How to break through when you have little money and a well-established opponent

One of the stories of the week has been the stunning victory of 28 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the primary in New York’s 14th district.

She unseated an incumbent 10 term senior congressman, Joe Crowley, the fourth ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. He certainly seems to have been very complacent.

How did she do it, and what can we as Liberal Democrats learn from this? The New York Times has an analysis of why she won:

She flipped the levers of power he was supposed to have — his status as a local party boss and his money — against him, using that as ammunition in an insurgent bid that cut down a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi and the No. 4 Democrat in the House.

No single factor led to Mr. Crowley’s defeat, more than a half-dozen officials inside and close to his campaign said in interviews, most on the condition of anonymity. It was demographics and generational change, insider versus outsider, traditional tactics versus modern-age digital organizing. It was the cumulative weight of them all.

I think the most important thing is how she connected so well with the people in her district. Look at her video? No smart W1A style middle class comedy. Real lives, real problems and a really simple message – with a few side swipes at her opponent:

Ocasio-Cortez is almost certain to be elected. Her district voted something like 78-20 for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

She had very little in terms of campaign funding – although very little in the context of an American election means a couple of hundred thousand dollars for one seat. Her opponent was well-funded but not particularly well-known, something that is not likely to be the case for many of our people in public office.

The Pod Save America podcast post match analysis also said that she completely ignored the campaign advice she was given by Democrat insiders in a very Obama-style pitch. She had been advised to target people who had voted in the last three primaries. She ignored this and went to bring in new voters in what is always going to be a low turnout election.

Everyone seems to think that Joe Crowley is a decent guy but perhaps his defeat is down to the complacency that comes from never having to actually fight to keep your place. Safe seats don’t keep people in touch with their electorate. The US primary system is a relatively blunt tool to deal with that. An electoral system that means people have to fight for their place is surely the best thing to improve the health of a democracy.

What Ocasio-Cortez has shown is that with a simple message that resonates with the electorate, you can cause upsets. We should reflect on how we can do that. We’re not there yet. Exit from Brexit is vital, but what is it for? Who are we going to help? Brexit will make the poorest poorer and we need to show how we can give those people hope for a better life.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Thank you for sharing this – especially the video. I thought it was wonderful. It even made me want to find a way of voting for her. The video was very professionally made. I am not sure what are the lessons to be learned. Perhaps that if we want people to vote in a certain way we should start with the lives people are living.
    One idea might be to start with the EU issue. How about trying to explain how we need a different approach from our present out of touch government to ensure the higher standards of things like employment rights, health and safety, controlling multinational companies. We need to move toward building a genuine coalition instead of lecturing to people, perhaps?

  • Innocent Bystander 1st Jul '18 - 10:57am

    Any political success, anywhere, is seized upon as a sign of the sea change which will propel the LibDems forward.
    The video and her tweets gives me the impression that she is a ‘Corbyn’ force overturning the cosy world of the existing political establishment, in this case on the left.
    She doesn’t seem to have a balanced centre type of manifesto. Seems to be “they” (unspecified as to exactly who “they” are) have all the money and we will take it from them. Good old fashioned socialism and will have all the appeal that “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” has always had.
    This works as long as those with the ability agree with the proposed scale of redistribution. When they stop agreeing they simply sit on their hands and become inactive and we follow the path, which has been many times repeated, and ends with Venezuela.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jul '18 - 11:20am

    The campaign was built on the foundations laid by Bernie Sanders. An anti-establishment approach. We still show signs of wanting to be ‘of the Establishment’ over all else. We find insurgency rather ‘not on’.

    Our basic ‘offer’ (leave Brexit aside -see a couple of paras down for reason) is not anywhere as distinctive and as radically as Sanders’.

    I have argued before that ‘this next time’ I am not sure that the usual 99 times out of 100 argument for targeting is right.

    This conclusion against targeting seemed to me to be the logical conclusion of a very ‘Exit from Brexit’ stance/ positioning. Imagine being the Exit from Brext party and not putting any effort into 550 seats. ‘You cannot be serious’.

    But the UK is now three steps and just a few months away from a CETA+ or “Norwegian” or an EFTA,EEA deal that will shoot our fox on a referendum and a withdrawal of Art 50.

    So we will enter the last half of this Parliament with some credit among some for a Brexit positioning but not a relevant position to the new post-deal siuation.

    We therefore need a Sanderian set of policies + a young leader without any relationship to the 2010-15 Coalition, an ‘outsider’ +++ and gamble the house on winning big (not aiming for x targets).

    Otherwise we shall enter the next Parliament again as an irrelevant political entity a long way back on the second ‘great long march’.

  • It’s simple and it has been going on for a few years now. The electorate are sick to the back teeth of politicians. They want something else, they want the maverick, the one who will shake things up. The list is long and getting longer, Trump, Macron, Sanders, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Orban, some from the left some from the right, some even from the centre but the thing they have in common is they proclaim they are not politicians. We are “different” they cry we are for the little man the one the politicians don’t care for and actually hate. That cry resonates, like it or not there is a feeling politicians don’t care and the electorate are happy to show how much they care for them. So no it isn’t actually a shock (other than to the politicians) that someone who isn’t a politician will win; I expect many established politicians in both the Republican and Democrat party to come up against the same unpleasant surprise. It can’t happen hear will be the cry of the politicians, look at Scotland it already has, what did the SNP base there campaign on a hatred of politicians in Westmonster and they being different. Brexit used the same tactic the more the politicians (especially Cameron, Osborne and even Clegg) pontificated the less appeal remain had. So if you want a rallying cry for the Lib Dems “we ain’t politicians” would be a popular one.

  • chris moore 1st Jul '18 - 11:53am

    “We ain’t Politicians” would be popular, but also untrue.

  • Phil Beesley 1st Jul '18 - 12:01pm

    Two notable things:
    * Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez challenged a comfortable incumbent from her own party. A perhaps too comfortable man.
    * Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a go at her own party, citing the same “Democrats are corrupted” arguments that we have heard for all of my life.

  • Cameron and Clegg were Blair clones. However, after Theresa May, the only option appears to be a ‘Sinclair ZX80 Computer’…

  • Chris,
    Depends on the route the party wishes to take. If we take the route of placing party placemen in winable seats ,the House of Lords and valuing committees and procedure over the membership then yes claiming “We ain’t politicians” would be a lie. If however we embrace the radical and outsider we wouldn’t. Now you might say that is not for us we are”nice” “it isn’t the done thing”, but if we don’t embrace the people someone will and I doubt they’ll play “nice” or care “it isn’t the done thing.

  • paul holmes 1st Jul '18 - 2:05pm

    One thing I would take away from the (excellent) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win, is the danger of trying to make simplistic read overs to the UK from utterly different political systems.

    For example Alexandria spent a ‘mere’ $300,000 compared to the $3.3M her long term incumbent rival raised. These massive sums were not even for an election to Office (although in a safe seat like this one selection is usually tantamount to election) but for selection as a candidate, in an election which takes place in November. On a visit to San Francisco I remember once being introduced to a Republican who had just spent $100,000 simply to get elected to his local School Board but which he saw as a good investment as a first step to higher elected office.

    The whole cost of US elections is an affront to democracy and regrettably we took a step in that direction when the Coalition Government signed off on rules which, whilst still restricting Candidate spending within a Constituency, mean that their National Party can spend huge amounts on mailing in ‘external’ literature (and paid for Social Media) to Target Seats. So ‘very little’ in terms of campaign funding nonetheless meant $300,000 for Alexandria.

    Ignoring advice to target those who actually voted in recent Primaries also has to be put in the context of the very low turnouts in almost all US elections. Obama was much feted in 2008 for winning with one of the highest ever turnouts in a Presidential election. UK journalists praised his freshness and wondered why we could not do this in the UK. Yet the record turnout that year was around 60% -lower than the much criticised low point of 62% in the UK General Election of 2001. I visited a Town Council meeting (much lauded as the bedrock of American civic involvement and backdrop feature of many a Hollywood movie ) in Kansas State and was told that electoral turnout was often as low as 15-20%. The lower the regular electoral turnout the more a ‘shock’ contender can pull off a surprise by motivating a new base. As I witnessed when playing a very very small part in helping Obama beat Hillary (sorry Caron!) in the Illinois Primary in 2008.

  • OnceALibDem 1st Jul '18 - 2:21pm

    There is no more important element to your campaign strategy than your opponent’s complacency!

  • paul holmes 1st Jul '18 - 2:45pm

    My second takeaway from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s example is ref her policy stance and campaign approach. Here I would agree with much of what Bill le Breton says above.

    Alexandria didn’t lecture poor working class voters in her part of New York on why the ‘Establishment Hierarchy and orthodoxy’ was right and they were wrong. She went straight to the core of the everyday issues her neighbours face and said they were not being dealt with -by anyone including the Democrat consensus. She talked about rent levels, income, health care, tuition fees and ‘people versus big money’. As Bill says it was very much on Bernie Sanders lines -and opinion polls did say that a Sanders Presidential candidate could have beaten Trump where a ‘buggins turn,’ business as usual, establishment Democrat did not.

    Her campaign slogan of ‘A New York for the Many’ (where have I heard a phrase like that before?) might frighten one of our anonymous posters above but -were she a Lib Dem contender in the UK -I would support her without hesitation.

    Where I would disagree entirely with Bill is his call to abandon any sort of Targeting Strategy in our next General Election. Scattering resources thinly to win everywhere just means that you win virtually nowhere in our FPTP system as in the big surges of 1974 or 1983. Even Trump’s ‘populist upsurge’ was actually a loss by 3 Million on the popular vote but he targeted hard on a few Rust Belt States, that a complacent Democratic Establishment took too much for granted.

  • She’s a self-described socialist. Why are people here excited by her?

  • Surely any lessons learnt are only applicable to those intending to try to fight a local party candidate selection meeting, not to get elected in a general election?

    Those are totally different things.

  • Excited may be the wrong word James, intrested certainly. Why am I interested because she is yet another example of people’s desire to “stick one to the man”. It has become more and more obvious that people are sick to the back teeth of more of the same. They are not intrested in minor changes, they want a radical change in their lives for the better. Sometimes they hitch onto a rightwinger, sometimes a left winger, even the occasional centrist and quite often just a populalist, but what they are not looking for is a “bit of the same but make it a bit better ” merchant. Unfortunately that is what the Lib Dems became with the “Give a heart to the Tories, a brain to Labour” guff. In short people are crying out for change not a nicer version of the same.

  • The LibDems congratulating the success of an old fashioned socialist ?
    I am confused !! Is this a labour leaning blog ?

  • Honestly feel lost in this party now. She’s an out and out socialist. As James said, why are people here excited by her?

    The DSA literally call for nationalisation of energy, steel, telecommunications, utilities and transport, and then every private single firm would have to “divulge information about the design, production processes, price formation, wage conditions, and environmental consequences of the goods that they make”. While the last one is actually quite good, the rest would kill competition in the market, pretty much making trade secrets banned. They would then plan to make every company a co-op, killing the stock market.

    If we’re a transitioning into a democratic socialist / market socialist party then maybe it’s time to remove the liberal name? And then maybe that’ll give rise to a new liberal (both in the social and economic sense) party.

  • One point I would make is “They are blaming complacency for his loss”. It seems he out spent her by 5 to 1, that isn’t complacency, that is trying to sell the wrong message.

  • Peter Martin 1st Jul '18 - 10:50pm

    @ Frankie,

    Well done! Two comments without mention of “Brave Brexiteers” or “Tinkerbell” 🙂

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 1st Jul '18 - 11:13pm

    So it’s all your fault, Paul Holmes:-). Seriously, I took a long time to warm to Obama, but I got there before he was sworn in the first time.

    But how amazing would it have been if we had had 8 years of Hillary and then Obama a year into his first term now instead of that racist misogynist.

  • Even more amazing your are on a non Brexit article. This your twitter feed by any chance?

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '18 - 7:13am

    @ Caron,

    “But how amazing would it have been if we had had 8 years of Hillary…?”

    OK but if she couldn’t beat Donald Trump, can we be at all confident she would have beaten John McCain?

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '18 - 7:17am

    @ Zak,

    “They would then plan to make every company a co-op, killing the stock market…..”

    You’re saying this as if it were a bad thing? 🙂

  • William Fowler 2nd Jul '18 - 7:25am

    “If we’re a transitioning into a democratic socialist / market socialist party then maybe it’s time to remove the liberal name? And then maybe that’ll give rise to a new liberal (both in the social and economic sense) party.”
    Yes this site is quite amusing, often have opposite views that contradict each other… reality is that Labour are now the benefits party who will bust the economy again so there is not much point following their, er, lead. By the time of the next election will have three leaders drawing state pension so the game is certainly open to some charismatic, sound bite chanting, relative youngster from the entertainment sector… but more likely to end up with Nigel Farage!

  • Apologies Peter the twitter feed I actually meant to ask you about was

    an interesting feed, I just wondered if it was you or another Peter Martin

    Mea Culpa I really shouldn’t use tablets to post, too long in the tooth for new tech I think I need to stick with old tech PC’s.

  • I have watched a number of interviews by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on U tube. She is campaigning for a free health service for all, for free education, for an end to US military action around the planet. She is not campaigning to end the capitalist order. Her starting point in what she says is the very real problems of the majority of the people in her area. She is an energetic campaigner.
    I do not really think that we can learn a lot from this. We already know it. The problems for the Democrats in the US appear to be the same as here. How do we find enough people to replicate this across the country? How to we build a real movement?
    Oh, and how does one raise $300000 for a campaign like this.
    And what did her opponent spend $3m+ on?

  • Peter Martin 2nd Jul '18 - 8:38am

    @ Frankie,

    OK I see now.

    No it’s another Peter Martin. It’s not me!

  • Ah Never mind, perhaps one day you’ll get to see Singapore, till then at least it’s sunny; but I suspect we will all soon be complaining about the lack of rain, it’s the one thing that unites us the weather.

  • @Peter Martin

    Haha, while those in finance do seem villainous and picturing the upper-elites disappearing in a poof of smoke does seem inviting, if you were to turn every company in the country into a co-op you’d have to wave goodbye to any industry which has high capital costs and as seen in Yugoslavia during the USSR period (most well-known market socialist economy), any company which is about to go under would have very few means of raising money to dig themselves out. In Yugoslavia the state then had to stop companies from going bust and companies then soon find out that if the state’s always going to help out, what’s the point competing? Productivity gains were barely existent in Yugoslavia.

  • @Steve Trevethan

    I can cherry-pick a small number of “core statements” from a raft of political organisations, including all political parties (including the extreme/nationalist ones), as well as a range of organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Opus Dei, the Church of Scientology, Vote Leave, etc etc. And am sure if I was selective enough I could make sure the ones I’d chosen were ones you’d agree with. Does it mean anything? No. Intelligent people looking at organisations as a whole and don’t just swallow pretty sounding soundbites and forget to consider the rest and wider picture.

    The Democratic Socialists of America (or D.S.A as you prefer to abbreviate it to) are an out and out socialist organisation of the Corbyn variety. Tragic that people here are cheerleading prominent figures from such a group, but it’s hardly surprising. Plenty of people on here have a terrible track record of naively disavowing liberalism in favour of socialism

  • OK but if she couldn’t beat Donald Trump, can we be at all confident she would have beaten John McCain?

    Obviously we can’t be confident of any counter-factual, and she would still have suffered the massive electoral disadvantage of being Hilary Clinton.

    But on the other hand, she would have been running after eight years of a Republican president, and that seems to be about the time when US voters decide they want a change (as they did in 2016): it’s very very hard for a US political party to keep the White House for more than two terms (since the second world war it’s only happened once).

    So… she might well have won. Or she might have messed it up royally. Who knows?

    (Of course, if she did mess it up royally, she might well have tried again in 2012, when voters were even more fed up of the Republicans; and who knows what might have happened then?)

  • paul holmes 2nd Jul '18 - 2:45pm

    @James Pugh. Of course someone could equally (I’ve seen it done on Labour List), cherry pick some posts on LDV and say that they represent the true Libertarian/Economic Liberal face of the Lib Dems. Which would be no more true than saying that one of many organisations within the nationwide Democratic Party in the USA is ‘the true face’ of that Party.
    @’Zak’ “Honestly feel lost in this Party now”. Now you know how many of us felt during the Coalition years. But slowly but surely we are getting our Party back! As for the ‘inequities’ of wanting Cooperatives in business -that was Liberal Party policy long before I got involved over 34 years ago so hardly a dreadful new ‘socialist’ initiative.

  • @Paul Holmes

    Nothing wrong with co-ops mate, but it’s one thing encouraging co-ops and another thing forcing all companies to become co-ops. Ignoring the big economic downsides of this, it’d also be socially illiberal. Market socialism is something that exists and as far as I’m aware, isn’t something which this party supports.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jul '18 - 4:30pm

    @paul holmes “Of course someone could equally … cherry pick some posts on LDV and say that they represent the true Libertarian/Economic Liberal face of the Lib Dems.”
    For example, 🙁

  • A return to our ‘community politics’ routes?

  • Roots 🙂

  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '18 - 8:41am

    @ James Pugh,

    “She’s a self-described socialist. Why are people here excited by her?”

    Most Lib Dems have their hearts in the right place so it’s not surprising that a political victory for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does create a measure of excitement.

    Nearly all countries are run on a mixture of capitalism and socialism. We can reasonably expect that the capitalists will provide a good range of products in the supermarkets and car showrooms etc for us to purchase. But if we’re interested in other aspects of society like education, health, homelessness, child poverty etc, as I know many Lib Dems are, then that’s where the socialism comes in. Just where we draw the line between the two has to be a matter of political opinion.

    If we relied on the operation of the ”market” to provide solutions to most of the problems being discussed on LDV , we would be waiting a very long time!

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