A Long-Term Advocacy Strategy That Works

Posted on February 28, 2017

[This column is related to the last one that laid out a “Resolution Strategy” for policy organizing. This digs deeper into the six-part program for advocacy described by Michael Pertschuk in The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will Into Political Power.]

Nearly always, it takes years to pass legislation that substantially addresses a real policy problem. So why don’t more progressive advocacy groups write and follow multi-year plans?

Part of the reason is, they only know the same-old methods of organizing and lobbying. Usually, these are: (1) Select and write one or more bills to promote; (b) introduce those bills; and (c) try to get publicity and recruit individuals and organizations to lobby for the bills. When the bills lose, we try again the following year. Sure, rinse-and-repeat tactics can work, but they are often inefficient and are bound to fail in jurisdictions with the wrong mix of lawmakers.

There is a multi-year program that has worked repeatedly but is little known outside the State of Maryland. It is a set of interconnected strategies described in Michael Pertschuk’s book The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will Into Political Power. The point of the DeMarco strategy is to use an upcoming election to drive publicity, corner candidates, compel lawmakers to pledge their support, and change the overall perception of the politics of a given issue. This program has successfully enacted legislation for: gun violence prevention, tobacco tax increases, expanded health coverage, stopping casino gambling, and increasing the alcohol tax. There are six steps:

(1) Create an evidence-based policy plan.

Based on long experience and national-level research, progressive advocates often feel like they know which state or local policies would solve particular problems. And they’re often right. But in order to win a difficult battle, you need proof that the solution works not just nationally but locally. So, engage experts in your own state to do research that directly supports the efficacy of your particular state or local policies. Over the course of the multi-year program, this research will help build alliances, convince activists, generate media attention, and persuade lawmakers.

(2) Commission a high-quality poll.

Because this strategy involves an election, progressives need to frame the issue in a manner that is popular with voters. We need a political issue that excites our base, is favored by persuadable voters, and offends the radical right. (Why offend the right wing? So they don’t give up when they realize they’re defending an unpopular position.) This requires polling, and if you’re going to invest a good amount of time and money into a years-long legislative campaign, you should not skimp on polling. By using a respected firm, you not only get more reliable poll results, you also have more credibility when approaching political leaders and donors for support

(3) Use the Resolution Strategy to build a powerful coalition.

This step is described in much more detail in this prior column. The idea is to create a Resolution (like this and this) for organizations and individuals to endorse a specific policy before that policy is crafted into legislation. It needs to be specific enough to describe impactful future legislation without being so specific that this step becomes legally defined as “lobbying.” With the Resolution, our progressive advocates seek endorsements from state and local civic, labor, religious, professional and policy groups, as well as prominent businesses, thought leaders, and local governments. It is a golden opportunity to educate grasstops leaders, activate grassroots supporters, build a powerful coalition for the legislation that follows this step, identify specific objections to the proposed policy, and find answers to those objections. This step also has the potential to generate a lot of press for the cause. And it’s entirely 501(c)(3) work!

(4) Introduce the bill and use media to the hilt.

If you are ambitious enough in your Resolution, you probably can’t enact the legislation the first time it is introduced. And in fact, the purpose of this first bill is not to win, it is to create many opportunities for publicity, get the Resolution’s endorsees engaged in the legislative battle, gain much more support especially at the grassroots, and flush out the opponents’ policy arguments. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting a lot of press attention. Ninety-nine percent of the legislation before any legislature is below the media’s radar, and as a result, the public never finds out what it happening. That kind of legislating favors special interests and their lobbyists. To win an important fight, we need to shine a big spotlight on the issue—making it one of the few that the media covers—so that legislators believe that rank-and-file voters will know how they are voting on it.

(5) Make the policy into an election issue.

This step usually requires a 501(c)(4) entity. It is fairly common for progressives to create candidate questionnaires or pledge forms, but we don’t tend to give much incentive for less-than-pure candidates to publicly support our legislation. Because it is part of a highly-publicized multi-year strategy, the DeMarco pledge form works differently. Lawmakers and candidates are pressured to sign by the large coalition that was built around the Resolution and the legislative effort. Our advocates make it clear that the results—who does and does not sign—are going to be released at a key point in the campaign (e.g. mid-October), that the coalition will ensure that voters know the candidates’ positions through both earned and paid media, and that the legislation is strongly supported by their voters. This maneuver attacks undecided lawmakers/candidates at their weakest point. During legislative sessions, lawmakers will often avoid taking a position when they can, but a campaign is a different matter entirely.

(6) Go win in the legislature.

As a result of cosponsorships and pledges in the prior legislative session, plus the winning candidates who signed a pledge form during the election season, and added to that all the publicity generated by the effort, you begin the next legislation session with the maximum possible number of cosponsors—in some cases a majority or near-majority of the legislature. Through the DeMarco program, you have done more than win legislative supporters one-by-one, you have built a powerful political movement and changed the perception of the issue among the political insiders across the state. And that reaps benefits for years to come.