Dems Get New Tools, New Talent

Dems Get New Tools, New Talent

Democratic campaigns are refining the art of reaching more people.


The first two Democratic nominating contests might have produced different winners, but what they shared was turnout staggeringly above normal levels. In New Hampshire, turnout for Democrats was up 31 percent from 2004, and in Iowa it doubled. Turnout in Iowa was so high that had 2004 caucus winner John Kerry taken his vote total into this year’s competition, he would have placed a dismal fourth, 20,000-30,000 votes behind third-place contestant Hillary Clinton. And in Nevada, the turnout of more than 100,000 caucus-goers shattered expectations from the state Democratic Party and the top campaigns alike.

When compared with Republicans’, the numbers look even better. About twice as many Democrats voted in Iowa as Republicans. "We’d better be careful as a party," Mike Huckabee warned his fellow Republicans in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, "because if we don’t give people something to be for, and only something to be against, we’re going to lose that next election, and there are some fundamental issues that we lose with it." Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO, puts it this way: "You have dead turnout on the Republican side and insane turnout on the Democratic side."

There are, no doubt, a number of factors driving the disparity: the amount of money Democrats have sunk into the early states has quadrupled since 2004, and polls show that Democratic voters are confident their nominee will eventually win, while half of Republican voters are so demoralized they’re considering a third-party option [see Micah Sifry, page 24]. But there’s also a more prosaic explanation: since 2004, because of a mixture of improved technology, better organizers and more investment in voter contact, Democratic campaigns have simply gotten better at talking to more people.

To understand why turnout is going up, you have to know a little bit about how voters make choices. Since the 1960s, television has been the primary conduit for political information, with campaigns spending about 80 percent of their budget on media. But while broadcast television can reach millions of voters, it is, as Podhorzer notes, a dying medium. "The main thing that has changed is the heading to collapse of broadcast TV and heading to dominance of systematic, organized word of mouth and more targeted communication," he says. What’s most promising about the shift from broadcast campaigns to those centered on "systematic, organized word of mouth" is the possibility of activating new voters, something TV has never been capable of doing. Political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green, experts on election turnout, conducted an experiment in 1998 with voters in New Haven, Connecticut, showing that person-to-person canvassing when the canvassers are ethnically and demographically matched to voters can increase turnout by 10 percent with a single contact and a nonpartisan message.

"Field," as person-to-person voter contact is called in campaign-speak, has traditionally been less important than paid media or television. In 2004, due to the unprecedented amount of money and energy thrown into the campaign, field received more attention than it had in previous cycles, but both the Kerry campaign and outside groups lacked the ability to absorb it. There were so many people trying to help in 2004, and the response from institutions was so poor, that groups sprouted up all over the country to canvass on their own. In New York City organizers even held a "micro-summit" of the different anti-Bush groups every week to coordinate activities outside the Kerry campaign, a structure replicated all over the country. While the GOP used a volunteer-driven set of church networks, on the Democratic side 527s like America Coming Together used paid canvassers instead of organic volunteer networks. For its part, the Kerry campaign oriented itself around television. One Dean house party organizer complained about this on a post on Daily Kos, relaying a conversation from a top Kerry aide, who told her, "To be blunt, this is a fat-cat, top-down campaign. The campaign staff doesn’t really get grassroots."

As easy as it is to blame the Kerry campaign for organizing failures, the problems were systemic. The most famous field experiment of 2004 was Howard Dean’s "Perfect Storm" in Iowa, when the campaign bused in 3,500 young volunteers from out of state, issued each an orange wool hat and unleashed them on the doors of Iowans across the state. The orange hat would later come to symbolize the flaws of a campaign bringing in outsiders to canvass, but whatever culture clash there was at the door was compounded by the campaign’s tools. The key to any field effort is a database of potential voters, known as a voter file. If that voter file is incomplete or error-ridden or low-tech, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

Adam Mordecai, a Dean staffer who helped run the Perfect Storm, described the problem as follows: "The one major issue that really foiled the perfect storm…was the completely dysfunctional voter-file system. The company we contracted the voter file to was way out of their league. Their system would crash perpetually, field organizers would be lucky if they could ever access the system to download lists and said lists were usually way out-of-date or incorrect because no one could get access to the system to update them. Iowans would get repeated calls from different volunteers within the same hour. It was a disaster. It alienated a lot of Iowans who were simply tired of hearing from Deaniacs over and over again."

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. 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.’"

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy