Lessons Learned from 2017 Elections

Here is summary of lessons & ideas from the 2017 Virginia elections. Quotes are from a discussion thread on the Thunderdome Virginia Politics Facebook Group. 

It’s About Turn Out

  • We need to do a better job segmenting the base and having ways to turn out those segments
  • Canvassing with a personal touch is effective at getting people to vote
  • The anti-Trump sentiment helped turn out Democrats this time around
  • Postcards help turn out because it’s personal. Postcard parties help bond activists

“EVERY voter we talk to and door we knock matters. Whether it be 10 or 50 doors. Hence, the recounts where people are going to lose by less than 100.”

“FACT: We did not change minds in this election…the 10 GOP incumbents we beat, that had opposition in 2013, actually gained a net total of 8,153 between them. Only LeMunyon got less votes than he did in ’13.The Democrats in those 10 districts, who won….got 46,010 more votes than the Dem candidates in ’13. This was about turnout!!!”

Postcard Parties Work

Show up AT Polling Places

  • Man EVERY polling place to reach the low, low, low information voter deciding as they walk in
  • More volunteers allow for shifts, rather than one person having to be there all day
  • Work with your local Democratic Committee and other activist groups like CASA,
  • Have lots of signs
  • Reserve enough campaign signs to make a temporary gauntlet for car and foot traffic

“Having the polls covered by multiple people well in advance. We had six republicans to our one democrat at my polling place. More signs—we were outnumbered at the poll on this front, too. Providing handouts with down ballot names helped!”

Signs Matter

Big Ass Sign

  • Signs are expensive for delegate campaigns to have to order
  • We need better ways to pay for them. Local Dems tend to buy them but not in the big quantities we need, and voters expect them to be free to them.
  • Statewide campaigns don’t communicate that they want people to request signs, don’t communicate where to pick up the signs, or what to do with them after the campaign is over
  • An 6 ft or 8 ft. sign on a major road, especially in rural areas, is at least as valuable as the money spent on TV ads
  • Campaigns should track the addresses of where the signs went, then turn in those addresses to local Democratic committees to give them a head start for the next election
  • Homemade signs show that people care in a powerful way

“This is so important. In 2016 I couldn’t get a Hillary yard sign out of the local campaign offices no matter how hard I tried to tell them that signs really do work in red communities. In particular rural communities. The party line now is “yard signs don’t vote” but in red areas if all we see are Republican signs, it is extremely demoralizing and I think suppresses the democratic turnout on election day.”

“We couldn’t get Coordinated Campaign 8 foot signs a month out from the election and were told they “were for VIPs or cost $125 each, so we made own homemade “Big Ass Signs” for Clarke and Frederick counties. They energized Democrats and pissed off somebody who vandalized them (but we repaired them.)”

Canvassing TIPS

Wendy Gooditis Canvassers

  • Knock on every known friendly door at least once before you pursue knocking the same door 7 times. The 7 times metric during GOTV was too much.
  • Ignore “No Solicitation” signs and educate the resident that what you are doing isn’t soliciation
  • Being real is better than following a script
  • Don’t forget to smile
  • Lead by asking the voter what they care about. It usually leads to a better conversation. And then make a notation about what you learned.
  • VAN notes from earlier canvasses are buried or maybe not shown. They should be available because they could help the current canvasser. Are notes written on paper sheets always entered into the database?
  • Pace yourself so that you don’t hate the experience and will do it more than once
  • Campaigns shouldn’t overwhelm Newbie canvassers with demands. Make their first experience pleasant and easy. We need more “mini canvass” training opportunities for newbies where they can go out with experienced canvassers. Field Coordinators put too much pressure on people to go alone so they hit their quota of doors knocked. Many people like going in pairs and it forges bonds.
  • Campaigns need help coordinating with other campaigns. If we are handing out lit for a delegate, we should also have the lit in hand for the statewide races and local school board candidate.
  • Find and get quantities of lit earlier. Literature from the coordinated campaign was late arriving, not given to many delegate candidates, and in short supply in the critical final 3 weeks.
  • Find ways to get in contact with outside volunteer groups like Swing Left in advance so they have time to mobilize and help you
  • Follow your heart as a canvasser and not somebody’s dictate. If you want to help a candidate who isn’t in a “flippable district” go do it!
  • Canvassing in pairs can lead to more canvassers showing up and more doors knocked

“Regarding canvass buddies: this was part of the reason for the success of our grassroots Canvass Days. Here’s what allowing buddies and helping pair them up and do carpools, produced: (1) low “flake rate”; more doors knocked. (2) more newbies willing to go canvass (3) more repeat canvassers

“When we canvass we should have voter registration forms with us.”

“Print Spanish version of voter registration form. Carry Spanish versions of flyers. And it helps if one of your canvassers speaks Spanish.”

“Seven visits is too much hits the nail on the head. One voter said there is ‘a fine line between GOTV and turning off the vote.”’ I am actually a big believer now in the handwritten postcards….they come in the mail, I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to answer a call or the door, and they show a personalized approach that phone calls/canvassing/and pre-printed materials don’t. The positive message the Doug Jones campaign in AL is using sets a standard for what politics should return to.”

“We need more Spanish-speaking and younger volunteers informing and working on GOTV. ”

“We should include returning veterans info on voter registration deadline materials (e.g., if their deadlines are extended, as one vet told me they thought was the case).”

Direct Mail Needs to Get Better

“Campaigns need to send out their lit with Absentee Ballot Applications.”

“When they go low, we go high, to quote Michelle Obama. I had a postman tell me he was sick of seeing all the negative mailers he had to deliver.”

Voter Registration NOW

  • Train more people to be able to register voters (The bar is quite low, you just have to watch an online video and sign a pledge)
  • Have the websites bookmarked on your phone for VA voter registration and to check status. You can show people where to go or even let them register through your phone in the moment vs. the paper method. It’s faster and easier nowadays.
  • Getting more people registered expands the base. We need to work on this before the fire drill of a campaign begins.

“Have information to help register voters for early door knockers.”


  • Contest EVERY race!!

“I hated the way some groups triaged the races, encouraging people to neglect campaigns that weren’t designated ‘flippable.’ Guess what? They were wrong.”

“In the 18th the Dems did not support Tristan Shields, and there was a “Green” (sort of) running also – Will King – who had a strong ground game comparatively to Shields. The district is gerrymandered and very rural. The incumbent Republican Webert actually canvassed too, where he has never felt threatened in this district. King got only 5% or so, if Tristan had received those votes (some discussion about whether King pulled from Rs, whom he targeted with outreach and message, or mostly from Ds due to his green platform) he would have had the best Dem showing in this district in years. So the Dem ticket attracted voters even in a rural red district and even without party support. It helps to have a charismatic candidate and Indivisible volunteers. This was not a case of not drawing attention to a race, I’d say it is a recognition that the brand is still valuable, in this election, and with a liberal (if unsupported) candidate. My opinion is that the Dems need to be in red districts with yard signs and moral support/mentoring new candidates even if they can’t do financial support. Also, we too had the combined campaign telling us to only canvass the 31st (flippable) where people at the doors told us to stop canvassing them, 7 visits was too much – and not cutting turfs for Warrenton, the most dense Dem area of the 18th, where Northam needed votes even if Shields was unlikely to win, and where we found many voters who’d never been canvassed. It made no sense to us locally and was really patronizing.


  • Proof: Lee Carter

“Money is NOT a good indicator as compared to ground game when ranking candidates. Speaking from experience.”


  •  Join your local democratic party and be the change you want to see in that group
  • The Dems have wanted change too but they are under-resourced locally
  • Democrats need to “build their brand” in many places
“Many people aren’t familiar with the Dem party structure. Hope people will attend their local Dem committee reorganization and join their local committee. Usually it’s the local committees who do fund raisers to buy candidate yard signs and to make sample ballots to hand out at the polls. It takes a team to win elections. There are a lot of positions for people to fill.”

“I met a lot of people while canvassing who asked how they can get more involved and I told them every time, contact your local democratic committee. You don’t have to be a dues paying member or go to every meeting but that’s how I learned what was going on locally and where to sign up for election GOTV activities.”

“Yes, join your local Dems to get connected with volunteer opportunities that are ongoing, not just at GOTV time: staffing tables at events, registering voters, hosting house parties to drum up excitement for candidates, being a precinct captain to schedule volunteers to pass out sample ballots. And bring a friend! The more people get involved with behind the scenes efforts, the more likely they will remember to vote.”

“Not everyone will canvass, but they will register people, or they will write postcards, or they will raise money, or work on a Facebook page, etc. Having that game plan is what the core precinct team needs to develop, and have enough people on it, so that no one person has to do everything.”

“Would also love some transparent mechanism for building the party and attracting young people locally in “unwinnable” districts, and more local input into GOTV. PACs trying to do this need to get the Dems onboard. If the VADems don’t ‘allow’ local control, the Indivisibles seem ready to do it without them – a waste of energy imho when we could work together.” I can’t speak for rural area’s, but in the suburbs, we need Precinct Ops to be the essential function of the party. Our precinct ops are too often viewed as staffing polling stations. I have moderated my views on the necessity of that function, but it should be the last thing a precinct team is worried about. Political Outreach needs to be a year round function. We down in South West Fairfax are planning outreach to strong Dems in our our little quad, canvassing no data voters, with the rest of Fairfax (and hopefully a lot of help from our friends) in the 50 Comstock precincts from March to June, campaign mode from June to GOTV, wash, rinse, repeat. Peppered in all of this is just having get togethers with people. No ask, just spending time with politically engaged people with similar values. It really helped boost our volunteer engagement. The key element, I found, when finding someone who wanted to volunteer, was having something for them to do, that was meaningful and useful, that they wanted to do.”


“We need to do better to educate some of the minority & more marginalized group of voters; some with significant language difficulties. I was an EO for half the day on Election Day and checked in a bunch of people who did not look like they knew what they were doing. And then hearing about all this debacle with the provisional ballots. We need to think of ways to reach these communities during the in between elections period to literally give them workshops about the nuts & bolts of voting. The rules are many & confusing. Plus if we can get in there we could also use the opportunity to do a bit of GOTV, I.e. when the next election is. Anyway to close this gap would be good. I have some ideas about creating target group “Ambassadors” to reach some minority ethnic groups. And even in red counties, can people object to education and outreach on voting as a civic duty? Where, when, how? What ID you need, how to vote absentee? We should get this in all the libraries, post offices, fast food places, gas stations — when is election day and are you going to vote? messages.” Groups like Vote Riders and Spread the Vote do great things with voter ID education and actually helping people get the ID they need to vote. And they need volunteers to help more people.

“I also have been mulling over producing explainers VDO content that could be distributed online (YouTube). Sort of like what we did with “Why VA Matters 2017”. We could have people role playing getting registered to vote, rules, IDs, mock voting, looking at a mock ballot, etc. what happens if u have to do provisional ballots, mail in ballots, early absentee voting. Make ones in different languages – Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean.”

“We think an “understanding your government” website or movement or something needs to be made. Not just about elections, but how the government works in general. I have had to explain thousands of times this year the difference between Congress and the General Assembly, and other really basic civics things. But it needs to be fun and shareable too. (We wanted to call it “by the People, for the People or something like that…how to distill a really complicated set of economic concepts into a universally understandable format.”

“I was getting gas at a 7-11 then got coffee at Starbucks and it could have been any other day. I had the only “I voted” sticker. I’m thinking, make it like an old fashioned patriotic party, like the 4th with flags everywhere so you can’t miss that it’s Election Day.”


  • Ask voters what they care about. This is gold for persuading other voters.
  • Issues can be hyper local down to the precinct level, such as opposing a cell phone tower or wanting road improvements

“We need to serve them better, learn their concerns and be engaged with their communities all year not just at election time.”

“We need a list of common problems new voters or very early voters can identify with that aren’t solely idealistic or social. For example, net neutrality, criminal justice relative to schools, unintended pregnancy, drugs /alcohol addiction (maybe see afflicted friends), etc”


  • The Tea Party has their Don’t Tread on Me license plates and flags. What are our symbols? How about the American Flag? Hate Has No Home Here signs.
  • We should exhibit at fairs and festivals
  • T-Shirts express who we are: We Vote We Win. Woman’s March. Resist.

“Our people need to be at every Fair/Family Day event in our counties. The Republicans are at every single one of these events. Concentrate on ground game and basic outreach, stick with a positive message. I have no problem with poking. We need to be a presence everywhere and show the people the Progressives/Dems are here and it’s time to come out of hiding and be proud of what we stand for.”

“We have to have an ongoing outreach program, a group that continually stays engaged with both each other and the community at large. If the only time we connect with our volunteers is during the major elections we can not expect to form a community. We need to have a presence at every fair, festival, parade, and community event. This is how we make sure every Dem knows they are not alone!”

4 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from 2017 Elections”

  1. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!
    The ideas are right on.
    We moved to Loudoun County five years ago and I would suggest to the Dems and canvassing volunteers that they should advertise in the local papers (Purcellville Gazette, Blue Ridge leader, and Loudoun Now) The reason is they are delivered free to the rural addresses. Great exposure. Also, get those photo ops (Girl Scouts, ribbon cutting etc) that Comstock keeps showing. The fairs and parades are good too. Postcards were also very nice, novel in the age of iPhone.

  2. wow, this is excellent! every point resonates with me. Thank you for making this so clear.

    I especially want to do voter registration. I ran into several people while I was canvassing who were not registered.

  3. I definitely agree with what you have said. I would like to add that the Leagues of Women Voters is also a good place for information and getting out the votes.
    Joining the Democratic Party NOW so you can participate in re-org is critical. We need to be stronger together. We have a license plate initiative that we didn’t get started until late, but hope you will join us in it’s support in the future. http://networknova.org/license/.

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