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How to actually make a difference if you’re nervous about the election

Constructive alternatives to doomscrolling.

A person in a “Vote” mask at a candlelight vigil for late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the Supreme Court building on September 18.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Bitter memories of 2016 and President Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric about the election have every liberal I know anxious and on edge about the final month of the campaign.

Doomscrolling and dwelling on worst-case scenarios help illuminate problems and can inspire constructive action, but screen time alone doesn't help people feel better and doesn’t help safeguard American democracy, either.

To get some ideas that might be more constructive, I talked to Sean McElwee, the co-founder of Data for Progress, a think tank that focuses on helping politicians and activists be more strategic — including on what people should actually do with their time to deliver the kind of overwhelming defeat for Trump that will stabilize democracy and force changes.

His surprising answer draws from William MacAskill’s concept of “earning to give.” The idea is that rather than idealistic young people taking jobs in the charitable sector, they should go get high-paying private sector jobs and donate a large share of their income to charity. Similarly, according to McElwee, even late-in-the-campaign candidates can make highly effective use of campaign money — especially the kind of “hard money” small donations that non-billionaires can give, money that’s especially valuable because US law ensures campaigns get a better price on TV ads and studies show campaign ads work.

Progressives who’ve long spoken of their desire to get big money out of politics may not love this idea, but to change the campaign finance rules, first you need to win.

If you’re worried about the election, the No. 1 thing you can do is give money to candidates — especially down-ballot candidates who could plausibly be the tipping point for control over Senate seats and state legislature majorities. If you’re all out of money, you could spend your time trying to earn extra cash and donate it. Or you could spend time urging friends and relatives to give or dreaming up creative fundraising events.

McElwee and I spoke Thursday morning and he laid out his view, including where the highest priority races are, and even offering a few thoughts about ways the tender-hearted among you can do good by volunteering time rather than donating money — including by harassing me to talk more about health care.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Matthew Yglesias

If you’re feeling nervous and you’re not a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg who can just drop $100 million on Florida, what’s the best thing you can actually do with your time to influence the election?

Sean McElwee

The first thing to remember is if you are not a millionaire and you are giving donations to candidates below the legally allowable threshold, your money is privileged legally in a number of ways.

  • One is that the money is going directly to candidates rather than an independent expenditure. Independent expenditures can’t coordinate with the campaign so they won’t have the campaign’s message. They don’t have access to the candidate so they can’t do direct personal appeals, which are the most effective kind of ads.
  • Second: The campaigns are required to get the lowest rates the TV stations can give.
  • Third: Their ads are less likely to be taken down in response to complaints.

The first thing people should do is give money to campaigns, encourage other people to give money.

Matthew Yglesias

To which campaigns?

Sean McElwee

The Senate map started really tight with basically four states — Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine. That battlefield has expanded pretty dramatically. Montana came on. Alaska is increasingly looking in play, and if you worry long term about the way the Senate is biased in the long term, getting Alaska is really important. Kansas has come online in a very serious way. Both of the Georgia races are live. There are two races there, both of which need your money. Getting ahead in those marginal Senate seats is going to be very important, especially if there’s a chance in Alaska and Kansas.

Matthew Yglesias

I kind of have this intuition that it might be too late. Do campaigns still have time to use money?

Sean McElwee

Absolutely. Campaigns will have time to use your money right up to the election or even after — they can have debts to pay off. Particularly with the advent of pretty swift digital communication and advertising, campaigns can get out money pretty quickly.

Matthew Yglesias

What races matter most beyond the Senate?

Sean McElwee

In addition to the Senate, there’s a lot of down-ballot stuff. If we pick up the statehouse in Texas, that’s going to matter a lot of abortion rights. In general, if we can break Republican trifectas, that’s going to help protect abortion rights.

There are also key states for health care. In North Carolina, the Democratic governor has wanted to pass Medicaid expansion. In Kansas, the Democratic governor looked like she had a deal. And in Florida, obviously, the governor is trickier — but we have plausible paths to taking chambers in all those states.

There are lots of great down-ballot funds, and your money goes really far there. If you’re smart about that money, it’s also a good hedge.

Matthew Yglesias

How do you actually do that if you’re not super-familiar with specific state legislative races in Texas and Florida and so forth?

Sean McElwee

There’s an ActBlue to support 48 state legislative candidates who could collectively flip 10 chambers. And there’s the F*ck Gerry(mandering) list and then there’s the GiveSmart Fund, which has a great track record.

Matthew Yglesias

We’ve been talking about giving money, but a lot of people have the instinct that they should be volunteering time.

Sean McElwee

You should volunteer your time raising money to give it to the candidates. You should spend your time doing things with your friends that raise sums of money and give it to down-ballot candidates. Anyone can host a fundraiser, and people should do creative things that raise money for Democrats!

Beyond money, you probably have in your social relations people who are not that politically engaged but probably have views similar to you. Vote-tripling. You send in the name of three friends, and on the day of the election, the vote-tripler will remind you to tell those three friends to actually go vote.

Voting is a harder thing than a lot of people realize; it can be intimidating the first time you do it. So just reminding people to have a plan to vote in your immediate circle can be very powerful. We have lines in this country and one of the reasons we have those lines is because not enough people volunteer to become poll workers — so if you volunteer, you can break down one of the most racist barriers to voting. We are also seeing a lot of evidence that personalized letters for GOTV are very effective.

Matthew Yglesias

You send letters to strangers at random?

Sean McElwee

There's a tool to help you do it.

People can also harass you and other journalists personally to get you to cover health care instead of whatever else is in the news. It really actually does matter quite a bit how campaigns are covered and to the extent that we can work the refs so that the focus is on boring stuff that isn’t exciting to voters on Twitter but is exciting to regular voters that can be very effective. We should be harassing The Daily to do a big seven-part series on Trump’s health care policies.

Matthew Yglesias

The basic picture is that media tends to be focused on the most outlandish stuff Trump does, but boring issues may swing more voters?

Sean McElwee

The people who switch between parties are weird. They are particularly sensitive to pretty bread-and-butter issues like the Affordable Care Act and health care. Social Security and Medicare. That kind of stuff resonates pretty heavily with the folks who switch parties. The more that we can have the media focus on that kind of stuff, the better off Democrats are going to be doing.

Matthew Yglesias

How nervous should Trump opponents be?

Sean McElwee

It is good for everyone that we are on net more nervous than we should be. It would be very bad if the New York Times decided that Joe Biden was very likely to be president.

But there are a lot more reasons to view Biden’s chances as higher than Hillary Clinton’s. Donald Trump has been subjected to a lot more negative earned media in the final stretches of the campaign, and it’s very addictive. He has much more negative media scrutiny, whereas compared to Clinton, Biden has not. Biden, in addition to having a higher margin than Clinton, has also come a lot closer to 50 percent in the polls.

Matthew Yglesias

So his lead is more secure, but it’s good that people don’t realize that?

Sean McElwee

The people who hate both parties went for Trump last time, and they’re going for Biden this time. The Senate map has expanded greatly, so it appears that crossover voting has returned. We could see some states where Democrats lose the presidency but win the Senate seat.

Matthew Yglesias

So that’s why your advice focuses down-ballot?

Sean McElwee

Yes, focus on the Senate and focus on state legislative races. That’s where your money is going to go the furthest and do the most good over the long term. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Kansas to have that seat for six years.

I would just reiterate: Think about this like an effective altruist. The No. 1 goal here is allowing the Democratic candidate that you support to tell their story, the story that they think will resonate most with voters in the most unencumbered way possible.

For all of the shit that the Democratic Party gets, they have won a lot of elections that they were not supposed to win. So give candidates your money.