It's the incompetence, stupid

Forget MoveOn and ACT -- the real downfall of the Democrats was the Kerry campaign itself. A volunteer speaks out.

Published December 17, 2004 1:05AM (EST)

In his Dec. 15 Salon article, "The Revolution Failed -- for Now," Farhad Manjoo spotlights the "lack of coordination" between the Kerry campaign and the celebrated liberal third-party groups, and America Coming Together. Lack of coordination? Let me tell you about the disorder and complacency inside the Kerry-Edwards campaign itself. Look no further for why Democrats lost the election.

I put in 300 volunteer hours in the campaign, making phone calls and knocking on doors in tightly contested swing states in the Southwest, both of which Bush took, and in a Los Angeles call center that aided the state campaigns in Ohio, Florida and Iowa. In an attempt to recruit Democratic volunteers, I made hundreds of phone calls; all but a handful of people claimed to be too busy to do even a few hours work for Kerry. This, despite many of them admitting to being scared as hell for the future of our country (not to mention that they were answering their home phones at, say, 2 p.m. on a Wednesday).

Most of the Kerry supporters I met on the campaign trail, meanwhile, were really just Bush-haters. The lack of knowledge or even curiosity about Kerry, his career and his proposals, was astonishing. Almost no one working alongside me had the slightest inkling of Kerry's policy initiatives (clearly laid out on his Web site). No one knew what he'd done in the Senate. Many volunteers, even some paid staffers, didn't know how long he'd been a senator. In the Bush offices I visited, posters of the president and vice president were plastered all over the walls, as were posters of Ronald Reagan (strangely, or maybe not so strangely, in one office the Reagan posters outnumbered the Bush posters). But in the four Kerry-Edwards offices there was not so much as a snapshot of either man on public display.

The one thing everyone did know? Kerry was not Bush. For most, that was enough.

In the big Southwestern city operation where I spent the most time, a city that was the main population center of its state, and where Kerry's future would hinge on making direct contact with a few thousand urban and suburban swing voters, the campaign was haphazard and impotent. While the operations and press staff sat at their computers, tracking metrics and trying to spin reporters, no one seemed to want to take responsibility for the hundreds of callers and door-to-door canvassers who, like myself, were actually talking to those crucial voters.

The precinct captains, whose job it was to decide which precincts to target, and to divvy those precincts up and shuttle canvassers to them, were for the most part poorly paid kids in their early 20s, just out of high school or still in college. They, too, seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who Kerry was or why they working for him, outside of a nameless dread of the future. They were committed but left largely unguided and, it appeared to me, uninspired by their superiors, and they had none of the unshakable confidence I saw among the Bush team. The result was that they goofed off a lot. And who could blame them? After spending half the night putting together address lists, they were met the next morning by bands of mostly untrained, uninformed canvassers.

No one bothered to brief the ground troops on how to be persuasive or to even get sufficient fact-sheets into their hands. And they didn't take it upon themselves to get educated. I routinely toured neighborhoods with canvassers who were struck dumb when a door opened and an undecided voter asked for specifics.

"But what does Kerry want to do about unemployment, exactly?"

"Um, ah, um..."

"How many people have lost their jobs in the last four years?"

"Ah, um, oh..."

Of course, there were answers to those questions. Kerry proposed tax credits for new jobs created by manufacturers. He wanted to introduce Buy American guidelines in the defense industry and penalize American companies outsourcing jobs overseas. Bush oversaw the loss of about 1.2 million private-sector jobs and allowed 4 million Americans to descend below the poverty line. These facts, which took about two minutes to find out, had the power to sway undecided voters -- I know, because I swayed many with them.

Perplexed, I approached a volunteer coordinator and expressed my concern. The party doesn't have the time or money to train callers or canvassers, is what I was told. But this clearly wasn't true. This particular office was awash in paid staffers who seemed to have nothing to do.

The problem was just as bad in the phone banks. It's over the phone that a campaign finds wings, it's where you begin polling undecided voters who will later be deluged by "persuasion" calls, mailings and front-door visits. Only weeks before the elections, the state campaign in Ohio, for example, had not finished the task of identifying where potential support lay. Worse, the persuasion callers were, like the canvassers, often clueless. I spent many hours next to men and women whose idea of an appeal was a factually questionable five-minute harangue about Bush's "oil-garchy" or Dick Cheney's stock portfolio. Kerry was rarely mentioned.

Meanwhile, "constituency outreach" didn't seem to be designed to exploit Kerry's advantages. Democrats have traditionally relied on organized labor for the base of their volunteer efforts, and this year was no different. But in a country where unions are becoming increasingly irrelevant -- less than 10 percent of the private sector workforce is any longer unionized -- this seems a losing strategy.

Despite all signs pointing to a massive left-leaning youth turnout, the campaign's presence at the three major Southwestern state universities I visited was nil. Perhaps the Kerry people figured that the 18-24 vote was in the bag. But you should never rely on such assumptions, as the Democrats' increasingly poor showings among minority voters showed. At one major state school, a few volunteers and I were hastily enlisted to counter a Bush rally. While the Republicans had arrived early and set up tents on a lawn and attracted crowds with hot dogs and carnival games -- Toss a cream pie at Kerry! -- we taped Kerry signs to a folding table and handed out lapel stickers.

At the University of New Mexico, I went to help fill out the crowd at a Chris Heinz rally on a grassy knoll by the dorms. Heinz was a popular "surrogate" on the campaign, crisscrossing the country to plug his stepfather. (He was especially popular among young women; his nickname among them in one of the offices was "Crazy Hot Chris Heinz.") But little advance work had been done and at a school with almost 25,000 students, about 50 people showed up to hear him speak. The whole thing was nearly upstaged when a group of undergraduates, carrying a Bush banner and smacking flip-flops, came and protested.

While certain offices seemed to have more resources and people than they knew what to do with, other crucial areas were inexplicably undercut. In Las Cruces, N.M., one of largest cities in the state and a key to Kerry's chances there (he ended up losing New Mexico by a superable 6,000 votes), there was only a skeleton crew, and key staff were arriving just weeks before the election.

The Bush campaign was far better choreographed. First in Ohio and then in other swing states, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman raised a highly organized, direct-marketing-style ground army, much of it volunteer, with strict accountability and clearly defined tiers right down to the people getting coffee. Rather than bring in precinct captains, they endeavored to find natives with ties to the community. They did it in large part by studying Al Gore's 2000 campaign.

Still, the Kerry staffers I spoke with -- from the operations chiefs to the press crew to the precinct captains -- were possessed of a kind of wishful confidence, based not on any particular allegiance to the senator but on what E.M. Forster would have called panic and emptiness. No one could imagine a Bush win. The prospect was unthinkable. How could America reelect him? It couldn't. So it would elect Kerry. It must. Such went the tortured logic.

"It's going to be a landslide!" people said. I'd ask why and be met with a well-worn refrain about unprecedented numbers of voters and slipping approval ratings in Iraq.

"Why do you think he's going to win?" I asked a staffer with whom I shared a hotel room. To this day I have no idea what his job was.

"Bush's numbers are terrible," he said.

This may have been true, but the Bush campaign seemed suffused with an unflappable drive and couldn't have cared less about their candidate's numbers or, for that matter, policy record. Theirs was a "faith-based" campaign in more ways than one.

Probably the best characterization of the Democrats' bungling came from the only truly dedicated precinct captain I worked with. (He spent his downtime in the phone banks or going door-to-door.) At a Bill Clinton rally just days before the election, we had been waiting nearly two hours and the Comeback Kid still hadn't shown up. There were interminable pauses during which no one came to the podium. Soft jazz crackled out of the speakers. The crowd was tired and antsy.

"I don't think you'd see the Republicans doing this," I said. The precinct leader shook his head in disgust and laughed the laugh of the damned. "Evil or incompetence -- those are your choices," he said.

By James Verini

James Verini is a writer in Los Angeles.

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2004 Elections