How We Lost, and Won, in Michigan

We launched in June 2014 with the goal of electing candidates who grasp the magnitude of the climate crisis. The fall 2014 elections would be our first test of an explicitly political grassroots climate organization. Could we turn out voters on a shoestring through fieldwork alone? Short answer: yes, by a lot.

Our endorsed candidate Paul Clements released a poll 6 days before the election showing him down by only 4 points against Fred Upton, with Upton’s support falling 10 points in a month. Given Upton’s prominent position as the chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the fact that we were the only climate/environmental group on the ground in Michigan's Sixth District, we put all the resources we could muster into the Benton Harbor area of Berrien County during those last few days.

No spin - Clements lost.

At the same time, we - and I’m pretty sure it was only Climate Hawks Vote - increased voter turnout among Democrats in six precincts by nearly 40%. Not a typo.

More below the fold.

Bear with me for some math, but first some stage-setting: Early on I heard through the grapevine that far southwest Michigan was virtually untouched - Gary Peters made one stop throughout his campaign. Climate Hawks Vote hired one phenomenal organizer in Benton Harbor township. The more I heard about Benton Harbor’s history of segregation and poverty the more I was convinced we were doing the right thing by working that region. In mid-October Larry Lessig’s MayDay SuperPAC joined us in the race with ads throughout the district. Otherwise, the race was flying under the national radar til that poll and subsequent stories in  GristHuffington Post, and Inside Climate News.

By the weekend before Election Day, Mayday/PCCC was phonebanking throughout the district. Climate Hawks Vote had one team on the ground knocking on doors; we were phonebanking aggressively - locally and with national volunteers - using a targeted list of Benton Harbor-area African Americans who voted in Presidential elections but not necessarily midterms; and we even stuck a talon into running an Election Day ad on facebook, thanks to a nice video from friends at www.ACT.TV. Our message was simple: Fred Upton had been captured by Big Oil Money, while Paul Clements stood for education and clean energy.

In 2010, Upton beat a candidate named Don Cooney in Berrien County with 66.97% of 43,870 votes cast - detailed chart here.  In 2014, Upton beat Clements with 59.60% of 42,222 votes cast - details here. In other words, turnout was about the same if possibly a bit lower in 2014, and overall Clements did better than Upton’s 2010 opponent, consistent with the fact that he was a strong candidate who’d raised far more funds than any prior Upton opponent.

I've crunched a few numbers from those two charts. In four precincts in Benton Harbor city proper, Upton got 132 votes in 2010 and 136 votes in 2014. The Democrat got 1419 votes in 2010, and 1480 votes in 2014 - a gain of 61 votes, or 4.2%. Was it Clements’ message, PCCC/Mayday’s work, or us? To answer that, look at the next set of precincts.

We were most active in the broader Benton Harbor Township region. In six precincts in Benton Harbor Township, Upton got 867 votes in 2010 and 1002 votes in 2014. The 2010 Democrat got 1470 votes, while Clements got 2056 votes. That’s 584 more votes, or a gain in Democratic turnout of 39.8%!

A couple of takeaways.

First, pollsters have identified a Rising American Electorate - young voters, persons of color, college educated - also known as the Obama coalition, which overlaps nicely with climate voters. They’re also midterm dropoff voters. They canbe turned out to vote, although it’ll take time, money (we put in about $3,000 not counting organizer salary), and dedication. We’ll need to scale up to have the same impact throughout an entire district.

Second - in response to suggestions in the national media that climate isn’t a winning issue and that bigger groups than Climate Hawks Vote wasted their money - we have no regrets. We’re proud to have endorsed Paul Clements, a no-compromises climate hawk, and hope to see him two years from now.

Equally important, we empowered 548 or so voters in a poor and segregated community to stand up for their democratic right to choose their leaders. Because #BlackLivesMatter.

Onward to 2016.

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