It was the morning of June 6 and Democrats were hopeful. That Tuesday there was a special election in San Diego to replace Republican Duke Cunningham–who had pleaded guilty to bribery charges. The district was Republican, but Democrats saw the contest between Democrat Francine Busby and Republican Brian Bilbray as an opportunity to pick up a seat–and gain a boost en route to the November Congressional elections. As voters were heading to the polls in Cunningham’s district, I asked Democratic Party chair Howard Dean about his party’s plan to mobilize voters in the coming mid-term elections. “We’re using it in Busby’s district,” Dean said.
If that was the case, Democrats have reason to worry. And some are–which has led to a bruising fight in Democratic strategy circles between Dean’s Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other key party operatives. Busby lost to Bilbray by four percentage points, and worse, a massive Democratic mobilization never materialized.
Dean says the DNC has two plans, short-term and long-term. His long-term plan is to rebuild the party by hiring full-time field organizers in all fifty states. Dean and his supporters, including recent convert Bill Clinton, contend that Democrats must do that if they hope to command an electoral majority in the years to come.
But the question of the moment is: Where and what is the DNC’s plan for 2006? A number of top party operatives believe the DNC should take the lead in building a strong get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operation for November. That means identifying probable voters, persuading them to care about the election and getting them to the polls November 7. Thus far, the operatives say, the DNC has failed to prepare adequately for the coming ground game, causing concern that Dean’s long-term strategy is squandering the Democrats’ best short-term opportunity in a decade to retake Congress.
Dean’s immediate focus in Busby’s district, as he explained to me, was to target people who voted in 2004 but not in 2002. Yet Republicans out-hustled and out-mobilized Democrats on the ground in Bilbray’s victory, spending twice as much money, making six times as many phone calls to voters and airlifting in 100 staffers from Capitol Hill. “There was dramatically lower turnout than we expected,” said one Democratic operative in the district. Busby got half as many votes as Kerry, and only improved upon Kerry’s 44 percent take by less than 1 percent.
“That was a tough district any way you look at it,” says DNC executive director Tom McMahon. “But the people we targeted turned out.”
Although you can’t read too much into the results of a special election in a heavily Republican area thirty miles from the Mexico border, the Busby race demonstrated that–despite all the current anti-GOP kinks in the electoral environment–Republicans are better at running the machinery of politics: raising money, working together, harnessing new technology, motivating the base, exploiting hot-button issues and getting voters to the polls.
In an off-year election, when voter participation is generally 15 to 20 percent lower than in a presidential year, turnout is critical. For Democrats that means the party has to excite its base, pursue the “dropoff voters” (who voted in 2004 but not in 2002) and court independents and disaffected Republicans. Polling suggests that the public would prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress. But politics has a lot to do with mechanics–especially when control of the House and Senate will turn on a few dozen contests come November.
“The current measures of potential Democratic turnout and enthusiasm are not impressive,” Democratic pollsters James Carville and Stan Greenberg wrote in a sharply worded strategy memo a day after Busby’s defeat. In mid-June only 3 percent of voters showed up for the Democratic primary to choose a Senate challenger to George Allen in Virginia, five times lower than the last contested Democratic primary. “Democrats have not yet felt the fire and energy that they felt in 2004,” EMILY’s List president Ellen Malcolm ominously wrote to donors recently.
Who will energize the voters is perhaps an even bigger concern. The largest progressive GOTV operation in 2004, America Coming Together (ACT), was disbanded after the election. In this vacuum, Democrats have been sparring for months over how and where to spend resources in 2006. Little more than four months from election day, Democrats are wondering if they can assemble what the Republicans already have waiting for them. How they address this problem will play a major, possibly decisive role in who controls Congress.
Elections are decided by the 3 M’s: message, money, mobilization. The Democratic message, particularly on Iraq, remains a work in progress. Their money situation is better than usual. But after considerable talk about the last M, during the 2004 election, Democrats are only belatedly returning to mobilization. “You can advertise and persuade all you want,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told a group of reporters in May. “But if you don’t turn out the vote, you’re just having a conversation.” In decades past the big city machines and powerful labor unions, aligned with the Democratic Party, pummeled Republicans at GOTV. But Democrats grew complacent, and Republicans aggressively organized locally.
In the 2002 mid-term elections, Karl Rove blindsided Democrats with an impeccably planned turnout blitz known as the 72-Hour Plan, rapidly expanding the Republican vote in fast-growing suburbs in states like Georgia and driving up GOP turnout in rural areas Democrats didn’t even know existed. In 2004 Rove expanded the plan and borrowed Amway’s famous volunteer-based organizing model, using churches, gun clubs and other local groups. By February 2004 the RNC knew precisely how many volunteers they needed on the ground in Ohio, where they would be and what they’d be doing. The Democrats didn’t even begin organizing in key swing states like Florida until after the Democratic convention in July. Democrats were so weak locally in battlegrounds like Ohio, they had to outsource their ground game to the new 527 groups like ACT.
After running one of the most impressive grassroots campaigns in recent memory, Howard Dean was elected DNC chair in 2005, promising to make the party competitive again in every state. It sounded simple, but the “50 State Strategy” was a radical idea for a party accustomed to organizing only around election time, in toss-up states. Dean delivered immediately, giving each state a minimum of two to three field organizers. In places like Mississippi, that was more staff than the party had previously employed altogether. “I’m basically trying to rebuild the infrastructure of a party that doesn’t have any,” Dean says. With a few exceptions, state DNC chairs rave about him. “I couldn’t be more impressed by the DNC,” says Chris Redfern, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “We’re way ahead of the curve,” says Dan Parker, Indiana’s Democratic chair.
But the 50 State Strategy faced resistance from some key party operatives, who worried that Dean’s spending on the states would sap resources needed for the ’06 election. Fiery Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rahm Emanuel directed an expletive-filled tirade at Dean in May, demanding more money for TV ads and wanting the DNC to take the lead on GOTV so he wouldn’t have to. “We need the DNC on the field in this election,” Emanuel later told the Washington Post. (Spokespersons at the DCCC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee [DSCC] declined to comment for this article.)
“There’s frustration inside the Beltway because I want to do things differently,” Dean says. “But if we don’t do things differently we’ll be extinct as a party.” Dean stressed that while Emanuel and the DSCC’s Chuck Schumer must focus on ’06, he’s planning long-term. Dean’s grassroots supporters say Emanuel and Schumer never respected Dean in the first place. But like it or not, Dean will be judged on how the party performs in this mid-term election.
Party leaders like Emanuel worry that the DNC’s effort will be too little, too late–and wonder whether Democrats are doing enough to win the game on the ground. “I think Dean has a plan to rebuild the party in red states,” says one labor leader. “I’m not sure that’s a plan for ’06.” As Karl Rove himself said before the ’02 elections, “A massive effort to turn out voters is not a casual undertaking and can’t be thrown together at the last moment.”
The DNC’s McMahon says the short-term GOTV plan is already being executed and will be “refined” throughout the summer. The DNC points to what it has done already. On April 29 Democrats knocked on 1 million doors as part of a nationwide door-to-door canvass, the first test of their 50 State Strategy and new field organizers. Similar GOTV activities are planned for July 29 (100 days before election day) and September. Meanwhile, the new field staffers have already made an impact in long-neglected states like Indiana, which has three competitive Congressional elections this cycle.
But whatever short-term plan the DNC has for GOTV, leaders in labor, the progressive community and the House and Senate working on ’06 strategy have yet to see it, prompting fears that Democrats are once again lagging behind the other side. “By now, groups like labor should be seeing late drafts of a significant number of plans,” says one Democratic operative who’s worked closely with the DNC. That means helping state parties and campaigns target voters by phone, mail and in person; recruiting local volunteers; organizing events and rallies; and planning for the election day turnout blitz. In coordination with the local campaigns, state parties should be submitting GOTV blueprints for national approval. “I’m not convinced the DNC has any plan come November,” says Randy Button, former Democratic chair in Tennessee, where Harold Ford Jr. is trying to became the first black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction.
If and when the DNC produces a short-term plan that party counterparts see, there are concerns from House and Senate strategists that it will be unable to fund it. Democrats are currently doing better than average in the money war. The DCCC and DSCC are ahead of Republicans in fundraising, for the first time in recent memory. In six of the ten most competitive House races with no incumbent, Democratic candidates have more money than their Republican challengers.
But the DNC and the state parties lag behind their GOP rivals. Dean did keep pace with DNC fundraising in ’04, but he has been on a spending spree, pouring millions into updating voter technology and boosting state party organizations. As a result the RNC, as of May, has four times as much cash to spend on November as the DNC–$43 million to $10.3 million. This has caused Democrats to fear that Republicans can fund last-minute ad campaigns and turnout efforts that Democrats will be unable to counter. And Republican state parties boast a financial advantage in thirty-two states. “Voters start paying attention late in the game,” says the Democratic operative. “That’s when you need resources. And there’s a worry those resources won’t be there.” Button, who is coordinating the campaigns in Tennessee, agrees. “I asked Dean point blank a month ago: How much money can I count on you for? He said they’ve done all they’re gonna do.”
Dean believes such criticism is much ado about nothing. “We’re going to put a lot of money into House and Senate races,” Dean said at a recent fundraiser. “More than has ever been put into a nonpresidential year.” On the morning of Busby’s election in California, Dean was meeting to decide which House and Senate races to invest in. The DNC typically looks to pour money into contests where they can get the most bang for the buck. As of late June, the list was still being finalized.
No matter what the party does, left-leaning groups aligned with the Democrats seem equipped to pick up some of the slack. Even with the loss of ACT, the progressive groups remain active–and they’re preparing for ’06. Labor plans to spend more money than in any off-year election, targeting millions of its members at the door, on the phone and at work in key battleground states. EMILY’s List will add $45 million, courting 2.5 million prochoice women in eight swing states. MoveOn.org’s 3 million members will make GOTV phone calls in fifteen to twenty competitive House districts. The Sierra Club is courting environmentally conscious voters in the exurbs of key swing cities like Philadelphia, Columbus and Cincinnati. And the coalition that holds roughly thirty of these groups together, America Votes, has grown from a staff of five to eighty and from a budget of $2 million to $13 million, with offices in nine battleground states.
An organized progressive movement, however, is no substitute for a strong Democratic Party. “People in DC need to understand that the ground game has to be a permanent game,” Dean says. “That’s why the Republicans are so good at it.” A centralized, top-down Republican Party in 2004 out-organized a Democratic operation with many moving parts. Officials at the DNC talk about stealing the Republican playbook. But in reality Dean is performing a difficult juggling act, devolving power to the states while trying to win respect for his long-term vision inside the Beltway. “The number-one sport in Washington is to take shots at the DNC chair,” the Democratic operative jokes.
Dean’s 50 State Strategy could be the blueprint for his party’s revival. But winning elections–particularly this November–would help, too.