Election Day is a year away and the Democrats don’t yet have a presidential nominee, but for labor activists, environmentalists, pro-choice advocates and other progressives, the battle for the White House is well under way.
About a dozen groups—backed by the likes of Emily’s List, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org—are quietly building an infrastructure to undertake the most extensive door-to-door grassroots voter contact operation in U.S. history. Its potential to turn the election already is well understood on both sides: Longtime activists say they haven’t felt this energized in decades—and Republicans are using congressional hearings to shut down the operation or steal directly from its playbook.
“It’s never been done before on this level,” says Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO and current president of America Coming Together, a voter outreach group funded by Emily’s List, organized labor and private donors such as George Soros. “It’s something that the parties should have been doing but were neglecting.”
Cecile Richards, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is director of America Votes, a coalition of 24 progressive organizations that will be coordinating field efforts. She echoes Rosenthal and adds, “For me, personally, that’s the best kind of politics, direct retail, engaging voters about issues. I think it’s a really welcome change and emphasis.”
These field operations will be supervised, coordinated and executed by these same dozen so-called 527s, such as Americans Coming Together and America Votes, created after McCain-Feingold to circumvent the ban on soft money. Named for the section of the tax code that regulates them, these progressive 527s—nearly all funded and organized by traditional Democratic allies such as labor, environmental and reproductive rights groups—can raise huge sums of unregulated money for voter education and registration so long as they do not advocate for a specific candidate.
Issue advocacy and voter contact in an election year is nothing new, but never before have progressive groups come together to coordinate their efforts, pool their resources and collectively execute the program. Although the organizational structure binding the half-dozen largest 527s is to a certain extent ad hoc, most of the groups are staffed by the same pool of veteran political organizers and headquartered in the same office building at 888 16th St.—across the street from the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
Each 527 has a specific geographic or demographic niche. America Coming Together, which with a projected budget of $98 million is the largest, is looking to register and educate Democratic-leaning voters in 17 battleground states. Partnership for America’s Families is focusing on registering minority voters in swing state urban centers like Cleveland and St. Louis. And Voices for Working Families is working on registering and contacting black, Latino and women voters in other hotly contested areas such as Dade and Broward counties in Florida.
Alongside groups that will manage and execute the field operations are a few 527s, like America Votes, dedicated solely to coordinating these efforts.
“We want to make sure everyone isn’t knocking over each other in the same neighborhoods,” Richards says. “It’s a big country and there are a lot of voters.”
Nearly all 20 organizations within the America Votes coalition routinely meet to share ideas and strategies. Richards says that groups with more experience, such as organized labor, have been mentoring units newer to the field: “It’s an opportunity for those who are established to work with groups that are newer, that have more flexibility.”
A few of the 527s plan to use their funds for media and advertising, but most will focus on getting out into people’s neighborhoods and knocking on doors. “Everyone’s learned their lesson from the 2000 election,” says Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment 2004, a 527 put together by a coalition of environmental groups. “A lot of money went into media and not into peer-to-peer contact and it wasn’t effective because [TV] markets were overwhelmed. It increases the credibility of the information when it comes from someone in their community.”
Since the ’70s, presidential campaigns have centered on raising the massive funds needed to buy expensive television airtime. This emphasis on big media and big money meant that the grassroots, person-to-person campaigning traditionally at the core of the Democratic Party’s strategy fell by the wayside.
Political veterans now say that in this time of waning ratings and increased media saturation, TV ads no longer provide the value they once did.
“Really it’s been the orthodoxy of campaigns for the last 20 years that money for TV is the whole ball game,” says Dan Berwick, an associate at the grassroots consulting firm FieldWorks. “But you can’t cut through all the schlock that’s on TV, so you have to go for quality over quantity and that’s why people are ending up on people’s doors.”
If door-to-door canvassing seems a throwback to the oldest and most basic kind of politicking, the technique has been radically updated. “We’re doing a precinct-level analysis to figure out who the voters are we need to reach and then where they are and how we can talk to them,” Rosenthal says. “We’re using a pretty sophisticated Web-based voter data base and we’re using Palm Pilots so we can load all of the questions to voters into the Palms and then take their responses and hot sync back onto the system at the end of the day.”
By developing a detailed profile of each voter or potential voter’s concerns, organizers can target messages with an unprecedented degree of specificity. “What I think you’ll see is a significant amount of localization of message,” says Laurie Moskowitz, former director of the National Coordinated Campaign and co-founder of FieldWorks. “We’re not just talking about Superfund sites, but Superfund sites in your neighborhood.”
The local message also will be combined with a local face, as groups look toward hiring canvassers from within the communities. Arlene Holt-Baker, who heads up Voices for Working Families, says she’s hoping to channel the energy of local community activists angered by the war and the radical Bush agenda in their canvassing and registration efforts. “We are not sending people in,” she says. “We really believe that the people who are on the ground, the ones who are interested in what’s happening in their communities, are the best people to be going door to door.”
Aside from updating their techniques, the field-oriented 527s are starting their operations earlier than ever before. “In 2002 you saw people paying attention to field, but they didn’t start early,” Moskowitz says. “That’s the biggest difference. The whole realm of activity and planning is going to be so different because people are backing up their timeline.”
Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in New York announced that it would pay the salaries of 1,000 union workers to take a full year’s leave from their jobs and spend the time canvassing in battleground states; America Coming Together began setting up field offices a year ahead of election day; and Voices for Working Families started knocking on their first doors in Florida in mid-November.
“We’re going to have a year’s worth of contact that is layered and meaningful,” Rosenthal says, “as opposed to bombarding people with a lot of mail and prerecorded phone calls that they just turn off to.”
This year’s massive field effort is the culmination of years of efforts by Rosenthal and others to make grassroots politics the center of the left’s political agenda. In the ’90s, Rosenthal, then political director of the AFL-CIO, undertook a concerted effort to reassert labor’s political influence by turning out more union voters. He began a program of sustained voter registration and outreach among union members, and the results were impressive. Between the 1992 presidential election and the election in 2000, the percentage of the electorate who were union household members increased to 26 percent from 19 percent. Over the course of the last eight years, 15.5 million non-union household voters dropped out of the electorate, but 4.8 million more union household voters were added.
“The lessons were pretty basic,” says Rosenthal. “One, we found that when we talked to people about issues they cared about, they responded. Two, when you talked to people face-to-face, as close to where they live as you can get, they responded. Three, when you talked to them a lot over the course of several months, they responded.”
Rosenthal applied what he learned to the 2000 presidential election, where labor’s canvassing and voter contact operations helped Al Gore receive more votes than any other Democratic presidential candidate in history, and is credited with providing the margin of victory in a number of states that he won by less than 10,000 votes.
The GOP, which has historically put far less emphasis on field operations, learned from the Democrats, and in 2001 initiated a massive voter registration drive among Republican constituencies. It also instituted the “72-Hour Project,” a concerted get-out-the-vote operation that many Republicans credited with the party’s success in the midterm elections and prompted Ralph Reed to boast that the “the story of 2002 is not that Democrats stayed home, it was that Republicans came to the polls in historic numbers.”
“The Republicans weren’t shy about the 72-Hour Project,” says Amy Chapman, director of Grassroots Democrats, a 527 working with state parties to coordinate campaigns. “They said it was a page out of the Dems’ playbook—and it was.”
It wasn’t the first time Republicans took their techniques from the Democrats (voter guides and direct mail also were Democratic innovations), but it stunned the party and hammered home Rosenthal’s point: Aggressive field operations can win campaigns.
With just about everyone predicting that the 2004 election will be as close and bitterly contested as 2000, the stakes are even higher. “It’s like a grassroots arms race,” says Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority. “The Republicans turned up it a notch and now the Democrats recognize that they have to turn it up a notch.”
The energy surrounding field efforts is palpable, and many veteran party activists and organizers who were critical of the ways in which the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act would end up handcuffing the Democrats now say that birth of the 527s has reinvigorated the party by moving money and manpower outside the Democratic National Committee and closer to activists. “There are some functions that historically the parties did that are going to fall to other organizations,” Richards says. “If you look at what labor has done—increasing their share of the vote and focusing their efforts on direct contact with union members in the workplace, in their homes, on the phones—they’ve really demonstrated the impact of direct contact. You don’t inherit a lot of the institutional baggage that anyone who runs the DNC or the state party has to deal with.”
Lurking in the background is the possibility that the soft-money ban, the central provision in McCain-Feingold that gave rise to 527s, might be overturned by the Supreme Court. If that were to happen, it would present progressive activists with a dilemma: collapse the infrastructures already erected into the DNC or forge ahead with the 527s.
The decision likely will rest on groups’ fundraising prospects. So far the 527s haven’t had much of a problem finding cash, thanks in no small part to billionaire financier George Soros, who has donated $12 million so far to 527s and has pledged millions more.
Republicans and the right-wing press have seized on the Soros contributions as evidence that the Democrats are campaign finance reform hypocrites who have been bought. Drawing a distinction between his actions and theirs, Soros recently defended his decision on public radio’s “Marketplace.”
“I am contributing to independent organizations that are by law forbidden to coordinate their activities with political parties or candidates,” Soros said. “I am not motivated by self-interest but by what I believe is in the public interest. So when the Republican National Committee attacks me and distorts my motives I say the pot is calling the kettle black.?You see, I’m different from their contributors. I’m not trying to buy influence. I’m acting out of the conviction that the Bush administration is leading us and the world in a dangerous direction.”
Organizers agree with Soros, saying that that the goal of this sustained and sophisticated person-to-person contact with voters is not just to defeat Bush but to reconnect people with the political process.
“A lot of voters feel like you come a little too late and you take me for granted,” Holt-Baker says. “With people of color and women that tends to happen with one particular party.”
“Both parties have so neglected their organization and their voters, and kind of insulted voters for so long, that people are just yearning for and dying for people to come talk to them again,” Rosenthal says. “People are fed up with the political system as we know it and they’re dropping out of it, and what we’re trying to do is bring them back.”
As heartening as it is for progressive groups to be pounding the pavement, one question remains: Will the effort work? The last mayoral election in Philadelphia provides a clue. In the three months leading up to the election, Partnership for America’s Families, another 527 headed by Rosenthal, registered 86,000 new, mostly black and Latino voters. Democratic Mayor John Street won the election by 85,000 votes.
The histrionic reaction of the right is another good indication. In mid-November, Republicans lashed out at 527s, with RNC chairman Ed Gillespie writing letters to campaign finance watchdogs urging them to investigate groups like America Coming Together for violations of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. The same week directors of six progressive 527s received “invitations” to testify before the House Administration Committee chaired by Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Ney, who oversees the GOP’s House incumbent retention program, said he was concerned that “organizations have been formed in the wake of BCFRA with the apparent intent of using soft money to influence federal elections—something the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act purported to ban.”
Rosenthal, Richards and the rest declined to show, given that they weren’t subpoenaed, and Rosenthal issued a statement saying: “It is clear that President Bush and the Republican Leadership are intimidated by the prospect of our registering, educating and turning out hundreds of thousands of progressive voters in 2004 so they’ll do whatever they can to hamstring our operations and attempt to harass us. … We will not be bullied by partisan abuse of congressional power.”
Ney says he’s now planning to subpoena Rosenthal and others to testify. Those in the 527 community have taken Ney’s pledge as a sign that Republicans are desperate to get the details on the progressive 527s’ plans so they can once again copy the model, if not shut down the operation.
The country’s shifting demographics already favor Democrats who consistently win huge pluralities of the non-white vote, which is why Karl Rove has focused the GOP effort on registering 4 million evangelicals. But Rosenthal says that strategy can take the Republicans only so far. “The reason it will work better for our side than theirs is because our vote is more expandable,” he says. “Our mission is to expand the electorate by registering hundreds of thousand of black, Latino, women and union voters, and there are way more of us than there are of them.”
For Rosenthal, the effort isn’t just about winning in 2004. “We’re not talking about folding up our tents on November 10, 2004, and going home,” he says. “The idea is to create a sustained program that we can build on well into the future.”