Recommendations for prioritizing political engagement in the 2020 US elections

by IanDavidMoss6 min read14th Oct 202017 comments

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Policy ChangeDonation Writeup
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(Context: there is a long-running debate within the EA community about whether or not effective altruists should seek to avoid getting caught up in party politics. I have written a companion post to this one exploring some of these issues. What follows is intended to be of service to those who, like me, believe strongly that the current election cycle in the US represents a uniquely important opportunity for effective altruists and are looking for the best ways to get involved.)

Since early August, a giving circle entitled the Landslide Coalition has been researching time-sensitive, neglected, and (where possible) evidence-based opportunities to maximize electoral victories for Democrats in the current election cycle. While not operating officially under the banner of effective altruism, Landslide Coalition has drawn roughly half of its membership from the EA community, makes significant use of concepts from EA charity analysis, and is explicitly modeled after an EA giving circle that drove millions of dollars to neglected global coronavirus interventions earlier this year.

Currently, we are a group of 35+ individuals and families who are concerned about the future of the United States under Donald Trump and his allies. Thus far, we have directly moved more than $315,000 to recommended charities and campaigns and indirectly influenced another $1.1 million in gifts and grants, while volunteering more than 200 hours of our time to date. We offer both donation and volunteering recommendations, and we are continuing to welcome new members through Election Day.

In keeping with our name, our primary goal is to ensure as widespread and decisive a victory as possible for Democrats in 2020. Our reasons for pursuing a landslide, rather than a narrow focus on winning the presidency, are as follows:

​To achieve a landslide victory, we need to throw everything we have at this election, even if the race seems to be trending in Democrats' favor at the moment. We are currently focusing on neglected opportunities for impact in the following thematic areas:

  • Maximization of net Democratic votes in battleground states, e.g. cost-effective get-out-the-vote and persuasion campaigns in places most likely to decide the general election
  • Election campaigns that are underfunded relative to their significance, such as state house races that have a chance of flipping a chamber and preventing Republican control of redistricting
  • Integrity and security of the upcoming election against threats such as hacking, disinformation, equipment failure, and COVID-related staffing shortages
  • Preparation for the possibility that the election will be disputed and ensuring massive resistance to any attempts to undermine the will of the people after November 3

Our current top recommendations

Note: the following recommendations are the product of approximately 350 hours of research (including numerous conversations with fellow funders, campaigns, and organization leaders) by members of our group since early August. The political giving space is highly complex and there are surely gaps in our knowledge still, but we have confidence that the recommendations below are significantly higher-quality than what we would have been able to come up with simply by following the news and publicly available commentary during this time.

Donating

  • Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has identified through repeated RCTs several techniques that greatly outperform traditional persuasion tactics with uncommitted and even Republican-leaning voters. Estimates suggest investing in these techniques will be roughly 8 to 10 times as cost-effective as donating to the Biden campaign, with the potential to net hundreds of thousands of votes across key states.
  • Because we are a donor network, we often learn about confidential opportunities that, whether because of concerns about tipping trade secrets to the other side or the fast pace at which the efforts need to be stood up, are not being shopped around to the general public. We are currently aware of a number of unfunded efforts brought to us by trusted advisors that cover areas such as persuasion campaigns targeted at very specific target populations in key states, efforts to build public trust in the election results and vote counting process, and more. If you are considering a last-minute donation of at least $10,000 and would like to learn more, feel free to write us at landslidecoalition@gmail.com for further details.
  • Flipping the Texas State House is a massive opportunity to break up Republican control before states draw new district maps for the next ten years, as Texas has by far the most Congressional districts of any state whose legislature is in play.  You can donate to the Lone Star Votes pooled fund for high-impact races, or to individual campaigns directly using Princeton Election Consortium's Moneyball vote visualizer as a guide.

Additional donation recommendations are available at our website. We ask that donors get in touch with us at landslidecoalition@gmail.com before donating to Working America so that we can help you ensure the money goes to the right programs. We also very much appreciate it when donors tell us how much they gave to our recommendations so that we can track our money moved.

Volunteering

Note: we recently overhauled our volunteering recommendations to focus on efforts that would be most valuable over the last two weeks of the campaign. Readers are invited to check out the slides from a briefing we held this week to go over the recommendations; if you would like to view the recording of that event, please write landslidecoalition@gmail.com.

Below is a "decision tree" intended to provide guidance for how you can choose to volunteer your time during the last stages of the election:

Regardless of other activities, everyone seeking to help should pick three (or more) friends in swing states who they're going to ask to be vote triplers (i.e., remind three friends to vote). If possible, prioritize friends and family in small states with competitive Senate races like Montana, Alaska, Iowa, Maine, and Kansas, but any swing state is better than none. Evidence indicates that these asks are most effective when you reach out individually -- don't just post on Facebook!

Then...

Make a plan for the next two weeks and decide how you're going to spend the time:

If you only have a few hours to spare between now and Election Day, try one of our textbanking recommendations.

If you particularly enjoy (or are just good at) talking to strangers, try deep canvassing with Working America or People's Action.

If you can put in at least ten hours a week but prefer to work from home, sign up to support Focus 2020's "deep volunteering" work to educate and protect voters in Philadelphia and the Upper Midwest.

If you're willing to volunteer in person, do it! The top recommendation here would be the partisan or nonpartisan Polling Place Vote Tripling programs, but your time would also be of value as a poll monitor nationwide or a GOTV canvasser in Philadelphia. For efficiency reasons, we recommend that any in-person work be directed toward densely packed urban areas in swing states.

Finally, if you have specialized skills or talents, use them. For example:

  • If you speak Spanish, sign up to phonebank with the Biden campaign here, or to send texts with the Texas Democrats.
  • If you're a lawyer, sign up with We the Action.

The Landslide Coalition website has more details on all of our donation and volunteering recommendations. We do not anticipate any more major updates to these recommendations before November 3, but may make small tweaks in response to new developments.

Is it better to donate or volunteer?

It depends on whether you personally have more time or money to spare. While there are uncertainties and variability associated with our cost-effectiveness estimates, a good rule of thumb is that if you think it’s more realistic for you to volunteer for at least five hours than it is for you to give $1,000, then you’re better off doing the former. In light of the limited time remaining before Election Day, anyone in a position to give over $50,000 is almost certainly going to accomplish more by donating than by giving their time, even at this late stage.

Comparing our recommendations to others

There are a number of giving guides and pooled funds currently making the rounds in progressive circles (although there were a lot fewer when we got started). EAs might reasonably ask why they should trust our analyses over these other options. Below are a few thoughts on comparative advantages and areas of overlap:

  • Most existing analyses we've seen have focused on donations to political campaigns, with rankings of the Senate races a particularly crowded space. Notably, none of the rankings we have seen (including Blue Senate Project, David Shor's recommendations, Princeton Election Consortium, as well as the opinions of experts with whom we've spoken) agree either with each other or with our own analysis. While we stand by our current prioritization of the Iowa race as #1, the most logical takeaway is probably that the difference in expected marginal impact between supporting different Senate races is no longer as dramatic as was once the case.
  • By contrast, many of our donation recommendations are for charitable organizations and political action committees whose work is not widely known. We have vetted most of these fairly intensively given the time constraints and have access to substantial detail on how marginal dollars will be used. Where possible, we have tied recommendations to an increasingly robust evidence base for the effectiveness of various campaign tactics as chronicled by organizations such as the Analyst Institute.
  • In addition, as far as we know we are the only group publicly offering evidence-based volunteering recommendations for the current campaign cycle. Volunteering can be evaluated through the same cost-effectiveness lens as donations, but for whatever reason it appears that few have attempted to synthesize and compare opportunities in this way.

Landslide Coalition has not attempted an analysis of how political donations stack up against other EA priorities, so if you are already directing significant support to GiveWell-recommended charities or longtermist priorities, our intention is not to suggest you do otherwise. If the funds would otherwise go toward personal consumption or other non-essential spending, however, you may wish to consider how far you can reasonably stretch your budget in light of the stakes currently at play. Furthermore, if donating is not an option for you, there are many opportunities to make a highly-leveraged difference with your time in this election.

UPDATE LOG:

  • 10/23: Posted complete overhaul of volunteer recommendations for the final two weeks.
  • 10/15: Removed Theresa Greenfield from top-level recs (Senate campaigns generally very well-funded now), replaced with writeup on confidential opportunities.

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