Earlier today at YearlyKos, the Democratic Party’s plan for winning the 2008 ground game was presented to interested activists, bloggers, and members of the media by the DNC’s new political director, David Boundy.
The Democrats’ number one priority is to “organize everywhere,” an unsurprising fact to anyone familiar with DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy. The second priority is to “count everything,” which means that any get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactic from this point forward must be measurable. Boundy asked how many people in the room had held up signs on a freeway. Several attendees raised their hands. “How many votes do you think you got from that?” he asked. No one answered, some laughed nervously. “We’re not doing that anymore.”
Boundy claimed that local activists constantly approach him with new widgets that improve canvassing or direct mailing. He responds to them, “How do you know?” “Well,” they say, “we used it in my state and we won three state senate seats.” But if the local organizer can’t prove quantitatively that his or her widget was responsible for victory, Boundy isn’t interested in working with them. “If I don’t know how I’m going to gain votes from what you are doing, I’m not going to do it,” he said. “You can work with someone else. Hopefully the Republican Party.”
If the party/D.C./establishment arrogance inherent in any of this rubbed the people in the room the wrong way—they were, after all, local activists, who probably thought they were helping the party by developing new tools in the absence of institutional support—it was washed away by the sense that the Democrats are finally getting their act together and developing a GOTV machine that rivals Karl Rove and the Republicans.
Building that machine anew—and Boundy admits it is a work in progress—instead of using a holdover from 2000 or 2004 likely has serious advantages because the rules have changed since even a few years ago. Cable and TiVo have reduced the importance of television advertising, satellite radio and mp3 players have lessened the impact of radio ads, and caller ID and cell phones have damaged the power of robocalls, push polls, and other forms of direct phoning. (The cell-only generation is a factor here: 15 percent of Americans don’t have landlines; in the mid-30s-and-lower age demographic, that number raises to 40 percent.)
So TV, radio, and phone don’t work. Mail doesn’t work either because voters, particularly in battleground states, get direct mailings from presidential candidates, gubernatorial candidates, senate and house candidates, local candidates, interest groups, and so on. In short, so much mail the only reasonable thing to do with it all is toss it in the recycle bin. Besides, paid contact is frequently ineffective and/or costly. Boundy’s numbers show that a party needs 389 mailings to gain a single additional vote, at a cost of $75, and it needs 460 more phone calls, at a cost of $127.
The answer, Boundy believes, lies in a return to the simplest forms of campaigning: door-to-door canvassing, house parties, and other forms of human interaction.
In order to better execute their human-based ground game, the Democratic Party has developed the best voter file it has ever had, and a web portal that allows any candidate at any level to access it.
The information in the voter file is all standardized across years and states, meaning a presidential candidate—and they are all using it—can see trends in Iowa from 2006 to 2007 to 2008, or compare numbers from New Hampshire and Florida. But perhaps more importantly, a candidate running for Congress in Wisconsin knows every Democratic voter in his or her key counties. The hope is that excited volunteers from those counties will feed info about their friends to the DNC, get info on other locals back from the DNC, and then head out into the neighborhood and make fact-to-face contact with the whole bunch. If done efficiently, this approach is far more effective and far less costly than other methods of spreading the Democratic message.
The corollary to all this is that if mail comes from local people, it gets read. If it comes from a national organ, it becomes political mail that goes into the recycle bin. Thus, giving those excited volunteers customizable templates to do their own mailings is key to maximizing the value of the Dems’ campaign dollar. Local activists, aware of issues in their areas, can change the headlines, text, and pictures on Democratic campaign fliers, and then mail them from the local post office. They can send the results back to the DNC for evaluation, and feed information about responsive members of the community into the national voter file.
An attendee objected to Boundy’s presentation at this point, citing the fact that people know their neighbors less and less these days, and make and keep their friends online more and more. For that, explained Boundy, there is a second arm to the Democratic outreach program. How that internet arm is linked to the on-the-ground arm is unknown, but the connection is in development. The problem with focusing purely on online outreach, said Boundy, is that online activists tend to stay in their own “virtual idea cul-de-sacs.” That is, they preach to the choir.
In a convention devoted to and organized by the internet wing of the progressive movement, such an emphasis on walking precincts and face-to-face contact may seem a little out of place. But the activist and bloggers in attendance seemed not to mind: as long as they were able to continue doing their thing on the web—and huge portions of this conference are devoted to helping bloggers do their thing better—they were more than happy to cede the important work of ground organization to a traditional party organ like the DNC.