Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?

Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?

Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?

Progressive groups that mobilized for the 2004 elections are now dismissed as failures. But though they were unable to defeat Bush, grassroots activists are creating waves across the country. They may be the ticket to Republican defeat and the creation of a new movement.


“We progressives, we just keep going back for more and more punishment,” Rachel Barber says to me between sips of coffee. “We never learn.” It’s just after 9 AM on a wickedly gray, damp October Saturday in Westerville, Ohio, just outside Columbus. Barber, a music teacher with a sunny demeanor, is sitting in a union hall with 150 other volunteers and grassroots activists.

If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a year ago and awoken inside this meeting room, draped with the familiar banners of Democracy for America and America Votes and overflowing with earnest volunteers munching on bagels, you’d think it was still 2004 and the quest to defeat Bush was at its height. But it’s 2005, and Bush hardly gets a mention. The volunteers are here to help pass a November ballot initiative called Reform Ohio Now (RON), a package of reforms aimed at the increasingly wide-reaching scandals of the state’s governing Republican machine.

Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor emeritus who helped initiate RON, warns the room that they face a formidable opponent: “Most of the Republican grassroots organization is intact because the people involved were from right here in Ohio. And a lot of the people who supported our side were from out of state. So the fact is, we’re bragging about our grassroots organization, but let me tell you: We have to work hard just to match them.” Asher proves prescient. Despite polls late in the campaign that indicated several of the RON initiatives would pass, all four were defeated by large margins.

Last year’s presidential election inspired an unprecedented mobilization on both the left and the right, but while the pro-Bush mobilization happened primarily within the channels of the Republican Party, things were far different on the left. Because the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law banned the unrestricted donations called “soft money,” which had previously formed the financial backbone of the Democratic Party, a broad coalition of independent organizations arose to accept the checks the party could no longer take. These “527” organizations, most notable among them America Coming Together and the America Votes coalition, executed their very own campaign on Kerry’s behalf, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, training thousands of new organizers and contacting millions of voters. (Conservatives made use of 527s as well, most no-toriously the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.)

Given the Bush victory, Democrats could hardly call the enterprise a success. But last year’s mobilization pointed the way–albeit in a sometimes dysfunctional fashion–toward a future progressive movement radically different from the loose conglomeration of Washington-based issue-advocacy organizations that have dominated the liberal-left since the 1970s. “Last year was the League of Nations phase of the left’s reorganization,” says Dan Berwick, who managed several swing-state field programs for the League of Conservation Voters. “The basic idea–the basic need–was identified and addressed but with at best marginal success.”

There were three key features of last year’s effort. First, the 527s and their issue-advocacy partners in the institutional left rediscovered old-fashioned, face-to-face voter contact. While the bulk of this work was carried out by paid canvassers, a significant portion was done by volunteers–hundreds of thousands of them, often in unfamiliar terrain and at great personal sacrifice, renting vans, driving to swing states and sleeping on floors. Second, without a Democratic Party or candidate’s campaign to coordinate efforts, the disparate groups within the broad America Votes coalition, from the NAACP National Voter Fund to to the Sierra Club, had to figure out a way to work together. In many places coordination was flawed, but the presence of any coordination at all was a serious breakthrough. Finally, there was the money: The 2004 election was the most expensive exercise of democracy in history, and for the first time in recent memory the center-left was able to keep pace with the corporate loaves-and-fishes bank account that is the Republican Party.

“Infrastructure” is a word so resolutely unsexy it makes “think tank” sound erotic. These days, though, you can’t get five minutes into a conversation with a strategist, activist or donor without the word cropping up. Since the infrastructure last year was built, like a refugee camp, for a short-term purpose, you might think that a year later the camp has been struck, with the equipment rolled up and stored away for the next election. That’s partly true–America Coming Together announced this past summer that it could raise only enough money to continue as a skeletal research organization, and dozens of the grassroots groups founded last year have folded as well.

But it’s striking just how much has carried over. Democracy for America meetings in cities from Austin to Cincinnati draw hundreds, and there are small, informal progressive groups meeting at this moment in some of the most conservative counties in the country. None of this existed just three years ago. Dozens if not hundreds of activists who worked on last year’s election are now running for local office, and the big institutional players like the labor and environmental movements continue to build power through grassroots organizing. “It wasn’t a blip,” says Robert Kraig, political director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Wisconsin. “It was part of something that’s seriously going on, on the left.”

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.

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.”

So even though in the last election America Votes was dwarfed by the size and scope of ACT, it has managed, improbably, to outlive it. There are now America Votes directors in three states whose sole purpose is to coordinate the legislative, electoral and organizing strategies, and the organization is looking to expand to ten states in 2006. There are signs that these small steps toward an integrated approach are bearing fruit. At the state level, groups are collectively writing blueprints for building progressive majorities and implementing progressive policy changes. Because these blueprints require some groups to backseat their particular issue while devoting resources toward an initiative more likely to build political power, it’s “where the rubber meets the road,” says the SEIU’s Kraig. “Right now, the level of coordinated planning among all the various elements of the left is entirely unprecedented. It’s gone well beyond what happened in 2004.”

There’s a school of thought that believes the entire nonparty, noncandidate mobilization last year was a disaster, a useless duplication of effort perhaps made necessary by McCain-Feingold, but one that should be left in the dustbin of campaign history. To critics in this school, everything carried out by the America Votes coalition and its allies should be done by the Democratic Party itself, and outsourcing it can only create confusion and inefficiencies. (Indeed, in a strange twist, DNC chair Howard Dean, never known as a strong advocate of grassroots organizing before his presidential campaign, has become its most visible advocate. He has pledged to hire organizers and staff for the Democratic Party in every state. That may not sound novel, but for the DNC to make any investment in organizing in a nonpresidential year is unprecedented.)

To the extent that progressive organizations function, as ACT did, as mere surrogates for the Democratic Party, this criticism is probably on target. The real potential of the developing infrastructure–that word again!–isn’t that it can more effectively elect Democrats; it’s that it can serve as the foundation for a progressive movement. Unlike a political party, which exists for the sole purpose of winning elections, a movement consists of an infrastructure and a worldview, a vision of political and social order more just, more humane and more democratic. There wasn’t a whole lot of time spent fleshing out the progressive worldview last year, because the overriding goal, from both a strategic and an ideological perspective, was defeating Bush. But the challenges now for the progressive movement, if it is to live up to that grandiose title, are as much ideological as they are organizational. What common vision do wealthy Manhattanite liberals, union members in depressed industrial areas, urban service employees, immigrant small-business owners, racial and ethnic minorities and university-town academics share?

These days the answer, too often, seems to be simply: beating the Republicans. Last year’s hard-fought battle has produced among some progressives a vision of politics as a color war in which “our team” tries to beat “their team.” In a recent In These Times essay, my colleague David Sirota identified this tendency as “Partisan War Syndrome,” which “leads the supposedly ‘ideological’ grassroots left to increasingly subvert its overarching ideology on issues in favor of pure partisan concerns.”

Building political power requires compromise and strategic tradeoffs. But with no vision of what you want the country to look like once you’ve won, it’s impossible to distinguish smart compromises from self-defeating ones. “If a Democratic candidate gets elected on tax cuts,” says Kraig, “the campaign professionals celebrate at the bar and go home. But from a movement perspective you’ve just made it even harder to fund public services and public schools, so it harms the movement. You want to win in a way that builds public infrastructure long-term for the purposes of changing society. So your tactics start to be affected by broader considerations.”

Chris Glaros, a Columbus attorney who founded a network of progressive grassroots groups in Ohio called Blue 88, told me he’d spent a lot of time “trying to figure out what it is that unites all these folks I talk to, all of whom have different pet issues they’re concerned about. And the one thing I can come up with is that for all these folks there’s a real and immediate sense that the very fabric of our democracy is imperiled.”

If last year’s presidential election revealed anything to the thousands of new grassroots activists, it was just how undemocratic our Republic has become. Voters in only a handful of states determined who would be President; barely more than half the voting-age population turned out despite the millions spent to get them to the polls; and no more than a dozen or so Congressional seats were competitive. It was the great achievement of the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to radically democratize a country that had slipped into oligarchy: Progressives rewrote state constitutions to increase access to elected representatives and institute state referendums, they dismantled unaccountable political machines and they amended the Constitution to provide for direct election of senators and suffrage for women. These Progressives recognized that to achieve a more just state and society, power had to be redistributed in a structural fashion. The same is true today. Our dysfunctional policies are largely the result of a dysfunctional democracy. Here is where ideology and strategy meet: If progressives are to democratize the country, they must first democratize their politics.

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