Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District (PA-18) sits just below Pittsburgh proper, wrapping around the southeast and southwest corners of the city and extending to the West Virginia and Ohio state lines. Home to the second-oldest electorate in the state, PA-18 is a predominately white district that has trended Republican since the mid-1990s.
The March 13 special election pits Democrat Connor Lamb against Republican Rick Saccone. Both are vying for a House of Representatives seat that’s been vacant since October 2017, when Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who served in the role since 2003, resigned.
The race is widely seen as a test of President Trump’s enduring popularity in the region: Despite the fact that Trump won the district by 20 points in the 2016 election, recent polls show the race at a dead heat. The race has captured the national media’s attention and attracted significant outside money; in fact, ad spending alone will top $12 million.
PA-18 afforded us a unique opportunity to test out the motivote model in one of the highest-profile elections before the midterms. While the district’s demographic profile didn’t match—for the most part—our target audience, we were still eager to speak with potential customers, get on-the-ground feedback and turn out some extra voters.
Day 1: Mr. Rodgers, the Mexican Volcano and a hockey game
To say we pounded the pavement would be an understatement--this district is MASSIVE:
Day 1 began at several local colleges in the region, where we posted flyers advertising motivote in advance of the special election. Next, we headed to DV8 Espresso Bar and Gallery in Greensburg—the owners were gracious enough to host our team while we hosted a meet-up for voters in the district to learn more about our platform. Pro-tip: Try the “Mexican Volcano” at DV8—it's the most delicious coffee drink we’ve ever had. Seriously.
Our team divided and conquered, with Jess holding down the fort to speak with voters at DV8 and Emily and Rachel heading to meet with students at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe—the hometown of Mr. Rodgers (you know… from the children’s TV show)!
Next stop: Carnegie, an old steel town southwest of Pittsburgh. Dubbed the “Brooklyn of Pittsburgh,” Carnegie lives up to its name: A charming downtown with an abundance of restaurant options and great energy.
We hosted our second meet-up of the day at Bakn. The voters we spoke to were fired up about the upcoming election and ready to get their friends to vote!
Just down the block, we posted up at The Flying Squirrel—if the temperature had been just a bit warmer, we would have indulged in their amazing selection of ice creams.
After a marathon day of speaking to voters and getting to know the district, we headed into the city for some sightseeing. The streets were PACKED -- unbeknownst to us, there was a Pittsburgh Penguins home game Saturday night.
Day 2: Two U.S Presidents, one college campus
We headed back to Carnegie Sunday morning—we had a tip that Carnegie Coffee was buzzing on Sunday mornings. Jess spent the morning speaking with voters in Carnegie and handing out our Make America Vote Again stickers.
Rachel and Emily headed to Square Cafe in Pittsburgh. While not technically in the district, Square Cafe is one of the most popular breakfast spots in the city. The owners invited us to set up a booth and speak with patrons just outside the entrance.
We spoke with a bunch of folks who live in PA-18 but headed into the city for Square Cafe’s brunch and signed up some new motivoters! Thank you, thank you, thank you, to Square Cafe for your hospitality (and heat lamps —it was chilly outside).
Last stop: Washington and Jefferson University, in Washington, PA—named after two of our founding fathers. We put up flyers across campus and connected with a handful of student activist leaders.
Lesson learned: Get back to our (grass)roots
We’ve known that community and affinity groups will be key to motivote’s growth and success. But our trip to Pittsburgh was a reminder that breaking in to these communities requires some gold ol’ fashioned community organizing. Pounding the pavement in a district is great, but we’ve got to build relationships with leaders and influencers to gain meaningful traction.