What strategists can learn from the US senate runoffs in Georgia

Strategy is simple, but hard

*Editor’s Note: While it covers a political subject, this essay’s entirely non-partisan and laser-focused on strategy, not politics.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes a solid strategy’s hard to pin down, like caviar on a wall. Sometimes it gets rubbed right in your face. The US senate runoff elections in Georgia this week are the latter, with important strategic lessons embedded in the larger political story.  

Democrats were losing in Georgia. In 2010, they lost every statewide election to the Republicans. That year, Stacey Abrams, a member of the Georgia State House, volunteered to become House Minority Leader. 

While many in the Georgia Democratic Party wanted to build a time machine to winning coalitions of the past, or copy and paste popular parts of the Republican platform, Abrams looked ahead. She put together a 21-page presentation “based on reading demographic reports,” as she recently told a reporter. It noted a huge influx in Georgia among several demographics in Latinos, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, an African-Americans. 

The numbers were clear. In 2010, Democrats lost statewide elections by an average of about 200,000 votes. But they had 800,000 unregistered voters of color, 600,000 of which were African-American, blocs that would likely vote Democrat.

Abrams’s strategy was to sign up these unregistered voters and build from the ground up. She called it the New Georgia Project, and by 2014 they had registered more than 100,000 new voters. 

Four years later, in 2018, Abrams decided to test her grow-the-vote strategy in her own race for governor. She was beaten by a Republican (Brian Kemp) who took a 180-degree opposite strategic approach. From 2010 to 2018, as secretary of state, Kemp oversaw the purge of roughly 1.4 million recently inactive voters from the rolls (a still-disputed and controversial approach).

Abrams lost that race in 2018 by just under 55,000 votes. Then she promptly launched a second voter outreach organization to further expand Georgia’s voting rolls. 

By 2020, her strategy and efforts directly contributed to Joe Biden’s win in the state–the first for a Democrat in a presidential race there since 1992–by over 12,000 votes.

Then, in the two Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, Rev. Raphael Warnock defeated Sen. Kelly Loeffler by about 79,000 votes, and Jon Ossoff defeated Sen. David Perdue by over 41,000 votes (both figures as of this writing). 

From 2010 to 2020, Stacey Abrams selected and implemented a grow-the-vote strategy that’s demonstrably yielded enormous results.

What can strategists take from this successful strategy?

1. Strategy is simple but hard. 

This was less about politics than math. We’re down by 200k, but we have an opportunity to grow by 800k. Abrams strategic choice was the harder road, for one-on-one, retail-level politics. She chose the clipboard and handshake over the almighty television ad, and that has made all the difference. (There’s another point here about speed. It’s become a fashionable fixation of some strategists to elevate speed over everything—a warped understanding of Boyd’s OODA loop—but it’s noteworthy that Abrams took the slow road to success.)

2. Winning is an anticipated byproduct, not the overwhelming focus. 

Just read what an Abrams supporter had to say ahead of this week’s Senate runoff elections to a reporter that asked if it would be a “failure” if the two Democratic candidates lost: “No, absolutely not. I don’t know if I think that’s a failure. I don’t call it that—because I don’t call wins—for me, an election is not a total determination of a win…regardless of who is the winner, we’re committed to the longer strategy, which is transforming the South and the state of Georgia.” Bingo.

3. Successful strategy isn’t (usually) secret.

Everyone knew what Stacey Abrams (and the Georgia Democratic Party) was doing. There was no secret. Heck, Republican opposition figures even tipped their cap to this strategy, and one grassroots operative acknowledged this week that Abrams “has done a great job just getting the Democrats organized.” 

4. Successful strategy snowballs.

When you change the game, when you make the earth quake, you see gains greater than you imagined because the fundamental terrain’s been altered. In 2010, Stacey Abrams just wanted to win elections in Georgia. By 2020, she won elections in Georgia…as well as changed the course of a presidency and the United States. 

* * * * * * * * * *

*Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading Strategy Notes! This was a target-of-opportunity entry, and I still plan on posting this Monday morning on Tibetan self-immolation as a strategy. 

Please leave a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest—your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything and is the only way this community will survive and grow. All the best & see you next week!