If you want to be effective in Washington, get out of town

After the midterms, the real political work will get done in the states, says Corey Ealons, Vox Global partner and former White House communications aide.

Pundits and Washington insiders may debate whether or not Democrats actually caught the predicted blue wave. But the midterm elections netted out as most expected based on historical trends, Trump’s approval numbers, and a map favoring House — but not Senate — Democrats.

With the results (almost) in, questions turn to how the results will impact communicators in public affairs teams in both the days ahead, and as 2020’s presidential campaign begins to warm up. Here are the top trends to watch with suggestions on how PA teams can take advantage of them.

Remember, all politics are still local. People keeping score may remember that President Barack Obama saw his greatest legislative achievements in the first two years of a two-term presidency.

The lesson? Divided government in Washington no longer works. With a Democratic House we’ll see the return of oversight of the exectuive branch and the specter of more hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has all but promised that gridlock will again rule the day.

Those looking for political theater should look to Washington. Those looking for political action should engage in the states. While 37 states are controlled by one party, governors and state legislatures face greater pressure to show results. For national initiatives, policy professionals should look outside of Washington to inform voters and effect issues like health care, infrastructure, criminal justice reform and gun safety.

The elections also proved that the American people are woke. Midterms are often seen as referendums on the party occupying the White House. But this one felt more like a reaction to Trump. Since January 20, 2016, we’ve seen an elevated level of activism across the political spectrum driven in great part by reaction to Trump as he drove issues like immigration and railed against the press.

Twenty million more Americans voted this year than in the 2014 midterms. Voter turnout, at 49.2%, was the highest in more than a century. Citizens engaged more in public protests and are using the vote as a form of activism. If you have a message you want heard, now is the time to deliver it.

This is also the year of the woman, part two. The impact of white suburban college-educated women on the race is unsurprising. They’ve influenced national elections for decades. What may be surprising is the 23-point gender gap in favor of Democrats this year and how 100-plus women now serve in Congress. This, coupled with #MeToo, signals that women are more influential as a bloc than at any time in history.

Pols, policy experts and organizations looking to move opinion on key issues should see the position and mood of women as central to their strategy. We will also wait to see how having more women in Washington affects the tone of engagement inside the beltway and progress on policy.

It’s rare that Democrats outshine Republicans nationally in finances. But in the 2018 election cycle Democrats benefited from the most expensive midterm elections in our history thanks to grassroots online giving. Think your grandmother’s $25 donation didn’t matter? Think again.

That said, PA practitioners should remember Democrats also had the message advantage this cycle. We can’t always control the size of budgets, but we can control the quality of our message. Identifying relevant messages and credible voices should always be the roadmap to first-mover advantage.

And finally, social media still matters. Despite the challenges, online direct messaging remains one of the best ways to reach people. The medium is cost effective and allows campaigns to deliver relevant messages that engage and mobilize everyday Americans.

Estimates are more than $70 million was spent on social media by House and Senate candidates and the President’s reelection campaign; possibly as much as 20 percent of overall campaign spend. That will continue to increase in years to come as the medium continues to deliver.

Corey Ealons is a Partner at Vox Global and former White House communications aide to President Barack Obama.

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