CEO Update: Turning out the student vote in 2020

Debra Cleaver here, founder and CEO of VoteAmerica. Every so often I send an email update to everyone in my work contacts. There are about 4000 contacts, and almost all are people I know personally. Apparently these emails are fun to read. So in the interest of spreading joy, I’m going to cross post these emails on our Medium. If you’d like to receive these emails, just shoot me an email at my work address. If you don’t have my work address, well, one day we will be friends and then you will have it. 

Sent on: August 23, 2020
Subject line: We’re running out of time, friend.

Mississippi State Students, 2018

Hi friend,

Like all of you, I have spent the past four years wondering if there’s anything I could have done differently in 2016. Which over the past few months has become a game of “time machine.” If I could build a time machine, and go back to March 2016, what would I tell myself to do differently?

I would have told myself to stop messing around and run a campus engagement program in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It would have cost $1.7 million dollars to run a full-semester voter engagement campaign targeting every student in those three critical states, which would almost certainly have changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

$1.7 million dollars is a lot of money for me, personally, but it’s not a lot of money. The Hillary campaign spent $1 million dollars every 8 hours. So for 16 hours of presidential campaign spending, we could have changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

We can’t change the past, but we sure as hell can impact the future. Student voters remain a critical voting block this year — COVID aside — and student voters absolutely turnout to vote if you engage them. This isn’t hand-wavy, feel good nonsense. This is just math.

In 2018, we put full-page, full-color ads on the backs of 580 campus newspapers, telling students to vote in the midterm elections. This GOTV program cost under $800,000, and turnout was 2% higher on the campuses where these ads ran than on similar campuses where we didn’t buy the inventory. Retroactive analysis also showed that campuses that experienced a full-semester, integrated media program experienced a 5.9% boost in turnout compared to control campuses (another group ran registration programs, so we did a combined analysis to get the results).

This morning I pulled the latest Cook Political Report data, and cross referenced it with campus data. I’m in a great mood now, because the costs are reasonable.

For $1.76 million dollars we can run full-semester, integrated programs in the three most competitive states in the country (Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina) targeting 1.3 million students. That’s just $1.35 per student for a battle tested, proven, scalable program that works. This is the program I wish we had run in 2016, and now we are getting a second chance.

We don’t need to stop there (and we shouldn’t, because fascism). I pulled the cost data for the 12 most competitive states in the nation. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Arizona (tossup): $490,000
  • Georgia (tossup): $580,000
  • North Carolina (tossup): $690,000
  • Florida (lean D): $972,000
  • New Hampshire (lean D): $74,000
  • Pennsylvania (lean D): $730,000
  • Michigan (lean D): $700,000
  • Wisconsin (lean D): $240,000
  • Minnesota (lean D): $300,000
  • Texas (lean R): $1.2 million
  • Iowa (lean R): $440,000
  • Ohio (lean R): $500,000

If we don’t fund these programs, we are leaving votes on the table. Critical, future altering votes. And we are running out of time to fund this program. The vendor is agreeing to hold the inventory until September 1, but after that, it’s going to go to utter nonsense, like inexpensive cars and beer, or whatever garbage people sell to students.

There are no guarantees in life, so I can’t guarantee that this program will produce the partisan outcome that you want. But I can guarantee you one thing: if he gets a second term, he’s going to get a third term.

I’ll let you sit with that for a minute. Justin said that to me two months ago, and I have worked every day since. Even thinking about that makes my brain hurt. So now that your brain hurts too, I’m going to ask you to shake off that analysis paralysis, and help us get to work. We don’t have time for hand-wringing: we have to act, and we have to act now.

If you’re wondering how much you should give, the answer is that you should give until it hurts. I give 100% of my time to this, as does every single person on my team. We have the team, the expertise, and the drive. Now we need capital. We accept money, and we also accept stock, which is generally better for everyone. (You can deduct the full value without selling and paying capital gains taxes: we will liquidate it on our end). And your donations are 100% tax deductible.

You can donate here:


One last thing: we are monitoring the campus situation closely. I get daily updates on which schools are open, which are closing, and which are doing some weird hybrid thing. Administrators are fighting tooth and nail to keep the schools open, because there is so much money on the line. But the program takes into account distance learning: as schools close, we will shift away from physical inventory toward digital inventory. We’re not going to waste money here.

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