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Where's the Plan, Democrats? | The Nation

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Where's the Plan, Democrats?

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In an off-year election, when voter participation is generally 15 to 20 percent lower than in a presidential year, turnout is critical. For Democrats that means the party has to excite its base, pursue the "dropoff voters" (who voted in 2004 but not in 2002) and court independents and disaffected Republicans. Polling suggests that the public would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. But politics has a lot to do with mechanics--especially when control of the House and Senate will turn on a few dozen contests come November.

About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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"The current measures of potential Democratic turnout and enthusiasm are not impressive," Democratic pollsters James Carville and Stan Greenberg wrote in a sharply worded strategy memo a day after Busby's defeat. In mid-June only 3 percent of voters showed up for the Democratic primary to choose a Senate challenger to George Allen in Virginia, five times lower than the last contested Democratic primary. "Democrats have not yet felt the fire and energy that they felt in 2004," EMILY's List president Ellen Malcolm ominously wrote to donors recently.

Who will energize the voters is perhaps an even bigger concern. The largest progressive GOTV operation in 2004, America Coming Together (ACT), was disbanded after the election. In this vacuum, Democrats have been sparring for months over how and where to spend resources in 2006. Little more than four months from election day, Democrats are wondering if they can assemble what the Republicans already have waiting for them. How they address this problem will play a major, possibly decisive role in who controls Congress.

Elections are decided by the 3 M's: message, money, mobilization. The Democratic message, particularly on Iraq, remains a work in progress. Their money situation is better than usual. But after considerable talk about the last M, during the 2004 election, Democrats are only belatedly returning to mobilization. "You can advertise and persuade all you want," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told a group of reporters in May. "But if you don't turn out the vote, you're just having a conversation." In decades past the big city machines and powerful labor unions, aligned with the Democratic Party, pummeled Republicans at GOTV. But Democrats grew complacent, and Republicans aggressively organized locally.

In the 2002 mid-term elections, Karl Rove blindsided Democrats with an impeccably planned turnout blitz known as the 72-Hour Plan, rapidly expanding the Republican vote in fast-growing suburbs in states like Georgia and driving up GOP turnout in rural areas Democrats didn't even know existed. In 2004 Rove expanded the plan and borrowed Amway's famous volunteer-based organizing model, using churches, gun clubs and other local groups. By February 2004 the RNC knew precisely how many volunteers they needed on the ground in Ohio, where they would be and what they'd be doing. The Democrats didn't even begin organizing in key swing states like Florida until after the Democratic convention in July. Democrats were so weak locally in battlegrounds like Ohio, they had to outsource their ground game to the new 527 groups like ACT.

After running one of the most impressive grassroots campaigns in recent memory, Howard Dean was elected DNC chair in 2005, promising to make the party competitive again in every state. It sounded simple, but the "50 State Strategy" was a radical idea for a party accustomed to organizing only around election time, in toss-up states. Dean delivered immediately, giving each state a minimum of two to three field organizers. In places like Mississippi, that was more staff than the party had previously employed altogether. "I'm basically trying to rebuild the infrastructure of a party that doesn't have any," Dean says. With a few exceptions, state DNC chairs rave about him. "I couldn't be more impressed by the DNC," says Chris Redfern, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. "We're way ahead of the curve," says Dan Parker, Indiana's Democratic chair.

But the 50 State Strategy faced resistance from some key party operatives, who worried that Dean's spending on the states would sap resources needed for the '06 election. Fiery Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rahm Emanuel directed an expletive-filled tirade at Dean in May, demanding more money for TV ads and wanting the DNC to take the lead on GOTV so he wouldn't have to. "We need the DNC on the field in this election," Emanuel later told the Washington Post. (Spokespersons at the DCCC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee [DSCC] declined to comment for this article.)

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