. . . Tuesday March 1, 2005

The Last Mile of American Politics

Dining with the Duke: A three part reflection on a recent luncheon I attended with Michael Dukakis.

Part One: The Last Mile of American Politics

These days, Governor Dukakis teaches at Northeastern University and spends most of his remaining time pushing a one issue agenda within the Democratic Party. That issue? In Dukakis’ opinion, the Dems biggest failing in recent elections has been at the grassroots level.

The Dems narrowly lost several states in the recent presidential election. The Duke’s opinion is that these states could’ve been won if the operations on the ground had been in place and in action. What we’re talking about here is true door to door, old school politics with thousands of precinct captains running crews of volunteers across every state in the union.

Aren’t we already doing that? Not really. It turns out the Dems were incredibly effective at raising money and using the internet as an outreach tool. But Dukakis believes that in the internet age, face to face politics has become even more important and can be even more effective. Such grassroots operations were not running at an effective enough level even in places like Ohio. And in places like Nevada, there were few grassroots operations until the final push when California volunteers, clipboards in hand, were airlifted into Vegas for a get out the vote effort. Such efforts can help a bit when it comes to driving registration and getting folks to the polls. But when it comes to moving political opinion, you’re more likely to listen to you neighbor than someone from a neighboring state. Dukakis argues that even in key swing states, the Dems shortcoming was not broad messaging but rather house to house combat.

As any longtime reader of this blog knows, I focus a lot more of my attention on messaging than I do on grassroots efforts. Part of that is simply because I understand messaging (sending and receiving) a whole lot better. I’ve never run a grassroots campaign (unless you count the courtship of my wife for which I deployed thousands of volunteers to hand-out fliers with messages like: He’s not as husky as he looks, and Who knows, someday the blogs might make money?).

So is the Dems problem, as I have endlessly argued, messaging? Or is it an organizational failure most apparent in the lack of a cohesive grassroots effort?

Well, as I told the governor, I’m not sure that one can really create a clear line between the two. During the campaign, I attended several fundraising events. At each event, there was a common discussion thread. A speaker would give an update on the Kerry campaign. Someone in the crowd would raise a hand and complain that they didn’t feel that the Kerry team had honed the campaign down to three or four clear and concise messages. Everyone in the crowd would nod in agreement. Then the speaker would tell the questioner that he or she was wrong and that all they had to do was to go to the Kerry website where they’d find a series of white papers that would describe in detail the Kerry policies.

How can you possibly build a vibrant grassroots effort when the folks going door to door don’t have a clear and powerful message to deliver? It’s like sending out the Girl Scouts without any cookies. They knock on the door, the person answers, and then both just stand there. The sash does not equal cash. The Girl Scouts, and Democratic volunteers, cannot be asked to go door to door with nothing to sell.

And that really encapsulates the challenge facing Howard Dean. He now takes the leadership post of Party that is quite good at raising money, but not that good at messaging and grassroots campaigning. He needs to bake the cookies and convince thousands of volunteers to deliver them ahead of the next election cycle. And the challenge is made even more difficult because 50 statewide grassroots efforts (which Dean has said he favors) will take a long time to implement. We’re already a bit late for the 2008 presidential campaign.

We need to start smelling cookies real soon.

Concentration is important!