”œI am a member of no organized political party…I am a Democrat.”
For forty years, American presidential politics has been in a comfortable rut. Beginning with the epochal Nixon campaign in the 1968 election the ingredients have rarely varied. Take a large budget, add intensive polling and targeted television ads " make those a blend of ”œhot- button pushers” aimed at your target voters and sharp attacks on your opponent’s chief vulnerabilities " mix with tight message control and limited media access and stew. Tie your message focus tightly to narrow geographic and demo- graphic slices of voters in allocating the scarcest resources: candidate time and campaign budget. And never ever waste money on people or places that are certain to vote for you " or certain not to.
The recipe worked better for Republicans than it did for Democrats: they almost always had the most money and a more disciplined activist base. But Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton used many of the same devices in their tight victo- ries. When it didn’t work it was usually because there was an overriding issue or a spoiler " Watergate or Ross Perot " to confuse or diffuse the choice.
The recipe spawned a vast industry, with awesome appetites and profit margins. Campaign expenditures grew from tens of millions to hundreds of millions to this year’s billions of dollars. The vast majority of that money was col- lected from US corporations by a variety of channels and more than three-quarters of it went to television station owners, opinion pollsters and campaign consultants, in that order. In 1972 it was a rare consultant who billed more than $5,000 per month on a presidential campaign. This year that would be closer to a daily rate.
The industry’s impact on the time the people’s elected representatives spent on representing potential donors’ interests has been well documented. Less well understood is the impact that this system had on the parties themselves and on democratic participation. American political parties have not had the institutional strength of Canadian or European parties for a century. They have acted as tempo- rary aggregators of talent and money around a candidate and a campaign, far more than as permanent shapers of a political agenda or developers of an activist base or school for aspiring leaders.
The power of money and the consultants who helped deliver it, and spend it, marginalized parties further. The congressional system never imposed effective policy constraints on members of the Democratic and Republican caucuses, and a presidential candidate could depend on their active support to the degree that he was seen to have long coattails.
The willingness of voters to participate in choosing their president suffered as well. Those in strongly ”œblue” or ”œred” districts got little attention from the campaigns from one four-year cycle to the next " why waste money on fully committed or hostile voters, after all. A disproportionate amount of time and money was spent on white suburban men, a voting segment prized for its fickleness, and its abil- ity to determine the outcome in key electoral states such as Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas. A Democratic voter in downstate New York or a Republican in upstate Illinois would wait for many a blue moon before get- ting any attention from a typical pres- idential campaign.
Partly as a result, US presidential voter participation went on a slide for a generation, falling to an all-time low in 1996 when a majority of Americans voted with their feet and stayed home. (The mid-term congres- sional elections in 1998 saw just over a third of Americans vote " 36.4 per- cent.) The demographic skew of those who did turn out was even more debilitating to a healthy democracy: participants were increas- ingly old, white, affluent, suburban and small-town. This was at a time when America was becoming younger, non-white and overwhelm- ingly urban.
The early signs that change was on the horizon could be seen in the Newt Gingrich congressional victory in 1994 and in the ill-fated Howard Dean campaign a decade later. Gingrich delib- erately plotted a more broadly based set of issue messages in his Contract with America, and then attempted to impose more partisan discipline on his troops in implementing ”œa revolution in Congress.” Many observers thought he would go on to planning a presidential bid grounded in the same strategy. Clinton’s outflanking success using tri- angulation was one of the great surprise counterattacks of the postwar era.
Gingrich did not challenge the ”œonly motivate the base” thesis of a generation of campaign strategists, but Howard Dean did. His ”œchildren’s cru- sade” campaign is remembered for its anti-establishment rhetorical riffs and his over-the-top partisan attacks " sometimes on fellow Democrats, and his hysterical flame-out speech. His real legacy, however, is his presump- tion in challenging the power of con- sultants, targeted campaigning and narrow issue positioning.
Following the humiliation of the 2004 Democratic campaign, and Dean’s surprising accession to the party chairmanship, he made the extraordinary claim that the next cam- paign would be fought ”œin all of the 50 states.” In the face of great resistance, he began hiring party organizers in as obscure and expensive places as Alaska and Hawaii. He has spent much of the past three years giving speeches in obscure ”œred state” cities and towns to small but undoubtedly flattered groups of Democrats.
Dean’s thesis sounds so self-evi- dent as to be trivial: how can any cam- paign expect to win when it concedes a large block of states to the enemy before the starting gun? Yet this child- like strategic query flies in the face of every political consultant’s fundamen- tal conviction. You spend money only where votes are movable. His strategic twist challenges another time-tested truth, that presidential campaign coat- tails will pull an important group of vulnerable senators and congressmen to victory.
Dean’s Law, if he is proven right, will be that strong local party organi- zations will support strong local candi- dates that are the foundation for formidable presidential campaigns. It remains to be seen if his contrarian thesis can overturn 40 years of politi- cal insider consensus. The Obama campaign this year and, to a lesser extent, John McCain’s appear to be vindicating Dean.
A comparison with the corporate world may illustrate how bizarre the conventional wisdom in presiden- tial politics has been. The alternative to Dean’s ”œfight everywhere” strategy has been a pair of 20-state strategies. Each party had a dozen solid states they could always count on in a normal campaign " rough- ly, the South plus the Southwest for the GOP and the Northeast and parts of the Midwest for the Democrats. The states that lay on the boundaries of these impreg- nable zones or those with a history of flipping were the only real battlegrounds for an entire campaign.
In addition, turnout was a mixed blessing for both parties. You want to mobilize your own base, but you do not want too many unpredictable oth- ers and certainly not hostile voters to come out. So local ”œturnout suppres- sion” devices " some on the edge of the law " were developed by strate- gists in both parties. The most infa- mous was the use of police officers at the entrances to polling stations in heavily black and Hispanic neighbourhoods, for ”œsecurity.”
This combination of strategies " fight in only a small share of the politi- cal marketplace, and try to get your potential customers to spend nothing if not buying your product " would seem truly bizarre to anyone running a busi- ness. The analogy would be a company that focused on limiting its top-line rev- enue growth and attempting at the same time to maximize its bottom line, all the while attacking its competitors so viciously that no one bought any product made by any company in the sector. Ford is certainly not pleased if potential customers choose Toyota, but presumably even less pleased if the impact of its marketing is to persuade folks to avoid car buying altogether.
Barack Obama has aggressively pursued a top-line growth strat- egy, encouraging Republicans and independents to vote, secure in the knowledge he will get more than his share. His message has also been on the importance of voting, no matter what your choice. McCain has a variant of this more upbeat approach, reaching out to blacks and young people not normally part of a GOP vote strategy. Only the Clintonites seem to be clinging to the ”œstay small and stay focused” thinking, and pitching to women, retirees and the poor as their target audience.
Dean’s other contribution to new thinking was, of course, the power of the Internet as both an organizing and a fundraising tool. What seems almost clichéd now was truly revolutionary in 2002-03, as the Dean insurgency quietly gained strength. That was only half a dozen years after the launch of the Net as a tool of mass communication, and it was still some years from today’s main- stream dominance. The gap between the slow- speed, mostly text-driven Net tools that Joe Trippi and gang developed for Dean and the astonishing personalized video plat- forms that Facebook co- founder Chris Hughes has developed for Barack Obama is dramatic.
If you have yet to browse through ”œmyobama.com,” be prepared to be amazed how far from your dad’s cam- paign tools we have come. At the click of a few keystrokes you can set up your own private Obama blog, your own Obama fundraising site, your own Obama Facebook or MySpace pages and on and on. This outreach tool has generated more than a million regular users. It works in parallel with the campaign’s net- work of connections to public sites such as YouTube and other video posters, to the array of cable news online sites, and to the thousands of partisan bloggers that now form the nervous system of the ”œpolitical Internet.”
Before Obama had even finished his now historic speech on race, YouTube had videos of it running. Within an hour of its delivery,YouTube and blogs were filling up with Obama loyalists and others’ commentaries on it. By the close of that news cycle his campaign fundraisers had sent tens of thousands of personalized emails to potential donors based on the speech, with links back to YouTube and the Obama site.
It’s impossible to know whether the ”œdamage control” that was the basis for the speech would have been as effective in the days of network TV. But it is clear that from the potential SwiftBoat disaster for the Obama campaign that his foolish pastor’s offensive rhetoric might have caused, the candidate gained a new level of respect and strategic armour. In 24 hours, he became the first candidate in American political history since Lincoln to face the race card and stare it down.
That he did it, with dramatic success, as a black American " unlike Democratic candidates from Hubert Humphrey, facing the first Republican southern strategy in 1968, to Michael Dukakis being ”œWillie Horton-ed” by Lee Atwater in 1988 " made his achievement that much more impressive.
Obama gave a great speech at a crucial moment, but he also had the advantage of an instant distribution and feedback mechanism to ensure its instant and massive impact, never before available to any candidate.
It is the Net’s impact on fundraising that has shaken up the political establishment most heavily in this campaign. Obama has cap- tured nearly 1.4 million donors online, with the total rising by thou- sands daily. The average donation is less than $100.
By primary day in Pennsylvania, the Clintons were nearly a million dollars in the hole, and Obama had an astonishing $42 million cash on hand.
Clinton’s fundraisers face the increasingly tough challenge of get- ting a shrinking number of big donors to reach out to their net- works one more time for a big cheque of a bundle of donations from their friends, many of whom have already maxed out their legal limit. Obama’s Net fundraisers bragged that they raised nearly a million dollars in a one-minute con- test online! If they get only half of their donors to give only half of their average donation " $50 " as a top-up they would add another $35 million dollars to their total. This sort of cash multiplier has never before been achieved in politics.
The Clinton campaign woke up to the power of the Net as a political ATM after Pennsylvania. Staff rewrote the opening screen of its main Web site as a donation page. In the first 24 hours they claimed to have raised $10 million dollars on the site. This guaranteed her ability to spend heav- ily on television and organization in North Carolina and Indiana.
Looking back to the beginning of this marathon, now 18 months long, what makes Obama’s likely capture of the Democratic nomination so aston- ishing to veteran observers is that virtu- ally all the best brains in American political campaign management were lined up against him. The conventional wisdom of the previous ten presidential cycles was unshakable: if you have a strong candidate with more manage- ment talent, more money, more endorsements than the other guy, you win.
Hillary Clinton, like George Bush in his first cam- paign, had a lock on all of those, and she had a former president, the best campaigner of his generation, as a champi- on and adviser. Was she going to be impossible to beat for the nomination? Absolutely.
McCain’s campaign seemed like a sometimes embarrassing sideshow to the Clinton/Obama event in the main tent for the first half of this campaign cycle, but he has also made a big con- tribution to the smashing of the consultants’ iron rice bowl. Henever had many consultants, paid them less attention than they were used to receiving and was forced to fire most of them mid-cam- paign, as he was almost broke. He raised embarrassingly little money, and spent even less. Often flying with only two staffers, on commercial flights " the ultimate indignity for a serious cam- paign! " he endured patronizing put- downs by the Giuliani and Romney campaign teams for much of 2007.
The Giuliani and Romney multi- million-dollar management talent raised tens of millions and spent more, much of it on themselves. A series of old GOP warhorses were brought out of retirement to try to inject some life into the Fred Thompson campaign. They all failed so utterly that there was a collective sigh of relief when the embarrassment of Thompson’s sham- bolic, soporific performance was put out of its misery.
The Clinton campaign did have a structural problem, evident to the keener eye, from its earliest days. It was the problem that had bedevilled Dukakis, Mondale, Kerry and Gore as well: too many cooks. And the head chef was not even a part of the official campaign team, and what’s more, he got the final word with the candidate every night.
The inevitable internal knife fights broke out as the courtiers fought for influence. Anonymous Clinton staffers began to leak against each other; semi- public battles over strategy were fought in code. Following the embarrassment in Iowa, it became clear to insiders that the Clinton ground organizers were not as professional as thought. Following Super Tuesday, it became clear they had no good strategy to deal with Obama’s appeal, and had inflicted serious dam- age on themselves in their sleazy ham- handed attempts to undermine him.
The final indignity that one of the leading campaign strategists of his generation imposed on his candi- date was Mark Penn’s jaw-dropping decision to meet with his Colombian government clients to promote the very free trade agreement Senator Clinton had pledged to fight. I sus- pect that this will be the incident that campaign historians look back on to say: ”œThat was the high water mark of ”˜the consultants’ era’ in American presidential politics.”
This was such an egregious breach of integrity and of political loyalty that it is hard to imagine what Penn was thinking. It will cause a new genera- tion of campaign activists and candi- dates to wonder about the wisdom of paying millions of dollars to consultants who are also com- mitted to a variety of conflict- inducing corporate and foreign government clients.
The Penn affair may really signal that the torch is passing to a new era. In the years before the team of admen and man- agement consultants who launched the ”œselling of the President,” Nixon’s 1968 cam- paign, so brilliantly dissected in Joe McGinniss’s bestseller of the same name, campaigns were staffed by an ad hoc group of professional volunteers, bor- rowed political staff and unpaid activists. The layer of management staffers who were paid by the campaign directly or who received the bulk of their income from political consulting was thin indeed.
The pyramid has been flipped for the past decade or more. The senior campaign staff who were not full time political professionals could be counted on two hands. They knew each other, had worked dozens of campaigns for and against each other, and knew all their opponents’ and colleagues’ repertoires of cam- paign tricks. They shared intelli- gence, contracts, technology and junior staffers. For the most success- ful among them, a single campaign delivered a multi-million-dollar pay- off. And success is a relative term. Democratic consultant Bob Shrum lost every presidential campaign he had a finger on, yet kept on signing credulous candidates.
By May 6, the Democratic cam- paign may finally have been decided by the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. If by then the Clinton campaign has run out of money and arguments for further delay in deciding on the nominee, the process of healing can begin. It would be not a moment too soon, for the most disturbing feature of this extra- ordinary primary season has been how dangerously it has set Democratic vot- ers against each other. The number of one candidate’s supporters who said they would not support the other as the nominee doubled in the long name-calling contest in Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, far more of Obama’s voters said they would forgive and forget, and support Clinton. Nearly a third of Clinton voters claimed they would jump ship to McCain or stay home. Apparently, Clinton’s sometimes savage undermining of Obama’s credibility as a candidate was as effective as Obama’s unity message in shaping their support- ers’ future behaviour. The Huffington Post headline declared, the morning after the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, ”œAnd the winner is…John McCain!”
As the New York Times said editori- ally that day, ”œMrs. Clinton once had a big lead among the party elders, but has been steadily losing it, in large part because of her negative cam- paign. If she is ever to have a hope of persuading these most loyal of Democrats to come back to her side, let alone win over the larger body of voters, she has to call off the dogs.”
The most influential Democratic media bastion in the United States went so far as to threaten to withdraw its earlier endorsement of her:
Mrs. Clinton and her advisers should mainly blame them- selves, because, as the political operatives say, they went heavi- ly negative and ended up squan- dering a good part of what was once a 20-point lead.
On the eve of this crucial primary, Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. A Clinton television ad " torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook " evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile cri- sis, the cold war and the 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden. ”œIf you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” the narrator intoned…
By staying on the attack and not engaging Mr. Obama on the substance of issues like terrorism, the economy and how to organize an orderly exit from Iraq, Mrs. Clinton does more than just turn off voters who don’t like negative campaigning. She undercuts the rationale for her candidacy that led this page and others to support her: that she is more qualified, right now, to be president than Mr. Obama.
This savage indictment of the Clinton campaign tactics was also a warning to the big party consultants not to be tempted to adopt the tactics of the Republican attack machine, in what remained of the primary season or the fall.
It seems clear that no matter what pressure he is put under, Obama will accede to that advice. That will do much to allow the heal- ing after the primaries to begin quickly. It is probably strategically wise on its own merits. His attempts at angry sallies at Senator Clinton, calling her Annie Oakley for pander- ing to gun owners, only sounded petulant and silly, anyway.
Whether it happens on May 7, or at the absolute end of the primary sea- son in early June or, heaven forbid, not until the convention at the end of August, the decision of the party about how to mount a fall campaign will be as crucial as the choice of nominee.
Ironically, in this election, for the first time in a generation the Republicans will be led by a candidate with a distinct aversion to his old guard, including the campaign con- sultants. A maverick who likes to tell farmers that ethanol is a con, and laid- off steelworkers that free trade is not their problem, McCain will be a chal- lenge for his campaign team.
As the final chapter in what has been an extraordinarily impressive campaign cycle for American democ- racy, an Obama/McCain campaign has the potential to be one of the most exciting and cringe-free in a generation. And no matter what the outcome, then, truly, the torch will have passed.