Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?
Steve Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of America Coming Together, sits on an early September morning in the organization's Washington headquarters, in a small office strewn with reports and campaign detritus. He's a short, sturdy man with a blunt but appealing manner. When I casually refer to him as an organizer he interrupts to say, "Thank you, that's the highest praise you could offer," and blushes a little.
Last year ACT was the 800-pound gorilla of the 527s. It had a budget of $142 million and offices in seventeen states, hired more than 3,000 canvassers and knocked on 16 million doors. It was also one of the strangest organizations in American political history: a campaign with a candidate it could not mention, a movement with a focus-group-tested platform and an old-fashioned door-to-door field operation funded largely by billionaire financier George Soros. Because of its size and novelty, it attracted a lot of finger-pointing in the wake of last year's defeat. Rosenthal still chafes at the charge that ACT failed to capitalize on the millions it raised. "We're seeing everywhere we look that this kind of stuff made a huge difference," he says a touch defensively.
For years Rosenthal had been a prophet of the power of face-to-face voter contact, convinced of its effectiveness by his experience as political director of the AFL-CIO, where he used this method to increase union household turnout by 4.8 million votes at a time when nonunion-household turnout had declined by 15 million. "Field," as door-to-door politicking is known, is the neglected grandparent of campaigning. Labor-intensive and time-consuming, it was considered inefficient by political professionals in an age when a single TV ad could reach millions of viewers. "There are many of us who spent a lifetime advocating grassroots voter-to-voter contact as an alternative to TV," says Rosenthal. "We fought this out with the party and the candidates for years."
In the 2004 election cycle a confluence of factors brought much of the political establishment around to Rosenthal's view. With the growth of cable, the decline of the networks and the rise of TiVo, there's no longer a single venue where an ad is guaranteed a wide swath of the electorate. Besides, voters are so bombarded with advertising these days that they screen much of it out. And with the GOP getting better and better at get-out-the-vote operations, or GOTV, the final outcome could be determined by just how well the left got out its own base.
ACT's plan was to layer phone calls, direct mail and, most important, door-to-door conversations to boost turnout among Democrats and persuade undecideds. Rosenthal is adamant that it worked. In most of the contested swing states Kerry's vote totals were greater than Gore's in 2000. But Rosenthal hands me a postmortem study ACT conducted showing that in urban counties such as Philadelphia and Cuyahoga, in which ACT was involved, Kerry's percentage increase over Gore was anywhere between ten and thirty points more than his increase in the demographically similar county of Wayne, Michigan, where ACT had no presence. Rosenthal is joined by others, including independent political analyst Charlie Cook and even RNC chair Ken Mehlman, who credited ACT's "turnout prowess" for keeping Kerry within "striking range."
Even if ACT did significantly boost Kerry's vote totals in key states, it was, according to many who worked for it, hamstrung because it was erected on a massive scale in just a year and was disconnected from any pre-existing local infrastructure. Its approach was more like door-to-door sales--a stranger at the door with a pitch--than the old-fashioned precinct captain who knows the name and birthday of everyone in the household. High-level staff was brought in from out of state, as were canvassers, many of whom were union members on loan from SEIU working on foreign terrain. This sort of trans-geographical politicking reached its logically absurd conclusion when a British newspaper urged its readers to call Ohio citizens and convince them to vote for Kerry. Needless to say, it often backfired.
As an alternative, consider Arnie Graf, who's been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for thirty years. Graf and about ten fellow community organizers from Maryland and DC took the last two weeks of the 2004 election off and headed to East Cleveland, a city of about 30,000 mostly poor and working-class African-Americans. They had been invited by a community-based organization that set them up in a local church to work on boosting voter turnout in the city. "We learned as much as we could about East Cleveland and got to know the issues," says Graf. "We wound up covering every door, about 30,000 people, and we decided instead of canvassing and talking about Iraq or how many jobs had been lost in Ohio we would talk to people about what was happening in East Cleveland." Through the network of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress, they recruited 140 volunteers who went door to door among their neighbors, and when election day was over Kerry's vote total in East Cleveland exceeded Gore's by 97 percent.
Rosenthal acknowledges that for the long term, it's crucial to organize from the bottom up. In a business plan circulated after the election, ACT painted a picture of a kind of ACT 2.0, with deeper local roots, a focus on local issues and races and a mission of training a permanent, stable cohort of professional organizers. "The greatest experience for me," says Rosenthal, "was going out to places and seeing young organizers who knew how to cut walk lists and put material together and run a GOTV. That was one of the stated missions from the beginning: We were going to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we were going to figure out a way to keep them working year-round."
But ACT's chief benefactors, most notably George Soros, balked. ACT's founders, says one source close to Soros, "had for a long time thought it would be a good idea to have something like ACT as a going concern. But that's not what George funded. He doesn't feel that he wasted his money. ACT did what it said it would do.... But the notion that it was ever an idea that he would give $20 million to ACT for 2005 was not on the books." This strange marriage of grassroots organizing and wealthy funding ended, at least for the time being, in an abrupt if amicable divorce.