Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?
While ACT may have met its demise, the vision of permanent, grassroots, locally based organizing is exactly what other groups across the country are now attempting to put in place. It's hard to overstate just how much of a sea change this is. Beginning in the 1970s, as the 1960s social movements became institutionalized and moved to Washington to work on legislative advocacy, there were fewer and fewer organizers in the field, with the notable exception of groups like ACORN and the PIRGs. Community organizers like Graf continued to organize in the inner city, but they've traditionally eschewed electoral work. Unions retained the largest local presence, but the labor movement had been in decline for decades. At the same time, the Democratic Party's organization had atrophied so thoroughly that by the late 1990s the party had become, in the words of one organizer, little more than a "brand name and a bank account."
If liberals substituted financial capital for social capital, as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam puts it, ACT attempted to convert financial capital into social capital, to turn money from donors into a web of relationships with voters. It was an inefficient process, and if there's a single difference between the state of progressive politics before last year and after, it's the organic regeneration of this kind of social capital.
Consider Paul Hackett's near-upset victory in an August special election for a Congressional seat in Ohio's conservative Second District. Before the race became the focus of national attention and blogger fundraising, Hackett campaign manager David Woodruff had a shoestring budget and a staff of three. So he turned to members of the Hamilton County Democratic Forum, a group of local activists who'd banded together after the presidential campaign in an attempt to maintain the momentum they'd built up. They continued to meet regularly and reached out to Woodruff, who came to rely on them. "I could call this organization and say, Could you guys get me every veterans' bill that's come before Congress in the last year and a half?" says Woodruff. "They'd meet that Tuesday and Thursday night and pull it together."
"Last year, if you had an Internet connection and a computer and two friends, you had an organization," says America Votes Ohio director Scott Nunnery. "I talked to a woman on the phone the other day, and she was offended I didn't know who she was. 'I'm the chairperson of GAG,' she said. I'm like, 'What's GAG?' She's like, 'Grandmothers Against George!'" In Ohio alone, dozens of the groups started during or immediately after the 2004 campaign, like the Perry County Democratic Forum and Upper Arlington Progressive Action, are still going strong.
With so many different organizations, effective coordination has become essential. To stave off chaos, last year the small, sparsely staffed group America Votes was given the job of playing "traffic cop of the progressive community," in the words of its president, Cecile Richards. "By the end of the election," she says, "people really did give up their own institutional program and their own identity to throw in together."
That's probably a bit of an overstatement, but America Votes did have one unambiguous triumph: All (well, nearly all) of the members of the coalition used the same voter file, known as the ACT VAN, entering information procured by canvassers and phone bankers about which way voters were leaning and important issues for the undecided. This meant that when election day came around and it was time to divvy up GOTV tasks, everyone was working from the same information. The ACT VAN might be last year's most concrete achievement, and it could serve as a cornerstone for a kind of permanent shared voter file for progressive organizers. "Data and voter files are to politics for the next ten years what media have been for the last twenty," says Rosenthal.
But other than the ACT VAN, the coordination was weak. Except for volunteer contacts and membership lists--which the coalition partners were loath to share--the overwhelming majority of America Votes members had little local capacity to contribute to a field or GOTV effort. Many of the America Votes partners didn't even start talking to one another until a week before the election. But the failures of coordination as much as the successes convinced many strategists of the need for a permanent platform for collaboration at the state level. "It's a totally different way of approaching the work," says Richards. "Campaigns are by necessity short-term-focused and completely tactical. They're like the circus--you set them up, you do the show and then you tear them down."