The Morning After
We may think we're too focused on the election to worry now about what comes next. But planning can't wait until after the victory party. Our opportunity to be influential after the election starts now.
Progressive advocates need to think ahead about how to use the election year excitement to build momentum toward long-term goals. We need to think through the political and organizational consequences of possible outcomes and develop our "To Do List" now for the immediate post-election period and through the first two quarters of 2005.
Consequences for Your Cause
What will it mean if it's President Bush or President Kerry? The scenarios for progressive groups may be a little different depending on who wins the White House. Every organization needs to map out the potential national and local political landscape. Consider:
If Bush Wins
We may all be tempted to apply for Canadian citizenship in the event that President Bush wins his first election. But a Bush victory means serious work for progressives.
Consider the political positioning of your organization: What can we do to stave off four more years of disaster? If Bush is (re?) elected and you are working to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act, raise the minimum wage, or secure voting rights for convicted felons – you may need to forget federal action and work the grassroots and statehouses even harder. Now is the time for a serious strategy re-assessment.
If Kerry Wins
After the dancing in the streets, after the effects of celebratory champagne, we've still got work to do. Many progressives may be tempted to go home and forget about politics for a while. But if we want to make a Kerry win meaningful, we have to be strategic and smart starting November 3rd.
Progressive groups will have a real opportunity to redefine their political positioning. We'll all have to consider what we need to do to position ourselves to influence the new Administration. How can we position ourselves to see policy victories over the next four years? And how fast do we need to mobilize to do it? Kerry will be looking for administrative action in the first 100 days to overturn damage done by the Bush administration, and we should be ready to supply him with ideas on the issues that matter to us.
A Kerry win will also mean some fundamental shifts in organizational thinking. Progressive groups will need to evaluate their programs and shift from a defensive posture to a proactive one. Now is the time to retool. Are there issues or campaigns you want to launch in this new environment? This also applies to organizing and messaging.
If No One Wins
There's a very real possibility that we may experience another cliffhanger. Given how close the margins are expected to be in many states, we may see recounts that drag on for days or weeks. And it may not be just the White House this time around – we may also see recounts in hotly contested Senate races that have the ability to tip the balance of power.
If you are working in a swing state where the election is contested and recounts are hot, for heaven's sake mobilize! Take a lesson from the 2000 Bush campaign, which turned out supporters, credible talking heads and staged rallies from day one of the Florida recount. Be vocal and visible in case of a recount in your area. Work the media, who will undoubtedly descend upon the story like bees to honey.
Beyond the White House
Of course the race for top dog is the key focus for many this year, but there are a host of other races that will impact the work ahead.
Progressive groups need to assess what will the outcome of House or Senate elections mean for your issue. Is there potential to educate and develop a champion for your cause? Now is the time to develop relationships with your Representatives.
What would the consequences be if the Democrats pick up the two seats they need to become the majority party in the US Senate? We should all be thinking about progressive action that could be taken in the first session of the next Congress.
Eleven states have gubernatorial races this year, and the decisions in these contests will be of critical importance to groups working on issues like education, heath care, the environment, and budget issues.
Many progressive groups are fighting ballot initiative battles this year on issues ranging from gay marriage to minimum wage. What will happen if your ballot referendum is defeated? Do you go the ballot route again in the next election cycle or take a different tack?
What will the elections of local officials mean for your efforts? Again, this is the time to develop relationships with your local elected officials and educate them on your issues.
No matter who wins, there will be fierce fights over next nominees to the US Supreme Court. With as many as four retirements expected after the election, the High Court will be the big battleground after the election. And with so much at stake – civil liberties, personal rights, future presidential elections, expect groups at both ends of the political spectrum to be pushing their favorite nominees.
Consequences for Your Organization
Every group will likely see organizational fallout from the elections. Consider potential consequences for your organization in these areas:
Odds are strong that memberships and donations will drop, no matter who wins.
After Bill Clinton's election in 1992, a range of progressive groups from the environment to the pro-choice movement saw joining and giving plummet. The public reasoned the threat to the Right to Choose and other causes was gone with Clinton in the White House. A Kerry victory could have the same consequences. Arguing that we need to flex our muscle and have our voices heard in order to shape the agenda developed during the transition and enacted during the first 100 days might mitigate some of this.
If Bush is reelected, expect to find approximately half the country in a fetal position and a deep depression. But no matter who wins, expect donors, who are being solicited more aggressively than ever this cycle, to be tapped out. Get your financial house in order. Will you have to scale back, delay hiring, begin a whole new cycle of fundraising campaign and donor cultivation?
Anticipate member and volunteer exhaustion. Even after a Kerry win, members may want to regroup, have their holidays and then re-enter the civic arena. Be ready for them. Have campaigns and actions ready for volunteers to take. There will still be a ton of work to do to increase the minimum wage – even if John Kerry is living in the White House.
Expect members who have had their hopes raised and dashed by a Kerry defeat not to be eager about volunteering at the grassroots level. (Unless you give them something new to do – after a decent mourning period.)
The country will be an entirely new place come November 3, and it's vital that you get to know the new terrain. Assess the political landscape. Take stock of public opinion. If you can afford it, invest in public opinion research on your issue. If you can't afford it, then pay close attention to post-election polling.
Internally, your organization may also need to go through a period of reflection and reinvention. If yours is one of the many groups for whom 2004 is the first foray into electoral politics, take time to digest the experience. Figure out how you'll incorporate this new dimension into your ongoing work.
Post Election Tasks
Here's a checklist to help guide your efforts:
Reach out and touch your volunteers, donors, and members. Thank them for their hard work. Lay out your vision for the next 8 months (though June).
Reach out to the media – make sure they know what the election outcome means for your issue and organization. Don't disappear while the story is still being told!
Set up meetings with newly elected officials. You cannot begin to build relationships too soon with elected officials at all levels of government. We must effectively communicate our values, visions and policy solutions to folks once they're elected – we can't stop when the election cycle does.
Develop and publicly distribute legislative and administrative agenda. Most state legislatures meet in the early Spring – even though the election's over, grassroots lobbying, public education and legislative accountability opportunities abound.
Pay attention to who's on transition and personnel teams. These folks expect to be lobbied. Work them relentlessly on behalf of an advocate or champion.
Odds are, if you are a non-profit who's been doing more in 2004 - you have new assets – volunteers, e-mail lists, momentum. Don't waste the wonderful work that's being done this year. How can you channel the enthusiasm of your volunteers into to new areas? You might think about asking them this question in a series of planning meetings right after the election.
Help build the progressive infrastructure. All organizations that have participated in campaigns should digest and incorporate what has been learned from electoral engagement into their ongoing work.
Plan for a drop in income.
Fundraise. There is evidence of a sea change in foundation and donor thinking. Foundations that once refused to fund staff and other infrastructure needs are reconsidering – they too understand the value of maintaining and building on the good work that's being done this year.
Work, hope and pray for the best. But be ready for the worst. Just in case.