though we came from outside of politics, the information and the tools to make some kind of tangible impact on what we envisioned as our larger goal, which was flipping the house for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
BALDACHIN: What was sort of your brand DNA? What kind of voice were you trying to develop?
Mark SMRIKAROV: We were trying to speak to the people that we want to go out and do something, to volunteer, so a lot of our message was about making it accessible, making it simple, making it comfortable for them, while also showing them that it has value, it has importance.
BALDACHIN: Delighted to welcome Michelle Finocchi and Mark Smrikarov. Respectively, Michelle, being the chief marketing officer and founding team member and Mark, being the head of communications of the national grassroots organization, Swing Left. Swing Left was created in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. The initial basic idea was to develop a tool by which individuals could plug their zip code into Swing Left’s website and quickly locate the nearest US House District whose seat was in 2016, decided by a small margin, and might be flippable from red to blue in the 2018 midterms.
So the idea was to identify the swing seats in the 2018 midterm elections and to mobilize volunteers to help flip the US House of Representatives from red to blue. As we know, the 2018 midterms were historic or an historic blue wave, particularly with respect to the house, and many observers credited Swing Left as a significant factor. In other words, mission accomplished in 2018.
Today we’re going to talk with Mark and Michelle with respect to Swing Left’s media strategy in 2018, its game plan for 2020, and how it’s thinking about creating and deploying media in the months leading up to 2020.
So welcome, guys, Michelle and Mark, thanks so much for coming on the show, and looking forward to a great conversation.
FINOCCHI: Thank you so much for having us.
SMRIKAROV: Thank you.
BALDACHIN: Thank you guys. And thank you for all the amazing work you’re doing on behalf of progressives Democrats, normalcy, and hopefully success in 2020. So let’s start at the start. Michelle, maybe tell us a little bit about, just elaborate a little bit on the origins and the founding of Swing Left?
FINOCCHI: Sure. So Trump got elected.
BALDACHIN: Yes. I remember that.
FINOCCHI: So, that was the start.
BALDACHIN: Yes, that sucked.
FINOCCHI: I don’t know what you were doing at the time, but I think probably it was likely the same thing I was doing which was wallowing in despair. And yeah, like many of us at that time I was feeling like I didn’t know exactly what to do. I wanted to do something. I recognize that this major thing had happened. But I didn’t have kind of any way to act to do something that could better the situation.
Prior to the election, I had been minimally involved: I voted, I watched the debates, I talked with friends, but this wasn’t my background activism, and specifically in politics, wasn’t my purview. But like many of us it was a wakeup call. And so that’s where I was at personally just kind of struggling with those feelings and talking with some of them about it on Facebook and with friends.
And meanwhile, a good friend from college, Ethan, who is now our executive director, had an idea, which was to go and volunteer in his closest swing district. Living in Deep Blue, Massachusetts, he recognized that it was not the district in which he lived, but in order to make any kind of impact on the next check against Trump, he’d have to go and volunteer. He had some experience doing this with grassroots organizing and knew that he as an individual could actually make a difference by going to talk and talking to voters and a purple district.
And so he started looking online for you know, researching where his closest swing district was, and he couldn’t find it that easily. He pulled together some information from CNN and some other places. And so he had this idea to start with what we originally called Swing Left, which was swing district finder, so basically to build a tool to help you to find your closest swing districts, and then connect with things that you could do to help flip that district for Democrats.
So he called up our friends, Josh, who had recently sold a marketing company in Silicon Valley and his wife, Miriam, who’s a brand strategist, and they interned called up several more of us. And we all started working on building this website. And when I got the call, which was about two weeks after the election, which was, “Hey, you want to help lend, you know your skills, your background in marketing communications to building this?” And I was like, “Yes.”
So I’m here because that was my outlet. And so yeah, there are probably about 10 or 12 of us who worked on building the site, The Swing District Finder, we needed Swing Left. We articulated our vision and which included back then we didn’t really know what it would become, but we knew we wanted to put this tool out there. We saw it a missing resource and we wanted to give everyone who’s like us, wanted to do something, even though we came from outside of politics, the information and the tools to make some kind of tangible impact on what we envisioned as our larger goal, which was flipping the house for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
So we built the site. We had it ready by the end of the year. We were working quickly. And it was all like, things we were doing in our spare time. And I remember, Josh had sent a Christmas morning deadline for finalizing the copy for the website.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, exactly. You know, and we were on it. I remember opening my presents and then like, opening my laptop, so you know, finalize all the stuff.
But yeah, we ended up launching later. January purposefully in anticipation of the right moment, we launched Swing Left after speaking with the few number of friends we knew in politics after talking to others who we knew in our networks, our friends and colleagues who also wanted to do something, asking them to support our launch by you know, sharing it on social or forwarding or email to a friend.
We did a lot of kind of priming and introduction of Swing Left before it launched. And then we launched the day before Inauguration Day, which was two days before the Women’s March and it took off from there.
BALDACHIN: Organizationally, how big are you guys at this point? What’s your sort of setup? You’ve got LA, you’ve got New York. How is that being built out?
FINOCCHI: Sure. Well, we are national organization that includes, what is it now? 30 plus full time members, you know, who all work remotely across the country? You know, we are based in Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York and Chicago and DC, and all over.
BALDACHIN: Okay, so people really all over the country.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, they are. But by extension, we’re also an organization of close to a million people across the country who are Swing Left volunteers, Swing Left donors, Swing Left group leaders. We collectively are Swing Left, The Movement.
BALDACHIN: And Mark, talk a little bit about the results in 2018. And then I want to back into what your strategy was to get there from a media perspective, but talk a little bit about sort of the tangible results that you guys saw in 2018 in terms of how seats.
SMRIKAROV: Yeah, definitely. I think you know, where I came into the picture in Swing Left was at that moment when Michelle’s helped launch the organization with Ethan and the rest of the team in January of 2017. And I saw all the buzz; people were posting about it on social media, it was in my feed everywhere and I kind of said, “What is this? I need to look into this more,” because I had that same sense of wanting to do something. So very quickly got in touch; we had some mutual connections. And coming from a comms and PR background for 15 years, I wanted to jump in and help. So, came into it from that volunteer perspective, which is how the organization was structured for many, many months.
And really what we helped do over that year and a half, less than two years between January of 2017, through the midterms of 2018 was really create this really impressive cultural moment around getting involved to help flip the house in the midterms.
Traditionally, the midterms are not as big of a thing in terms of people going out and voting. There usually isn’t a lot of resources, money efforts put into it. But what we wanted to do was really create that moment where it felt like the level of a presidential election because we knew that taking the house back was really the first and arguably most important thing that can be done to put a check on Trump and the GOP agenda that had taken office and January 2017.
So we did was we kind of help direct that grassroots energy that we saw all those people like us that were frustrated, and gave them things to do. So not only did they come in and enter their zip code and sign up and become part of our team, but we started building a team that would give them something to do.
We expanded the number of swing districts that we felt we could compete in because of how the momentum was going and how the energy on the ground was going. We’ve built an amazing team that I think we can get into in a little bit. But at the end of the day, we had almost a million members we had working in 84, I think, swing districts? We won 55 of them, flipping over 30 of them, raising over $12 million, knocking on millions of doors, making millions of phone calls, and really providing that grassroots army that was so critical to so many members of Congress winning in red and purple districts in those midterms that enabled us to take back the house.
So that was a really, really exciting moment to be able to have that year and a half, two years worth of effort really come to fruition and see that energy with unprecedented voter turnout for midterms. Many of the races won by very small margins were these kinds of volunteer activities, the fundraising, the talking to voters really made a big difference.
BALDACHIN: And organizing, just to concretely, and members of my family participated with swing left. Getting on buses and going to swing districts was sort of the—Was that sort of the base mobilization around the midterms, was getting people to go from maybe Deep Blue districts into Purple Districts or swingable districts, and just get then to vote?
SMRIKAROV: That was definitely a big part of it. I think one of the interesting things around the midterms was that we found that about 75 to 80% of every person in the country lived within 50 miles of a swing district. So in many cases, we were asking people to go talk to their neighbors, go talk to people in these swing districts that were very close to them that shared a lot of similarities, and wasn’t something where they had to go very far to go and do that.
So a lot of that energy was in LA, where we were working in nine districts.
BALDACHIN: Orange County.
FINOCCHI: In Orange County, and kind of all around. There was a lot in New York as well, in terms of Staten Island, right nearby in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and upstate a little bit. So a lot of this was mobilizing those people that were in those deep blue areas, but were very close to really swingable districts, and getting them involved and giving them those kinds of things to go and do things on the ground.
BALDACHIN: One more question in that vein, were people trying to persuade undecided or people going to say, here’s how you vote or are you registered here? What were the volunteers doing in those door knocking, pounding pavement sort of moment?
FINOCCHI: Yeah, by and large, when volunteers were contacting voters either by showing up at their door and having a face to face conversation, by going canvassing or phone banking, most of the time through our targeting efforts, they were talking to likely Democratic voters.
As we got closer to the end of the election, we were plugging volunteers directly into the campaigns and the maps of doors and the voters that the volunteers are contacting are determined by the campaigns in terms of who are the most strategic people to be reaching at this moment.
So, yes, it’s certainly possible that some volunteers were talking to voters who fell more on potential republican voter. I spoke to a few of them myself, but you know, those were really interesting conversations, as well.
BALDACHIN: I’m sure. Were they generally civil?
FINOCCHI: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was…
BALDACHIN: I mean, you never know what you’re going to get when somebody opens the door, but, you know.
FINOCCHI: I mean, the experience of canvassing, I’d never done anything like it before. You know, doing it with Swing Left was my first experience ever and every time I do it, it’s exhilarating. Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, even when occasionally you get a door shut in your face, you take it in stride. But you know, when you actually…
BALDACHIN: Like, “Wow, I feel refreshed.”
FINOCCHI: No, it is. You’re like, “All right, this is coming.
BALDACHIN: Yeah, go somebody’s [inaudible 15:31]
FINOCCHI: Yeah, really. I mean, when you connect with someone who didn’t know the election was happening or maybe didn’t know where their polling place is, or in fact maybe didn’t even have a ride to the polls and you were able to give them a number to call to get someone to pick them up. I mean, you really come away feeling like you’ve made a difference. And also, there are so many people on the route who thank you and hug you.
BALDACHIN: I mean, you can’t get much more Democracy, you know, every vote counts, and then actually going door to door trying to motivate people to actually go out and vote.
FINOCCHI: Yeah. And it’s another effective thing you can do. I know we’ll talk about 2020 in the cycle more. But another thing that many of us are doing now that Swing Left is taking a big role in facilitating this cycle is letter writing because the way that the targets work for 2020 we’re focused on super states, not everyone has a super state in their backyard as Mark described. So the ways that we can make personal connections with people who we need to register, or people who we need to get to the polls is to write them letters, you know?
BALDACHIN: Like snail mail.
SMRIKAROV: People still do appreciate getting a hand written mail because it is so unusual these days.
BALDACHIN: Well, let’s come back to that. That’s really interesting. And I know that is on our roadmap for this conversation. But before we do, I think – And I’d love each of you guys to weigh in—I think, certainly from my perspective, Swing Left had a very sort of notable effect media style, which sort of mixed…First of all, it was very positive. But let me back up and let me say, why don’t you guys give me your sort of, in terms of doing your media, what were your sort of your brand DNA? What kind of voice were you trying to develop? And how did that sort of interact with voters? And by that, I mean which medium content? Can you just talk a little bit about that?
FINOCCHI: Yeah, should we popcorn some of…? Yeah, we talked about this stuff all the time. Like you said positive.
BALDACHIN: Yeah, one more, Mark.
SMRIKAROV: Yeah. Impact oriented, strategic.
FINOCCHI: Tangible, yeah.
SMRIKAROV: So many of you know, we’re trying to speak to the people that we want to go out and do something, to volunteer. So a lot of our message was about making it accessible, making it simple, making it comfortable for them, while also showing them that it has value, it has importance. A lot of us, we’re new to politics also. It was my first time canvassing last cycle. But for 40% of our volunteers, it was also their first time we found getting involved in campaigns; they hadn’t done it prior to 2018.
So I think from a brand and voice perspective, really trying to come across without that political lingo, or jargon…
BALDACHIN: Or maybe going negative?
SMRIKAROV: Or going negative, which I think turns a lot people off at the end of the day. You know, we wanted to bring people together, we wanted to make them feel like they can effect positive change in this country. That was also a key part of why strategically we didn’t get involved in primary races. So what we would do is we would organize and fundraise for whoever was going to be the eventual nominee and these districts. So people were raising money, donating from the grassroots, they were organizing, not knowing who the eventual candidate was going to be. But they knew that whoever it was, they needed to win. They needed money as soon as they came out of a primary and they needed an army of volunteers ready to help support them.
And that that kind of unifying message and value proposition where we understand and recognize that there’s going to be healthy debates during primaries, and that voters in those districts are going to make their decisions based on who they want to represent them. But at the end of the day, we want unify rally and support those nominees. It was a big part of I think how we were able to reinforce that positive, unifying and impactful message.
BALDACHIN: Okay. Michelle?
FINOCCHI: Yeah, I would say that our approach, if there’s one way to describe how we look at communications across the board the content that we’re creating, the way that we speak to our volunteers and beyond across email or social media, etc, I would say the orientation is at heart in service to the user. I mean, Swing Left exists because we wanted to give people a means to have impact.
So everything we do, every decision we make at core is informed by our answer to the question, is this something that will surface that person who wants to do something? And that person includes many different types of people of various backgrounds and interests with different amounts of time available, different resources. And there’s a whole swath of things that they can be doing and ways to get involved but at heart, are we providing them with the information that they need to be informed and also to understand and be able to easily and enjoyably access the things that they can do as individuals that will have the greatest and most strategic impact on our goal, which is winning the most important elections for Democrats?
BALDACHIN: So maybe if you could give just from the midterm cycle, just some examples of how that translated into some of the content and some of the strategies you guys use for media?
BALDACHIN: Sure. I think one great example of that is a campaign we did to get people to volunteer on what we call The Last Weekend before the midterms, traditionally amongst kind of political and organizing lingo, that is referred to as GOTV period, which is an acronym that basically stands for Get Out To Vote. So that is something that is very important for campaigns that we get as many people as possible, helping talk to voters and being sure that they are going out to the polls that Tuesday and voting. But it’s not something that a lot of people who aren’t involved in politics understand the importance of or why it’s so critical or what even that means.
So we basically created a campaign that we call The Last Weekend, to reframe that idea to make it a little bit more accessible, but also to bring together other organizations from within the progressive space. So we ended up partnering with about 60 plus organizations, including Indivisible, Move On, OFA, many, many others. And we also partnered with a number of people that have larger audiences and voices from across activism, entertainment, music, other cultural figures that wanted to get behind this message and help promote it.
And basically, kind of through a combination of those three elements, were able to create a really powerful brand that ended up getting hundreds of thousands of hours committed in terms of volunteers going out and doing things. All these organizations working together, even if they had different missions, goals focus areas of their work, to say, hey, this is what we need to do right now to make an impact in our country. And doing that in a way that was again, positive, constructive, and impactful.
So that kind of was something that was a really big success for us in terms of the kinds of video creative content that we were able to get out of it that was useful for social media, that was useful for emails, and listing a lot of these cultural figures to do traditional media interviews, and help get the word out across non-political publications, places like In Style and Glamor and Rolling Stone.
BALDACHIN: From a PR perspective.
SMRIKAROV: And from a PR perspective, that was very powerful because we were bringing in and reaching new audiences that aren’t reading the Washington Post or Politico every day, but that are newly awakened to how important getting involved is to their day to day lives. And I think that was a really powerful way for us to help do that.
BALDACHIN: And moving into the 2020 cycle, what would you say sort of lessons learned from a media content perspective were from 2018? Like, what do you pull that worked really well? What do you leave behind? And what are you thinking about as we get into 2020 that tweaks to your goals, which we’ll talk about in a second, for 2020, which is obviously a different cycle and has different objectives? What were some of the things that worked and what were some of the things that you would leave behind going forward into this cycle?
FINOCCHI: Well, I think that continuing to work to respond to the new cycle with tangible action that people can take based on what’s happening in the world to be able to respond and you know, direct their interest and their energy or their frustration, their anger into something that’s going to make a difference. I mean, that’s something we did a lot last cycle is you know, in the moment spinning up fundraising mechanisms that would allow us to fundraise collectively as an organization, as a movement for the eventual democratic challengers to the swing district Republicans who were voting one way or the other.
So, for example, when the House voted on Trump Care back in May of 2017, we put together a slate of “donate now to fund the eventual democratic challengers to the 35 swing district Republicans who voted yes for Trump Care,” and that itself generated a million dollars raised in just over 24 hours. So that was something that people really responded to because they were angry.
BALDACHIN: Principally, small donor contributions.
FINOCCHI: Small dollar, grassroots donors, yeah, exactly. So we have continued to do a lot of that and you know, I mean that ended up raising $11, $12 million for candidates last cycle, that style of being responsive to the news cycle and what’s happening and giving people that tool to fight back.
I think also continuing to build tools that are in service to personalizing the experience for volunteers as well. Like so for example, we built a tool that we called Action Finder where you type in your zip code, and you’re presented with a suite of cards. It looks like a deck of playing cards, which is all of the actions that you can take. And it’s beautifully designed. It’s like fun colors, but it’s also excessively worded and gives you the highest impact actions that you can take. It’s something that we rolled out last summer, or two summers ago lead up to the elections and gave everyone like a very clear, easy path to just selecting what was the thing that was right for them.
And we’ve continued to use it for the 2020 cycle to much success. And we’ve created marketing campaigns, videos, etc, all around this tool, which is really the linchpin of our innovative tools that we built to drive people to action.
BALDACHIN: Okay, well, let’s talk about 2020, Mark. 2020 is obviously a much different cycle, it’s the presidential cycle. You guys have what you’ve called a Super State Strategy for 2020. And I know the goal is to try to keep hold the house, flip the Senate and obviously flip the White House, but talk a little bit about Swing Left and 2020 and what we can expect from you guys and what you’re shooting for, and how you’ve sort of evolved your strategy to meet those objectives?
SMRIKAROV: Yeah, definitely. I think you know, the other element just to finish Michelle’s line of thought in terms of what was so compelling in 2018 and kind of something that we’re thinking about for 2022 to your question, is we had a very clear, big bold goal that we were able to talk about in terms of taking back the house. That was kind of what we were able to say…
BALDACHIN: Just throw that out of there and that’s what we’re shooting for.
SMRIKAROV: And it resonated, and we had a simple strategy and a simple way to do that. There was definitely a lot of thinking after we were very excited to have done that. What do we do after? Of course, we were even thinking that before looking at various contingencies, but you know, there isn’t necessarily that one big objective, this cycle, because as you said, it is a presidential. The Senate is important, defending the house is important. But also winning state level races are very important because there’s a big thing happening in the cycle where in 2021, there’s going to be redistricting, which is based on the census that’s going to be done in 2020. And whoever controls state houses really will have a big say in how redistricting is done, whether states continue to be gerrymandered so that there is a lack of fair representation at the house level, and also state level for the next decade.
So this is a really a long term thing that Republicans in 2010 were very successful at, in terms of being able to win state races, and basically control the maps for a whole decade. And you see how that affected democrats up and down the ballot over the course of 2010 to 2020. So we’re thinking how do we kind of fit into that? How do we establish our goals? I think we knew very early on that the kind of role that we played in terms of mobilizing and engaging grassroots volunteers who want to do something to help win elections was a very important role that needed to continue, because that is critical for Democrats to continue to win beyond even 2020. This kind of infrastructure work is really, really important. And there’s a gap in terms of being able to fill that.
So we knew that we wanted to do that. And we kind of wanted to become an organization that would be the one stop shop place for people to come to make a difference in key elections. And what we noticed, as we were looking at the map is that a lot of those key races, the White House, the Senate, and key state races, overlap in a series of 11 states that we call The Super States. And basically, that means that it’s a state where two or more of those types of races are at play. So what we can do is basically, mobilize volunteers to engage in those states and within those states in the areas where their work will help not just take back the White House, but potentially also the Senate or when the state back.
So basically voters and those districts that we working in have two or three times the impact, because of the level of swing races that they will have importance on. So we basically created that strategy, created that map and said, “Okay, this is what we’re going to tell people to do. Because this is how they can have the biggest impact in their time and their money for 2020. And let’s start getting to work. Let’s start organizing.”
So over the past couple months now, we’ve been, as Michelle mentioned, been developing and redeveloping a lot of the tools in 2018 and improving on them and expanding on them so that we have very simple ways for people to now go and find what they can do in these key states, including things like letter writing, where you can be sitting at home, you can have a house party, we’ve had hundreds of houses parties across the country really where people already are getting their friends together and getting people they don’t know together and getting others that signed up to say we want to write letters to people in these states to help them register to vote. And we’ll write on those letters, why we’re doing this, why it’s important for us for them to vote, and to register. And we partnered with a great organization called Foot Forward that has a really great tool that we use to write those letters. And we’ve already sent hundreds of thousands around the country in these states.
BALDACHIN: First of all, let me stop you and say the Super States, let’s be concrete, can you guys list them?
FINOCCHI: Yeah. Well, it’s…You have it?
SMRIKAROV: I have it. I remember most of them. Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maine, North Carolina. Is that all of them?
FINOCCHI: Did you get Colorado?
BALDACHIN: Was Ohio not one?
BALDACHIN: It might be one. Yes, Ohio is one.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, it is.
FINOCCHI: Did we get them all?
BALDACHIN: I wasn’t counting but let’s assume. And then in terms of the letter writing strategy, I want to maybe drill down a little bit. I have a lot of writing party. I think this is really interesting. And I think a lot of people might be interested in that. And full disclosure, as you guys know, we had a Swing Left fundraising event at our apartment recently. And it was really a fundraiser; we had a speaker, you know, a prominent politician come and speak. We got a great crowd. We did not do letter writing. I think that would have been—That may be something I think a lot of people as I say, might be interested in. Do you actually have a pen pal? Do you have a dear Frank Smith at you know, 129 Maple Street in whatever town, you know, Georgia, or is it more of an anonymous? How does that work? Are we writing specific people? What is the tool? Can you just give us a little bit more color on that?
FINOCCHI: Yeah, so the Vote Forward tool is an online platform where you go and you sign up to essentially adopt a host of names to write letters to. So the data is called for you, the names and addresses and you also are given a template letter that you can print out. So in the cases of house parties, letter writing parties, the hosts of the parties are often you know, doing this adopting hundreds of names and then printing out the template letters you know, they have all the materials there, they invite over a big group of friends and everyone you know, drinks wine.
BALDACHIN: And you’re typing it out, presumably?
FINOCCHI: No, you’re writing, your handwriting it.
SMRIKAROV: Registration forms are pre filled so you have a space to write a personal note that’s handwritten.
BALDACHIN: And then are you literally stamping it, licking a stamp and dropping it in?
FINOCCHI: And hand writing the address, which is one of the things that makes it seem very personal, so people will open it.
BALDACHIN: And what’s the communication strategy that goes along with the letter writing? And is the letter writing campaign? I mean, you started to say, Michelle, earlier that in response to this cycle, maybe it’s not as neighboring district, as it was just given your more super state strategy. So will it be the case that–Will there still be a last weekend getting on buses going to swing districts? Or are your efforts more focused on the super states and the letter writing? So if I’m in New York, what would my deck of cards look like for 2020?
FINOCCHI: Right. I mean, it’s both, in terms of working early and also over GOTV weekend, which is the last weekend election.
BALDACHIN: During the swing…
FINOCCHI: You know, the Swing Left model is really based on doing as much as possible as early as possible for the eventual democratic nominees and our target races, and that’s what’s really given us the power as the grassroots to make a real difference because we’re banking a lot of this work early on the fundraising. We’re pooling an escrow for our eventual candidates so that you know, when they earn the nomination, we can give them a big blue check from the grassroots, as we call it, when it matters most when they’re going to need to pivot to confronting their Republican opponent in the general election and they need money to amp up their campaign staff, etc.
And likewise, doing the voter contact work early, engaging voters by registering voters and also starting to write and bank these GoTV letters. Like, “Let’s do it now.” You know, because it’s helping us to get as many people as possible, like ready to vote. So, you know, it’s also building teams on the ground, it’s getting people trained. You know, if you have the experience now of volunteering, you’re only going to be x times a better volunteer next year and ready to go. And yeah, we have hundreds, as Mark said, Swing Left groups around the country where people can plug in right now and start doing this kind of work.
It’s also essential that this work gets done now because we’re in this kind of, like, critical infrastructure building time ahead of the Democratic Convention, this cycle, which is happens July of next year when millions of voters need to be registered. Like, this is the work that say when there is a Democratic incumbent that campaign is working to do you know, Obama’s campaign, which you know, is known for its organizing muscle. For his reelection campaign, they registered something like 1.8 million voters you know, and leading up. But when we have a contested primary, we don’t have…
BALDACHIN: The luxury.
FINOCCHI: Exactly, of organizing, really. And that’s what we’re here to do. This is what the grassroots can do. This is the power that we have by working early to make sure that all of our nominees, all of our candidates in the most critical races next year have what they need to win.
BALDACHIN: Is there any comparable organization on the right to Swing Left? Has any sort of grassroots organizations with this level of sophistication and organization and fundraising power kind of emerged? Based on your model or looking what you guys have done, have you seen that?
SMRIKAROV: I mean, I would say no, not quite at this level in terms of grassroots mobilization. There’s definitely a lot more of big dollar donors that are pumping money into those campaigns, into Trump’s campaign. He’s already raised $200 million for his campaign, over $200 million dollars and not a lot of that is from the grassroots.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, I mean, I think the strength, you know, the power that the left has is this kind of unprecedented activist energy that has emerged post Trump, that doesn’t really exist on the right. Yes, there are major donors plowing money into paying people to go do organizing, you know, to do the organizing work to contact voters, etc. You know, but there isn’t this kind of grassroots momentum on the right, like there is on the left, which is our superpower.
BALDACHIN: And to be clear, you guys don’t try and pick winners, correct? You don’t have any particular nominee that you’re backing? You’re waiting to see who emerges? And then how do you, without asking you to give up any sort of secret sauce, how do you decide how much money goes to which candidate? Is that sort of data driven? Give me a sense of that.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, it is data driven. You know, we recently brought Flippable, which is an incredible organization into this Swing Left family. You know, one reason being their incredible work that they did last cycle in helping to win the most important races at the state level. And much of their work in funnelling grassroots dollars to those races down ballot where that money was so critical, was done based on really precise data targeting.
So that’s the information that we use to determine how grassroots dollars are dispersed in addition to picking the races that are the right targets in the first place at the state level. So yeah, we have this incredible team of strategists and data specialist from Flippable working on together now with Swing Left.
SMRIKAROV: And those state level races are usually the hardest to really identify because there are thousands of them happening around the country. So the fact that Flippable was so successful in their targeting last cycle and continues to be really an amazingly impressive team, that is part of our family now. You know, I think when we’re thinking about the fundraising side of things, obviously, it’s important to be supporting the eventual presidential candidates and Senate candidates. But oftentimes, the value of the dollar that you have, if you’re a small dollar donor, it’s going to go farther on the state level races because there’s just less money…
SMRIKAROV: Yeah, and the typical state level races around $180,000 for a campaign versus over a million for our house, 10 million for the Senate and hundreds of million for the presidential so there’s really, really a powerful impact that individuals can have on those state level races, which is why it was so great that we’re able to bring Flippable into our family and have them work together to complement our strategy and power our strategy, particular for the state level races, but across the board as well.
BALDACHIN: And what can we expect…So turning back to sort of media content, and sort of what you guys spend a lot of your time on. You guys use influencers, celebrities in the midterms, is that something that you’re going to continue to do? Talk a little bit about what you have planned for 2020 for the next year?
FINOCCHI: Sure. Well, just speaking to our approach you know, I think we look at utilizing and treating celebrities and influential voices as volunteers like everyone to connect them. With the ways that given their unique abilities, they can have the most impact on the elections that matter most. You know, and likewise, our approach as well, is to in sense treat volunteers as celebrities as well in amplifying their stories, showcasing the work of like the college fellows that are a part of Swing Left and mobilizing their campuses, the volunteer leaders, you know, amplifying and sharing their stories together. You know, showcasing both sides of the coin is a way that we can really help to communicate and demystify what the volunteer experience is like.
Like again, for me, it was my first time volunteering ever for a political campaign with Swing Left, and we really try to stick pins to show that it’s not hard, it’s fun. It’s a way to make great memories. So that’s really how we think about it.
BALDACHIN: Well, I think it’s interesting because I think that in terms of the feel of the content, something you said resonated which is showcasing influencers and celebrities as volunteers. And it did feel like there was an intimacy there that was created between people who are participating and getting involved in Swing Left, and the influencers and celebrities that you were able to bring in, whether it be an event, whether it be in media, whether in action, and it kind of match the best things about social media, you know, I think, the intimacy that you can get with, whether it be celebrities, influencers, friends at a second or third remove. I think you guys did a great job with that actually now that you mentioned. I think that really did come across; that it didn’t feel remote, it didn’t feel elitist because that’s obviously the knock and the risk, Mark, I guess when you use celebrities is you can come across as you know, “Wow, it’s Bruce Springsteen planning another benefit concert for Hillary,” and she got a lot of knocks that she was traveling around with Jay Z and with Beyonce, and that didn’t work. I think that you guys managed to not trip over that and have your influencers and your celebrities really do the opposite, which was make it feel more real somehow.
FINOCCHI: Yeah, well, I think it’s really interesting that you noticed that and I’m glad because you know, like with any volunteer, our approach to working with artists or influencers or celebrities is personalized. You know, it’s really about what they care about, what you care about what you’re interested in doing, and it’s about also actually taking action. You know, there were a lot of Swing Left celebrity volunteers, for lack of a better word, who went canvassing with us last cycle.
BALDACHIN: [Inaudible 47:26]
FINOCCHI: Yeah, yeah. You know, Kathryn Hahn went to her home state of Ohio to canvas for Danny O’Connor. John Legend did a virtual phone bank in the same vein. Billy Eichner in New Jersey. You know, there were so many—Tracy Ellis Ross. You know, people were out in their home districts volunteering and going door knocking, doing the same work that it requires, from all of us. Kevin Bacon and Kira Cedric just hosted a letter writing party at their home. That was what they felt motivated to do, because they were wanted to bring together their friends to work together. They saw an opportunity to do that, which was…
So I think that that’s probably why you’re recognizing that intimacy because these are races that are local that are at the hearts of people. And I think that’s coming through in in terms of the authenticity. I mean, that’s something we work hard to match people with, the places that they’re from and what they care about.
SMRIKAROV: And I think we also try to bring together a very diverse group of voices and perspectives into those conversations so that it can be inclusive, it can be, you know, we really want people that are involved in those kinds of activities, whether it’s videos or going on camera telling their personal stories about what’s so important for them, whether it’s racial equality or LGBTQ issues or gun control or women’s rights and health, you know, that is important part of the storytelling process as well. Because at the end of the day, those are the issues that impact all of us, and that’s what motivates our kind of group of grassroots volunteers to go out and do the work because they know at the end of the day, there’s these really important set of issues that affect everyone’s lives in our country, that we’re working to improve and we’re working to make better. And I think kind of remembering that and tying that into the content that we’re putting out is very important for us.
BALDACHIN: And then talk a little bit about you tack, and what you’re developing as your sort of create—You’ve got some tools, you talked about typing in your zip code, and here’s your array of actions you can take. And what else are you guys doing that you feel is, again, without asking you to sort of spill any secret sauce. What are the things that that you think are empowering you guys that are sort of keeping you ahead of, you know, I don’t want to say the competition, but that are giving you an edge and then are really helping.
SMRIKAROV: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a couple of things. I think that that technology where it’s very user focused and making it simple and easy for people to go and quickly find something that they can do. You know, we live in an age where we all have apps on our phone that can get us pizza whenever we want, or rideshare, or whatever it is. So I think building those tools that will let people find a way to connect to a campaign, or using the Vote forward tool so that they can have a very simple way to print and write letters that will go to register voters or get people to turn out to vote. Having that very accessible for them is critical. So we’re constantly looking to improve on those tools.
We’re also looking to, without going into too much detail, create some similar tools to improve the donor experience for both small and medium sized donors to help them navigate this landscape. And that’s something we’ll probably be rolling out in the next few months. But I think it’s a wide variety of things along those lines, in addition to kind of the creative content that we continue to want to do that tells those human personal stories of volunteers across the board. I think that’s something that in the next couple months we’ll be rolling out some new campaigns on.
BALDACHIN: Okay, yeah. And do you guys have your own sort of internal engineers or you guys sort of outsource that? Or is that done internally?
FINOCCHI: We do. We have an awesome team.
SMRIKAROV: We have a great team [inaudible 51:50] goes from Adobe, from various different places.
BALDACHIN: That are full time.
BALDACHIN: So that’s quite an organization and manage, nevermind anything else. Your CTO, whoever that may be his or her hands?
FINOCCHI: Well, we’re really lucky to you know, and again, I think this goes back to kind of the origins of Swing Left but to have brought together people from both inside and outside of politics. We’re all united by this one mission and we are all bringing our various expertise, backgrounds, ideas, creativity to the table. And it’s really truly, truly a melding of people who are the political strategists, the data experts with the some of the best minds from marketing media in the creative worlds, which has been really cool. So it’s been really fun.
BALDACHIN: It’s amazing, well, sort of moving towards maybe sort of wrapping up the conversation. Let me ask you guys this; there may be people listening or watching this show, who say I’d like to get involved, so I want to ask that question in two ways. One is, are you guys looking to—If somebody says I’d love to be involved with Swing Left, kind of “corporate” so to speak, but you know, to actually be in the organization, where would somebody sort of look for opportunity to join Swing Left? And are you guys sort of growing your team over the next year, even if it’s leading up to 2020?
And then secondly, for people who are like me, who want to get involved, who would they contact to do a letter writing campaign, to do a fundraising event? Maybe just give us sort of your call to action?
FINOCCHI: Absolutely. Well, I would say go to swingleft.org.
FINOCCHI: That is the source of truth. I would say first and foremost, type your zip code in at swingleft.org because you’re going to be immediately connected with again, that you know, the range of cards as options for things you can do, which include start writing letters to voters or attend an event near you, whether that be a letter writing party or a canvas, or you know, donate or create your own personalized fundraising page, which is essentially a Go Fund Me fundraising for campaigns, that you can then post on Facebook or wherever you want.
That’s all going to be there for you. So that is the easiest way to plug in. Join your local Swing Left group, attend a meeting, see what it’s like, learn about the super state strategy. It’s all there super easy to access. So that would be the first step I would recommend. And for people who are interested in helping us you know, interested in lending their professional skills to helping build Swing Left, like yes! There is an open positions page on our website, again swingleft.org It’s located in our footer, and if you go there, you will find a list of both full time positions as well as part time paid as well as volunteer positions that you can sign up for if you’d like. There’s a whole host of ways to get involved. And we are all ears and excited to partner with you on this fight.
BALDACHIN: Right. Well, listen, guys, I mean, there is obviously a lot going on in the political atmosphere these days. Swing Left has really made its mark as, I think, one of the most important organizations out there to try and affect change, move the needle, reset things back to hopefully, normalcy and done it in a really positive sort of not picking winners and losers but just really positive, “Let’s try and put some progressive ideas back into politics and let’s try and let’s try and fix things.”
So I’m really grateful. You guys have done an amazing job, and I want to thank you for coming on the show and talking more about your organization.
FINOCCHI: And thank you so much also for everything you’ve done, and will do. You know, we’re all in this together and we can’t do it without you, without everybody.
BALDACHIN: It’s be [inaudible 56:09]
FINOCCHI: So yeah, thank you.
BALDACHIN: Great. Thanks, guys.
OUTRO: That’s a wrap on this episode of The Medium Rules with Alan Baldachin. For more information, go to our firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And don’t forget to rate us on Apple podcasts.