Understandable in theory, but counterproductive in practice? Earlier this week, the Democratic Party announced that all of its presidential candidates had finally agreed not to create their own outside political organizations and to publicly disavow such organizations. In doing so, they are attempting to apply one set of lessons from 2008 and 2012, while perhaps willfully ignoring the lessons of 2016:
The Association of State Democratic Committees announced Tuesday that every leading presidential contender has vowed not to create “any organizing or messaging infrastructure that is parallel or duplicative” to the DNC or state parties. The signed pledge also binds candidates to publicly call on their supporters not to launch outside groups on their behalf.
It’s an enormous change for the party, one that will likely strengthen the DNC and state parties after what many Democrats considered neglect of the party infrastructure during the Obama years. It also throws into question the future of Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-created grass-roots organization, which state party leaders say would appear to violate the agreement if Sanders wins the general election.
“It’s a huge shift,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. The move sends two messages, she added: “You cannot create another OFA,” and “the DNC is an important national infrastructure, but it’s not in the states — we are.”
“[State parties] are never the shiny object that gets funded with all the appeals from podcasts or big donors,” Kleeb added.
The OFA reference is to Barack Obama’s notorious defenestration of the DNC and state parties to build his own independent operation. In 2008, Barack Obama dispensed with campaign spending limits and created a massive and innovative campaign that won him two presidential elections. However, Obama built that in large part by cannibalizing the DNC, which has struggled ever since to rebuild its operations. And when he was done winning two elections, Obama kept his organization to promote his ongoing agenda rather than reinforce the DNC and state parties.
In that sense, the DNC and state parties are only acting in self-defense. However, they may end up hobbling the nominee, thanks to a lack of resources for an Obama-style organization and a lack of understanding of its importance. The DNC is already falling behind Trump’s efforts to organize in battleground states, according to numerous sources who spoke to The Daily Beast on and off the record. Former Obama field director Joy Cushman declared earlier this week that Trump had learned the lessons from 2008, but Democrats still have not:
Before Republicans send their organizers into early primary states, the organizers reportedly must read and pass a test on “Groundbreakers,” the story of how Barack Obama revolutionized campaigning by putting his faith in hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
I was a top organizer in his 2008 campaign and trained thousands of the campaign’s staff members. The book’s authors and I fear that the wealthy elites on the left have less respect than ever before for the strategies that got Mr. Obama elected. If Democrats want to win in 2020, they must get back to investing in the power of everyday people through organizing.
Republicans know how President Obama won, yet there is a contentious debate among progressives about how to run campaigns.
The DNC’s move here strongly indicates that Cushman has accurately diagnosed the Democrats’ failure in this cycle. In my column for The Week, however, I write that she may be giving Team Trump too much credit for having learned from Obama’s organization — and the RNC’s efforts might not be enough because of that:
This was the most important and surprising lesson I learned in researching my 2016 book Going Red. The most common misconception about Obama’s organization in 2008 was that it used social media only as a communications channel for national messaging. Instead, the use of social media — Facebook in particular — was much more sophisticated. The campaign used it as a tool to find allies in key precincts and neighborhoods and create social circles of volunteers and supporters around them. That allowed the campaign to develop a ground-up feedback loop and to contextualize Obama’s agenda at the neighborhood level. For instance, they told Tampa supporters that their infrastructure plan would help resolve a chronic issue with street lights, an important local issue that went directly to quality-of-life concerns that helped create an emotional connection between those voters and Obama. The campaign knew what messaging worked, and could quickly adjust when it didn’t — and the engagement drove millions of new voters to the polls.
Rather than emulate that model, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump relied much more heavily on national messaging and data analysis. Both are needed in modern campaigns, but both fall far short of turning out the voters needed to swing an election. The results speak for themselves; Clinton lost the three “blue wall” states by losing hundreds of thousands of votes that Obama turned out in 2012, while Trump barely gained at all from Mitt Romney’s performance in the previous election.
Cushman credits the Trump campaign with having learned this lesson, but it’s not at all clear that they have. The RNC did learn that lesson after 2012 in its famous “autopsy,” and then-chair Reince Priebus created the Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI) to emulate the Obama model in key battleground states. That effort has continued, helped along no doubt by the RNC’s fundraising dominance over the DNC. However, the Team Trump advantages cited by Democrats in Trudo’s article deal with the same kind of traditional, top-down messaging and organizing, perhaps not surprisingly since Trump won his last election with that strategy. Even if the RLI is fully funded and activated, it still requires a presidential campaign that values contextualizing their agenda into local messaging and trusts its grassroots at least as much as its top strategists. Trump is not temperamentally suited for that kind of nuanced presentation, and neither was the team he built in 2016. It’s still not clear whether his 2020 team will be any different.
Rather than pursue the loosely connected voters Obama found, both parties still seem oriented toward base-turnout strategies. We have some time, and thanks to the lack of a primary campaign, the GOP has a lot more room to maneuver on strategy. At the moment, however, this looks like another cycle of lost opportunities for both parties — with one in particular determined to make sure its nominee can’t take advantage of them.