The Bush presidency has not been kind to Ohio, where 230,000 jobs have been lost over the past three years. That’s particularly true in the eastern part of the state, where the steel industry is hemorrhaging jobs, and hope. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. Our challenge is to channel that anger and frustration into the election this fall,” says Jess Goode after a day of knocking on doors in Canton. Goode was working with the “Steel Canvas,” a voter registration and mobilization initiative organized by America Coming Together (ACT), the most prominent of a network of activist groups intent on beating George W. Bush. “If we can get these people back into politics, I think we can do a lot more than win one election,” Goode says. “We can get this country back to a place where people who have been turned off will get back into the fight. That’s what I think about every time we knock on a door.”
Through projects like the “Steel Canvas”–in which activists, many of them laid-off steelworkers, knock on doors with leaflets reading, “The Bush Administration sent my job overseas. What should I do now?”–ACT has already contacted 190,000 Ohioans and registered 36,000 new voters. And that’s just the start. With a budget that is expected to reach $95 million, ACT has fifty organizers and 450 canvassers working in Ohio, which Bush carried only narrowly in 2000, and is replicating that level of activity in the sixteen other swing states that hold the balance in this year’s contest between Bush and Democrat John Kerry.
In the public housing projects of Orlando, Creole-speaking Haitian-American canvassers are working with ACT to register first-time voters. In predominantly African-American neighborhoods of St. Louis, ACT canvassers are typing the issue concerns of likely voters into Palm Pilots in order to target communications to them. And in the steel valleys of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the canvassers are trudging from door to door with a video presentation showing laid-off steelworkers explaining the devastating impact of Bush’s decision to lift tariff protections. “The only jobs George Bush is going to create this year in some of these states are with ACT,” jokes Steve Rosenthal, the former AFL-CIO political czar who heads the organization.
ACT is one of dozens of independent progressive groups with ties to the labor, civil rights, environmental and pro-choice movements, which have been raising money, polling, strategizing and targeting key states with the purpose of dramatically increasing the turnout among angry voters. Thanks to substantial contributions from supporters like billionaire George Soros and from unions and liberal interest groups, they have filled their treasuries with unprecedented largesse–tens of millions of dollars already, hundreds of millions by November. It is way too soon to judge how effective all this new activism will be, and there are problems, some serious, that must be addressed. But if the frantic reactions of Republican operatives are any indication, these groups are altering the political calculus of 2004.
Case in point: The groups have already upset the best-laid plans of the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign to dominate the television airwaves. When Kerry took time off for a snowboarding vacation in Idaho in March, the Media Fund and the MoveOn.org Voter Fund kept banging away at Bush–on television, and on the doorsteps–with more effective messages than the unfocused Kerry campaign has yet mustered and with a ferocity that had Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie frothing at the mouth about unfair tactics and below-the-belt hits. Gillespie is not just being paranoid about these new independent groups; ACT’s self-stated goal is “the defeat of George W. Bush and his Republican allies.”