Episode 02: Find The Others

Despite how you might feel in the dregs of 2020, most of what we think of as “real life” takes place outside of election cycles. This week, TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier breaks down the basics of voter data analytics. Next, Raven Bradfield discusses her experiences organizing for Democratic campaigns in Iowa and Georgia, and what campaigns lose when they assemble staffs that don’t resemble their constituents. PeachPod’s Luke Boggs explains how peer-to-peer contact makes a difference when getting college students out to vote. Finally, Georgia Shift founder Ian Bridgeforth continues our conversation on transactional versus transformational activism, and the challenges of engaging young Georgians outside the Atlanta metro area. 

Episode references:

Follow us @groundgamepod on Twitter and Instagram, and visit us on the web at www.groundgamepod.com. 

Ground Game: Georgia is a production of Unir.

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EPISODE 2: FIND THE OTHERS – TRANSCRIPT

MARCUS ELLSWORTH, HOST: Coming off of his spectacular no-show performance in the debate against John Ossoff, we have Senator David Alfred Purdue Jr. with this message for Georgia voters…

(The sound of crickets.)

HOLLY ANDERSON, HOST: Are we having technical difficulties?

MARCUS: Actually, we didn’t have the $7,500 the senator requires in order to speak with anyone.

HOLLY: Showing up for Georgia voters as he always does.

MARCUS: Which is not at all.

(Theme music)

REVEREND WARNOCK: “It’s dark right now, but morning is on the way. It’s our job, Georgia, to put our shoes off and get ready.”

ANJALI ENJETI: “We’ve had minority voters here in Georgia understand that every year is an election year.”

JON OSSOFF: “It’s the most important message of the evening. Make a plan to vote with early voting beginning December 14th so we can secure equal justice for all.”

STACEY ABRAMS: “Together, we’ve made Georgia move further and we’ve gotten more done. So if we keep working at it together, we’ll get it done.”

MARCUS: Welcome to Ground Game: Georgia.

HOLLY: I’m Holly Anderson in Atlanta.

MARCUS: And I’m Marcus Ellsworth just across the border in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Every week in December and January, we are bringing you stories from the folks on the ground in Georgia during the runoff election.

HOLLY: This week, we are joined by three young activists who have worked to organize voters in Georgia on different fronts. Raven Bradfield and Luke Boggs have both worked from within the Democratic Party structure in a variety of roles.

MARCUS: Ian Bridgeforth founded his own organization, Georgia Shift, that created a “Party at the Polls”.

HOLLY: But first, we spoke with Tom Bonier of Target Smart who tells us what the data says about why Trump lost in Georgia and how the January runoff differs mathematically from the November election. Now this interview was recorded on December 3rd so some of his numbers may be a little out of date at this point. We kept it in because it’s really interesting.

TOM BONIER: My name is Tom Bonier. Uh, my pronouns are he/his. I’m the CEO of Target Smart. At our core, We’re a data company, a political data company. We’ve been around for about 15 years and we work with Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, and we go and collect individual level voter data, and then use that to analyze trends in terms of turnout and performance. And that sort of thing.

MARCUS: What kind of data are you looking at for the January runoff elections? Are there differences between what you’re seeing now and what you saw in November?

TOM: That’s what we’ve just begun to focus on. So we have a few data points that we’re beginning to dig into. You know, number one is the vote-by-mail requests. The first conclusions we can draw from that are fairly obvious. The vote-by-mail requests, if you compare them to the same point in time for the general election, they’re lower. No one would argue that turnout was going to match or exceed the historic levels we saw in the November election. The question is, how much will it drop off? If you look at the history for runoffs, it generally drops off quite a bit. We’re trending at about 70% of where we were at the same point in time. And there’s reason to be optimistic that those numbers might end up being a bit higher because of the Thanksgiving holidays, making that slow down a bit. The next thing that we’ll be looking at is the vote-by-mail returns that only really just began. So that’s something we’ll be looking at over the coming days and weeks. Voter registration closes in Georgia December seven so, at that point, we’ll be looking at the voter registration. I don’t anticipate we’ll see massive increases because if you didn’t register for the general, you’re probably not going to register. It doesn’t mean that that’s not happening. There won’t be some of it. It’s just not going to be huge numbers and then there’ll be the early in-person data. We know in Georgia that you have different demographic profiles in terms of how you’re voting, whether you’re voting- by-mail versus early in-person versus Election Day. Obviously, the big distinction we saw in the general election was Republicans not being as open to voting by mail.

HOLLY: How’d that happen?

TOM: Right? Right. I can’t figure it out. Uh, it’s, it’s funny when you, when you have the leader of the party, demagoguing against a safe and easy form of voting, which very well might have cost him the election when you look at it, big question in terms of will that turn around again? If this challenge of this runoff is how do you get most of the people who supported you in the general because and then that’s probably how it would be decided which side gets more of their people who turned out the general to come back out. Now, of course they can fall back on the fact that Republicans have an advantage, just in terms of, of how many Republicans there still are in this state.

HOLLY: To understand the sense of urgency around Georgia’s Senate runoffs, you need to look at Georgia’s party identification numbers, which are changing, but not at hyper-speed. This feeling is particularly keen and the Warnock-Loeffler race, where the two candidates ran a tight contest and the general, but if you add Doug Collins voters in November as presumptive Loeffler voters in January, it gets daunting pretty fast.

MARCUS: And is there any data around non-voters like their behavioral patterns? Like what would bring them to the polls? What might make them stay home the next time?

HOLLY: How do you collect data on non-voters?

TOM: So that, that is the million dollar question or maybe 10 million or a hundred million, depending on how far you want to go, because, and this is another pet peeve of mine, when you look at polling as an industry, the first question that they’ll ask a voter when someone picks up the phone is “how likely would you say you are to vote in this election?” They call that a turnout screener and the options are “almost certain”, “somewhat likely”, “not very likely”, “not at all”. And what they do traditionally is if someone says “not at all” or “not very likely”, they say, thank you and they hang up. And the problem is, if you think about our challenge in democracy in general, and, and more narrowly in these elections, especially in these runoff elections were runoff elections, traditionally, a very low turnout, but there’s reason to believe that people will be much more engaged in this election.

TOM: But the challenge is how do we convince the people who aren’t going to vote without intervention to change that behavior? But if all of our polling is only talking to the people who do vote, then that’s problematic. We don’t have the research to say, well, what is it that makes these people feel disenfranchised and separated from the process? The extent to which that they don’t feel like voting is important, but to take that a step further, it’s not just that question we’re asking because it does become a data question and that the kind of person who is likely to pick up their phone and then say, “yeah, I’ll talk to a stranger for 20 to 30 minutes and talk about my opinions.” Well, that’s someone who is likely to vote anyhow, right? So it’s harder to get these people, these non-voters, the people that haven’t voted, by, by definition, they are not likely to engage in these types of processes. So that, that becomes a challenge. And that’s where the community organizing becomes so important.

MARCUS: This is a topic we touched on in our first episode and it’s one we’re going to come back to: major political parties are by nature, transactional, not transformational.

HOLLY: What deep community investment on the part of major political parties might look like is a longer conversation. It’s a number of conversations, but it’s in that space between elections where you find groups like SONG, which you heard about in our last episode, and Georgia Shift, which you’ll hear more about in just a few minutes.

TOM: The organizations that are in the communities that can develop relationships that can reach out to people one-on-one, who can reach out to their own personal networks. We’ve found that that’s the most effective form of getting people, uh, who are non-voters, engaged in the process because the data we have is limited. We have a lot of data on registered voters, not to get creepy, but for any individual registered voter in this country, we probably have about 5,000 different variables of data on them. And it’s not as creepy as uh, you think, you know, people think we know what websites you’re going to, and that sort of, what you’re buying in the store. You know, someone might know that, but we don’t. But when it comes to non-voters, we have what we call consumer files. So we have the data from consumer vendors, you know, the credit card companies, that sort of thing, that gives us basic information about someone’s name, age, race, ethnicity, gender, basic things on consumer patterns.

TOM: But the other problem there is we know, again, by definition, these people who don’t vote tend to have less of a footprint in terms of having consumer history, in terms of having credit cards that would give them that consumer footprint. So they tend to be more invisible from a data perspective, which makes it more challenging for campaigns to make that engagement and get them out. And again, that’s why you see the massive search and turn out. That didn’t happen by accident. That happened by organizers in those communities, not relying necessarily on, on big data, so to speak, but more on their ability to organize in these communities.

MARCUS: So what does that outreach look like going into communities of color? We’re speaking now with Raven Bradfield, who’s lived in Georgia since childhood. She worked on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in Iowa and has worked for the Democratic Party of Georgia in a couple of different capacities versus a Field Organizer, and most recently, as Regional Organizing Director.

RAVEN BRADFIELD: If I go into a middle-class neighborhood, they’re all gung-ho for the Democrats. They’re really excited about the election, things like that. But in more working-class type neighborhoods, I will get feedback from people saying things like, “why does it matter? Because nothing is going to change. It’s never helped before. And um, why should we start now?” But I also get a lot of people who are really excited and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I’m so glad that you’re engaged because this is so important.” Also, we don’t have the resources to really be able to help those people. It would take a longer amount of time than a campaign usually takes in order to actually turn out those voters. So I do give a lot of credit to Stacey Abrams and other organizers and activists that are on the ground who kind of do that work year-round. Like she’s been doing it for decades and a lot of people have as well, but that’s the kind of work that it would take. First, you have to get people registered to vote. And then they actually have to still remove barriers to voting. For example, in the county that I’m from in DeKalb County, they had established polling locations for their early vote. And then for election day, 31 of those polling locations changed.

HOLLY: If you’re listening to this show, you probably already know about the widespread game of polling place musical chairs that helped Brian Kemp snatch the governor’s job from Stacey Abrams in 2018.

MARCUS: Cobb County, which you heard about in our first episode, is reducing its number of early voting locations for the runoff from 11 to just five, citing a lack of resources. The state NAACP and other advocacy organizations have understandably already begun to raise hell over this.

RAVEN: Now you show up to your poll location if this, the wrong place and yeah, but issue with voting, then you have to resolve that the same day and that’s like a barrier to voting. So being able to combat things like that, like some people don’t have cars. I know in like rural areas, especially rural areas where people of color reside, that they don’t have internet. So if you’re tweeting about, “Hey, go vote, make sure you go register.” They don’t even see those things. They have to find a ride to their polling location. If it changes suddenly, it’s harder to let them know, things like that. And those are not things that we take into account.

HOLLY: You’ve been talking on social media about your experiences with political campaigns, hiring white people, specifically white women to perform outreach to communities that are largely not white. Would you like to expand upon any experiences that you’ve had or any further thoughts you have about that?

RAVEN: Georgia was won by Black, Latinx people of color, AAPI communities. And you should see that as, “Oh, that’s, that’s not my community. That is not how I identify and allow people who are from those communities to organize.” It is racist and it’s harmful to their people of color organizers. I understand that it, when it likely wasn’t their attention, and this is a really important election, this runoff election that we’re going into, I myself recognize that there are more ways to help than just having gone to the next campaign in order to benefit me personally. Instead of choosing to do the runoff, I chose to volunteer and I was tapped on to work on the runoff. However, instead I reached out to people of color, LGBT+ communities, disabled organizers that I know, and Southern organizers that could take my place or just anybody who had been an intern or was trying to get their foot in the door. Those are the people I recommended because if those are the people who we want to help, like those are the people who we say that we value who we want to center. It seemed like a really obvious thing for me to do.

HOLLY: There’s a tendency within the mainstream media and from politicians to talk about systemic change as though it is some vague and nebulous thing, which has the handy side effect of obscuring specific calls to action and needed reforms.

MARCUS: But by the same math that tells us all to vote, however unlikely it is for a single vote to sway a national election, systemic change begins with individuals. In this case with Raven, representation in the Democratic Party isn’t going to be solved overnight, but she left a door open behind her, maybe ushered a few folks in after her and enough of those actions combined will move the needle.

HOLLY: So alongside the would-be voters, the never-have voters, and the just aged and the eligibility voters, there’s another population that’s legendarily difficult to pin down and draw data from. I am speaking, of course, of college students. If you’ve ever tried to plan Sunday brunch after a Saturday night football game in this state, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

MARCUS: Our next guest is Luke Boggs, a veteran of multiple campaigns, a former office holder with Georgia’s Young Democrats and a current law student at the University of Georgia. He’s also a co-host of the Georgia politics podcast, PeachPod, and during the November elections, as well as subsequent runoff elections in Athens Clark County, he watched the party confront the already steep challenge of getting college students to the polls and conducting those outreach efforts during a pandemic. Here he is explaining how tactics in the area have changed between the general and runoff elections.

MARCUS: What’s the difference between your tactics like leading up to November and then now going into the runoff?

LUKE BOGGS: So let me frame this: the big thing we left off the table, because the science was, was not as together as it is now, is we were not canvassing. And, and that’s because, you know, it’s hard to go back in time and remember, but like there was a while there like, coronavirus, we knew nothing about it. We did not know what worked. We didn’t know what was safe. And so like now we feel very confident and if you are outside distance wearing a mask, like your, your chances of getting COVID are very, very small. And, and so now we’re canvassing. And so what we did previously is we really focused on phone calls, postcards by volunteers and mailers and digital ads. And so we were doing all of that and we were doing it very aggressively and we, we were very, um, unambiguous and progressive in our messaging. There were some people in Clark County that just, they have to have someone physically show up at their door and tell them like, you need to go vote. I mean, here’s, this is a crazy, crazy fact, more people, more human beings on Election Day voted on December 1st than on November 3rd in Clark County.

HOLLY: Okay, Luke is talking here about runoff elections for Clark and Oconee counties that took place last week for Circuit DA and the Georgia Public Service Commission. And we just want to know that this actually is kind of wild: runoff elections are a notorious headache, not just from an endurance standpoint, but from a logistical one. And the fact that turnout increased in that short span of time from November to December is a really interesting data point. Luke has a couple of theories as to why that might be.

LUKE: The, uh, there’s the shorter ramp so they didn’t have a lot of time to vote by mail. They didn’t have a lot of time to vote early in person. And so anecdotally, what we’ve heard from a lot of our canvassers is like, there are people who like when they see the canvasser and they have the conversation and they’re like, “thank you for coming, because I forgot about this election entirely.”

MARCUS: So one thing we heard from Raven that was echoed in our conversation with Luke is that these efforts being made at the local and state level to ensure that campaign staffs reflect their constituencies more accurately are immediate and short-term actions that can spiral into far reaching consequences. This kind of thinking is crucial and we’re focusing on it today because it tends to get swept aside in the frenetic pace of a campaign in favor of doing whatever is convenient and expedient, and a little further down the timeline, in a chronological sense, you’ll find another quandary. After the election’s over and before the next one roars into town, that’s where most real-life problems take place. And for most of that time, major political parties are nowhere to be seen. We’re speaking now to Ian Bridgeforth, founder and executive director of Georgia Shift, a non-partisan non-profit organization that elevates marginalized young voices through electoral action, hands-on education and civic media programs. Like SONG, the organization featured in our first episode, Georgia Shift is a 501(c)(3) organization with an affiliated 501(c)(4).

HOLLY: What, what do you think the biggest keys are to replicating the successes that we saw in Georgia in November, both in January, but also in two years and four years?

IAN BRIDGEFORTH: The biggest things that I would say we would need to do are investing in areas outside the Metro Atlanta area. And there’s been this misconception for a while that like in rural areas, it’s just a lot of white people. And like in Georgia, specifically, if you’re from Georgia, you know this, there are a lot of black and Brown people, and there’s a lot of young black and Brown people who still could be activated in those areas. For instance, if you look at our HBCUs that are outside the Metro Atlanta area, there are more rural areas that a lot of people wouldn’t think are full of young, black and Brown people, what we typically call “the black belt.”

MARCUS: “The black belt” doesn’t just exist in Georgia. It’s a band of exceptionally fertile land that winds south through the Carolinas, all the way to the Eastern borders of Arkansas and Louisiana, which led in the 1600s and beyond to plantations being established there and higher numbers of enslaved Africans being imported to work that land. It is still home today to the highest proportions of black Americans descended from those abducted and enslaved peoples. And if you look at a map of Georgia, it does look a little like a belt bisecting the state along a rough east-west line.

IAN: There’s a lot of opportunities on the local and state legislative level that, like, we can build a political home and also have like organizers who are out there who know what they’re doing, and you give them the resources to do it. This is not to say that people aren’t doing it. I think we want as much resources as possible. The (c)(3) (c)(4) groups who are doing not only organizing or doing like direct service work, that’s how you really build relationships with people and do it in a way that you’re saying, “Hey, we’re not expecting anything back. Like you are the community and how do we invest in you?” And I think even for all these communities that turned out, my thing is wondering, even after the runoff, like, what are we doing in February, March, and April and throw the rest of the year to really invest in these communities? Now they know that we actually care about them versus just using them as some sort of transactional lever. The partisan institution is not built for direct service kind of work. I don’t think engaging communities on an everyday level with the things that they need is not really in their wheelhouse, because I think that’s the biggest thing it’s like, who are you to just randomly come into my neighborhood and tell me to do something where I haven’t seen you in 11 months.

HOLLY: This is what got us interested in talking to folks who were organizing in Georgia from the ground up, as opposed to from the top down, you know, it’s a lot easier to get 200 people to write postcards to their neighbors, telling them about a city council meeting than it is to get one person to go around to houses and say, “okay, you don’t have a car. How are we going to get you to the city council meeting? And then how are we going to work on getting you a car?”

IAN: How do we really dismantle these systems that have been oppressive to, to these communities for so long? And if, as an organization you can’t provide it, finding resources to connect with, maybe there may be some other non-profit that does more direct services and working with them to help. So it’s really just one-on-one conversations around “what do you need” and and “how can we help” and making sure that they know that you care about them. And, you know, in some instances there are certain institutions that don’t care. That’s probably one of the things that I think was a little surprising as far as like, “Hey, we really have to build this thing from the ground up”. And, and, th-, that’s going to take time. That’s was, it was like, “wow, there’s really not a lot of infrastructure.” And people can be very lonely, I think. And, and so it’s like, how do we provide a space where people don’t feel alone? Like, because this is something that is, is a, is a year round thing. And we have to really localize a lot of this and, and not just put a blanket statement around like, “Hey, if we, you know, we talk about jobs or transportation here, we should do that there.” That’s kind of where I think it’s like, “wow, there’s, there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s rewarding, but it’s, it’s, it’s a lot of work and necessary work that needs to happen.

MARCUS: So what was your most successful event or form of engagement during the general election campaign?

IAN: October 24th, Vote Early Day, we did our big “Party at the Polls”. So we had five DJs. If I were different polling locations, we were passing out like care packages or, or bags or that kind thing with hand sanitizer masks. And so just monitoring the lines and making sure that, you know, everything was fine.

IAN: And so we wanted to make a celebratory event. Essentially people could bring their families, those kinds of things, um, of course go vote but like, even if you, you know, do you want it to just get food and go, we want to provide as much food as possible, and continue to build that relationship with people. The one we did on Election Day was, we looked at the five precincts with the most young black and Brown people in our area. And we said, okay, we’re going to put DJs there from three to seven, like rush hour and made sure that we provide the care packages and we want to continue this kind of celebratory thing. There’s so much doom and gloom, I think in the world and just especially like this past year and so we want to do something that celebrates people coming out to vote and doing their civic duty.

MARCUS: And what about folks outside Georgia who want to help? What’s the best way for them to do that, that gets you what you need?

IAN: Resources as far as like money and those kinds of things, I think, always helps especially if you’re out of state. We have like a texting program and peer-to-peer contact program that anyone can engage it with. Mostly texting the resources has helped because I think it can be dangerous for like people to try to like whether it’s coming from outside the state to knock on doors. So those kinds of things, especially during COVID and that kind of stuff, these organizations have the resources to do, do the voter contact that we need to do, whether it’s mail, digital, and everything like that. And so I think fundraising is probably the biggest thing it’s like saying, “Hey, we can give this organization, whatever you can give, like is, is helpful.”

MARCUS: And how would somebody go about making those donations and participating in the texting program?

IAN: georgiashift.com/contribute. And then, georgiashift.com/volunteer. There should be a form on our site that allows you to assign it to volunteer. Or you can also go to like our, our Instagram page and go to our Linktree. Our Instagram is @georgiashift and you’ll see the Linktree there. And so we’ll have opportunities to get involved that way as well.

MARCUS: Is there anywhere else online where y’all like, you know, do your work and people can, like, be in touch and follow y’all?

IAN BRIDGEFORTH: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I think those are the biggest ones.

HOLLY: The last thing we talked about with Ian was the first thing we saw when he sat down in front of the camera.There was a Christmas tree on one side and on the other side of him, there was a print with a beautiful flowing script and a Timothy Leary quote on it that ends, “…Find the others”. Because podcasting is a visual medium, we asked him to talk about it.

IAN: “Find the others”, I think, like, where it speaks to me, you know, finding people who sort of essentially finding your tribe. In this organizing work, you will find a lot of grifters or you’ll find a lot of like people who are like, they’re either in it for themselves or those kinds of things. And it’s like, how do you find the people who really want to invest and do this work versus get their name at a gala. Who really wants to, like, invest in people and, and that’s kind of like, to me, like what resonates with us? And, and that’s, I mean, that’s a hard thing to do because it’s politics. There’s, there’s so many people who want attention and people who want positions and also things like that. And it’s like, how do you find people who just, just want to do the work.

MARCUS: The context for that quote, by the way, it goes like this: “Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.”

HOLLY: Many, thanks to Tom Bonier, Raven Bradfield, Luke Boggs, and Ian Bridgeforth for their time and for sharing their insights. You can find links to Georgia Shift as well as other organizations mentioned in the podcast and recommended by our guests in the show notes.

MARCUS: We should underscore our earlier mention of polling places across Georgia being closed in advance of elections, especially with the recent move to reduce the number of locations in Cobb County from 11 to only five. Fair Fight is where you want to throw your donation dollars and volunteer hours if this is an issue that’s near and dear to your heart. You can find them at fairfight.com

HOLLY: No matter where you live in the state, if you’re registered to vote in the Georgia runoffs and you plan to vote in person, double-check your polling place before you go at mvp.sos.ga.gov. That’s MVP as in, my voter page, .sos.ga.gov. And if you’re a Fulton County resident, don’t forget that you can vote early at either State Farm Arena or Mercedes-Benz Stadium starting next week. Dates and times for those opportunities are available right now on both venue websites. I cannot recommend this enough.

MARCUS: If you’re interested in Tom Bonier’s work, he’ll be appearing on a future episode to discuss the surges in Asian American Pacific Islander voter activation, and turnout that startled many national pundits in November. Also next week, we’ll be featuring Tamika Atkins of ProGeorgia. In the meantime, if you’re mobilizing voters in Georgia or know of some great people and organizations we should talk to, you can reach us through the “Contact Us” page at groundgamepod.com.

HOLLY: Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @groundgamepod, and make sure you subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast apps. Also the ones you don’t like.

MARCUS: Until next time, take care of yourselves and be good to each other out there.

ARLILL RODRIGUEZ: Our show is produced by the Ground Game: Georgia volunteer squadron, editing by Douglas Reyes-Ceron and me, Arlill Rodriguez. Our theme is by the amazing Jonathan Sanford, additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Design by Jasmine Johnson. Nicole Mackie runs our social. Ground Game: Georgia is a production of unir.

HOLLY: Two Georgia Senate races! Oh boy!