Greg Schultz: 2022 Election – Why Turnout Matters Most
On the long road towards the 2022 midterm elections, the passion – and outrage – around the candidates, the polls, the talking points and the endless Twitter angst has reached a saturation point.
Yet this state of chaos leaves us wondering how to evaluate candidates amid this noise, and which factors impact the results of an election.
Wild times require a sober mind for guidance. On today’s episode of Deciding Factors, Eric speaks to Greg Schultz, the longtime political strategist who served as campaign manager for Joe Biden in 2020. He discusses what he sees as his own party’s strengths and shortcomings and what might influence the midterms, whether Dobbs will impact the results of the midterm races, and what difference Twitter makes in a campaign.
ABOUT GREG SCHULTZ: Greg Schultz served as the general election strategist and senior advisor for the 2020 Biden campaign. He previously worked on President Obama’s two presidential campaigns, and as the senior advisor to Vice President Biden during the Obama Administration.
We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, others can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business and beyond, who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.
On the long road toward today’s historic midterm elections, the passion and outrage around the candidates, the polls, the talking points, and the endless Twitter angst has only escalated to a degree that many find exhausting. How do we evaluate candidates amid all of this noise? Does it truly inform us? What factors actually impact the results of an election?
Wild times require a sober mind for guidance and I am so thrilled to be joined today by Greg Schultz, the longtime political strategist who served as campaign manager for Joe Biden in 2020, until then candidate Biden locked up the Democratic nomination. Greg and I cover a lot of ground in our conversation. Greg explains how the two political parties approach the notion of turnout versus persuasion. He digs into what he sees as his own party’s strengths and shortcomings. We talk about how and whether Dobbs will impact the results of today’s races and what difference Twitter actually makes in a campaign.
Listen along as one member of the small club of professionals who have steered a successful presidential campaign share their political insights that only they can provide.
Greg Schultz, welcome to Deciding Factors.
Thanks, Eric. Great to be here.
Greg, you got what you set out to do. You got President Biden into the White House as president. What are you up to now professionally?
Yeah, well, I see my four year old. That is nice. I took tennis lessons for the first time. I find out you don’t have to work on Saturdays and Sundays it turns out. I’ve always loved building teams and I’m involved with some really fun projects. I’m helping out some startups. I’m helping some efforts around FinTech and around critical and rare earth minerals and trying to help connect people who I think would form a good team and help solve some of the problems our society has. I’ve done government and campaigns for 20 plus years, and I’m enjoying taking I think some of those skills and approaches and some of the relationships and trying to build some people up and some organizations and some companies up and see if we can’t move the ball forward on some things that I care about.
What would you say are the deliverables of a campaign? Obviously the goal is to have your candidate win whatever race you’re managing, but underneath that you have to be tracking different metrics and thinking about the different products in a way that you’re responsible for delivering. How would you describe those?
Yeah, so I think part of this comes in is what do you think your path is? And as you said, the ultimate metric is, did you win or lose? However, people’s versions of how to get that path vary greatly. So first I want to start with just campaign strategy, at least how we approached it in the Biden world is, I think strategy comes from two places and it comes from data, available data and it comes from assumptions.
And these assumptions are really important in politics because maybe on the private sector side you have commercial level data that is more insightful, you’ve got credit card purchases, et cetera, and maybe you have a better understanding of where the market actually is. When you’re running a campaign like a present, you kind of have to make some assumptions of what you think the country writ large and what the party is looking for, in particular in a primary. You can do qualitative and quantitative data, but what the electorate is going to be looking for a year from now on election day is it is unknown.
And you clearly can see a lot of variables coming up to kind of change that. And so for example, I’ll take the Biden primary. We knew that Biden’s path was with the diverse parts of the Democratic Party, and that meant we created our structure and we created our metrics of success to make sure that we were keeping the strength of the African American vote, we were keeping the strength within the Latino vote, within the Asian American vote. Now that path and those metrics may have been very different from a Secretary Pete or Bernie Sanders or the 1,800 other people who were also running for president that year.
We also had the assumption that the country in the general election was looking for someone who was offering stability, offering expertise, and know-how and how to navigate a system. And so we built a campaign and metrics that reflected those assumptions and those data and we didn’t deviate course unless something made us change those assumptions or question the data we were using.
And so that same Democratic primary in particular is it’s given that so many candidates, people had very different paths of metrics of what success looked like for them and for us, where was our support in the African American community? And after Iowa, after New Hampshire, those numbers weren’t changing and that was a really good thing for us. And so again, that metric and those metrics are very candidate and time dependent.
On that front, so there’s sort of two, I think different schools of thought when it comes to campaign strategy, or at least there have been historically. And it strikes me that one is to rally your base and to try to motivate turnout and get excitement. And then the other one would be to try to motivate independents to come out and vote. And I think that those strategies are, if not mutually exclusive, the Venn diagrams don’t overlap that much. Is that an accurate description of how things work today?
No, I think that is a very fair way to look at it. And I’ll be honest, I think the Democratic party as a whole has gotten this almost completely wrong and it has resulted in decades of very, very tough general elections in a lot of our presidential and federal races. I think the Democratic party elite, and I use that word carefully, but the Democratic party elite really believes that we are a turnout party. And I don’t necessarily know when you read articles about Joe Biden’s base, reporters write that and they are talking about liberal voters.
I would say that’s not actually Joe Biden’s base. Joe Biden’s base is blue collar voters. It is Black and brown voters who are actually more socially conservative and in some ways economically conservative than your more liberal voters. And so Democrats have fallen into the trap of thinking that we are a turnout party. If we just turn out the vote, we’re going to win.
The largest group of unregistered voters in the industrial Midwest is white people without college degrees. So if your assumption as a Democrat, the more people that vote, Democrats are going to win, that is just not actually based on math. And so I have been trying to argue that we are actually, Democrats are much more of a persuasion party than a turnout party. I think, I don’t want to get too in the weeds for your listeners who aren’t necessarily from electoral politics, but I think Democrats structure their campaigns and it’s like 80% turnout, 20% persuasion.
I think the reality is Democrats are probably 70% persuasion and 30% turnout. I think we’ve actually got the calculus wrong. If you look at Democrats support among Black and brown voters, non-college men, it’s dropping. And so that tells me it’s not a turnout problem, that’s a persuasion problem. So you are right on. I think the two broad buckets are still true.
I think Democrats, I can only speak as a Democrat not knowing quite the experience of a Republican, but we have misread and misunderstood that equation and how you get to 50% plus one for a while now. The reality is Republican’s equation is different. This country actually I think as a whole is center right, not center left. Republicans can run a little bit more of a turnout than persuasion because there are more center right voters as a whole.
Is that in aggregate? What data would you point to for someone trying to figure out that exactly?
I am only thinking two numbers and that is Senate map and electoral vote count. I’m sure people listening are saying, “Well, wait, what about New York and California and Massachusetts?” So I don’t want to dismiss them and I don’t want to use the word relevant voters, but voters who live in geographically significant places that determine control of the Senate and presidential 270 electoral vote victory, that, and thank you for asking that clarifying question, that cohort of voters is numerically, I would argue center right.
And so one of the things that we did on the Biden campaign early is I hired what I believe the smartest analytics person, woman named Becca Siegel, out there. She ended up running a team by election day 2020 of I think it was close to 140 data scientists, that’s full-time data scientists on the Biden campaign. It was a smaller number in the primary, but Becca built that team from the ground up and basically measured everything we did. And her team made the Biden campaign one to 3% more efficient on basically everything.
So Becca could tell you what voter was the highest value voter, what mediums were there to reach those voters, and what was basically the cost to have a contact with that voter, whether it was paid media, digital, door knock, phone call, our analytics team was the one months before election day saying, “Hey, we think Georgia is winnable. We know that the polling isn’t necessarily showing that, but the voter contact that is happening in the state is telling us a different story.” And I really credit our analytics team for putting Georgia into the mix earlier than I think anybody else would’ve known to do.
Greg, how do you view the Dobbs decision, especially within this context of turnout versus persuasion?
Yeah, the day the Supreme Court leak came out, a couple people texted me and said, “Game over. Democrats won the midterms.” And I texted back, “Hold on.” I know a lot of people like me were cautious about the impact it would have given all that is going on in the world today, the rise of Trump authoritarianism and the fact that while this issue is very important to a lot of voters, is it the top deciding issue for enough voters in enough geographies where the margin is going to be small enough that one or two or three or 4% more people showing up because of this could influence the outcome?
And I think I may have under predicted the amount of marginal districts that this decision could impact. And so I’ll be honest, the day it officially came from the Supreme Court, first of all, I think horrible for the American people and for families, for everybody. But I was not sure if there would be an immediate political upside, and I don’t mean to say upside, but political advantage for the Democrats.
I may have under calculated the potential impact. And I’ve talked to some other people who know who I think are pretty sober thinkers and data focused people who also I think under assumed the impact it could have. That was Kansas. I think that Kansas vote was really interesting, the special election in New York where the Democrat won in a non-urban district talking about abortion. I think those were two bellwethers that say, “Hey, this may be more impactful than a lot of us assumed.”
We will see. But as I mentioned earlier, a couple percentage points can pick you up a lot of House and Senate seats.
Do you approach your job as “marketing a candidate?”
It’s interesting you use that term marketing because we almost never use that word in a campaign because you’re selling a candidate. The candidate is selling his or her vision. And so campaigning is like sales at the highest level. And we felt one of the most important things for us to protect was the Biden brand. We felt the assumptions and data we had that the Biden brand was going to be the only brand that was capable of taking on the Trump brand.
One is because Trump was such a master, I’d say master marketers maybe the wrong term, but Trump is really good at branding people who aren’t already defined. And with the Democratic primary, outside of Bernie Sanders, I would argue everyone else was undefined in Americans eyes and that much Donald Trump would be successful in branding them and not in a good way.
What I will say, if you look at our radio and our TV spots, I think those were all marketing ads. And look at how we closed the campaign with some of the iconic voices of America to really bring in this brand, this unifying message. So we don’t actually have a marketing position on Democratic campaigns that I’m aware of, but everybody is trying to sell a vision and therefore a candidate.
I’ll anger some probably, not purposefully, I’ll probably anger some of the people on the left of my party, but electorally speaking, values matter, priorities matter, policy doesn’t. Now, policy reinforces priorities. Policy reinforces values. Policy reinforces brand. But in order to win tight elections, you have to win over people who don’t have the luxury to be high information voters. If you watch Fox News or MSNBC or CNN, you’re a high information voter. You are not the swing voter which decides often control of the Senate and the presidency.
Those voters are taking care of sick kids, sick parents. They’re working multiple jobs. They are the ones who truly are making decisions about filling up the gas tank or making a prescription jug purchase. Those voters don’t have again, the luxury of time to dig that deep into policy. I think Democrats overexplain. I think Biden passed some major legislation this year. I would be, I guess pleasantly surprised if a plurality of voters knew what was in any of it, and that’s okay.
They just have to know we’re getting something done and it’s in their benefit. So I always worry, I remember various campaigns in the primary highlighted, there were like 130 policy proposals, and that’s great for a subsection of the coastal elite of the party, which is one of the reasons this Democratic party has a troubling future, potentially troubling future. That’s fine for those voters. But we spend too much time trying to explain good policy and not enough time acknowledging to voters we understand their frustrations and challenges and we’re doing something about it.
How much difference does a ground game actually make in your experience?
I can find you some data that shows marginal increases in vote with an active ground game. Now marginal is like half a percent, one and a half percent. What I can also point you to is four or five Senate races and five or six presidential battleground states that were decided within that margin. And so I don’t think anyone should expect a “good ground game” to make up points. I think a good ground game could make up three tenths of a point, eight tenths of a point, and that could win you two or three states in a presidency. So I think it’s important when we say small fractions, small margins matter, have huge electoral consequences. And so you give me half percent turnout within one constituency or three fourths of a percent persuasion among another geography, I would take it in a heartbeat.
And so what about social media? What’s the role of Twitter and social media in driving decision making on the campaign?
First Twitter, and here’s how we approached it in particular in the primary is it was the place that political reporters lived. Twitter skews further right and further left, giving you a warped perspective of what is actually happening in the real world. That being said, political reporters I think overvalue what they are seeing on it. And so we were on Twitter enough to have whatever influence we could have in the way that national reporters were covering the race. We tried not to invest time, emotional connection, money on it with the thinking that it was going to win us the primary or the general.
Now, part of that, Biden was known to so many Americans, and so we had a brand already and maybe you could say Greg, if Biden wasn’t Joe Biden, maybe you could use Twitter to strengthen his brand. And that could be true, but those would be with voters who, in a primary in particular, wouldn’t be his voters anyways. And so you can’t be completely dismissive, but if you think that the next couple cycles are going to be decided on who has the best social media, it’s kind of like ground game.
You have to do it and you have to do it well, but you shouldn’t think it’s your silver bullet. What I would say is on any given day, in the best situation as a campaign manager, you have like 40% of the information. Everybody else who’s critiquing your decision has about 2% or less of the overall information. And you just have to have confidence that your strategy, your assumptions and data still hold water with the goal you’re trying to reach.
I’ll go back to the primary, We said here’s the path, not going to do well in the first two states, get to more diverse states. We put it on the record, me and others did it in interviews. Joe Biden lost Iowa, Twitter said, “Oh, he should drop out.” And it’s like, “Well, we actually told you this was going to happen,” but it turns out that didn’t matter to Twitter. I think as a campaign you have to think about what are you using these mediums for and who is your directed audience?
For the campaign, for the beginning of the campaign in particular, our audience on Twitter was honestly political reporters and the political elite. And you would do things on Twitter for them. Was it reaching any Democratic primary voter who was undecided? I don’t think so. Was it reaching any general election undecided voter? I don’t think so. Now, could it be a place where disinformation spreads quickly and then enters other mediums, which then affect an undecided voter? Yes. And I think the reality about a place like Twitter is it honestly could hurt you, but I don’t know how much it can help you.
Maybe we could look forward into the future now. I’m going to ask you a hard question. What is the future of the Democratic and Republican parties look like? The pace of change is increasing, things are evolving very quickly, but if you could look 10 years into the future, what do you think US politics will look like?
Yeah, so I’m an optimist by birth, but I am concerned that the next decade or so we’ll continue the trend where compromise is viewed as failure by enough voters in a primary system and it discourages elected officials from even trying to work with others. I think the reality is, if you look at current voting trends, and these certainly can change, current voting trends the next decade, I think you will have six or eight more Josh Hawley’s in the US Senate and four or five more Bernie Sanders in the US Senate. Not a judgment. That’s a statement based on red states are getting redder, blue states are getting bluer, and you can’t gerrymander a state.
This is just broad demographic trends, and given the rural nature of this country, my worry is that conservative, very conservative Republicans and more very liberal Democratic senators make up the Senate and it is even harder to get things done. That is a forecast I hope I am wrong and I hope party realignment and demographic trends shift a little bit, but the course we are headed today, that is a hard outcome to refute.
Well, Greg Schultz, thank you so much for being on Deciding Factors today. I could probably speak to you for 10 hours about your experience on campaigns. We really appreciate you coming on.
No, I appreciate the opportunity. I hope you have a good rest of the day.
That was Greg Schultz, the campaign manager and general election strategist for Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. I was most struck by Schultz’s view that conventional wisdom among Democratic political strategists that turn out and not persuasion matters most fundamentally misreads the math, especially in swing states. If Greg is right, it would seem that the Democratic party ought to reconsider its approach.
We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLGs network members. Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcast. We’d love to hear from you. Or email us at email@example.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.
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