This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.
The Hometown Project is an example of the “relational organizing” that top Democratic Party officials hope will cut through the political noise and prompt people in swing districts to vote in 2020. As Ken Martin, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, explains, drawing on real relationships to bring attention to local candidates is the most positive way to counter partisan disinformation and help candidates.
The Hometown Project does this by helping well-known musicians and actors to make and post online videos that support progressives running for local office—typically state legislature—from the artist’s hometown. I spoke with project founder Peter Salett about the project’s origins, smart use of online social media, successes in November 2019 and plans for 2020.
Steven Rosenfeld: You’ve been in the arts and music for many years. Were you looking for a new way for artists to be engaged in campaigns and elections?
Peter Salett: Initially, I was just looking for a way for myself to be involved in politics post-2016. I’d always been involved in politics in some way, but post-2016 election I started seriously thinking about how I personally could make a difference. What could I do? I started having conversations with different activist friends and artist friends, and an environmental activist friend of mine said to me in one of our meetings, “You know, when Mark Ruffalo went back to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and talked about environmental issues, that was powerful, because he was from there.” A little light went off in my head and I thought, “Yeah, that’s interesting. What if we got Mark and people like Mark to be involved in local elections in their hometown?”
Rosenfeld: So there was a real opportunity for artists to politically reconnect with their hometowns.
Salett: Yes, many of my very high-profile friends tweeted and made statements leading up to the 2016 election. I was feeling like those actions didn’t really go anywhere. I was trying to figure out if there was a way that we could focus that energy, because creative people are looking to make a difference and in a way that’s specific to who they are, that isn’t just about writing a check or just being a face in a national campaign that doesn’t have to do with them.
Rosenfeld: How does this role differ from traditional celebrity endorsements?
Salett: Well, in the past, celebrity has been used in a much more general sense: relying on simply the celebrity itself. The Hometown Project is different in that it’s about connection. It’s about people standing up. When I read the Indivisible packets [briefings from that new pro-Democrat group] in the days following the 2016 election, the one thing that was really interesting to me was it said that one person standing up within a community doesn’t necessarily move the needle in terms of electing a representative. But five people standing up does move the needle, and so does one well-known person that stands up.
When these well-known people, we call them Hometown Energizers, are speaking of where they come from and the elected officials that they are trying to elevate the platforms of, they’re doing so in a more authentic way because they still are connected to those communities. Their families still live there. They went to high school there. They go back there for vacations.
So this to me was an idea that says that we’re all from somewhere and that anyone within a community has a right to stand up and speak. So what we’re trying to do is elevate the platform of young progressive candidates that are part of the next wave of elected officials that are going to be around for the next 20, 30, 40 years.
Rosenfeld: How has technology helped bridge the artists and that particular audience of potential voters?
Salett: My original conception for the Hometown Project was that Hometown Energizers would physically return to their hometowns. That’s still absolutely an option for people. But we’re talking [about] a segment of the population that’s usually very, very busy, and it’s hard to get people to return home at a specific time that lines up with a candidate’s event, or one of our partner’s events. So we moved into producing videos quite quickly, as something that is very simple for our Hometown Energizers to do. And they are very easy for us to get out into the world and very specifically within the local districts. New technology allows us to target specific state legislative districts, where we can guarantee that the videos are being seen by the right people. We’re always looking for ways to improve the experience, both for the viewer and also for the Energizer, and obviously, the entire benefit is designed to go to the candidate.
Rosenfeld: Let’s talk about some successes. Your annual report has lots of good examples. Can you cite a few and tell me what made it different from a typical political advertisement?
Salett: People that are scrolling through Facebook or looking on Twitter might not be thinking of themselves as a voter in that moment. I think that these videos don’t come across as political ads because you’re looking at faces that are familiar faces, but that are also hometown faces. Take Jason Mraz, for example. He did some amazing work for us this cycle, where he took his own creativity and used our scripts to write original songs for candidates that basically transformed our scripts into lyrics. He supported Ghazala Hashmi for Virginia State Senate. And not only, of course, was she thrilled by the video and said that it brought a lot of views and energy, the other thing is that there’s an energy that gets transported to the campaign staff, to the volunteers, to the candidates, [that] adds additional press. All of this stuff is a real boost.
She wrote Jason a letter after the election and she said this was so fantastic. She also said that she taught Jason’s cousin in community college a number of years ago! So these really are hometown candidates with Hometown Energizers, and there’s truly a connection between them. These are people that come from these communities, have connections with these communities, and whose families are affected by the decisions of local elected officials.
Rosenfeld: How many candidates and how many artists were involved in 2019?
Salett: I wanted to get 10 or more Hometown Energizers in the state of Virginia. I thought that if I could reach that number and support 25 to 27 candidates within Virginia itself in this key [state legislative] election with a lot of really, really close races, that we could actually have a statewide impact. And we were able to do that. We had 10 candidates supporting Energizers and an additional Energizer who appeared in our statewide Get Out the Vote video. That was the goal, basically, because there’s also spillover into different districts. In 2019, it was an off-off year election. There was no governor’s race. So we also wanted to let people know that there was an election.
Rosenfeld: Tell me a little more about the number of voters reached in a specific race. This is important because these are sometimes low turnout races, where literally hundreds of votes might be the margin, and you’re able to reach thousands of people in those jurisdictions. Am I right about that?
Salett: Yes. The case that we use in our 2019 Impact Report was Nancy Guy, who ran in the Virginia Beach Hampton Roads area District 83, with actor/comedian Wanda Sykes supporting her. Wanda was born in Portsmouth and went to Hampton University and still has connections to the area. So we worked with Wanda to create candidate videos, one of which was for Nancy Guy. Based on our paid Facebook ads, we were able to target 14,612 people within Nancy Guy’s district to watch Wanda’s video. In an election where the total number of voters was 21,954 people, Nancy Guy won by just 40 votes.
Rosenfeld: Is it primarily Facebook, or is it Facebook and Instagram and Twitter?
Salett: It’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Yes. It’s all three of them. Last fall, we did not do advertising on Twitter, but we did unpaid releases on Twitter. So a lot of our videos had thousands of views. Some of our statewide videos have had hundreds of thousands of views, but Facebook allowed us to target the videos much more directly, and thus we had much more detailed data on how those videos did.
Rosenfeld: It’s my understanding that Facebook has the most specific targeting and tracking.
Salett: Yes. We were able to geo-target districts based on district shapefiles, so we reached individuals in-district specifically, unlike zip code targeting, which most programs use and has varying overlap of districts. We also were able to target using broad progressive interests, which allowed us to reach voters who are normally missed. Most broad persuasion programs see low engagement, yet our approach in using well-known faces saw high engagement, click-through rates and low cost per share. For example, the Facebook targeting for a Mark Ruffalo video allowed us to target liberal-leaning people from Washington Post readers to PBS viewers, while also targeting Mark’s fans.
Rosenfeld: Was that traffic because these artists were sending it out? Where was it from?
Salett: Our organic views are because the Energizers have big lists. Jason Mraz has over 10 million Facebook followers. So, of course, when he posts video, it racks up a lot of views. But it was our advertising that focuses the content within the district. And again, the rates of online advertising are so incredibly low. This is money very, very well spent in that people from the Richmond area know Jason Mraz and they know him as somebody that’s from their area. So they’re far more likely to share a Jason Mraz video about a local candidate than they would any other type of political ad, basically.
We put the videos out and advertise them on Facebook where they rack up views as people are just scrolling. But then, in addition to that, there is a lot of engagement with the content in terms of likes and shares and comments, because of the hometown nature of who he is.
Rosenfeld: Are you able to monitor those likes and shares and comments?
Salett: Absolutely. It’s a key indicator of whether voters are responding. Some of the positive local comments are highlighted in our report.
Rosenfeld: What are your plans for 2020?
Salett: Our goals are to take this model, which is 10-plus Hometown Energizers in a particular state, and replicate that in 10 swing states, in addition to having some one-off Energizers in different local areas when they approach [us]. We’re looking at 10 swing states, and we’re looking to try and build staff, and create a lot of content for 2020. I feel we can do it. We’ve built the model, and we’ve got the structures to do it. We just need to get the funding.
Rosenfeld: When you say swing states, are you talking about state or federal races—or both?
Salett: We’re talking about presidential swing states, but a lot of them are often closely aligned as state legislatures are tight within those states. And, if you’re in a purple state, it generally implies that there are a lot of purple districts. One of the things we don’t do generally is we don’t try for easy wins because that’s a waste of everybody’s time. And we don’t try for races that are beyond our control, except in rare cases, where we think it’s important for movement building to have somebody support a candidate in an area that’s their hometown that the candidate might not win this time around, but in the future, we feel like it would be important to establish those connections.
Rosenfeld: When I talked to Democratic Party officials like Ken Martin [the chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees], he has talked about relational organizing. He’s hoping that people in other states will share contacts and other lists so that people who are in swing districts might be personally contacted as a way to punch through what they expect to be tons of political advertising and noise. What do you anticipate about the difficulty of having people pay attention to what you’re doing?
Salett: Well, first, our Hometown Energizers never propose policy solutions. That’s not the function of the message. They are there to elevate the candidate platforms, and try to bring name recognition and website recognition to the candidates. So for us, it’s basically about trying to cut through the noise and just get that candidate’s name and hopefully whatever the candidate’s policy positions are on the mind of the voter, so the voter can make their own decisions about the candidate.
In this type of atmosphere, where there’s going to be so much media, I think what we will do is slightly different. In a high turnout election with a lot going on, we’re trying to elevate the local candidates so that when you go to the ballot box and vote for whomever for president, you are also inspired to go down the ballot and vote for other candidates. We have a real opportunity to remake state legislatures across the country because so many people are going to vote for president, which is fantastic.
If we are able to elevate local candidates in 2020, so that people, when they go in, are not just going to click the presidential box or the U.S. senatorial box, they’re going to go all the way down, that’s going to be incredibly helpful. We feel like our Hometown Energizers are some of the best-equipped voices to be raising those platforms, because they cut through. If you went to high school with the brother of somebody that’s well-known and you see their face, you know who they are and you’re much more likely to click on what they’re saying—or even just look at that video with the sound off where you see the name of the candidate and what they’re running for. In this environment, we feel we’re well equipped to be something that cuts through the noise.
Rosenfeld: Those state races have everything to do with the composition of state legislatures and U.S. House districts, which will dictate the political arena for the next decade.
Salett: Yes, some states are just trying to counterbalance a veto-proof GOP majority. There are different rungs at which voting for state legislature is super-important. So many decisions are made at the local level. Abortion, minimum wages, civil rights, health care, etc. There are so many environmental regulations, so many decisions that are made at the legislative level. They’re often overlooked by too many people. We want to change that.
Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.