Uncontested primaries have obvious advantages for candidates. Most importantly, candidates in uncontested primaries aren’t forced to spend their resources early on fighting an intra-party (Democrat vs. Democrat) battle. Being able to consolidate support and funding early can be critical in shaping the outcome of an election.
As you probably already know, getting out the vote (GOTV) is a critical component of campaigning. But GOTV doesn’t just mean November. Getting out voters for primaries, especially for those candidates “on the bubble,” can be extremely helpful for a number of short and longer term reasons.
Why does it matter, and why should we bother?
Voting turnout in the primary can actually have cascading effect on campaigns — and this is true even for Democrats who are uncontested in their primary.
One reason it’s worthwhile to turn out the vote for an uncontested primary is to help voters establish a pattern of voting behavior. We want to encourage voters to make voting a habit, and this can start with primary voting.
Turnout numbers from primaries (contested and not) provide a critical early indicator to external resources and partners, like state legislative caucuses. Turnout numbers often drive (or keep away) early support from caucuses, which can include tangible things like funding for additional staff and less tangible things like validation. State legislatures tend to have two “caucuses”, one for the upper chamber and one for the lower. During campaign season, the goals of these organizations are to elect more Democrats to the chamber, and to protect their current members (i.e.: Democrats who already hold office). Caucuses typically make decisions on resource allocation for races based on their internal budget, which is usually a finite bucket. Each caucus will be looking closely at primary numbers when going through the targeting processes that determine which races they will support. Caucus support can be important to campaigns (although certainly not dispositive). One way the relevant caucus can often help at the early post-primary stage is to pay for polling for its targeted districts. Polls are expensive, and being included in the caucus’ polling program can be the difference between having a poll in your race and not having one.
In addition to caucuses, other important support sources and allies will be looking at primary turnout numbers to gauge interest in the campaign, which may contribute to their likelihood to support the candidate. These allies include organizations that endorse candidates, like Sierra Club and EMILY’s List. While some organizations will endorse candidates ahead of primaries, many do not. And so lots of organizations will wait to see the primary turnout numbers before making endorsement and donation decisions.
The primary is an important fundraising call to action for candidates seeking donors and contributions. After the primary, those turnout numbers are something that campaigns (and their allies) use to show to donors and potential donors that there is momentum for the candidate and that she is worth donating to.
One reason to help a candidate during primary time even when she is uncontested is that it is a great opportunity to build name recognition for the candidate. There are only a few natural points during the election cycle when voters might be paying more than zero attention — and one is just ahead of the primary. By phonebanking, sending postcards and text messages to voters to encourage them to vote in the primary, we are educating voters about the name of our uncontested candidate, and that she is a Democrat running in the voter’s district. Often, folks need to hear a candidate’s name several times before even committing the name to memory — primary time is a great opportunity to start this process.
It’s not unusual for well-resourced campaigns to do a big push around the primary for voter contact, even in uncontested primaries. The campaigns that Sister District Project supports often don’t have a ton of resources. We can provide volunteer power for campaigns, especially those that may be working with a finite set of resources, to help them with their efforts in voter outreach and turnout — during the primary and through the general.
The reasons above for why we should bother supporting candidates through the primary when they’re uncontested are especially true for races that are “on the bubble.” Those are races that may not be top targets going in to the campaign cycle. Several of our races are “on the bubble” this year — these may be districts that Hillary lost by a few points, or won just by a hair, or districts that have been held at the state legislative level by Republicans for many years.
Last year, we were able to see vividly that our early support for “bubble” Democrats not facing contested primaries made a big impact. We supported a few uncontested candidates ahead of the primary, where they had a good showing. As a result of this early support, we were able to help some of our bubble races get onto the caucus’ and other supporters’ radars even though they weren’t initially on the target lists going in.
Two who come to mind are Cheryl Turpin and Shelly Simonds (the latter of whom won the nomination locally after the original Democrat dropped out of the race). Neither district had a contested Democratic primary, and neither district began the cycle as a targeted race. We were able to lend our support ahead of the primary, and our early support had an immediate and significant impact on the campaigns in both districts. Cheryl ended up winning in the general election by just 394 votes; Shelly’s race was tied, settled essentially by a losing coin toss. Early, pre-primary support was critical in these ‘bubble’ districts, and they serve as great examples of why we should dive right in to support our candidates now, as we head into primary season, even when they are not facing another Democrat in their primaries.
So let’s all make some dials, send some postcards, and pitch in however we can to help our candidates now!