How to Combat Complacency

Polls and the pandemic could lead some to skip voting, here's how to fight back

After 2016, I know it seems completely insane to worry about complacency in the final stretch of the campaign. But my 2020 motto is “worry about everything, panic about nothing.” I have long believed that Donald Trump would have lost in 2016, if people (myself included) had not been so convinced that a Clinton victory was a fait accompli. The faux certainty of the result created a permission structure for Trump skeptical Republicans to vote for a third party, Clinton skeptical Democrats to do the same, and those generally skeptical to stay home. Third party candidates received an unusually large share of the vote and four million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 stayed home. The rest is history.

With polls showing a large Biden lead, could the same thing happen again?

A memo sent out by Biden campaign manger Jen O’Malley Dillon this past weekend suggests complacency is something about which they are concerned: As she wrote:

This race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest. In the key battleground states where this election will be decided, we remain neck and neck with Donald Trump. If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign, through whatever smears or underhanded tactics he has at his disposal.

Based on the Biden campaign’s tremendous success raising small dollar donations and recruiting volunteers, my guess is that their concern is less about enthusiasm for their candidate and more about the additional hurdles to voting in a pandemic. I imagine Jen is also trying to level set expectations for the media that will flock to a Trump comeback narrative like a group of rabid lemmings if there is a small shift in the polling.

If complacency is a concern, how do we combat it?

Fear vs. Hope

Stoking fear is the most common response to complacency. The plan is often to scare people straight to the polls. After what happened in 2016, fear may be a great motivator. But in my experience — especially for Democrats — hope and inspiration is a much more effective way to get people to do something.

Before I get to the hope, I do want to dwell on the fear for a second. Jen is exactly right. Campaigns often cry wolf down the stretch for money and volunteers. That is not what is happening here. This race is closer than the polls show. Play around with an Electoral College Map calculator for a few minutes and it’s easy to see how a small shift in the polling or a mishap with mail ballots can make this race very close, very quickly.

Beyond the (potential) closeness of the race, Democrats will have more success firing people up by talking about the good things that happen if we win rather than the bad things that will happen if we lose.

We all know people in our lives or will encounter them while phone banking who are looking for reasons not to vote. The complications of voting by mail and the risks of contracting the virus can be be pretty compelling reasons for the already disinclined.

Here are the some possible strategies to talk your complacent friends off the couch and into the voting booth.

Political Empowerment

Voting is an expression of political power. If we want people to do it, we need to empower them. That means centering the political conversation on the power of the voters, not the politicians. I always believed this was the secret to President Obama’s success. His message focused more on a movement that he was a part of rather than his role in leading that movement. Obama always wanted to make sure people knew that change was possible, but that he couldn’t do it alone. One of my favorite Obama quotes is from a speech he gave on Super Tuesday in 2008:

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

The Biden campaign has used similar language, but Trump has been such an all consuming media force that the message of empowerment may not break through to the folks paying less attention to the speeches and the tweets. To that end, I highly recommend sharing this brilliant ad from the Biden Campaign. I will admit I choke up every time I have watch it and I have watched it several times a day since it came out last week.

The message of the ad is so powerful because it’s about the role that voters can play in getting this country back on track. Joe Biden appears in the ad, but he is almost an afterthought. He is the vehicle for change, but only we have the power to make change.

The “What”

An argument for change involves two parts — how and what. The “how” is addressed above. The “what” is embedded in Biden’s very progressive, very popular, yet somewhat unknown policy agenda. A key strategy to turning skeptics into voters is listening. Ask them what issues they care most about. I promise that no matter the issue, Donald Trump is fucking it up and Joe Biden has a plan to fix it. Biden’s plan will likely be bigger and bolder than the voter expects. You can see all of Biden’s plans here. Crooked Media has put together a series of easily shareable graphics that compare the Biden and Trump plans on key issues.

Because of the dramatic impact of the pandemic that Trump failed to stop, the question of what change looks like can be both bigger and more banal than policy stances. The questions that hangs over this election is “when can we return to normal and who is the best person to do that?” The answer is undoubtedly Joe Biden. I thought this ad from the Biden campaign made that case in a very interesting way.

Trusted Messengers

Sometimes in politics, the candidate is not the best person to make the case to certain voters. The voters most likely to fall victim to complacency are often the ones most skeptical of politics — and certain politicians. In the Change Research poll of young voters that I wrote about last week, we tested a series of politicians and public figures to see which might be effective messengers. According to the poll, Dwayne Johnson, Lebron James, and both Obamas test very favorably with these voters and are likely to be effective messengers for young voters who express some skepticism of Biden.

Some content worth sharing from these messengers:

  • Michelle Obama recently gave a powerful closing argument speech for the Biden/Harris ticket, here is an easily sharable clip.

  • Barack Obama was recently on this little podcast known as Pod Save America to talk about what was at stake in this election. Here is a clip from that interview.

  • “The Rock” rarely gets involved in politics, but this year he got off the sidelines to endorse Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Here is a video of his conversation with the Democratic ticket.

  • Now that the NBA season is over and Lebron James has emerged from the bubble, I expect we will see more content from him. Although, I would make sure the people you are sending it to are not Miami Heat fans.

Anger at what Donald Trump has done and fear about what he might do have dominated the political conversation. He is exhaustingly omnipresent. The best way to combat that exhaustion is not more fear and anger. It’s hope and inspiration.