Rebuilding the Democratic Party From the Ground Up

With the surge of big money into politics that began in the 1980s and was unleashed after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the Democrats made a difficult bargain. A determination was made that, in order to compete, they would have to raise big money. There is probably a direct correlation between that and the fact that 42 percent of the so-called “Obama-Trump voters” believe that the economic policies of Congressional Democrats would favor the wealthy.

That decision might have been the only thing that allowed Democrats to stay competitive at the time. But things are changing. Starting back in 2004 with Howard Dean, we’ve seen national candidates like Obama and Sanders rely increasingly on contributions from small donors to fund their campaigns. And as I’ve been suggesting for a while now, the need for candidates to raise large sums of money is being challenged.

Much of that change is in response to technology. The vast majority of funds raised by campaigns have gone to the development and airing of television ads. As more people cut the chord in favor of alternatives to television, those ads reach fewer people. The alternative of harnessing social media is relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, that is something that Vladimir Putin figured out before a lot of political campaigns. For the whopping sum of $100,000, the Russians were able to reach 126 million people through Facebook alone.

The time is ripe for a whole new approach to political campaigns. It is encouraging to see so many Democrats coming to that realization. For example, take a look at what Chris Reeves wrote about how the DNC is changing:

In Virginia, rather than TV, the DNC committed to more than $1.5M in field programs. 100% of the money the DNC invested in Virginia went to organizers and technology tools for them. No TV. We engaged in minority hiring practices to put more members of a community talking to their own communities.

DNC Chair Tom Perez has upped the ante on the 50-state strategy with his new slogan: “Every zip code counts.” Here are his remarks about Tuesday’s election results and where the DNC is headed:

We put hope and optimism on the ballot; Republicans put up fear and division. Last night wasn’t inevitable. It took incredible, incredible hard work. But we came together and did it. We won because we had great candidates at every level of government, and because we committed to a ground game. This is what the new DNC is about. … we must be about building strong partners in the grassroots movement, and we are committed to it.

As he suggested, the DNC can’t do it alone. When it comes to partners on the ground, some of the old groups are also reforming their practices while new groups that have been energized by the election of Donald Trump are stepping up to the plate in some big ways. A few weeks ago I highlighted an article about how the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) was changing.

Since February, the DCCC has hired full-time paid organizers in 38 districts focused on building relationships with the grass roots. And on Tuesday, the organization is rolling out its latest effort to connect motivated activists with the national party’s resources, takeitback.com , an online “toolbox” that aims to put potential activists in direct touch with the party operatives on the ground in battlefield districts.

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win the House majority, and DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena said his group’s aim is to “arm the rebels” — a conscious nod to conflicts abroad where, rather than fight every battle itself, the U.S. military has instead advised and supplied native forces most invested in winning.

There are also a lot of new groups that have sprung up in the last year. For example, Indivisible, which was perhaps singularly responsible for organizing the pushback at Republican town halls during the attempt to repeal Obamacare, is now focusing on organizing for 2018 in all 435 legislative districts.

Every year, campaigns make the choice to write off whole swaths of the country as unwinnable. We’re here to say that’s no longer acceptable.

We’re building electoral power for the thousands of Indivisible groups in every one of the 435 congressional districts. The Indivisible movement’s fight against the Trump agenda has shown that there is a powerful progressive movement that reaches every corner of this country, and the elections we’ve seen so far in 2017 have shown that this movement has the energy to change elections and force candidates to reckon with us.

Digging even deeper into local elections with astounding success is the group Run for Something. As part of her interview with the two people who founded the organization, Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto, Jen Kirby described what they’ve been able to achieve in only 10 months.

The organization eventually backed 72 candidates in Tuesday’s election. And on Tuesday, 32 of them at most recent count, in 14 states, won seats on school boards and state legislatures and city councils. Two other races, both in the Virginia House of Delegates, are headed to recounts.

That success rate — more than 40 percent — is remarkable for first-time candidates, Litman told Vox: “You can run for office for the first time and it’s a possibility [to win],” she said. “The usual win rate for first-time candidate is 10 percent.”

Here is a good summary of their approach:

Ross Morales Rocketto

If there’s a Republican district that went for Trump by 20 or 30 points in 2016, we still need to be running people in those districts. Even if those folks don’t necessarily win those races. The research shows those folks help move turnout for the top of the ticket, so if we have a city council candidate running that will help in any overlapping state legislative districts and then it helps statewide campaigns.

Amanda Litman

Red districts are places that the [Democratic] Party hasn’t invested in — not because of bad intentions, just prioritizing resources. But our candidates are able to engage volunteers and talk with voters, which is the literal definition of party building. We had candidates running yesterday in districts that Democrats haven’t contested in decades, but they were able to win on the strength of the candidates.

This kind of work also costs money, but airing a national television advertisement can run from $100,000 to $500,000 per 30-second slot—not to mention production costs. You can hire a lot of field organizers for that kind of money, which reduces the need to target resources to winnable campaigns.

These are the kinds of efforts that won’t garner a lot of headlines or get much attention on cable news shows. They are also long-term strategies that will take time to percolate up through the system. But they are exactly what is needed to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.