Nina Turner has been criticized for a lot of things in the wake of her loss in the Cleveland, Ohio, special election last week. The conventional wisdom is that her politics were too leftist, and that she was too confrontational, to win in a time when Biden-like moderate politics are the order of the day. Those takes are nonsense; the race was eminently winnable. If there is a single critical mistake Turner made, it was placing her campaign in the hands of strategists who squandered her financial firepower on ineffective and ill-conceived expenditures.
I grew up in Cleveland; former Representative Marcia Fudge attended my grandfather’s church; and I’ve known and supported Turner since her 2014 run for Ohio secretary of state. (She was a guest on my podcast two weeks ago.)
Last week, a friend who lives in the district took her mother, an older woman of color, to the polls to cast her ballot. My friend’s mom asked her, “Which candidate will fight more for poor people?” When my friend answered that Turner was unquestionably the stronger champion of the poor, her mom said, “Well, then, I’m voting for Nina.” In that district, there are a lot of poor people. The median income is just $37,000, far below the national average of $60,000.
The implications of Turner’s loss for the future of the Bernie Sanders movement are profound. The defeat should be a wake-up call about the challenges inherent in translating the power of a movement built by the presidential candidacies of an older white man into a lasting political force that can elect progressive people of color and advance social justice public policy agenda in the 2020s. That is the untold story of the OH-11 race. From the perspective of accruing the power to make possible the changes that poor people across America need, I see three big takeaways from Turner’s defeat.
Being Attacked Shouldn’t Have Been Surprising
It should have come as no surprise that many establishment figures in the Democratic Party opposed Turner’s candidacy. As Frederick Douglass so eloquently articulated in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Those who want the outcome of justice and equality without the struggle to get there are people who “want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
Although it is indeed unusual for members of the Congressional Black Caucus to weigh in on a primary election between two Black candidates, it should have been expected that congressional leaders such as James Clyburn might swoop in at the last minute to oppose Turner. That is what happens in an arena where the loyalty of its members is the cornerstone of power in the Democratic caucus.
Nor should the high-dollar opposition of outside groups such as Third Way have been surprising: The organization spent a quarter of a million dollars to defeat Turner. For many years, Third Way has been far more focused on the perceived electoral risks of advocating for justice and equality than on actually achieving justice and equality. Not only should such opposition have been expected; it should have alerted Turner and her campaign’s officials to prepare for a ferocious fight, to get ready for the awful roar of the ocean’s many waters in the form of attack ads and other onslaughts.
The Bernie Money Machine is Powerful
My second takeaway is that Sanders’s money machine is still a very powerful force in American politics. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders raised more than $200 million, an extraordinary sum of money that is on par with what Barack Obama raised in his 2008 primary campaign. Such a financial engine can be a potent political force, and its continued relevance was on full display in helping Turner raise $4.5 million, an astounding sum for a small, off-year election in northeast Ohio—more than twice the $2.1 million haul of her opponent Shontel Brown. That is the kind of money that can propel people to positions of power and influence. And that’s part of what makes Turner’s loss particularly painful.
The Tough Path to Victory
Looking through Turner’s spending reports, it’s clear that the people who ran her campaign defaulted to the typical playbook of putting far more money into television and digital ads than into the nitty-gritty work of getting people to cast ballots.
This strategic blunder is especially egregious because the formula for winning special elections, which are typically low-turnout affairs, is to focus on that humble work. That’s how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez prevailed in her 2018 upset win. Her communications coordinator, Corbin Trent, explained that their campaign strategy identified a universe of 75,000 potential supporters, and “then we knocked on their doors, we sent them mail, we knocked on their doors again, we called them.”
That is the path to victory—knocking on doors, calling people, identifying supporters, and then getting those supporters to the polls. It is simple in concept, yet challenging in execution. And it is made more challenging to pull off in the realm of professional politics, because it is meticulous, nonglamorous, and not profitable for consultants. Developing and running television and digital ads is far easier than hiring, training, and tracking dozens of volunteers going door to door. A get-out-the-vote operation isn’t cheap, either. But when you have more than $4 million, it is eminently achievable.
But Turner’s team squandered the bulk of her money, spending nearly $2 million of the $3.7 million expenditures on television and digital ads, according to the mid-July filing with the Federal Election Commission. (Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign, by contrast, spent no money at all on television ads, according to their FEC report.) There is scant evidence in the FEC filings of any meaningful Turner campaign resources going to canvassing and voter turnout: The category for GOTV lists just $5,000 in expenditures.
Had Turner’s team focused on funding teams of canvassers and phone bankers to identify supporters and then encourage those supporters to cast their ballots, she would almost certainly have secured the 38,000 votes necessary to win. In their benchmark study on get-out-the-vote efforts, Yale professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber quantified the costs, and The New York Times summarized their findings, writing, “Door-to-door canvassing, though expensive, yields the most votes. As a rule of thumb, one additional vote is cast from each 14 people contacted. That works out to somewhere between $7 and $19 a vote, depending on the pay of canvassers…. Canvassers who matched the ethnic profile of their assigned neighborhoods were more successful.” Green and Gerber updated their findings in the 2019 edition of their book, reaffirming the efficacy of canvassing, while upping the cost per vote to roughly $33 per vote secured. By those metrics, Turner’s $4 million could have yielded something like 121,000 votes in a race where she needed 38,000 to win.
I devoted an entire chapter of my 2016 book Brown is the New White to the need for better, smarter, more culturally competent campaign consultants—titled, “Fewer Smart-Ass White Boys” (borrowing from the phrase popularized by Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and lieutenant to Martin Luther King). I warned about operatives who display “a persistent disregard for the country’s communities of color as a political force and an inability to do the basic math necessary to appreciate the size and power of the electorate of color.”
The people who were responsible for spending the biggest chunks of the Turner campaign were consultants from the white-run firms Canal Partners Media, Aisle 518 Strategies, and Devine, Mulvey, Longabaugh. The political director was Trevor Elkins, a white man from small, largely white Cleveland suburb. Who among these folks had the relationships, experience, or network to hire dozens of local residents and run a full-fledged canvassing operation in the Black neighborhoods of that district where nearly 300,000 African American voters live?
A similar situation happened in 2016 with Lucy Flores’s congressional run in Nevada. Already familiar to voters from a statewide 2014 run for lieutenant governor, Flores ran for Congress in an election where 13,000 votes would have been enough to win. As a Bernie supporter, she received $1 million in funding from his national network of supporters, more than enough to do the nitty-gritty voter identification and mobilization necessary to capture the seat. But the white consultants who ran her campaign overemphasized television ads, and she lost.
This is the most urgent lesson from Turner’s defeat. The United States is in the middle of a modern-day Civil War, with the neo-Confederate forces having taken over the Republican Party and unleashed an aggressive assault on democracy and the very notion that America is anything but a white nation. Too many in the Democratic Party hierarchy fail to appreciate the nature of this battle and accordingly underinvest in leaders of color who will be fierce fighters for justice. The Sanders movement has the potential to embrace and elevate the kinds of leaders who will take the fight to the right, but opportunities will be lost if campaigns are run by consultants who lack the cultural competency and commitment required to win elections in communities of color.