Precincts – possibilities

2006-May-14

Here is one possibility:

As an alternative, consider Arnie Graf, who’s been an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation for thirty years. Graf and about ten fellow community organizers from Maryland and DC took the last two weeks of the 2004 election off and headed to East Cleveland, a city of
about 30,000 mostly poor and working-class African-Americans. They had been invited by a community-based organization that set them up in a local church to work on boosting voter turnout in the city. “We learned as much as we could about East Cleveland and got to know the issues,” says Graf. “We wound up covering every door, about 30,000 people, and we decided instead of canvassing and talking about Iraq or how many jobs had been lost in Ohio we would talk to people about what was happening in East Cleveland.” Through the network of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress, they recruited 140 volunteers who went door to door among their neighbors, and when election day was over Kerry’s vote total in East Cleveland exceeded Gore’s by 97 percent.

What was important here? They didn’t just “hit and run”, they didn’t just knock on the door, run through the canned script and run away, trying to hit their thirty doors per hour quota. They actually stopped to listen to the people they were trying to influence. Someone finally realized that before you can persuade someone to come to your point of view, you must start by listening to theirs. Before they can solve your problem (winning an election) you have to show that you will help them solve their problems, and you can only find out what people need from you by listening to them. But you can’t listen to people you are targeting to ignore.

The 527 PAC ACT (America Coming Together) wanted to follow the 2004 election by creating just such a grassroots precinct system (as the above quote continues):

In a business plan circulated after the election, ACT painted a picture of a kind of ACT 2.0, with deeper local roots, a focus on local issues and races and a mission of training a permanent, stable cohort of professional organizers. “The greatest experience for me,” says Rosenthal, “was going out to places and seeing young organizers who knew how to cut walk lists and put material together and run a GOTV. That was one of the stated missions from the beginning: We were going to train a whole new generation of organizers, and we were going to figure out a way to keep them working year-round.”

Well, if you followed the ACT link, you discover they didn’t get their wish, and if we want it to happen we cannot depend on wealthy Democratic funders to bankroll it. In fact we will have to rediscover that money is just a means to measure human labor, and if we are wise we will emphasize people’s efforts more than money. After the failed election, I went to a meeting where hundreds of those Progressive volunteers who had been working for ACT or MoveOn or NARAL or the League of Pissed Off Voters, (in fact just about all the local Progressive groups I know of) all were looking for ways to continue the struggle. We all put wrote our names and contact information, but I notice we never got any calls back from the Democratic Party. So if it is going to get done we may just have to do it ourselves.

Any group can put together a precinct system. It does not require top down leadership. It merely requires someone with energy and a real liking for people get some neighbors together to contact everybody in their local neighborhood. Ask what issues are important to them, what problems are besetting them, and what would they like to see happen. Ask if they would like to help out. Have some handouts showing people where they can find help for common problems…and have the precinct contact information prominently displayed. (Have block parties and other functions where people can stop seeing each other as strangers and start seeing each other as neighbors for the first time in decades…) And if you find any local techies willing to help out, put all the information down in a local database, ready to share with other databases.

It can be done, and it can be done from the ground up. If people are willing to get out there and do it. If the Party is wise they will encourage it and reap the benefits. If not, they could watch the rest of the country do an end run around the Old Guard…and maybe take our country back.


Precincts – the problem

2006-May-14

My mother is a lifelong Republican. Why? Because shortly after I was born when she badly needed a job, a local Republican precinct worker (who later became Governor) helped her out and found her a job at the local five and dime store. And she was so grateful that the party had helped her that she rewarded them with lifelong loyalty. Knowing what needed to happen in the neighborhood and making sure it happened is the task precinct captains traditionally did.

But no longer. In the 12 years since I moved to St. Louis I have never been visited by anyone from the Democratic Party to ask if I want to be a part of the party, or whether I wanted to volunteer, or whether I needed any help with anything. Over the last few years I’ve asked around and no one else seems to have ever been contacted either. It was only a couple days ago that I discovered our township even has a Democratic organization. I thought the local Progressive groups that meet every month were all there was.

No wonder we lose elections when we seem to have virtually no party organization.

A couple months ago one of our local Progressive groups had Corey Dillon, the new full-time Executive Director for the party come by to tell us how things were. I was astounded to discover that before Howard Dean had instituted a “50 State Strategy” Missouri had no permanent party organization. The party came to life for each Governor’s race and went back to sleep in between times. Hmm… Some of us Progressives thought the Party was just ignoring us. We didn’t realize they weren’t there to listen…

But Howard Dean wanted Democrats to compete in every election, and as a result of his spending Party cash to do it, we now have some permanent staffers for the Missouri Democratic Party year round.

And the corporatist wing is pissed, because they don’t want the money to be spent on anything except their tired old, failed strategy of Targeting the Muddle of the Roaders and ignoring all those who are politically active.

In fact, that’s the problem with the current Democratic Party. Their entire “targeting” strategy is based on ignoring people. They ignore the Republican 40% instead of trying to win them over. They ignore the Democratic 40% instead of trying to keep them loyal. They then try to narrow down the 20% “swing voters” to try to find out which of them they can ignore. They even have a “Swing State” strategy that tells them they can ignore whole entire states and ignore every one living in them. And after deliberately ignoring almost all of us then they expect us to be there for them. And they wonder why they keep losing.

There is a solution, though it will require a huge amount of work: Restore the precinct system. The real thing, not a sham. More later…


Call Time

2006-May-07

More on what I learned at Camp Carnahan

The presenters kept on talking about the overwhelming importance of call time. At first I thought they meant phone banks, but then I discovered they meant having your candidate spend six hours a day for months calling people begging for money. Oh. Their message was that if you don’t spend those first crucial months ignoring your poorer constituents and concentrating on getting the richer ones to “invest in you”, you can expect to lose the election. Oh.

Their rationale was that people who “invest” in you will vote for you and they won’t change their allegiance. So you want people to invest money in you, invest time in you, to do favors for you. Ance once they have given you a little, you can keep on tapping them for more, and each time it becomes harder for them to back out. People who make a commitment do not want to ever admit they make a mistake, so they are likely to keep investing more and more.

Hmm… Hadn’t thought about that. Yes, get them to commit a little and it becomes easier to push for more. Hmm… Well, maybe I had heard about that before. Con artists use that tactic every day. They get the mark to invest just a little, then a little more…and soon they feel so committed that they just can’t back out, and continue to invest more and more even if the police tell them they are being conned. And this is what the experts are teaching fresh, enthusiastic new candidates for public office is the only way to win elections. Hmm…

So who are our candidates being asked to solicit? First is family and friends. Unfortunately, Bill Gates hasn’t asked me to brunch lately. My family and friends are poorer than I am. So who’s next? Those with an “economic interest”. Well sure. All of us Progressives who have been complaining about “money in politics” are being asked to beg at the feet of those monied interests as soon as our families are tapped out. So that’s how we go about changing things??

Next in line come “ideologues” with an axe to grind, and after that come the the enemies of our enemies. And will their support come without strings attached, any less than will the “monied interests”? Anyone notice a conspicuous absence? The absence of those whose commitment is to “community” or the “public good”?

But one of the presenters made a very telling point, “Time is the most important resource, money is second.” Yes, money is actually only important in politics because it buys time and human labor. If we are really Progressives then we are committed to the cause of those with much less money, but perhaps some time (especially with the former middle class being disemployed by outsourcing). When we use our “call time” to call upon the wealthy, they give us money because they have much more money than time. And they want us to bring them even more money to repay what they gave us. But if we used our “call time” to actually call on those disadvantaged whom we claim to support, we could be asking them to invest in us by investing their time. And if we use it wisely, we might be able to do more with their time than with all the money we could get from the “vested interests”.


Camp Carnahan

2006-May-01

I decided to see how real politicians try to win elections, so I went to Camp Carnahan. It was wonderful. I got to see how real people really do it, real candidates who are running in local races right now, their real campaign managers, and real expert consultants who are advising the folks right here on their campaigns. And all for only $40, and that came with three meals.

And now I know why we lost the White House and the Senate and the House, and the Governorship and Senate and House here in Missouri, and so many other races in this country over the last forty years. Because we believe all those experts who helped us lose all those offices that used to be solidly Democratic and are now solidly Republican.

Targeting:
It seemed like every presenter started with the same refrain:

Well, it’s like this: 40% of the people are your Democratic base and they are gonna vote for you no matter what, so you can ignore them. And 40% of the voters are the Republican base and they’re gonna vote against you no matter what, so ignore them. The remaining 20% are your “swing voters” and you want to spend all your attention on them. You need half of them to win the election, so all your effort will be directed to targeting the 10% of the voters that you need to persuade to win the election.

So how does this translate into reality-based politics? It means don’t bother shoring up your base to keep them from defecting to the other side or to a third party or just giving up on voting in disgust at being ignored. And don’t bother with the other side, don’t try to break up their political coalitions and take away their base. Nope. Instead, you must ignore those who are the most politically alert and aware and concentrate all your attention on that tiny fraction who are so terminally clueless that, in the most partisan period in a century, they still have no idea what values they stand for, and will likely be persuaded (only when they are in the voting booth) by such criteria as name recognition and how tall or pretty they are. And they expect to win elections this way.

We lost huge numbers of union voters (the Reagan Democrats) because we ignored our base. We are on the verge of losing the Black vote because we are ignoring them. All so we can spend all that we have pursuing the Muddle-of-the-Road Terminally Undecideds.

We could be peeling off huge numbers of Libertarians and Paleo-Conservatives who hate the war and hate the Patriot Act and hate being spied on, but we won’t do it because it would mean spending time and money communicating with our opposition’s base. And so we lose.