WASHINGTON — Something’s amiss in the state of Georgia. According to the right-leaning Washington Examiner, Republicans fear that their firm grip on power in the conservative stronghold is in danger. “In 2020, people will be coming to Georgia to help us out,” a GOP activist told the Examiner. “We can’t take for granted anymore that Georgia is safely in the Republican column.”
No single person can take more credit for the changing trajectory of Georgia politics than Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader of the state’s House of Representatives who narrowly lost her bid for governor last year. Abrams was the first black woman to be a gubernatorial nominee in Georgia history, and she would have been America’s first-ever black female governor had she not lost by 55,000 votes. Her opponent was the sitting secretary of state — “the referee, the scorekeeper and the contestant,” as she puts it — and the race was marred by widespread evidence of voter suppression. She’s taken some heat for saying that her election was “stolen” from the voters of Georgia.
But Abrams, 45, is undaunted. In the months since the election, she launched Fair Fight Action, a group devoted to battling voter suppression with new laws and lawsuits, and Fair Count, a second effort to ensure communities of color and other marginalized groups are counted in the upcoming national census and receive equal representation when Georgia redraws its state and federal legislative districts in 2021. On top of all that, there’s the not-so-insignificant question of whether Abrams will run for president in 2020. (She ruled out a bid for U.S. Senate.)
When Rolling Stone caught up with Abrams this week in Washington, D.C., her answer to the 2020 question hadn’t changed — she’s still considering it — but she was eager to talk about the lessons of her 2018 race (which saw her expand Georgia’s electorate and earn more votes than any other Democrat in state history), and how Democrats can win in red-turning-purple Sun Belt states like Georgia and Arizona.
“The argument for the Sun Belt is that our path to victory for progressive candidates is an expansion of the map,” she says. “But you can’t expand the map by only talking to the people you already have.”
I wanted to hear you talk about this idea of reaching new voters, growing the map in the Sun Belt states. What did you see during the campaign and before, when you were minority leader, and how does that apply going forward — whether it’s the presidential race or other statewide races?
Georgia’s demography is an example of what’s happening maybe more slowly everywhere else in the Sun Belt. Today we’re 53 percent white, 32 percent African American, 9.5 percent Latino, 4.5 percent Asian Pacific Islander. By 2026, 2027, the estimation is that it’ll be 49 percent white, 33 percent African American, about 11.5 percent Latino and roughly 7 percent Asian Pacific Islander. By the end of the next decade, there will be a seismic shift not only in the size of the population, but also in its composition. And that’s coming because of migration from the Midwest and other places into the Sunbelt.
Part of the obligation of effective leaders is anticipating that change. There have been books written about this for the last 20 years and the clarion call is “demography is destiny.” No. Demography is opportunity. My approach has always been to see this demographic change not as an inflection point where suddenly all of our politics are different, but as a pathway for pushing the kind of politics I think we need to have to serve this population and serve the larger American experiment.
My first step was the New Georgia Project, which is aimed at ensuring that these new voices can be heard by getting on the [voter] rolls. In the wake of 2018, I realized there were two other pieces that we have to more aggressively attack.
One is the infrastructure of electoral integrity and voter access. That’s the role of Fair Fight Action, to ensure that through litigation, legislation and advocacy, we’re actually able to let those folks who have gotten onto the rolls stay on the rolls and have their votes cast and counted. For us to make this process real, people have to have their votes connected to their values, and so advocacy has been an integral part of what we do. That’s why we’re talking about the abortion bans. We did commercials to encourage people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. It’s why we have conversations about climate change and climate action.
The third piece is what will be the story of America for the next decade, and that’s the census. People who are erased from the narrative by not being counted lose access to resources, but they’re also overlooked in reapportionment. Fair Count is designed to increase that participation rate. Not only does it determine the allocation of resources and reapportionment, the allocation of resources tends to urge people to be engaged. If you aren’t counted, then you don’t get the resources; because you don’t get the resources, you continue the cycle of poverty, and because you’re [at a] disadvantage you don’t participate. But if there’s a direct connection between participation and improvement, you will have more people not only participating in the census, they’ll also participate in the political process.
What worked on the ground to reach these people who were overlooked?
The first step is knowing where people are and what they want. I’d been doing that as leader and amplified that as a candidate. By the time we finished the campaign, I’d been to all 159 counties.
Second is a reshaping of the question. Typically, candidates have persuasion and turnout targets. Persuasion is convincing you to ideologically abandon whatever you hold to be true ideologically and come to the other side. Turnout is convincing people who already agree with you to go do something about it.
What we did differently was we pushed the two pieces together. We ran a primary that was actually for the general election. We reached out to those marginalized communities that typically did not show up. We met with reporters from the Latino community, the Asian Pacific Islander community, the black community, the LGBTQ community. If you were a community of identity, we were with you and we asked you what you needed. We also spent money in those communities to push our message out early instead of waiting for the last six weeks or two weeks of the campaign.
When turnout typically becomes the focus.
Exactly. If you look at my primary race and my general race, I never changed my narrative. I didn’t pick issues to talk about in the primary and then soften them in the general.
You didn’t make the proverbial shift to the middle.
We ran the same campaign from beginning to end. We ran it in every community. But we also built the infrastructure that let us show up in those communities. We had thousands of volunteers — we think at one point it was 15,000 volunteers. We had the most robust field game in the state. We energized and deputized communities to do their own work and we gave them the resources to do it. That combination was transformative. We had young people who set up their own version of what the campaign should look like and we gave them the resources to live it out. I’m not 18. I’m not 25. Why not rely on those who have common cause with some of our voter targets to do the work?
What happens to that infrastructure?
It’s still there. In part because we did a thank-you tour. Part of the thank-you tour was going back to those communities and saying, “It’s not just about an election. This is about power.”
This isn’t necessarily partisan. You can demand action from people who do not share your political leanings. The infrastructure of engagement is a constant. We’ve been back to those communities, and we’ve engaged those very volunteers to keep fighting for the very principles they were looking to when they were working to elect me. They still need to fight for Medicaid expansion. They still believe the right to vote should be sacrosanct. They showed up [at the capitol] to protest HB 316, a bill that did not advance the cause of voter integrity. They are showing up on the abortion bans. We’re a part of that.
I often hear about candidates who go into a race and say, “I have my universe of voters. I know who they are. I just have to find them where they are.” They use social media, TV and whatever else to get them out. But there’s this implicit message of, “If they’re not already in our system, we don’t need to do the work to go get them.” How do you puncture that?
You puncture it by making sure you get more people registered, which is a constant part of what we do, but also by ignoring that [conventional wisdom]. We don’t talk about a path to victory; we talk about the math to victory. The math for us was looking at the scoring on the Democratic or Republican side, of who’s more likely to vote for you versus the other guy, and going all the way to the people who weren’t scored. We ran ads on country music radio as well as urban radio for the same reason. Because there’s a self selection that candidates make where they push voters out of their universes. That’s nonsensical. Especially when you’re looking to expand the electorate.
The argument for the Sun Belt is that our path to victory for progressive candidates is an expansion of the map. But you can’t expand the map by only talking to the people you already have. Those who are going to vote because it’s the right thing to do are going to vote anyway. Those are your known quantities. Opportunity lies in the unknown quantities.
But that’s what I hear all the time: “We know who our people are, we just gotta get ’em out.”
We don’t know. That’s why my campaign and our narrative does not use “base” or “turnout” as monikers for describing any voter. Everyone is a persuasion target, because either they vote their values now, or they share your values and don’t think voting will actually make those values real. And we talk to those who do not share our values because I want them to know what the opportunities are.
That’s one of the reasons we were able to increase, for example, the white share of the vote [in 2018]. Some of those were new voters who came into the fold, but some of those were folks who thought they were Republicans but when they heard me talk about the issues of education, economic security and the environment, they were persuaded that I was more in line with their values.
It feels like presidential campaigns are so focused on designing a finely tuned path to 270 electoral votes. It comes down to 100,000 people living in a few states, and there are all these other people out there who aren’t spoken to and aren’t included.
That’s one of the challenges of 2016. Yes, there was Comey, there was hacking, there was disinformation and Russian bots. You name it, it occurred. But there was also I think an under-resourcing of organizing and making sure that we were reaching the 77,000 people across those three states who shared our values. You had a pool of six million people that did not show up who had shown up in 2008 or 2012.
I think the best pathway to victory is to figure out what can be said to engage those six million. Because it’s pretty simple to solve a 77,000 vote problem if you’ve got a six-million-person pool of opportunity. But we have to pull ourselves back from this notion that it’s an efficiency argument to only target this group, to only speak to these values.
People vote for someone they believe will actually make their lives better. If they don’t hear you talking about the obstacles they face, why should they believe that you can provide solutions to their problems?
How do you think candidates in the 2020 Democratic field should be talking to those voters who haven’t been reached before?
In pedagogy, they tell you you’ve got visual learners, audio learners and active learners. The same thing is true for voters. The best teachers are the ones who give you visual, audio and active engagement, and the best candidate is going to be the one who can do those things. The least successful candidate will be the one who decides there is only one pathway and who is so innocuous with their prescriptions as to sell you nothing.
Despise his policies though I do, one thing Trump has been very clear about is his values or lack thereof and the policies he will implement to make them so. Therefore, he has been able to persuade his supporters to support him.
We need a candidate who will persuade everyone else by bringing this combination. There is nothing wrong with being able to speak to the heart and the head at the same time and then to demand action to make it real. That’s why, for me, when I look at the potential candidates, voter suppression has to be at the top of what they talk about. If you can’t make manifest the ability to ask for those policies by casting your vote, then the rest of it is irrelevant.