Whither the Ward Heelers?

Shortly after the McCain-Feingold bill passed Congress in 2002, the smart money was all on the big money: Mega-wealthy donors to the new “527s” would dominate the new political era just as they had dominated the last. Sure enough, such progressive donors as George Soros did make huge contributions to the 527s. But the smart money was wrong: The 527 era has turned out to be one of renewed grass-roots activism and small-donor participation.

Groups like America Coming Together (ACT) ended up inspiring an intense devotion among their activist cadres. Partly that was due to the magnitude of their achievement; by the campaign's conclusion, ACT had raised a stunning $135 million, placed 45,000 paid staffers in the field, worked urban black and other core Democratic communities with a regularity and intensity not seen since the death of the big-city machines, and persuaded millions of battleground state residents to vote for John Kerry.

But for two ACT activists whom I met in the organization's Cleveland headquarters in late October -- Carolyn Jackson, a children's book writer who'd journeyed from her Riverside Drive home by Columbia University, and Ed Cyr, a onetime Cambridge, Massachusetts, city councilman -- ACT was nothing less than a restoration of grass-roots democracy. Both marveled at the diversity of ACT staffers and volunteers, and at the absence of careerism that each had experienced in past campaigns where staffers sought to curry the candidate's favor. For Jackson and Cyr, ACT had become an alternative to a Democratic Party that had somehow forgotten how to incorporate people into its practice of politics. “You can't get a handle on the Democratic Party,” Jackson complained. “It didn't stand for anything. There wasn't anything to do” when she'd called to volunteer.

For Cyr, ACT was a throwback to the days when he'd accompanied his father to the polls on the working-class side of Cambridge -- Tip O'Neill's neighborhood, where “we had 85 [percent] to 90 percent turnout; we had the party and the community meshing; and Dad would know half the people” who came in to vote. “Nothing replaced that till ACT came along,” Cyr said. “People want to do grass-roots politics; that's what ACT provides.” “It's not a party,” added Jackson. “It's building a community.”

By the measure of turning out Democratic base voters, ACT was a signal success: John Kerry won 6.2 million more votes than Al Gore did four years ago, most of them from cities and constituencies where ACT plied its trade. Along with the 32 other progressive groups in the America Votes (AV) coalition, which coordinated efforts for the first time ever to boost turnout, ACT also created a generation of savvy and dedicated activists.

And yet ACT clearly has a very long way to go to build a community, or even a latter-day counterpart to O'Neill's North Cambridge machine. Having focused solely on turning out the vote on November 2, ACT enters the post-election period with no structure, no resources, no members, no current field staff, no offices outside its national headquarters in Washington, and no meetings for its activists to attend. As ACT's leaders scramble to devise an enduring structure and the resources to fund it, ACT volunteers convene meetings of their own, bombarding ACT's national leaders with suggestions.

What ACT did build was often a band of outsiders; until the campaign's final weekend, ACT's cadres in many battleground states were short-term transplants from less-contested states such as New York and California. Camaraderie among these troops was high and remains so. This new wave of activists -- not just from ACT but from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the Sierra Club, NARAL Pro-Choice America, MoveOn, and all the other AV members -- has already become the new generation of amateur Democrats.

In 1962, political scientist James Q. Wilson noted that the party machines and their paid functionaries were being supplanted by upper-middle-class volunteers who were motivated by their commitments to causes. In the years since, “amateur Democrats,” as Wilson termed them, have become the norm, while paid party precinct walkers have gone the way of the dodo. Paid union activists are confined to campaigning within the shrinking unionized share of the electorate. Inner-city get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operations spread money around, but their failure to produce in recent elections was one of the factors that led ACT President Steve Rosenthal to found the organization.

ACT focused its attention on those working-class communities where the amateurs don't go, where the disappearance of the party and the decimation of labor have rendered voter mobilization a dim memory and led to a disastrous decline in turnout. In small-town Ohio ACT headquarters, the staffers tended to be locals, nowhere more so than in Canton, where the closure of the Republic Steel mill and recent mass layoffs at other plants provided ACT with both a sympathetic political terrain and a cadre of unemployed workers whom it paid to walk the precincts.

ACT's primo Canton canvasser was Dave Leasure, who had lived in Canton all his life (but for his time in Vietnam) and who'd worked at the Republic plant for decades until it closed. Walking a neighborhood of wood-frame houses and dappled green lawns on a beautiful August afternoon, Leasure had no patronage to offer, no city jobs, no Christmas turkeys. But he could start with ACT's script on issues of concern to voters (lost jobs, a costly war), personalize it to the widow or downsized worker on the doorstep, and come away with commitments to vote, or even help with ACT's GOTV program.

It wasn't just Leasure who succeeded at his new trade, though. Everywhere ACT worked, it hit its targets. In Ohio, ACT had determined that Kerry needed to win 2,569,163 votes. On election day, Kerry actually got 2,739,952 -- 553,762 more than Gore won in 2000.

But, as you've likely heard, it wasn't enough.

* * *

Kerry's defeat wasn't chiefly one of turnout. John Kerry lost persuadable voters to George W. Bush as a result of Bush's only belatedly answered attacks on Kerry's character and Kerry's inability to convince voters that he offered a better economic future than Bush did. But Kerry also came up short because while Democrats turned out all their vote in the known universe of cities and suburbs, Republicans expanded their universe into fast-growing new exurban counties. Voting-age population in exurban Ohio has swelled by 142,000 since 2000, the National Committee for an Effective Congress has concluded, while the population of urban and suburban Ohio has declined by 42,000.

Both parties threw everything they had into the battleground states, but the Republicans had more left over. According to a survey by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, Kerry increased his vote over Gore by 3.6 percent in the battleground states but just 1.5 percent in non-battleground states. Bush increased his vote over his performance four years ago by 4.4 percent in battleground states and 3.9 percent in non-battleground states. Indeed, some states so red that neither presidential campaign considered working there -- Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee -- nonetheless had record-high percentages of voter participation.

What this means is that the Republicans' infrastructure -- the party itself and its gun clubs, business groups, and especially churches -- likely has a broader national presence than the Democrats'. “The Republican Party is a national party,” says Gina Glantz, the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) top political operative. “We're a targeting party.” Creating a targeting party kept Kerry in the game in 2004. But a targeting party -- a well-funded collection of mobile, interstate activists -- is clearly not adequate to the challenges the Democrats face.

“The election result only increases the imperative that we continue,” says Glantz, who chairs ACT's Committee on the Future. “People look at what ACT did and say, ‘We need this.' Not necessarily a paid canvass as such but the restoration of community-based politics. There are people out there who want to talk to voters. There were a lot of places we went where there had been no human presence on election day in decades.”

Democrats now believe in the gospel of precinct walking. “The key to the next decade,” says Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society and lcv board member, “is a lot more people walking door to door.” MoveOn raised $5 million over the Internet and hired 500 organizers to work with its 20,000 largely novice precinct leaders in battleground states. “We see this as community organizing for the suburbs,” says MoveOn's Eli Pariser. And it was chiefly in the burbs where MoveOn, the lcv, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, naral, and other AV members got their sea legs this year.

But sustaining an organization in working-class neighborhoods is a trickier enterprise. Some within the AV coalition question the viability of ACT's model of mobilization. “If all we do is pay canvassers, are we really building something we can take to the future?” one leader of a progressive organizer asks. “ACT rose entirely as a ‘beat Bush' organization, entirely as a paid operation. For going forward, does that work?”

ACT's leaders know its model must change. “How do you let a thousand flowers bloom and maintain a focus and organizational purpose? That's what we're trying to figure out over the next few months,” says Rosenthal. “These organizations were built in a day,” says Glantz. “You might want to designate precinct captains in actual precincts, or on the Internet. [seiu President] Andy [Stern] argues we should treat the workplace as a precinct.”

* * *

ACT raised more than $20 million in 2004 from both the SEIU and George Soros, got more than $1 million apiece from more than 30 donors, and received small contributions from 160,000 Internet and 130,000 direct-mail donors. Plainly, while many of the major donors have expressed enthusiasm about having ACT continue, and while the Internet remains fertile fund-raising ground, the level of support available to ACT to maintain its infrastructure will be just a fraction of its 2004 total.

As Glantz makes clear, with the decline in its funding, ACT will have to pick its spots. “In Iowa, there's a very real Democratic Party,” she says, “so Iowa isn't our first choice for a place to stay.” In Ohio, on the other hand, the state Democratic Party has been in a shambles for more than a decade. “Why would we ever let Ohio go?” asks Glantz. “We have to make some choices.”

ACT has extensive and detailed voter files and volunteer files in all the key battleground states, but those lists cease to be of value if they're not updated regularly. “We had a sustained dialogue -- repeated house visits, phone calls, mail -- with people that no political groups had ever spoken with before,” says Ohio ACT Director Steve Bouchard. “The most important thing in Ohio is to continue the momentum we had.” In many battleground states, the progressive organizations that coordinated their campaigns under the banner of America Votes hope to stay together to build ongoing progressive operations for 2006 and beyond.

The staffers in ACT's Cleveland office have started their own Yahoo! group, where the volunteers from New York and California keep in touch. Karen Gasper, who was the volunteer coordinator in the Cleveland office, has returned to Washington, but she posted information on forthcoming MoveOn house parties, Democracy for America (Howard Dean's group) “Meetups,” and Democratic Party meetings in Cleveland for the locals who belonged to the ACT Yahoo! group. ACT has yet to convene its own meetings in Ohio.

The real problem for ACT is particularly evident in Canton. Leasure, Canton ACT's star organizer, hopes to go back to work in a mill soon, this one in Lorain, a two-hour drive from Canton. And in a city where unemployed factory workers provided ACT's shock troops, restarting ACT as an association of unpaid volunteers would be to reconceptualize it altogether.

Lacking soft money and absent a culture change, it's not at all clear that the Democratic Party is up to this challenge, either. If Dean or Harold Ickes succeeds Chairman Terry McAuliffe, the party may try to open itself to activist participation, but even then it might have a tough sell. Many of the truly hardcore activists of '04 preferred working with ACT and the other AV groups to working with the party. The only funding path for the party -- and possibly the only funding path for ACT if soft-money restrictions are placed on the 527s -- is to raise money over the Internet, something at which both ACT and the party excelled in 2004. Democratic activists will likely give generously to whichever group mounts effective opposition to Republican rule -- though not so generously that either, or both, will be able to build a neo–Tammany Hall in Canton.

* * *

Of course, Tammany, neo- or paleo-, has never been a model of “small-d” democracy. Neither ACT, as it was constituted for the 2004 campaign, nor the Democratic National Committee purported to be organizations whose foot soldiers set fundamental policy. Like most of the groups that belonged to America Votes, ACT is controlled by a board of stakeholders and major donors, who were apparently comfortable with the organization's message of semi-populist economics, government-backed job creation, and government-sponsored health care. In theory, I suppose, the 527s are less accountable to their base than the parties are, and no less accountable to super-rich donors -- but this failed to trouble this year's crop of largely left-leaning activists.

Beyond question, it was Bush who was chiefly responsible for the magnitude of the Democrats' grass-roots operation this year. That said, it was the 527s -- by their ability to circumvent the moribund state parties and inspire an activist élan—that deployed that force more swiftly and massively than the party itself. The downside is that they were forbidden by law from actually making a pitch for Kerry, which, as one America Votes official admits, “really limited our voter-persuasion abilities.” Were the party itself to win a deeper allegiance from its various activist constituencies and continue to raise money at the record levels it reached in 2004, it would surely be the best vehicle through which to wage future field campaigns. But to become the Democrats' genuine object of desire, the party would have to stand for something beyond lowest-common-denominator platitudes. This is something on which wise men would not bet.

Still, from the Dean campaign to MoveOn, from America Votes to America Coming Together, a new generation of activists is bent on rebuilding, if not the Democratic Party, at least the Democratic majority, through the new-old magic of grass-roots activism. They understand the limits of mobilization -- the election results made that painfully clear -- but they understand its indispensability as well. They have seen one part of the Democratic future, and it works.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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