We Actually Don’t Know Why Nina Turner Lost & That’s Okay

I am mostly in agreement with Luke Savage’s postmortem analysis of Nina Turner’s OH-11 primary loss. It’s a well-worn axiom that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true; and, it is a simple and well-known fact that “groups opposed to Turner quite literally flooded Ohio’s 11th district with millions in attack ads.” Those ads are incredibly effective at influencing those who don’t have the time and near-obsessive commitment to following races that political junkies have. Savage points out that “Democratic Majority For Israel (DMFI) alone spent over $2 million on ads mostly attacking Turner (and making no actual mention of Israel).” It is such advertising—glitchy, shallow—that, if not countered with a strategy that to transcend it, can make a favorite candidate not only vulnerable, but lose a lead. 

It is true that much of this money was spent on straight-up disinformation. Turner was branded “an opponent of universal health care and a higher minimum wage,” ludicrous charges to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Turner, but effective when at least some voters don’t have the time to research candidates or follow the divisions among Democratic primary contenders. 

I am in some agreement with Socialist Alternative‘s Chris Gray, as well: Turner’s affiliation with the Democratic Party hurt her in the same way Bernie’s relationship with the Party hurt him. It’s true that Turner’s Party credentials–former Executive Director of Our Revolution, endorsed by unions—the “Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union, locals of the Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, SEIU locals, the Ohio State Council of Machinists, the RWDSU”—should have pushed her through. And it did take the last-minute intervention of Party centrists to beat back that momentum. But I also think that campaigning as a third party outsider would have likely produced a worse outcome, and it is unfair to call her running on the Democratic ticket a sign of her attempted “unity” with the Democratic Party. That is a clear oversimplification, especially at a time when many progressives and even socialists are winning on Democratic tickets while simultaneously remaining extremely critical of the DNC and its centrist agenda.

Finally, I think Steve Phillips at The Nation is very insightful in his critique of the Turner campaign’s decisions to spend millions on ineffective TV and digital ads (her opponent ran ads too, but turned negative much faster). But that doesn’t explain the campaign’s loss of momentum, particularly when the winner of the primary also spent millions on TV and digital ads. 

The problem with post-mortems generally is they ignore the often random ways that things go wrong. You might have hundreds of thousands of people signing up to volunteer and still only end up with a fraction of those actually showing up. A candidate might say something the wrong way on live camera, or a technician might make a mistake in shot or angle, and within an instant they are down a thousand votes. Instead of perseverating on the why, we might ask ourselves a some other questions. Namely, how do candidates like Turner win races, and how can we apply the lessons of other wins? 

India Walton’s mayoral race in Buffalo might help us answer these questions. Walton, after all, explicitly calls herself socialist whereas Turner, despite a DSA endorsement, does not. As Vox explains, Walton embraced “movement-centered policies” as a grassroots organizer—building off her recent career as a nurse and recent contributions as both a “union representative for health care workers . . . and the executive director of the affordable housing-focused Fruit Belt Community Land Trust.” This is not to say that Turner had to have been each of those things to win, but Walton’s past did five her community credibility that Turner, who has been an academic and political consultant (and State Senator), may not have have. It may be that community and grassroots classifications matter more to progressives that having been affiliated with a major presidential contender. Who knows? It is easier to identify what helped Walton than what hurt Turner. 

In the last presidential primary season, the Sanders campaign had a vision and method for making voters and volunteers feel invested. The campaign created systems to facilitate its enthusiastic volunteers and supporters—something, which, at the time, I identified as a force for future grassroots campaigners who rely on targeted, boots-on-the-ground canvassing facilitated by campaign technology: from deep canvassing apps to premium data and email append products like Accurate Append. These technologically-informed strategies are far more effective and far less expensive than traditional TV ads. 

Steve Phillips astutely points out that winning special elections (and primaries, especially if you’re left or progressive) is actually much easier and than is commonly supposed. It involves strategies like that of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s communications coordinator Corbin Trent, who recalls that the campaign first identified 75,000 people who would vote for their candidate—enough to win—and then”knocked on their doors,… sent them mail,… knocked on their doors again,… [and] called them.”

I would confidently add to Phillips’ analysis that any digital and social media-facilitated communication should be as localized and direct as possible. In fact, a few campaigns have successfully reached out to potential supporters based on their interactions with Facebook threads, and such campaign work can swing a close local election. 

The truth is that we will never know exactly why Nina Turner lost a race she “should have” won. Analyses of her personality flaws, negative feelings about Bernie, low primary turnout, and bad spending choices are plentiful and cheap. Yet, what we do know is that candidates in a more left and progressive ideological range can win in rust belt and even farm belt districts; such victories, however, depend on them appealing to the right combination of folks represented by unions, concerned about their future and/or seeking candidates congruent with their ideals. Moreover, we know that targeting voters and being persistent in that targeting—often assisted by technology—helps get the job done. India Walton might, therefore, be the case study that helps the left the most. Conversely, Turner, fresh off a highly contentious national campaign, may be a case study of a different kind.

by Adriel Hampton

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