Changing the Ground Wars

It's October, time for political activists to walk all over Ohio. Four years ago, in the heyday of 527s and other independent political groups, roughly 18,000 staffers and volunteers for America Coming Together (ACT), the largest 527, crisscrossed the state on the campaign's final weekend to turn out the vote for John Kerry.

This year, Barack Obama's presidential campaign has more money, organizers, and volunteers than the 527s (or anyone else in American political history) could even dream of. (Newsweek's Howard Fineman recently estimated the national number of volunteers at a mind-boggling 5 million.) Within Ohio, says state campaign communications director Isaac Baker, Obama has 89 field offices, an unspecified number (but surely in excess of 450) of paid organizers, and thousands of volunteers, 10,000 of whom walked precincts on the weekend of Oct. 18-19. The revitalized Ohio Democratic Party, its fortunes bolstered by Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown, both elected in 2006, now has 75 offices of its own around the state, and is campaigning hard in five currently Republican congressional districts.

So what has become of the parallel party of 2004? What has become of all those organizations that arose when Democrats feared the new campaign finance reform laws would leave them at a competitive disadvantage unless their allies in the labor, feminist, and environmental communities, funded directly by such mega-donors as George Soros, could field get-out-the-vote operations of their own? What's become of ACT, and of America Votes, which four years ago coordinated the activities of all those groups?

ACT is no more. America Votes, which helped unions, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP's political action arm plan their campaigns and kept them from colliding with one another, is still around, in attenuated fashion. And the one state where it has maintained a constant presence since 2004 is Ohio, even if, at times, that presence was simply Scott Nunnery, its talented state director.

But the political landscape for progressive independent groups is starkly different now than it was four years ago. In 2004, John Kerry locked up the Democratic presidential nomination relatively early, at which point virtually every group within the liberal universe began campaigning on his behalf. In 2008, the Democratic primary season extended clear into June. Until early summer, says Nunnery, "the organizations we work with were on opposite sides of the fence."

Even more important, as the Obama campaign began raising more funds and mobilizing more volunteers than any campaign ever, the word went out from its Chicago headquarters that it neither needed nor welcomed the 527s this year. One big problem with the 527 model is that such organizations can campaign on issues -- comparing candidate X's fine positions on health care with candidate Y's appalling ones -- but can't explicitly support a candidate. Nor can they coordinate their message or their ground campaigns with the candidate's own campaign. With the Obama campaign all but guaranteed to reach nearly every possible voter without assistance from other groups, who, Obama's strategists reasoned, needed 527s?

By the end of the primary season, however, the wizards of Chicago had rethought. There was merit after all, they decided, in having not just unions but also the enviros and feminists out there campaigning. And if some folks wanted to fund 527s to run niche campaigns on this cause or that, in this place or some other, they had Chicago's go-ahead. The Obama campaign would dwarf these efforts, but it would no longer discourage them.

In Ohio, the progressive network of groups that had come together in 2004 and helped the Democrats win stunning victories in 2006 began to quickly define what it could do. "We have 50 to 60 organizational affiliates in Ohio," says Nunnery, "which is actually more than the national organization has, since a number of our groups are local." The organization's resources were considerable; Nunnery estimates that independent spending of all the affiliates (including unions) in Ohio this fall will come to more than $35 million.

America Votes itself, however, had just four weeks from the time of the Obama campaign's about face to the time it had to be fully up and running -- four weeks to do all its fundraising. It managed to secure those funds, however, and with them, it has coordinated the various independent campaigns. It had already performed an analysis of what worked and what didn't in the 2006 campaigns the various groups waged. Now, it coordinated and conducted polling for its member groups in particular state races. It provided an analysis of every race on the Ohio ballot -- not only of the district and the candidates, but also of which organizations would be involved in the race and with how much mail and phoning and how many walkers. Using the 3 million voter identifications that Ohio ACT had made in 2004, updating them, and adding the voter information from Catalist, Democratic consultant Harold Ickes' information file on millions of individual voters, it helped its member groups tailor messages that appealed to the voters' particular concerns.

"Every mailing, phone call, and precinct walk that the organizations do is linked to our voter file," Nunnery says. "We know who communicates, and who will communicate, with which individual voter on which day. We know that there will be 2,450 Columbus-area voters who will get 13 pieces of mail from our members next Friday, and so we say, 'Wait! You folks should mail earlier, and you folks should mail later.'" America Votes' affiliates come together every Monday to make sure "nobody runs over each other," Nunnery says.

This year, with Obama volunteers swarming the state, the programs of many America Votes affiliates are weighted more heavily to mail. Only four groups have major walk programs around the state, each targeting a distinct constituency: the AFL-CIO's Working America, which has employed 200 fulltime staffers for the past two years to win over and turn out the white working class vote; Progressive Futures, the campaign of MoveOn and the PIRGs, which has focused on suburban voters; SEIU's "Blue Team," which has sent 175 fulltime organizers (all SEIU members, many from out of state) to mobilize voters in Ohio's African-American communities; and the Ohio NAACP Voter Fund. In the four days leading up to the election, the number of volunteers these campaigns send forth will swell. Working America precinct walkers will knock on 100,000 doors of voters who sill identify themselves as undecided, says Dan Heck, the group's Ohio coordinator.

Many of the America Votes' affiliates have clustered their activities within the five congressional districts that Democrats believe they can take from the Republicans this year. Affiliates that function chiefly on the level of state government are clustered in swing legislative districts.

Besides the campaign activities waged by ongoing organizations, some new national 527s have sprung up as well. To counter the continuing onslaught of business-backed ads directed against Democratic Senate candidates for their support of the Employee Free Choice Act, a number of unions in Change To Win, plus the Steelworkers and Communications Workers from the AFL-CIO and the unaffiliated National Education Association, came together to put a total of $17 million into 527s that sponsored advertising for those Democrats in early summer -- before the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was able to get the bulk of its own ads up and running. This particular endeavor was conceived and directed by Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's former national political director, but most of labor's political investments this year have funded the AFL-CIO's own program (including Working America) or the member-mobilization projects of unions outside the AFL-CIO tent. The biggest single commitment of resources has come from SEIU, which is spending $85 million on getting out its own members' votes and, as in Ohio, mobilizing voters in black and Latino communities.

While labor's national program this year is bigger than ever (at least in commitment of dollars; some unions have trouble turning out activists), such endeavors as Rosenthal's have been rarer than in past elections, partly because the Democratic Party committees have been very well funded (the Obama campaign is in a class by itself). "Obama's operation is so impressive, so sophisticated in its ability to mobilize people," says Becky Williams, the president of a tri-state SEIU local with thousands of members in Ohio. "And they seem to be in every nook and cranny of the state."

For that reason above all, says Steve Rosenthal, who was also the national director of ACT in 2004, the independents' ground game will be "not nearly what it was in 2004." "ACT was huge in '04, and America Votes, here in Ohio, was huge in '06," Nunnery notes, though it did not play a major role in other states. (Ohio is home to the largest America Votes operation this year, too, though there are America Votes coalitions in other states as well.) "This year, we're not. We'll get out the vote in six major cities around the state; labor will do more than that." But, the biggest get-out-the-vote campaign in the state this year will overwhelmingly be Obama's own; there are only so many foot-soldiers to go around.

"No one," says Nunnery, "can pull volunteers away from the sexiest campaign on earth."

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