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Northam Campaign Memo: How Ralph Northam Won And How Democrats Can Replicate The Strategy


From the Northam for Governor campaign, see below for their story regarding how they won on Tuesday. My own view – and the view of most people I’ve spoken with since the election – is that the surge in Democratic votes this election was largely due to anger at Donald Trump, and that the grassroots deserves a huge amount of credit for helping translate that anger into votes for the Democratic ticket on election day. I’d also give a lot of credit to the Coordinated Campaign’s field operation, as well as to Virginia Republican disunity (Corey Stewart didn’t campaign for Ed Gillespie; Bryce Reeves didn’t campaign for Jill Vogel; etc.). And, of course, great work by every single House of Delegates candidate who stepped up to run following the Women’s March, as they both helped win back an incredible 15 (16?) seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, but also helped drive voters to the polls, which helped the top of the ticket. Finally, amazing job by Tom Perriello who, unlike the vast majority of losing primary candidates, didn’t take his ball and go home, but worked tirelessly to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. All of that paid off handsomely on Tuesday night.  (oh yeah, almost forgot – gotta give credit to the Democratic LG and AG candidates, plus others – Barack Obama, Terry McAuliffe, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, Tom Perez, the Democratic House Caucus, local Democratic committees, etc, etc. – who worked hard for this victory)

P.S. IMHO, whether or not Democrats can replicate what happened in Virginia – and also in New Jersey, Washington State, Maine, Georgia, Connecticut, etc. on Tuesday – going forward is largely dependent on Trump a) staying in the White House; b) Trump staying wildly unpopular; c) Republicans more broadly staying wildly unpopular.

MEMO: How Ralph Northam Won And How Democrats Can Replicate The Strategy

To: Interested Parties
From: Senior Staff, Northam Campaign
Re: Historic Election Results
Date: November 9, 2017

Ralph Northam’s Historic and Decisive Victory: A Lesson for Democrats


Governor-elect Ralph Northam won by  remaining  relentlessly focused on the clear strategic goals of channeling the grassroots energy into action, small and large dollar fundraising, and message discipline.

The campaign branding the Governor-elect as the doctor who was decent, competent, caring, and forward-looking was the secret sauce. In the end, the election came down to electing the Virginia veteran-doctor vs. the Washington D.C. lobbyist for Trump. In our final poll before election day, Ralph Northam had a 10 point advantage in his favorability rating. In short, character mattered.

This also allowed the Governor-elect to both tap the energy of Democratic voters and appeal to swing voters in the middle of the electorate.

His victory was due to his compelling biography, focus on the issues, and better vision for Virginia’s economy. The Governor-elect ran on making sure Virginia provided opportunity to everyone, no matter who you are, or where you live, and maintaining a welcoming and inclusive Virginia.

Ed Gillespie ran a campaign focused on red herrings, racial dog whistles, and tired economic theories. Voters rejected this message overwhelmingly because it did not reflect the Virginia they experience everyday.

The story of the Northam campaign can really be told in three ways: its paid communication, its historic field operation, and its massive fundraising effort.

Field: Channeling Energy Into Action

The coordinated campaign, led by Coordinated Director Lauren Brainerd and Field Director Jenny Glass, was enormous by any metric. The final weekend numbers really tell an incredible story about a volunteer-powered organization that set new records for an off-year election.

This was made possible by a focus on empowering volunteers, running a persuasion program through October, and then growing the program exponentially during the mobilization period of the campaign.

It was also done because of the exceptional coordination between the Northam campaign, its partners and the House of Delegates. These number are made possible by an unprecedented level of GOTV coordination between the three statewide campaigns, partner organizations, and delegate campaigns. 20 House of Delegate campaigns are working directly with the coordinated campaign, up from 14 House of Delegate campaigns in 2013.

Coming out of the primary, Democrats had the clear benefit of being united. In the final poll before the primary election, Ralph Northam maintained a 71-3 approval rating and Tom Perriello maintained a 66-4 approval rating. Democrats simply liked both candidates. Tom Perriello immediately went to work on behalf of Governor-elect Northam, which stands in stark contrast to Corey Stewart’s unwillingness to endorse Ed Gillespie.

In the final four days of GOTV, the coordinated campaign and its partners knocked on 1,460,810 doors, made 985,960 phone calls, and sent 1,602,550 million text messages. For perspective, in 2013, Democrats knocked 631,549 doors and made 417,128 phone calls.

In total, the coordinated campaign and its partners knocked on 3,954,491 doors and made 3,330,591 phone calls. In 2016, the Clinton campaign knocked 2,319,839 doors and made 3,565,820 phone calls.

And it was volunteer-driven. More than 21,000 volunteers helped complete shifts in the final four days of the campaign.

This was only possible because the organization was built to funnel the energy in the Democratic party into efficient real-world actions.

Fundraising: Unprecedented Advantage

Governor-elect Northam started at a $9 million cash disadvantage on June 14. This led to a spending disadvantage that they maintained from June through mid-September.

Under the direction of Finance Director Polly Pfieffer, Governor-elect Northam and the fundraising team quickly reversed the disadvantage by September turning it into a 2:1 advantage for Governor-elect Northam.

The grassroots fundraising program, led by Digital Director Alex Witt, was just as vital to the campaign. As of the final fundraising report before the election, the campaign had 104,639 individual contributions with 88% being $100 or less.

In total, the Northam campaign raised more than $38 million dollars, which is unprecedented if you consider we only had five months as the general election nominee.

This allowed Governor-elect Northam to outspend Ed Gillespie by more than $1 million in the last week. Combined with an effective message, this led to Northam winning voters who decided in the last week by a 24 point margin, 61-37. Voters were seeing more of the Governor-elect’s message and it resonated.

Paid Communication: People + Issues = Victory

Character Counts

Governor-elect Northam’s first general election ad, “My Life,” set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

First, it told the story of who he was: a man who spent his life serving others. Second, it told voters one of his top priorities: expanding access to quality healthcare.

This introduction was important because voters do not just elect politicians on issues. They elect people who will serve on their behalf. “My Life” told the story of a man with tremendous character who was dedicated to making his community a better place.

It also made him more credible as a messenger. As often as was possible, the campaign used Governor-elect Northam talking directly to camera. His biography made him a more persuasive messenger, and our best asset.

Economic Vision Still Matters

Governor McAuliffe provided a strong Virginia economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. However, while unemployment rates in rural areas have been cut in half, voters still wanted to see more progress being made. Maybe most importantly, they feel as if the blueprint to get to the Middle Class no longer works and expect their leaders to do something about it.

In the ad “Specific,” Governor-elect Northam articulated a vision for the economy where workers would be trained on the skills required for so-called “new collar jobs,” jobs that don’t require a four-year degree but need a credential or apprenticeship.

In contrast, Ed Gillespie ran a campaign on a Trump-like tax cut that would have left a $1.4 billion hole in the budget requiring cuts to education, healthcare and public safety while giving the largest breaks to the wealthy. The theory of trickle-down economics was rejected on Tuesday.

The Trump Factor

President Trump can command a news cycle in 140 (now 280) characters, and it was evident he was always going to be a driving motivator for the electorate. In the same way media gets sucked into the Trump blackhole when he causes controversy, voters hear nothing other than President Trump if you make it all about him.

The ad “Refuses” threads this needle.

The better way to deal with Trump is to define how his policies would hurt voters and their families. Whether it was education funding, clean air and water protections, or heathcare, Governor-elect Northam relentlessly connected Trump’s policies with Ed Gillespie’s refusal to stand up to him. This election was not about Trump and his personality, but rather, it was about how his policies hurt Virginians.

Responding To Gillespie’s Bigoted Attacks

Finally, the Governor-elect was not afraid to stand up to Ed Gillespie’s attacks and call them out for what they were: fear mongering attempts at dividing Virginia. Within 24 hours, we swiftly put together the response ad and had it in front of voters.

Going back to the January vote where then Lt. Governor Northam voted against a bill to ban sanctuary cities, the campaign was aware this would be a central attack on the Lt. Governor’s record. Their cynical attempts not only didn’t work, they backfired.

Governor-elect Northam’s ad, “Prison,” quickly and decisively put the matter of the issue to bed. Ed Gillespie wanted to make the Governor-elect look weak on crime. “Prison” made it clear to voters he would put an end to political games, but enforce the law.

Ed Gillespie’s post-mortem on the Kilgore campaign can be applied to his campaign today. In 2006, he wrote, “[Kilgore’s] last-minute anti-immigration ads that didn’t move his numbers with swing voters and probably cost him important votes in the Hispanic enclaves of Northern Virginia. Anti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren song, and Republicans must resist its lure by lashing ourselves to our party’s twin masts of freedom and growth–or our majority will crash on the shoals.”

He should have listened to his own advice.


The Governor-elect effectively leveraged his biography to make inroads with voters. He was  viewed as a credible, thoughtful messenger who was speaking directly to them. While Governor-elect Northam’s biography is unique, all candidates can and should what motivates them to serve others, and how it relates to what they want to do if elected.

However, none of this matters if you are not authentic to who you are. Governor-elect Northam’s greatest asset was that voters believed him when he told them what he would do. This is a lesson candidates in 2018, and beyond, can take with them.


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