After too many years of watching the Democratic Party and its national candidates lose the crucial ground games of American politics, organized labor, activist groups and wealthy progressives intervened in the 2004 campaign with the goal of creating a “shadow party” that would be faster, smarter and more flexible than official Democrats could be on a landscape redefined by new campaign finance laws and White House political czar Karl Rove’s ever-evolving strategies. Groups such as America Coming Together (ACT), the Media Fund and MoveOnPAC succeeded, provided early advertising in battleground states, engaged in grassroots campaigns where the party was weak and drew millions of new and infrequent voters into the process. But in the most important sense–winning the presidency and key Congressional battles–the shadow-party initiative fell short.
The organizations and individuals who created this new infrastructure now have to decide whether and how to carry on. A few groups, such as the Media Fund, a tax-exempt 527 organization created to develop and pay for television ads in battleground states, will fold as planned–although Media Fund head Harold Ickes could resurface as the new chair of the Democratic National Committee. But most groups, including ACT, which raised and spent more than $60 million on voter mobilization, are already taking steps to make themselves permanent fixtures, while trying to assess what worked and what didn’t. Now, says Progressive Majority executive director Gloria Totten, “we’ll see just how strong our movement is.” The extent to which these conversations lead to a coherent strategy remains to be seen; the Center for American Progress is attempting to pull together a meeting of key funders, such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, that could provide some impetus in that direction. And ACT, working with key players in the Service Employees union’s political shop, may do the same with an evolving dialogue on tactics.
There is already a healthy discussion about the need to reach out to rural voters, whose overwhelming support for Bush and the Republicans offset gains in registration and turnout in urban areas of key battleground states. Another topic is whether Democratic-leaning 527s placed too much emphasis on paying campaigners, as opposed to the Bush campaign’s model of training ideologically impassioned volunteers. One particularly controversial strategy that has come under scrutiny involved paying operatives based on the number of voters they registered–a move that Republican critics said encouraged dubious registrations and earned groups such as Project Vote embarrassing headlines around the country. Other issues include the role of celebrity campaigners and whether some of the money spent on TV ads might have been better spent on things like targeted mailings to base voters. And, of course, there is a deeper discussion about whether 527 groups will remain satellites of the Democratic Party or seek to use their voter lists and other resources to influence the direction of the party in a more progressive direction.
Some groups are already moving fast. MoveOn.org is seeking to harness the frustration over the close result in Ohio and direct it into a campaign to count every vote and encourage a federal investigation of questions about election machinery, ballots and counting procedures. The group is also preparing to get more involved with media watchdog efforts, including a push to challenge Sinclair Broadcasting, the company that sought to air a last-minute anti-John Kerry film, when licenses for its sixty-two television stations come up for renewal. The nonpartisan National Voice movement, which initially planned to fold after the election, has found that its state-based coalitions of advocacy groups want to carry on with voter registration efforts and with initiatives to draw previously disengaged citizens more deeply into the process.
Mark Ritchie, national coordinator of National Voice, says progressives must study the success of Florida and Ohio referendums to increase the minimum wage and consider using referendums and initiatives on economic issues to mobilize disenfranchised and disenchanted voters, just as conservatives do on social issues. “It doesn’t just work to say, ‘Your grandfather died for your right to vote,'” Ritchie says. “We have to think more about how we say, ‘You can make your life better by voting.’ If we learn how to do that better, we’ll see 2004 not as a year when a particular candidate lost but as a year when we all started a process of renewing and expanding our democracy.”