News & Views from 465 California Street

Grass Roots 2, Big Media 0

Clint Reilly

For the second presidential race in a row, Washington outsiders versed in the grass-roots tactics of local politics have out-witted and out-maneuvered brand name East Coast media consultants.

This year, Barack Obama’s campaign – headlined by seasoned Chicago consultant David Axelrod – built a series of individual campaigns in states where Hillary Clinton lacked the volunteers to compete.

Obama’s grass-roots army filled the void in states like Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho and North Dakota, allowing him to rack up precious delegates virtually unopposed.

Clinton mistakenly relied on her early lead in the polls to carry her through the primary schedule, while Obama harnessed a volunteer crusade that helped him reel off 11 straight primary victories and provided his margin of victory.

The roots of Obama’s volunteer organization extended deep into the Internet, where a massive array of committed donors armed him with a lethal fundraising advantage.

Like an army bogged down for lack of fuel, a cash shortage made it almost impossible for Clinton to compete on a level playing field in the late states.

Unfortunately for Clinton, her campaign never learned the most important lesson of the last presidential cycle.

In 2004, John Kerry employed Bob Shrum, a Washington-based media consultant, to spearhead his presidential campaign. Shrum built every campaign around television spots produced by his firm. Karl Rove – George W. Bush’s campaign general – was a veteran of Texas politics with experience throughout the South and Midwest.

Rove was an expert in the art of targeting – shaping unique campaigns for different groups of voters.

Rove was also a firm believer in phone banks and door-to-door contact to maximize turnout among key voters. Rove focused his efforts on born-again Christians and religious fundamentalists in key states like Ohio to build Bush’s majority.

Shrum ran one campaign centered on television. Rove ran many campaigns employing a variety of tactics.

Based solely on tactics, I’m not surprised by Bush’s victory then, and I’m not surprised by Obama’s today.

When I was a political consultant, I was fascinated by how grass-roots participation could help my clients achieve a winning edge. In the 1980s, I began recruiting the best organizers in the country. One of the greatest was Fred Ross Jr.

Ross was a master of methodically building a volunteer army. His most effective tactic was the simple house meeting, where 20 citizens came together to meet the candidate. Ross organized hundreds of house meetings for a single campaign and gradually developed a committed cadre of volunteers to make phone calls and walk precincts.

For then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s campaign against a 1983 recall attempt, Ross organized 2,000 volunteers. For now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successful 1987 congressional election, he and his colleague Marshall Ganz organized 1,200 precinct walkers.

In later years, I took the lessons Ross taught me and applied them to other tough political fights.

In 1993, I managed Richard Riordan’s campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles. Conventional wisdom held that Los Angeles was just too big to utilize effective grass-roots techniques. I decided to develop a heavy volunteer effort around voting by mail.

On election night, Riordan’s vote by mail margin was so large that he won before the Election Day votes were counted.

There is a very good reason for the effectiveness of grass-roots organizing. Overwhelmingly, today’s political media telegraphs itself and alerts voters to turn on their “BS filter.”

The most credible delivery medium for any political message is not a TV commercial or a brochure, but another voter.

That’s why organization is not just an effective political tactic, but also the best hope for the revival of democratic discourse.

Comments (1)

  • “The most credible delivery medium for any political message is not a TV commercial or a brochure, but another voter.”

    Word of mouth referrals are the most cost-effective ways to drum up more revenues and/or more votes. It used to be mailers, but the attrition rate is potentially so high these days and often, a negative return on investment occurs. ;)

    Thank you. Learned a lot this week.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | June 11th, 2008 at 2:48 pm

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