Crooked Media tries to tackle Democrats’ voter enthusiasm problem

“We know people aren’t super excited. We know people have frustrations with certain things coming out of the administration, and definitely are frustrated that we’re having to vote between Donald Trump and Biden again,” Shaniqua McClendon, Crooked’s vice president of political strategy, said in an interview. “But in the face of that, we are really honing in on reminding people of the stakes.”

Crooked’s political work
runs through Vote Save America
, a duo of similarly-named PAC and nonprofit organizations. By mobilizing their listeners — which leans toward highly politically engaged millennials — the efforts have raised $55 million since 2018. The 2024 efforts will include fundraising directly for candidates and causes, recruiting volunteers for partner organizations and deploying voter registration tools. The push will be promoted in the network’s podcasts, its newsletters and on social media.

In addition to the presidential race, Democrats have an uphill battle to maintain control of the Senate, and control of the House is up in the air. There are also multiple ballot initiatives across the country, including on abortion rights. Crooked Media’s and Vote Save America’s pitch to listeners: those elections matter.

“We can literally just plug in, down the ballot — that’s not even a conversation about Joe Biden, but down the ballot — to change what’s happening there,” McClendon said

The focus for Crooked also illuminates an ongoing
behind-the-scenes family feud
between a cohort of Democratic operatives, activists and voters who came of age under Obama and are concerned about Biden’s 2024 strategy — and an older-school Biden team confident it can run back its defeat of Trump four years ago.

Crooked’s efforts in past cycles quietly became a sizable grassroots mobilization. The organization said it raised more than $55 million for candidates and causes since 2018 and pushed its listeners to fill over 211,000 volunteer shifts for campaigns and other groups.

“I’m not going to argue that this is the most important election of our lifetimes — both because I already said that about our past three elections, and because I know people are sick and tired of hearing that claim,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama and a Pod Save America co-host, said in a statement. “But that’s exactly why Vote Save America’s work is so important — because instead of repeating the same old tired messaging, and focusing on the doom and gloom, we’re keeping our audience motivated, excited, and giving them reasons to hope.”

McClendon said the organization has not yet decided where it will direct supporters’ money, but that it was important it went to “impactful” places.

She noted that Crooked’s Senate fund in the 2020 elections excluded Amy McGrath. The Kentucky Democrat’s campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went hyper viral among certain Democratic circles and raised tens of millions, but she was ultimately still clobbered by the Republican leader.

“We got a little flack” for excluding McGrath, McClendon said. “But once all the analysis started to come in — and just look at the outcome of that election — people started to understand.”

She also pointed to the group’s exclusion of now-Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in 2020 because “he had a ton of money” already and others needed the extra cash in their warchests.

“We sent volunteers his way and definitely covered the race, but [we’re] focusing on … having the greatest impact,” she said.

The Vote Save America program also has the advantage of talking to an extremely engaged audience. The network’s listeners — which McClendon says is “highly concentrated” in millennials — are overwhelmingly Democratic (and Biden voters, even if not entirely enthusiastically) who don’t need a whole lot of convincing to cast a ballot in November, like a traditional get-out-the-vote operation. Instead, Vote Save America can focus on getting them to donate and volunteer, and do it repeatedly.

“The biggest kind of weight to carry is making sure that our audience of volunteers are not burnt out,” she said. “Our audience is always going to show up to vote, that’s not a heavy lift for them. But our volunteers and our audience, we create a community for them.”

A version of this story first appeared in POLITICO Pro’s Morning Score newsletter.
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