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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 17: Enthusiasm Is Important, But It’s Not the Same as Organization

Along with all the campaign financial disclosures rolling in this week, we’ve begun to see some assessments of the organizational efforts of the two leading Democrats in the polls and in fundraising, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. You might think that Bernie Sanders’ grassroots enthusiasm might be giving him an organizational lead over the top-heavy and Establishment-oriented Clinton in the early states, but that’s not automatically how it’s playing out, as I discussed today at Washington Monthly:

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.

It’s obviously early still. But Iowa, with its arcane Caucus rules and high expectations for hands-on politics, will likely be the acid test for Democratic candidates in terms of organization. Hillary Clinton’s experience there in 2008 was horrendous; not only did she finish third, but Iowa depleted most of her campaign treasury for a while there. As for Sanders, there’s also a recent precedent that should be instructive: the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean, whose troops had all the enthusiasm in the world, but also finished third in Iowa despite huge numbers of volunteers, good poll numbers and endorsements from Tom Harkin and Al Gore.

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