Barack Obama campaigned for President on the message of Change. Many changes were necessary amidst the failed policies of the Bush White House. The country was going in the wrong direction and we were in a major economic collapse. As President Barack Obama has made many changes, most for the good. One, however, was bad. He replaced Gov. Howard Dean as Chair of the DNC and appointed Tim Kaine who immediately dismissed the 183 DNC field organizers and terminated the 50 State Strategy. That concept is failing and, as a consequence, Democrats are suddenly losing elections. For four years under Howard Dean the Democratic National Committee funded a 50 state strategy which paid for DNC field organizers on the ground in every state. These organizers built local and county organizations which assisted candidates at every level. What happened and how do Democrats turn things around?
The program was officially called the State Partnership Project. The various state parties hired field staff who were paid and trained by the DNC. A high ranking party official with whom I spoke praised the program highly because it gave each state the independence to do what it needed: “we knew what was best in our state.” The result was exciting as true grassroots organizing improved the Democratic Party from the precinct level up. This Blue Jersey story provides a glimpse. A Democratic activist and labor leader tells me this about how the program worked in his state:
I loved the 50 State Strategy rhetorically, strategically, politically. The SPP was a godsend — and electorally really effective (we retained a governorship, won a swing Congressional seat, and took over the majority in both houses of our legislative in the 4 years we had the SPP). I raised about $120,000 for the DNC on my good word that the SPP and the 50SS were crucial.
It is a goddam shame that Tim Kaine, David Axelrod, and Rahm Emmanuel, three guys who probably don’t agree upon much, were able to all but kill off the SPP and 50SS.
This is the sentiment I received from people all across the country as I researched this article. What happened?
Sources tell me that almost all the money being taken in by the DNC is now being used completely by Organizing for America. OFA and the DNC are now one. When you go to Organizing For America and scroll to the bottom of the page you see a disclosure that OFA is a “project of the DNC.” OFA is run completely from the DNC and your contributions to the DNC now go to OFA instead of the funding the highly effective SPP (State Partnership Program). What OFA did was replace an electorally based structure which built the Party and helped candidates up and down the entire ticket with an agenda based advocacy operation solely for the President.
In Pennsylvania the DNC organizers were tasked in 2006 to recapture “dropoff Dems” voters who had voted Democratic before but weren’t turning out any longer. Interestingly this is the biggest challenge this year for Democratic candidates: get those Obama voters from 2008 back to the polls. With three DNC organizers on the ground here in Pennsylvania the goal set was to get 10% of these dropoff voters to the polls. They got 24.9% of them. This was an extremely effective program and state bloggers across the country tell me they saw similar results.
Now without this Party structure Democrats are finding themselves in danger. The effectiveness established through the former field organizers is being felt up and down the ballot at the same time the rank and file are disillusioned, angry and refusing to vote. Someone must be on the ground to build Obama’s message, organize precinct leaders and do what was done so effectively for four years and resulted in Change in 2008.
The OFA organization is completely different in structure from the 50 state strategy. It is a “top down” operation working through the former Obama volunteers, many of whom have become disenchanted with the President, to organize on their local levels. I have also seen where these local volunteer leaders burned out running their local Obama organizations or have moved on to their own political goals. Some key OFA organizers are leaving the program. I attempted to email several OFA people at DNC headquarters for comments but the emails bounced back. I also solicited a friend to make contact to have some questions answered. Again, no response.
The result is a marked dropoff in success. Instead of winning Democrats are now losing. Expectations for this fall are dim and last November’s Democratic turnouts were abysmal. The current strategy clearly is not working.
That same blogger and activist had this to say about the OFA:
More importantly, OFA is a joke. What a waste. I’ve advised donors I knew not to give to the DNC. They’re throwing good money after bad. Set aside for the moment the bullshit about the national party committee being nothing but a front-group for the White House — and how strategically inept the both of them have been in the last 13 months — I know it’s hard to do, but it’s worthwhile for this consideration: If there is a zero-sum between funding the SPP and OFA, we’re getting fucked out here in Real America (read: anywhere outside the Beltway).
We don’t have enough capacity organizing on the ground to build local parties, develop activists and leaders, and wire shit up to be positive that we can at least engage and turn out the base (if the base will indeed be turned out) in 2010. We’re going to lose every single gain we made in the last 4 years unless we get some miracles. A few miracles that would help include a real full employment policy, real healthcare reform, EFCA and immigration reform (among others, but these are most important). Not all of that is in the hands of the White House/DNC. What is in their hands is something that is not miraculous: but the money into the state parties to spend on organizers.
The OFA kids are nothing but Obama acolytes who think they’re community organizers. First of all, as someone who a) has been an actual community organizer (in Chicago, no less) and b) studies social movements and organizing as a graduate student, I can’t tell you what a load of shit this is. What compounds it into an electoral problem is that they’re not building any kind of electoral capacity. I’m a social movement guy (I care more about my labor movement than I do about the Democratic Party), but I know that social movements need electoral vehicles. OFA aint building either of them. Second, these OFA kids don’t know a goddam thing about local and state politics, where their organizing could be most important. We are seeing the organizing that built my state into a (D) stronghold fall by the wayside and we’re going to lose state government (in a re-districting year — this is crucial in the disconnect between Democratic organizing through the SPP and Obama-fluffing through OFA).
But if the OFA organizer showed up at a county party meeting once in a blue moon, we might know better (note: I am a Congressional district chair with 7 counties in the most Democratic part of the state — I think one county party has mentioned seeing or hearing from OFA in the last 9 months or so).
I know at least one state party which has ceased even working with the OFA people. I was approached by two Pennsylvania OFA field organizers after the President’s trip to Allentown. I gave them my card and said I’d be more than happy to work with them. Two months later I’ve yet to hear from them. I work with the White House regularly, do conference calls with Cabinet Secretaries and other high ranking officials, publish press releases and write reports based on information they send and personally cover events when they come to Pennsylvania. The White House Media Affairs Office has been great to work with but OFA has been invisible.
Barack Obama’s campaign for change has derailed and a major reason is the change in focus at the DNC. Under Dean 183 field organizers were paid by the DNC to build the Party from the ground up. They reported to their respective State Party organizations and were extremely effective. Each state had at least one organizer. Under Kaine the OFA organizers have been dispatched to twenty something swing states expected to be the battlegrounds in 2012. Howard Dean had a vision of expanding the Democratic base and reach into every state, every Congressional District. His field organizers aided County Parties in training precinct leaders, recruiting volunteers, doing canvassing, phone banks and outreach to voters and it was tremendously successful. That effort has now disappeared and the current structure is completely in the hands of Organizing For America, the organization which succeeded the Obama For America campaign.
Barack Obama, as a sitting President, is entitled to appoint his own DNC Chair to act as his re-election effort and he appointed Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to act in that capacity. Kaine disbanded the 50 state strategy and all of the field organizers were dismissed and replaced with OFA organizers. While this was his prerogative it is hurting the Party structure. Without their leadership, training and experience Democrats are beginning to lose elections.
Elections are won or lost on each local level, each precinct informing its voters, mobilizing them to volunteer and getting them to the polls on election day. The 50 state strategy was very effective building this activity. Thus far the OFA organizers, at least here in Pennsylvania, have been invisible. We’re witnessing the effects of these changes in the elections since November 2008. Local, county and state level candidates aren’t receiving the benefits which the 50 state strategy excelled. The President must awaken and realize he cannot enact change alone. In a democracy such as ours the legislative branch remains a critical component.
The national fever for change following eight years of Bush was enough for many Democrats to win. While Barack Obama didn’t have coattails the atmosphere for change inspired many voters to push their buttons for change down the ticket. The reverberations from the new Obama strategy is having serious deleterious effects on the President’s ability to govern. He must realize he cannot implement change himself and down ticket Democrats must also be supported. The fact the DNC has neglected these other candidates must also be a wake up call to Democrats that this strategy must be replaced with a restoration of what was so effective as to provide the Party with its current majorities.
The other benefits of the 50 state strategy were the way it began building a “farm system” of future Party leaders and candidates. It forced Republicans to spend money all across the country and to defend every Congressional seat. In the past Republicans in safe seats freely spread their excess campaign cash to their friends in contested Districts. Abandoning this successful strategy will enable the GOP to, again, concentrate on the swing seats and battleground states. Last week former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder came out and called for changes at the DNC. Specifically he called for the replacement of Kaine as DNC Chair. I’d rather see the President authorize Kaine to change back to the 50 State Strategy which was so successful. This change would be good.
Will the loss of the old strategy result in more change this November and again in 2012? Not all change is good and we saw a marked change in Democratic turnout last fall. Let us hope we can turn this around. It is time to let the President know he needs to reinstate the State Partnership Program.
Update: If any other bloggers wish to republish this you have my permission as long as you give proper credit and link back here.