Dems Get New Tools, New Talent
The Dean campaign was actually pretty typical of the entire Democratic Party in this regard. In 2000, to pluck just one example, the Democratic National Committee didn't even have a national voter file; chair Terry McAuliffe tried to remedy the problem, but the system he built suffered from nearly all of the problems Mordecai describes. It's no wonder, then, that Democrats and their progressive allies did such a poor job with volunteers and voters in 2004. If it takes all night to prepare a map for a canvasser, you can't absorb very many volunteers, and you can't talk to that many voters face to face. Democratic turnout was substantially up in 2004, so the campaigns did a lot right, but the amount left on the table was enormous. Field organizers generally believe that a good field campaign increases turnout by 3 to 5 percentage points, so it's not an exaggeration to say that field performance could have made the margin of Bush's victory.
After 2004 several efforts were launched to fix this problem. Two high-quality voter files were created, one at the Dean-led DNC built by technologist Josh Hendler, and one outside the DNC called Catalist, assembled by a group of former DNC consultants. A front-end web application known as the Voter Activation Network, or VAN, was standardized across campaigns. The Donkey, a volunteer management program developed in 2005, along with bar-code scanners, Palm Pilots and Google Maps, whose satellite feature allowed field organizers to cut turf without having to physically explore the routes, produced huge efficiency gains. Judith Freeman, co-founder and chief executive organizer of the New Organizing Institute and a former senior political strategist for the AFL-CIO, notes the change. "Prior to 2004, the work of creating walk packets and materials for door-to-door canvassing was a labor-intensive process that could take all night and a significant amount of a field manager's time. Now much of it is automated."
The new crop of campaign software tools sends data back instantly to a centralized database, so effort isn't wasted on voters who have moved or died. And campaign knowledge is accretive, with voting history, political identification and contact history retained every cycle. (This is especially important in states like Washington and Minnesota, where voter files do not identify voters by party.) With the data put on the web, organizations could begin experimentation and innovation with the tools. In 2006 New York Congressional candidate John Hall allowed his volunteers to do "virtual phone-banking" through a browser. With a log-in, volunteers could get a list of people to call and a script, and then plow through them at home or in groups. This technique has been widely adopted across the party; there are now volunteer-driven groups on Barack Obama's site that offer help for people trying to use the DNC's new voter file to do this. MoveOn.org has used Catalist to launch VotePoke, a site that lets people look up whether they or their friends are registered to vote, using social pressure to increase political engagement. With better data, there is substantially more sophisticated modeling, research and training through such groups as the New Organizing Institute and the Analyst Institute (disclosure: I'm currently a fellow at the New Organizing Institute).
It's not yet possible to measure exactly the impact of all these improvements. This is simply a different landscape for politics, one that turns politics from the top-down media focus of a James Carville-esque "War Room" to one that relies more on word of mouth, like a church or a labor union. Podhorzer notes that labor, having invested in substantial word-of-mouth contact since 1998, has retained its share of the electorate even as union population density has declined (union households have represented about a quarter of the electorate since 1980, even though labor density in America has been cut in half). And union households favor Democrats over Republicans, the only white working-class demographic in which Republicans have not made gains. "Because union campaigns have never been predicated on advertising but on people talking to people, we've seen the union vote for Democrats and union turnout go up substantially," Podhorzer said. "I think that these tools really do help make a difference."
It's also significant that volunteers and organizers, the future blood of the party, have a much better experience. In 2004 I signed up to volunteer with the Kerry campaign and got no response. By contrast, within a few hours of signing up on the Obama website, I was contacted by a local group called Metro DC for Obama, offered bumper stickers and yard signs and asked about my schedule and volunteer interests. I was also invited to several primary watch parties, and every tool on the site worked smoothly. It's no wonder that the Democratic campaigns can bring huge numbers of new people into the process; the work done by the new organizers has made the process much less frustrating. And beyond the tools, there's talent, which is where the Democratic advantage could be locked in permanently. Consultant Zack Exley notes, "Democrats have enjoyed bumper crops of field organizers for two presidential cycles. The next big question is this: Will the nominee succeed in harvesting these crops and making the very best use of these organizers? Or will she or he put blockages and bureaucracy in the way of these young organizers, as happened in the 2004 general election?" Asks Freeman, whose organization trains and networks people and organizers in political technology, "Will these organizers leave politics for higher-paid jobs in sectors that desire their skills, like the technology arena? How will we manage ongoing leadership development?"
These systemic changes considered in isolation can seem arcane, but they all facilitate a larger cultural movement, one that points toward a very different kind of postbroadcast politics. As author Seth Godin, who analyzes consumer trends, explains it, "The key assumption in the analysis of typical field organizers is this: one persuaded equals 1.1 or perhaps 1.5 votes. In other words, the multiplier is very small. That's why you need to run lots of ads and do lots of direct mail. It's not very efficient, it's very expensive, but you can really pile it on. The idea is that if you hit someone ten or twenty or a thousand times, sooner or later you'll get some conversion. Obama and [Ron] Paul do different math. They assume a multiplier of three or even six. Which means that creating (and living) a story that turns people evangelical is far more efficient than hewing to the middle of the road. They assume that if they can create a passionate, raving fan, they'll be able to translate that into a virus, an idea that spreads and scales over time. When that happens, they end up stoking the fire instead of lighting a lot of matches over and over again. Starbucks did this, believe it or not. They converted people into coffee fiends (particularly Starbucks fiends), who then converted their friends. And it happens on the net all the time."
In the post-1972 TV era, Democratic campaigns didn't have the tools or trained organizers available to direct large numbers of volunteers efficiently to where they needed to be. Now they do. And social networks like Facebook, Blackplanet, blogs and SMS, as well as basic e-mail, can be layered onto the clean new databases to reach voters wherever they are, for much less money than TV advertising. We are in the middle of a massive wave of campaign innovation, led by organizers who will eventually spread outward to every nook and cranny of progressive politics. The larger significance of this architectural revolution in progressive politics isn't clear, but it is the first sustained challenge to the dominance of television and direct mail in the political system since those media displaced urban party machines in the 1960s. For now, it's working against Republicans: "Democrats have a very significant natural advantage in the technology area, which is that younger people are much more Democratic," said Podhorzer. But this advantage isn't permanent. "If the 1960s, '70s and '80s have a lesson, it's that the inherent character of the shift in technology, whether it's to direct mail or broadcast or social networks, may have some bias toward one ideological side or another, but it also matters what the players do. Something may in its first, completely anarchic moments favor one side, but in the end it's not like the major economic interests that create a right wing in the country say, 'Oops, they've got the answer; now we're not going to win anymore.'"