Friday, August 04, 2006

DNC vs. RNC: A Structural Imbalance

The organizational prowess of the Republican Party has almost achieved mythical status in political circles, but rarely do we get into exactly how the RNC has been so much more efficient as of late than the DNC at churning out voters to the polls.

A recent Washington Post article, however, really highlights the crux of that "how" question.

Here's the section from the article on the RNC:


The RNC runs a strategy known in political circles as the 72-hour program. It focuses on using phone calls, polling data and personal visits to identify would-be GOP voters and their top issues early in the cycle. The information is then fed into a database, allowing party leaders to flood them with pro-Republican messages through e-mail, regular mail and local volunteers. On Election Day, they receive a phone call or a visit to remind them to vote.

A GOP strategist involved in the effort said the RNC did a post-election review of every person it contacted, looking at how many times they were reached, which issues were discussed and whether they voted. This information was supplied to about 30 targeted states earlier this year, and RNC officials track the states to see whether they are reaching goals for adding new names and contacting old ones.


I'd quote a similarly concise section from the article on the DNC, but it doesn't exist. And that really embodies the difference between the two -- while the RNC is highly centralized and focused, the DNC appears all over the map.

To illustrate, the article talks about the schism that exists between the House leadership and the DNC in terms of election strategy for the midterms this fall. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi & Co. want to go for it all by focusing on key battleground states; DNC chairman Howard Dean, on the other hand, wants to use resources to establish roots in all 50 states for long-term viability.

Because of this strategic rift, some House Democrats are actually in the process of establishing a voter turnout campaign that's completely separate from the DNC. The movement is being headed by the Congressional Campaign Committee chairman for the Dems, Rep. Rham Emanuel from Illinois, who doesn't even speak to Dean anymore because of their differences on electoral strategy.

On a similar note, a recent article in The New Republic discusses how Hillary Clinton is virtually side-stepping Dean in preparation for her 2008 presidential bid by establishing a campaign network that's completely separate from the DNC. Part of this is due to personal differences between Clinton and Dean, but the move also demonstrates a more important point that the DNC isn't viewed by some on the left as a necessary tool for electoral success.

What also tells the story of how the DNC differs from the RNC is money. The RNC has 4 times as much cash in its coffers than the DNC, and that's not because there's a lack of wealthy donors on the left.

Rather than funneling all funding through the committee, as the RNC does, the Dems have a number of groups that work on grassroots organizing. All of those groups, in turn, siphon off donations that otherwise might go to the DNC.

There's a lot to be said for the term "grassroots," but it alone is not a viable political strategy. There still needs to be a centralized structure on top that works in close coordination with the grassroots efforts; otherwise, you're stuck with lots of cooks in the kitchen but no one to set the menu.

What's going in the Dems favor this year is a lack of electoral enthusiasm on the right and outright hostility toward GOP policies at the federal level nationwide. And there's no question the Dems will ride that wave this November -- it's just a lot easier and more effective when you have a boat.


Side-Note: I want to add quickly that I don't necessarily think the Dems have been ineffective at voter turnout campaigns in recent years -- it's just that the Repubs have been far more effective. And, at the federal level, the synonym for second place is last place.


Blogger Sven said...

Great post, Seth. You're right that Dems have to get their financial house in order. That said, I think there are deeper issues that needs to be resolved within the party.

The GOP's organizational model functions well because it operates under the Law of the Vital Few. Just like most corporations, it breaks its "customers" into three categories:

- the 76% who barely pay attention to politics and can be swayed by cheap bromides about "compassionate conservatism" and the like

- the 20% who are deeply committed to certain issues and can be assuaged with high-profile but ultimately empty kabuki legislative theater about Teri Shaivo, gay marriage and stem cell research

- the 4% (the top 20% of the top 20% in the Pareto distribution) who provide most of the hard cash, and get capital gains and estate tax cuts in return

I think the Rahm Emmanuels and Hillary Clintons are quite jealous of the GOP model, as it makes organizing, fundraising and governing a helluva lot easier than herding the traditional liberal cats. They see a chunk of the electorate just to the left and right of center ripe for the picking.

But the problem with that - aside from the fact that all this sausage slicing runs contrary to both small-d and big-d democratic principles - is that the 20% the DLC wants to go after is also part of the 76% the GOP has identified as apathetic, politically ignorant lumps.

Matt Taibbi notes how this fundamental miscalculation has led the DLC to bizarrely write off the bulk of the most politically involved Democrats. Remember, the GOP's model is aimed at identifying and courting politically active conservatives!

Taibbi writes:

We went back and forth for a while. I noted that [DLC operative Will Marshall's] conception of "narrow dogmatists" included the readers of Daily Kos, a website with something like 440,000 visitors a day; I also noted that recent Gallup polls showed that fully 91 percent of Democrats supported a withdrawal of some kind from Iraq.

"So these hundreds of thousands of Democrats who are against the war are narrow dogmatists," I said, "and. . . how many people are there in your office? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?"

"Well, it'd probably be in the thirty zone," sighed Marshall.


"So let me get this straight," I said. "We have thirty corporate-funded spokesmen telling hundreds of thousands of actual voters that they're narrow dogmatists?"

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Erik Opsal said...

I personally think Dean's 50 state strategy is genius. If he had any support at all from the rest of the Democratic establishment they'd do so much better. Unfortunately they're still stuck in their old archaic ways.

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree that there are much deeper ideological divisions at play here.

Purely in terms of organizational structure, though, I think the DNC needs to adopt a model that's similar to the RNC. I think a large part of what's stopping that from happening is a heavy strain of anti-establishment thought on the left, as you point out ("aside from the fact that all this sausage slicing runs contrary to both small-d and big-d democratic principles"), which I think is largely a holdover from the Sixties.

The right has done a masterful job of co-opting anti-establishment language but maintaining clearly establishment principles and tactics. The left needs to do something similar by embracing grassroots anti-establishment energy, but then harnassing it through a centralized (yet still democratic) organizational structure. Perhaps the grassroots wouldn't stand for it, but I think there's some way to package it in an appealing way for everyone involved.

By going this route some issues will be left behind in the short-run -- such as universal health care, which is a big one for me. But, overall, I'd rather be lobbying a Dem-controlled government to act on those issues than the current owners and operators of our federal government.

And, in the end, if the Dems don't get their house together soon, we'll be facing another decade of Republican rule. That alone should convince even the staunchest anti-establishment figure that centralization -- at least at the national level -- is necessary. This country is simply too big (and largely too politically passive) for issues and ideology alone to win the day.


Thanks for your comment.

I like Dean's 50-state strategy, too, but I'm not convinced it's the best strategy for the 2006 midterms.

It seems to me that Dean is putting the cart before the horse a bit on this one by trying to secure long-term viability before he has secured short-term control. Perhaps the tactic would look better to me if the DNC had a bank roll like the RNC -- but, as it stands, the Dems seem too divided in terms of organization, at this point, to embark on a broad and ambitious plan like the 50-state strategy.

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Sven said...

I don't disagree at all with your point about centralization. I just think generally it's the DLC types, and not the Dean/grassroots, who have the warped perspective and who keep throwing in the monkey wrench.

The GOP, while careful to maintain a "mainstream" face (although less so as time goes on), is never openly hostile to its base. It understands that 1) that base is the heart of the party, giving it vitality and purpose and 2) the mushy middle has a much shorter attention span and memory than the base, so Sister Soljah moves are ultimately self-defeating.

The DLC's constant, frothing contempt for the grassroots since its inception is both strategically stupid and wholly unecessary. As Digby points out, it derives from a pathological fear of non-existent hippies (ironically, the hippie ghost they're battling was created by the right) and mis-reading of the mainstream political landscape.

I happen to think the DLC could be the nucleus of the centralized structure, providing much needed experience and leadership and getting loads of energy and politcal capital in return, if it'd just drop its stupid bugaboo about "the Left."

It could even be in many ways more effective than the RNC, because it wouldn't have to pander as much as the GOP does - the Dems' base is a great deal smarter and therefore more flexible and pragmatic than the wingnuts (look at the respect and lattitude the Kossacks give conservative Dems like Harry Reid).

Not all the fault lies on the DLC side, but most of it does.

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Good point -- while it's commonly thought that grassroots activists are resisting centralization, I think you make a strong case that it's really the more centralized forces that are resisting the inclusion of grassroots activists.

In the end, I agree that the fault lies on both sides. Unfortunately, the only victor in that will be the Right.

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Sven said...

it's commonly thought that grassroots activists are resisting centralization

Yeah, the establishment loves to play it that way - it's just variation of Sister Soljah. And there's some truth to it, especially with guys like Kos playing it up as part of his marketing pitch (Kos simply stepped into the leadership vacuum that the DLC/DNC has failed to fill).

The DLC people need to learn to listen if they hope to lead. It's a big misconception that the grassroots won't tolerate "centrist" positions or positioning. What it won't tolerate is Dems pandering to the Republican base or enabling BS like the bankruptcy bill.

The grassroots - myself included - thought signing off on the Iraq invasion was a spectacular failure of judgement. But Dems like Joe Lieberman didn't have to become "anti-war" to redeem themselves. He could have gotten back in the 'roots good graces - and stuck to his "principled" position that the war was justified - by becoming a vocal critic of the administration on the war's conduct and other topics. Hillary has finally realized this, as evidenced by her performance with Rumsfeld yesterday. It only took her three friggin' years to come around.

It's hard to find that balance - standing up for liberal principles while maintaining moderate credibility. That's why it's critical for the establishment to communicate with the base, assuring it that it's in on the game.

It's astounding that the DLC Dems have been doing the exact opposite - taking every opportunity to not only shove the the base out the door, but spit on it in the process. Useless fools like Will Marshall and Marshall "Bull Moose" Whitman should be fired forthwith.

I could go on and on. I'm just fascinated by how these establishment types can be in many ways very politically saavy, but so foolish in others.

August 04, 2006  

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