The revolution that failed -- for now

Groups like ACT and MoveOn promised to remake American politics, but they didn't beat Bush. Is there a future for liberal People Power?

Published December 15, 2004 8:27PM (EST)

Three days after the election, I called Ellen Malcolm, founder of the influential advocacy group Emily's List and president of America Coming Together, to ask her where she'd screwed up.

The question wasn't as provocative as it sounds: 2004 was supposed to have been the year of the activist. For months, progressives had been extolling the possibilities of groups like ACT, which -- by bringing together Hollywood money, Silicon Valley tech wizardry, Washington know-how, and the passion of an army of volunteers recruited from Berkeley to Burlington -- seemed to be forging a new and quite powerful force in American politics, a movement that liberals promised would not only win this election but might also rewrite the rules of the game. ACT and its sister groups were to have been the Democrats' silver bullet, the one trick -- people power! -- Karl Rove could not match.

But as the returns streamed in on Nov. 2, the promise of ACT and the other third-party liberal groups fizzled. ACT had invested heavily in mobilizing voters in Florida and Ohio, and John Kerry lost in both places. What happened? I asked Malcolm. Why had ACT failed?

Malcolm didn't want to talk about failure. "We were very successful," she said. "But we didn't win the election. We turned out many, many, many voters, including a lot of first-time voters. It was a tremendously successful effort for democracy. But we're all obviously very disappointed in the results."

At the time, Malcolm's answer was unsatisfying; given the totality of the loss it seemed disingenuous to call what happened on Election Day a success. But when I pressed her on it, asking in several different ways what had gone wrong, she was unmoved. "You're not listening to what I'm saying," Malcolm finally snapped. ACT hadn't failed. ACT had in fact met all of its state voter-mobilization goals. John Kerry won more votes than any other presidential loser in history. ACT had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of anyone involved in the group. The only problem was that the other side, the Republicans, was even more successful.

A month and a half has passed since I spoke to Malcolm, and in that time several observers have put forward the kind of sophisticated-sounding explanations for the apparent failure of liberal get-out-the-vote campaigns that I'd wanted Malcolm to offer shortly after the election. In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai suggested that ACT fundamentally misunderstood the electorate in Ohio -- instead of trying to persuade suburban swing voters to consider Kerry (as the GOP had done for Bush, fruitfully), ACT spent its resources in liberal urban centers, where there simply weren't enough Kerry voters to tip the balance.

More recently, the New Republic's Peter Beinart skewered MoveOn, ACT's progressive brother-in-arms, for dismissing national security threats, and in Slate Chris Suellentrop dismissed the group as being not "an organization so much as an outlet. It's a network of aggrieved liberals, connected by the central nervous system of the Internet, and it enables its members to convince themselves they're 'doing something' when they're really not."

There's much to criticize about ACT, MoveOn, and the constellation of liberal groups that attracted so much attention and so many volunteers, and raised so much money and so many hopes, in the months before the election. They certainly weren't the silver bullet. But many critics are too quick to dismiss the very real successes of the advocacy groups, the political, financial, logistical and emotional achievements that were required to bring hundreds of thousands of volunteers and paid staffers into battleground states, and to use these people in a way that boosted turnout.

Yes, John Kerry lost. But an amazing thing happened this year -- grass-roots activism, online and in the real world, invaded the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Ordinary people, folks who'd never before expressed the slightest interest in politics, suddenly developed an abiding enthusiasm for the game. And personal contact, the online connections and the doorstep conversations of millions of citizens, became a primary method of campaigning.

There were, to be sure, many logistical snafus in the get-out-the-vote operations mounted by the various third-party groups -- some major, most relatively minor. The most serious limitation seems to have been built into the design of the campaign: Because the third-party groups were barred under campaign finance regulations from coordinating their efforts with John Kerry's official campaign, the entire liberal get-out-the-vote operation could never have proceeded as a coherent whole. Unlike the GOP effort, the Democratic campaign was intrinsically divided, split between two sides who weren't allowed to speak to each other.

Despite those limitations, though, the core gambit worked: Hard as it may be to believe (and it is hard), the numbers prove that that San Franciscans and New Yorkers met with some success in their attempts to persuade Clevelanders and Miamians to go to the polls for Kerry. As Democrats remake their party, it would be a shame for them to discount the work of the activists, or to fail to keep the activist spirit kindled. Glitches can be fixed, and logistical failures can be addressed. Imagine what might have been had these groups not become involved in this political cycle.

"Look at what happened the last time a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts won the nomination," notes Donald Green, the Yale political scientist whose research on get-out-the-vote efforts served as the blueprint for the liberal groups' mobilization drive. "That was Michael Dukakis -- he lost decisively.... The fact that John Kerry did as well as he did is only attributable to the incredible ground effort that the Democrats were able to muster." The third-party groups, in other words, profoundly altered the physics of the presidential race. Without them, it would have been a blowout.

In the spring of 2004, Moira DeNike, a sociology grad student and dance instructor in San Francisco, attended her first John Kerry Meetup. She wasn't overly impressed with what she saw. "I thought, this is nice if you're looking for a bunch of people to talk about how we all agree that Kerry should win," she says. DeNike, who was a political naif but nevertheless dead set on unseating the president, felt she needed a more constructive experience, something hands-on. After a bull session with a dancer friend, she hatched a plan -- to raise a lot of money to send a lot of people to Florida, where they would help register a lot of new voters for Kerry -- and a name: Dancers for Democracy. The money would come from dance -- DeNike organized a series of dance-oriented fundraisers (an all-day workshop, a buffet dinner with dancing as dessert) which raised several thousand dollars, enough to send six people to Miami in the weeks approaching Florida's Oct. 4 voter-registration deadline.

There's something undeniably inspiring, in a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind of way, about DeNike's entrepreneurial voter-mobilization enterprise. There's a bit of hubris in it, too. Why did DeNike believe that she, personally, would be able to persuade people in Florida to register to vote? Why did she assume that she was even needed in Florida -- that she, a dancer with no political experience, could become an asset to a major national political campaign?

Those are important questions, because what DeNike and thousands of other activists like her did during the 2004 campaign was in some sense not normal. In recent American elections, ordinary voters have not often set up their own political shops, raised their own funds, and sought out flaws in the system that they believed they could fix themselves. Of course, people have always volunteered in political campaigns, especially during tense political times -- but the scale and scope of what we saw this year, and especially the sense the volunteers had that their own contributions might make a critical difference in the outcome, were novel.

DeNike says she felt a sense of mission, a thought that you hear from many volunteers across the land. She knew she could make a real difference in a swing state. "I felt like there might be a lot of people who would feel disenfranchised [in Florida], and I read somewhere that most people who don't vote, don't vote because they've never been asked to." DeNike believed that if she asked them, they would vote.

DeNike's instinct that she was needed in Florida turned out to be on the mark. After Dancers for Democracy raised enough money to send a team to Miami, DeNike phoned the South Florida ACT office to ask if she could work with the group on voter registration. But ACT told DeNike that the group wasn't working on voter registration, and that instead it was working on a voter persuasion effort. So DeNike called the local Kerry campaign office and asked if she could work with them on voter registration. "And they too said that they weren't focusing on voter registration. They said that there were other groups that were going to be focusing on that," DeNike recalls.

DeNike had stumbled across one of the main operational flaws of the liberal get-out-the-vote effort -- a lack of coordination between the Kerry campaign and its third-party surrogates. What DeNike discovered was that neither the ACT people nor the Kerry people were mounting a final new-registration push in South Florida because each believed that the other group would be handling it. That would seem to be a silly mistake -- didn't people know their roles? -- but this sort of thing seems to have occurred often in the campaign, volunteers say. Because campaign finance laws prohibited the Kerry staffers from discussing their efforts with ostensibly independent groups such as ACT, the campaign and the outside groups were often duplicating each other's work, or sometimes weren't working on what needed to be done because they assumed the other side was doing it.

The coordination problem was especially pronounced during the last few weeks and days of the campaign, when the full force of get-out-the-vote canvassers, tens of thousands of people, were going door-to-door in battleground states. "We were knocking on doors and people would say, 'You're the third person who's come by today,'" says Eric Rorer, a freelance photographer from Northern California who worked for the Kerry campaign in Columbus, Ohio. Volunteers from the various groups were running into each other on the street, Rorer says, but they couldn't pass the slightest information between themselves, even plans as to which houses they would tackle first. One ACT volunteer who canvassed in Miami says, "By the Friday before Election Day people were like, 'Stop coming around!' These people were being extremely over-canvassed -- we were hitting them, MoveOn was hitting them, the Kerry people were hitting them, the Senate candidates were hitting them, there was a mayoral candidate that was hitting them..."

Nobody knows whether this "over-canvassing" problem -- which was reported by just about every canvasser Salon spoke to -- caused many (or any) voters to become so annoyed with the process that they decided to stay away from the polls. But Donald Green, of Yale, says the situation affected the progressive groups' overall efficiency. "It was not easy for them to spread their resources intelligently," he says. Successful door-to-door operations call for a well-planned series of visits to each household over a period of weeks. But instead of each household getting a first contact from a group, then a second contact, then a third, what happened in this campaign in many neighborhoods was that "lots of people were getting many first contacts," each from a different group. "Some people got five first contacts." That must have caused no small amount of confusion, if not anger, among voters.

If some neighborhoods in the swing states were being over-canvassed by progressives, other neighborhoods may have consequently been under-canvassed by those groups. Could the efforts of the third-party groups have been more fruitful if some of their door-to-door canvassing had been shifted from reliably Democratic urban neighborhoods to other areas -- specifically, should ACT and MoveOn have concentrated on some of the suburban and "exurban" neighborhoods that the New York Times Magazine's Bai calls the GOP's secret weapon in Ohio?

"It's a fair point," says Thomas Gensemer, ACT's director of Internet strategies. But conducting a get-out-the-vote operation in non-base suburban neighborhoods would have been difficult for ACT, he notes. Under federal campaign finance law (ACT is a 527 organization, an entity to which donors can contribute unlimited sums of "soft money,") ACT could not call on voters to go out and cast a ballot for a specific candidate. In Democratic strongholds, this limitation worked out OK: The group didn't need to sell voters there on the merits of John Kerry; all it had to do was make sure people got to the polls. But how could ACT have campaigned in areas where the voters' preferences weren't so certain? It wouldn't have worked. As a third-party group, ACT had one key limitation -- it was a "campaign without a candidate," Gensemer says. "That's why our mandate from the start was much more to go after base votes. I don't know if you can do anything else in a 527 world when you're not the actual candidate's campaign. Getting out the swing voters was not the role of us and MoveOn and others."

But if ACT and MoveOn could canvass only in the cities, why couldn't the Kerry campaign have canvassed in the suburbs, spreading the door-to-door resources? The answer, again, is coordination: In key states like Ohio and Florida, the Kerry team couldn't have shifted its resources to the suburbs because it couldn't be sure what the third-party groups would be doing in the cities. It had no way of coordinating with them. So it too had no choice but to concentrate its mobilization efforts in the cities, where all the reliable Democrats were located.

The Democratic focus on urban Democratic strongholds, then, seems to have been a necessary consequence of its reliance on third-party advocacy groups. Republicans, it should be noted, didn't face this problem. Because the Bush-Cheney get-out-the-vote operation was run in-house, not farmed out to soft-money third-party groups, canvassers could do as they pleased, without worrying about coordination failures, or prohibitions on how they could sell their candidate. If the Democrats faced any strategic mobilization disadvantage, Green says, it was this difference in their operations. Republican canvassers were selling a candidate, while canvassers at ACT were really selling an idea -- broad progressivism -- that they hoped would translate into action for their candidate. The match was not quite fair.

In the fall, after learning that neither ACT nor the Kerry campaign was focusing on registering new voters in South Florida, Moira DeNike wrote a passionate letter to ACT's coordinator in Miami, detailing all the reasons why she and her band of dancers should be allowed to work on voter registration out of ACT's offices there. The coordinator liked her letter, and ACT acceded to her requests. "They weren't going to stand in the way of this group of nutty San Franciscans who wanted to come down," she says -- and anyway the registration effort she helped coordinate at ACT was exceedingly successful. In the week before the registration deadline in Florida, DeNike and the others working on new registrations in the Miami ACT office signed up more than 900 new voters.

DeNike says she wasn't surprised by this success; she'd expected it. But other blue-coast volunteers who flew into Florida and Ohio to get out the vote did report initially feeling uncomfortable about their status as carpetbaggers in a contested land. It wasn't just that the progressive volunteers weren't locals -- although many political analysts, remembering the Howard Dean campaign's not-so-hot experience with invading political operatives in Iowa, had warned that voters in swing states might not take too well to outsiders telling them how to vote. But in third-party get-out-the-vote campaigns, the geographic distances between the volunteers and the locals often seemed secondary to the cultural distances -- in many cases the volunteers who flew into the swing states were whiter and wealthier than the neighborhoods they were hoping to mobilize, and some volunteers reported being on guard about, or at least very aware of, the differences.

"They sent us to some 100 percent minority areas, places where being white and having a sticker on your shirt that said your name and walking around with a bunch of flyers -- you stuck out like a sore thumb," said a white 20-something volunteer from California who asked not to be named in this article. "And ACT sent us to some really bad places -- there were people who were obviously prostitutes and drug dealers on the corner. But, that said, a lot of people there did appreciate the information. You took 30 seconds of their time, you told them about voting early, and then you went on your way." Indeed, the volunteer added sheepishly, "in some sense I realized that I became much more comfortable with being around black people. I don't consider myself a racist. I didn't realize that I was uncomfortable before. But on my way back to the airport I noticed that."

Rorer, who canvassed for the Kerry campaign in Ohio, says that he'd initially expected some criticism from the locals as well. "All the canvassers were white, and here we are walking in a lower-middle class black neighborhood," he says. "I would have thought there would have been a sense of, What are all you white people doing in our neighborhood? But when people saw us they were like, 'Kerry!' -- like pumping their fists! -- and old women would come to the door and invite us in to eat."

Several canvassers reported similar scenes, and ACT officials say they ultimately saw no real problem with using out-of-towners as their get-out-the-vote volunteers. Though they'd been wary of the possible culture clash, such disturbances never really occurred. Still, says Gensemer, "the quality of the contact when it's a local canvasser is much better," and one of the group's goals for the future is to assemble a cadre of activists in the swing states to work on mobilization efforts, "which is what the right does infinitely better."

A bigger problem with ACT, some volunteers say, was that in the rushed end to the campaign, the local offices became especially chaotic, and disorganization reigned. "Even with all of George Soros money, in the most contested state in the country, and in the largest county in that state -- with all that riding on this effort, the level of organization was not impressive," says DeNike of the Miami operations. "They had not done that much research. The offices were run by enthusiastic and energetic 20-somethings, and I loved them, but there wasn't the experience that needed to be there."

Another volunteer at the Miami ACT office told of his annoyance at being ordered to spend two whole days at Kinko's to make copies of canvassing maps. This volunteer had spent a considerable bit of money and time to fly out to Florida to help get out the vote, "and here I was making copies -- one day I literally copied 12,000 pages. They spent over $2,200 on copies that day."

Meanwhile, in the final weeks of the campaign, ACT began hiring a large number of local people on a day-labor basis to help with the door-to-door canvass. But volunteers said that ACT put in place no real method of monitoring these paid staffers' progress -- it did not ensure sure that they were rewarded if they worked well, or they were not rehired if they didn't. ACT essentially hired anyone who showed up every morning on a first-come, first-serve basis (the pay varied, though many people said they made between $50 and $100 a day.) The trouble with this arrangement was that ACT wasn't building "a core group of committed people," one volunteer said. "And to be honest I heard a lot of volunteers who worked with the paid people from the community say that the paid people weren't effective. And they would have been more effective if ACT had trained them better, or cultivated the sense that they were working for a cause," rather than for a day's wage.

Looking over ACT's work, it's possible to find many similar logistical and operational flaws. For instance, Bonnie Maslin, a psychologist from New York who canvassed with ACT in the last two days of the campaign in Ohio, said that her canvassing group was given flyers to affix to people's doorknobs, but none of the houses in the neighborhood she was in had accessible doorknobs -- they all had screen doors. Another difficulty: Many of the doorbells in poorer neighborhoods seemed to be broken, and consequently few people came to the door in those areas.

Volunteers emphasize that they don't believe that any of those problems contributed to Kerry's loss. They were simply the kinds of flaws you'd expect to see in an effort like this, and it's a testament to ACT's operational prowess that the effort worked as well as it did. "We were never really expecting we'd have 120,000 contributors" to the get-out-the-vote effort, Gensemer says.

Gensemer's right. Despite the problems, from an operational point of view what the various third-party groups accomplished in the months before Nov. 2 seems quite extraordinary. Still, notwithstanding the agility with which ACT and other groups expanded to accommodate the demand of thousands of volunteers, and the enthusiasm and hard work of many of those volunteers, the plain fact is they lost. And now, in defeat, the groups are being asked to explain themselves -- which is a difficult thing to do because, it turns out, many volunteers and staff at those campaigns genuinely find it hard to conceive of what happened on Nov. 2 as a failure.

And by many measures, the effort was not a failure. In Ohio, Kerry won 554,000 more votes than Al Gore won in 2000. In Florida, Kerry beat Gore's total by 544,000. In all of the urban centers where ACT and MoveOn and the other groups concentrated their door-to-door activities, Kerry's share of the vote went through the roof.

There were other wins for the advocacy groups. ACORN, a group that aimed its efforts at minority voters in Florida, scored a huge win with the minimum-wage ballot measure it sponsored in the state -- the amendment passed with 71 percent of the vote. The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, strongly opposed the Republican senatorial candidate Pete Coors in Colorado, and it won that race.

Compared to the presidency, those may seem like small victories. But for the thousands of activists who participated in the race, perhaps there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in small victories. At the moment, just a month after the election, the future of the various groups that launched the historic get-out-the-vote campaign this year is, at best, cloudy. ACT and MoveOn say they're determined to stay strong and relevant. But people close to some key funders of the groups point out that the legal landscape isn't clear -- many expect that the Republican Congress will attempt to shut down the 527 soft-money exception, a move that could devastate a group like ACT.

Even without the question of funding, there are difficulties. During the campaign, ACT, MoveOn and other influential progressive groups -- labor unions, liberal interest groups -- worked roughly in parallel, sharing ideas and resources and a common mobilized base, all in an effort to vanquish a common foe. But with the campaign over, the groups have fewer incentives to work together, and differences over how to proceed -- and who gets to control what was created during the past year -- are bound to emerge.

We may already be seeing the early fissures. On Thursday, MoveOn took an aggressive posture in the battle to control the future of the Democratic Party, demanding in an e-mail memo to members that the party rid itself of "elite Washington insiders." Democrats "can't afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers," wrote Eli Pariser, the executive director of the MoveOn PAC. "In the last year, grassroots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the Party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive. Now it's our Party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."

MoveOn could not be reached for comment for this article. But it's hard not to wonder if Pariser's line about Washington elites was a subtle dig at ACT -- a group that is, after all, headed by some of the party's most insiderish insiders, Steve Rosenthal, Harold Ickes and Ellen Malcolm. Asked whether ACT had any sympathy for MoveOn's call to banish insiders from the party, Gensemer balked. "We don't have grandiose goals of taking over the party," he said. "The vast team of political professionals we've put together understand what our role is now. We're following to see what happens with the DNC. We have our thoughts, we've learned a lot, but we're not a reactionary force."

Even if ACT, MoveOn and other progressive groups manage to continue working well together, and the vast infrastructure they amassed this year remains relatively intact, there is still the matter of the activists -- those people on the ground who decided during the course of the year to join the political scene. Can those people be reactivated to fight future battles? Did the activists who swarmed to swing states this year do it only out of a quick, one-shot hatred of George W. Bush, or were they expressing deeper convictions, passions that will motivate them for the long haul?

For the third-party groups, this is the most difficult question to answer. It's hard to tell what peculiar cocktail of hatred for Bush, love for Kerry, and genuine fear for the national condition sparked the grand activist effort we saw this year; consequently, it's hard to tell whether many of the activists will remain active, or whether many will take Kerry's defeat as too much to bear and lose their willingness to fight.

"There's an absolute 100 percent risk of that," says Allan Oliver, who headed the League of Conservation Voters efforts in Florida. "That's a risk that we're trying to fight, and the way we're trying to fight is by saying: Let's sit down and do some smart analysis and figure out what went right, what went wrong. Let's figure out a future plan. What do we do from here?" In time, those answers will come. "And perhaps all those volunteers who traveled across the country for us -- they've taken some days off, they've sat down, we've all kind of moped around at one point or another. But soon they'll come back saying, We need to get into the fight."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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