Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets | The Nation


Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Canvassing is a touchy topic. Since the decline of network TV and the ascendance of TiVo-type ad zappers, no means of communication pays off better for candidates than door-to-door contact made by canvassers. "That kid with the blue hair and the nose ring is more effective than any piece of mail you'll ever read," says Boundy. A recent study revealed that door-to-door canvassing is also a more efficient means of generating votes than phone banking. The DNC came under fire in 2004 for contracting out their canvassing operations to for-profit groups that hire young people at rock-bottom wages. Dana Fisher studied paid canvassing for her book Activism Inc. and concluded that the outsourcing of campaigns was "strangling progressive politics" and turning off potential activists. Today, the DNC is again working with the canvassing company it used in 2004. According to the Campaign for Responsive Politics, the DNC has already paid Grassroots Campaigns Inc. well over $1.6 million for the '08 cycle. Finney says paid canvassers are used only to raise funds for the party's new organizing. But to Fisher, every dollar spent on outside canvassers does damage. "The people have changed, and America has changed since 2004," she says, "but the party's repeating its mistakes."

About the Author

Laura Flanders
Laura Flanders
Contributing writer Laura Flanders is the host and founder of GRITtv with Laura Flanders, a daily talk show for people...

Also by the Author

A conversation with the feminist playwright and One Billion Rising leader, whose new play, O.P.C., opens in Cambridge on November 28.

The business press still insists on equating strong union organizing with communism.

The Obama campaign, by contrast, is thriving, thanks to volunteers. "Social relationships are what inspire commitment," says Ganz. Before an Obama campaign office opened in Colorado Springs, volunteers had recruited 171 captains to cover 387 local precincts. Megan Cornish, a senior at Colorado College, had ninety students signed up to work for Obama on caucus day. Together, she said, her student group had registered 200 new voters on a campus of 2,000. "I imagine this sounds a bit sappy," she told me, "but it is absolutely true...the emotive bonds we have developed may be the reason this campaign has the energy that it does."

"We're doing almost as well as the party on recruitment, and the party's spent years on it," claims Maday, who believes the party will ultimately benefit from the infusion of new enthusiasm. When a Colorado Springs office had its grand opening on January 10, between 250 and 300 people showed up. It's the same in Pueblo, Durango, Fort Collins and Grand Junction: self-started, well-resourced and carefully trained by people in the head office, grassroots Obama groups of just the sort Dean's 2004 campaign dreamed about exist all over Colorado. Motivation appears to have met methodology at last, with a lot of help from veterans like Ganz (who traces his skills back to the United Farm Workers).

In the early primary states, Hillary Clinton's field operations have been extensive, thorough and front-loaded. As long ago as June, the Concord paper reported that the Clinton team had almost as many paid staffers in New Hampshire as the rest of the Democrats combined. In Iowa, the Clinton campaign turned out 2,500 women over age 87, most of whom said they were caucusing for the first time in their lives. At the emotional level, Clinton has certainly shown herself to be capable of winning over even those who hate her votes for war by tapping their wish for a woman President. But Clinton's campaign style sends a very different message from Obama's. As Cornish put it, "Senator Clinton's campaign is all about her. Obama's campaign is all about us." When Obama held a rally in New York, the lead speakers were unknown volunteers. When I saw Clinton address an open-air rally in Washington, DC, she was flanked by senators, a past secretary of state and Grammy award winner Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Clinton is also cut-throat. In Iowa, her campaign alienated young people when it suggested that college students who grew up out of state should not caucus there. In Nevada, where the casino workers' Culinary Union endorsed Obama, Bill Clinton came out in defense of a lawsuit intended to keep caucuses from taking place at casinos.

Dan Slater, vice chair of the Colorado Democrats, endorsed Obama in part because of his concern that a second President Clinton would take steps to dismantle the 50-state Strategy. "With Clinton you get the same professional DLC types who've been making the same mistakes for thirty years," says Slater. People associated with the Clintons--Harold Ickes, Terry McAuliffe, Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer--have been Dean's loudest critics. James Carville took his last swipe at Dean after the 2006 midterms.

Clinton's top field adviser says any talk of dismantling the 50-state Strategy is absurd. "We're focused 100 percent on the early primary states," Karen Hicks explains in response to a question about Colorado. Hicks headed field operations for the DNC in 2004 and for Dean before that. (She brought in Ganz to train Dean's organizers in New Hampshire.) "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that Hillary Clinton utterly understands the importance of grassroots," says Hicks. Asked about the Clinton team's famous "discipline" and thirst for control, Hicks retorts that "Hillary Clinton has no interest in dismantling any operation that serves a Democratic victory."

Unfortunately, the party powerful have a long record of preserving their power first. Rahm Emanuel famously cherry-picked candidates to back in the 2006 primaries. His successor at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Chris Van Hollen, vowed to maintain a hands-off policy in primary contests. Suspicions were raised that there may have been pressure from on high, however, when Angie Paccione--whose grassroots campaign nearly beat maniac homophobe Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado's 4th District last year--bowed out last fall after one of Senator Salazar's staffers entered the primary against her. It left the same bad taste in Colorado as did Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to throw a fundraiser for old-school incumbent Al Wynn, who's facing a movement-stirring challenge by Donna Edwards, in Maryland.

In the end, trust and motivation matter. No amount of sweet "we" talk and Internet tools can patch up a party that's trampling on its partners or cowering when it has promised to stand tall. "We saw what happened in 2006. Electing a Democratic majority wasn't enough," says Tim Carpenter of Progressive Democrats of America. If Democrats want to get their approval ratings up enough to inspire people to sweat for them in 2008, they've got to be willing to fight the battles their voters want fought, Carpenter believes.

Yet ideological disputes over policy points are just what today's "we"-driven campaigns dodge. The moral energy source that Obama's organizers are tapping is longing: for "change," for a new "us," for a new way of doing politics. Regular voters are so hungry for connection that they fall in love with a man who talks about "we" even if his healthcare plan leaves them out. As one campaign worker put it, "I like the message, but I love the method." It's not necessarily vapid. A genuine commitment to a new "us" would have policy implications. "Ronald Reagan rallied a fractured nation around individual rights and competition. A campaign dedicated to a new 'us' could break from that ethic at last," says Ganz. It could translate into a new politics of equality and inclusion. But only if it's real, and only if it lasts beyond election day. In the meantime, a new generation of experienced grassroots organizers is maturing, and the question this time is, Will the party value them?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.