Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets

Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets

Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets

This could be the year that Democrats finally let the people play a role in politics.


For as long as I can remember, pundits and political reporters have bemoaned low voter turnout and attacked public apathy in elections. But given the paucity of avenues for popular engagement and the myriad ways regular people are cut out of the political process, the remarkable thing isn’t how few Americans participate in elections. What’s remarkable is how many do.

In the run-up to the 2004 election, Democratic voters seeking Kerry/Edwards yard signs called in to Air America Radio. Exasperated, they called the liberal radio network because they could find no signs at their local party offices (if they could find any local office). The candidates weren’t campaigning in their states, and there was no useful information on the Kerry/Edwards website. After John Kerry conceded, the candidates gave high-minded speeches (“This fight has just begun…and we will be with you every step of the way,” said John Edwards). But that very day, campaign offices closed, phones were disconnected and exhausted workers were scattered to the winds (some were still owed checks). The massive independent mobilization that thousands of volunteers had been part of evaporated too, as nonparty groups like America Coming Together (ACT) downsized. “Tony from Marin,” a caller to RadioNation, told a typical story: “I traveled to Nevada at my own expense with a dozen friends to do something. In the eighteen months since, all the energy and air was let out of the balloon of activism, and I’m finding that now I’m on nobody’s active list.”

At the level of candidate selection, priority-setting and campaigns, the Democratic Party and its voters had effectively been delinked. The same thing happened the last time a Democrat captured the White House. Reaching voters through TV advertising and direct mail, Bill Clinton won by promising everything to everybody and proceeded to preside over a penthouse party: all top-floor suites, no staircase to the streets, more focused on mobilizing money than people. After 2004, Howard Dean pledged to change all that. Dean, who had tasted the possibilities of the grass- and netroots and caught a glimpse of the party’s shambles during his bid for the nomination, ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee promising to launch a “50-state Strategy” to rebuild the party from the bottom up.

Now is when the talk meets the walk. The Deaniacs have come into their own–men and women who were trained in Dean’s 2004 campaign are plotting the strategies of all the Democratic front-runners. Dean of the scream is coaching the state parties, and something like the infectious grassroots glee that Dean’s supporters felt years ago appears to be animating (especially) Barack Obama’s volunteers. Forty years after the coming apart of 1968, could this be the year that Democrats finally permit regular people to play a real role in party politics? Or is a whole new cohort of eager-beaver change-makers signing up for heartbreak?

Talk to the people at the DNC, and it’s a brand-new day. At the level of technology, staff and resources, there’s been what one staffer described as an extreme makeover. Backed by state and local elected officials, Chairman Dean confounded his Beltway critics when he increased contributions to the party (especially all-important small contributions of “hard” money). By the 2006 midterms, the DNC was paying 183 people to work for forty-nine state parties (between three and four workers per state). For the first time in party history, Democrats had a national, fully functioning computerized voter file accessible through a single user-friendly online tool [see Matt Stoller, page 20]. Just about anyone could slice and dice data and print up-to-date precinct maps from a laptop, and party organizers could communicate with voters through those voters’ own social networks, courtesy of software applications like Facebook.

It’s not the stuff that turns on political reporters. After all, campaign correspondents don’t actually cover campaigns; they cover candidates. Hence the oceans of ink spent on Obama’s speaking style, Edwards’s energy and Hillary Clinton’s emotions or lack thereof. What’s ignored in most reporting is what really counts in a tight election: the field game, which is to say, the organizers’ skills, their tools, and their own and their volunteers’ level of commitment.

“Long-term infrastructure-building isn’t sexy, but those who were skeptical are less so now,” DNC communications director Karen Finney told me recently. The 2006 midterms, she said, “showed how investing in grassroots pays off.” This past May the DNC hired a new political director, David Boundy, who had a history in field organizing for the AFL-CIO. Boundy launched the Neighbor to Neighbor canvassing project, which he hopes will have trained a half-million volunteer leaders by Labor Day.

“You are the grassroots leaders of this party,” Dean tells potential volunteers somberly in a DVD shown at house parties. “The linchpin of our plan is you.”

But the skeptics haven’t quite been vanquished. All this “you” and “us” talk is great. But how does it translate into policy? Is the penthouse party dead or only resting?

Colorado, which holds its caucus February 5, offers a microcosm of the national picture. In 2004, even as Coloradans voted 52 to 47 percent for Bush over Kerry, Democrats won control of both chambers of state government and picked up one of just two Democratic gains in the Senate. Grassroots organizers, working in smart coalitions helped by strategic local philanthropists, tasted power, but they’ve bristled ever since at the dismal votes of Blue Dog Senator Ken Salazar–the party establishment’s pick over a progressive in the primary.

Promising change, a new state party chair was elected after the 2004 race. Incoming Patricia Waak’s first order of business was changing the locks on the party office. “It was a bit of a coup,” says Waak, who won by three votes. Since then, she’s hired full-time staff and regional organizers and traveled to every county in the state. With help from the DNC, the party has expanded beyond its metropolitan base, but the real tests lie ahead. The 2004 election “started a grassroots revolution in Colorado, with the established status quo on one side and overwhelming grassroots desire on the other,” a new regional organizer, Robin Van Ausdall, told me. The 2006 election “was a proving ground. But 2008 is where we find out how comfortable everybody is with the changes that have been happening.”

When the Democratic convention comes to town, the spotlight will hit Denver. For all the talk about the party’s first Western convention, the more critical question (insofar as anything that happens at the convention is critical) is, Who will be on the stage: new faces or the Salazar sort?

The answer has implications for both style and priorities, and when it comes to the potential nominees (who will direct the goings-on), the front-runners are very different.

Colorado, just days after the Iowa caucuses, offered a good sense of which candidates were running which kind of field operation. Before paid staff arrived from New Hampshire and Iowa, state organizations fueled by passion were in better shape than those fueled mostly by money. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had an office (it opened December 8), but I never saw a yard sign. Although I did hear from one flustered staffer who’d just flown in, no one could get the authority to sit down for an interview. The Obama campaign had nine campaign offices and two dozen events–that weekend. I crawled my way in a snowstorm to a precinct captains’ meeting in Colorado Springs, a place more famous for military bases and reactionary megachurches than any kind of Democratic politics.

In contrast to the media’s picture of the Obama campaign, only one person at the meeting was under 30. For all the talk of race, every participant was white. Jason DeGroot, fresh from ten years in the Air Force, said it was his first sortie into politics. Across from DeGroot sat Mike Maday, a member of the local county executive committee, who attended his first Obama meeting while on Democratic Party business. “I was looking for precinct chairs, but I was won over by the participants,” he said. That wasn’t in a flush of excitement post-Iowa. It was back last February.

In the summer, Maday attended a Camp Obama training out of state. “This campaign’s all about organizing,” Maday told me, “which is to say, taking leadership from the community.” The campaign camps were designed to build volunteer infrastructure in less resourced, second-tier states. There’s all the difference in the world between canvassers and organizers, says Marshall Ganz, a longtime organizer and professor at Harvard who was a Camp Obama trainer. “Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers inspire commitment.”

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.”

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?

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