Enthusiasm Does Not Equal Organization

Journalists are just now coming to grips with this, and there’s always a danger on such subjects of buying campaign spin. But there does seem to be a growing recognition that Hillary Clinton’s campaign differs from its 2008 predecessor because of a pervasive emphasis on organization-building in the states.

WaPo’s Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy come at the story from a different angle today, noting that HRC’s high “burn rate” for contributions is being driven by systemic investments in campaign infrastructure:

Details in the newly filed reports paint a picture of a campaign harnessing the latest technological tools and constructing the kind of deep ground operation that Clinton lacked in her 2008 bid. That kind of organizing capability has gained importance as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, has drawn large crowds and gained ground in polls….

Clinton’s operation is paying rent in 25 cities across nine states, Federal Election Commission filings show. Along with about 340 staff members on the payroll, the campaign had hired nearly 60 field organizers by the end of June.

“It’s a sign that she’s approaching the campaign differently than the last time,” [David] Axelrod said. “They didn’t have as thoughtful an approach to laying the foundation for that campaign, and it ended up hurting them when it ended up being an organizational fight.”

At the “Politico Caucus” subsite, where there’s a sort of large focus group of early-state “Insiders,” the judgment is even clearer, per Katie Glueck:

Asked to assess what Clinton is doing right, and wrong, in their states, almost every Caucus participant — Democrats and Republicans — answered the question of what she’s doing right by saying Clinton has pulled together a strong staff and is doing all of the little things right when it comes to being organized for the early state contests and beyond.

“Doing right: building and investing in a monster field operation. Scares the hell out of this Republican knowing that many of those staff will easily pivot to organizing for the general election,” an Iowa Republican said.

“HRC is building a campaign rooted in organizing,” added a New Hampshire Democrat. “I’ve been to several house parties & campaign events and there are always new faces present — faces that weren’t involved in the 2012 presidential race. There is absolutely no one taking this primary race for granted whatsoever.”

“The organizing strategy is straight out of the Obama 2007 playbook,” an Iowa Democrat added. “The crew is enthusiastic and well-trained on the basics (pledge cards, pledge cards, pledge cards). Sanders and O’Malley will find it impossible to compete with the sheer size of the organizing.”

In New Hampshire, in particular, Democrats also largely lauded Clinton for visiting more rural parts of the state that are often overlooked. And across the board, her staff was praised for keeping cool amid the rise of Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, there’s also some recognition that the impressive enthusiasm that suffuses Bernie Sanders’ campaign is not automatically transmittable into a good organization, helpful as it is. At TNR earlier this week, Suzy Khimm suggested that the Occupy-influenced passion for decentralized political organizing could be a problem for Team Sanders:

Sanders is betting that passion will enable him to surmount the serious obstacles he faces in broadening his base of support. But that also means the campaign needs to find a way to corral popular enthusiasm into more traditional, on-the-ground organizing if Sanders wants a real shot at expanding his base beyond largely white, liberal enclaves. That means convincing more supporters to embrace a more centralized, hierarchical type of organizing, while still preserving the authentic, grassroots populism that Sanders embodies for his fans.

Iowa will be the acid test of this challenge. Caucus rules place an emphasis on local organizers knowing exactly what is expected of them in almost any circumstance, within the rubric of a Caucus Night strategy with some central direction. The epitome of the organization-outbids-enthusiam hypothesis occurred in 2004, when Howard Dean’s armies of orange-hatted volunteers may have done more to alienate than to organize Iowa Democrats, leading to a disastrous third-place finish despite strong poll numbers and an endorsement from Tom Harkin.

It’s all hypothetical at this point, of course. But neither crowd sizes nor expenditure numbers precisely capture the kind of qualities a campaign needs to win in a place like Iowa.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.