washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Matt Compton

Change vs. More of the Same (Online Edition)

People who have been watching this primary campaign have spent so much time talking about how Barack Obama is using the Internet that it almost seems like a waste of breath to mention something else.
But these numbers for February (compiled by WebGuild) are so striking that I’ve got to bring them up.
Obama spent $1 million on Google ads, Clinton just $67,000.
Obama spent $99,341 on Yahoo Web Ads, Clinton $9,186.
Obama spent $58,000 on Yahoo search ads, Clinton nothing.
Obama spent $4,900 on Facebook advertising, Clinton nothing.
But the strongest contrast between the two campaigns is what each paid outside firms. Obama paid web consultants $93,162 in February, while Clinton didn’t make any payments to firms that specialize in the Internet. She did, however, pay her ad consultants $997,000 and her media consultants $2,540,000.
You get what you pay for.

An Embedded Convention

Yesterday, the DNC announced plans to embed local bloggers with each state delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
This strikes me as worth mentioning.
During the last presidential election, both the DNC and RNC issued credentials to bloggers for their respective conventions. But these were the big guys — writers for sites like Daily Kos and RedState.org.
Over the last four years, we’ve watched the steady rise of state-based blogs, people focused on local politics and community issues. It’s entirely appropriate that the DNC is making an effort to include these local activists. It’s even better that they’ll be coming to Denver as part of the official state delegations — that’s well-deserved recognition for the energy they are bringing to Democratic parties across the country.
But the press language suggests that each state will be allowed just one blogger, and that each must apply through the DNC by April 15 and meet a set criteria in order to be credentialed.
So here’s my question — what does the DNC plan to say to the random pledged delegate (or even superdelegate) who is already slated to be part of the state contingent and who also writes and maintains her own blog? Does she count against the state’s total for its blogger totals? Is she prohibited from posting to her blog during the convention?
I know the last thing Democrats need is yet another controversy involving the composition of state delegations to the convention. But let’s hope this one gets resolved with the good humor and comity lacking so far in other disputes.

NC Bandwagon for Obama?

I reported this last week as a possibility, but now it seems to be happening: a movement among North Carolina Democratic congressmen to consolidate in support of Barack Obama. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that:

North Carolina’s seven Democratic House members are poised to endorse Sen. Obama as a group — just one has so far — before that state’s May 6 primary.

The entire delegation had been pledged to John Edwards for the greater part of the primary campaign. When he suspended his campaign, all the members received calls from the other camps. As the WSJ says, only Rep. G.K. Butterfield had switched his support to this point.
The mass endorsement is significant beyond its potential effect on the NC primary. All seven congressmen are also superdelegates.
Update — The Raleigh News & Observer has a quote from the Obama campaign which makes it clear that this thing might still be in the works:

“We’re pleased to have the support of Rep. Butterfield and are working to earn the endorsement of his colleagues in the N.C. Congressional delegation,” wrote spokesman Dan Leistikow in an e-mail to Dome. “Despite the Wall Street Journal’s optimism, none of them has (told) our campaign that they are ready to announce their endorsement of Senator Obama, so we’ll keep working on it.”

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the NC Primary

As a kid, watching election returns come in for Iowa or New Hampshire, I once asked my Dad why it was that North Carolina held its primary so late.
“Son,” he told me, “We’ve got more important things to worry about January through March.”
His reply made a lot of sense to me then and even more sense to me now. I come from a place where third grade teachers wheel televisions into classrooms so that they and their students can watch the ACC tournament. I pity the politician who tries to hold a campaign rally when basketball is being played on Tobacco Road.
Our fixation on college hoops (and the General Assembly’s decision that May primaries cost less money) generally means that modern presidential nominations are wrapped up long before the race makes its way down I-95. But this year, things are different. For the first time in recent history, North Carolina is being rewarded for its patience. In fact, the Tar Heel state just might wind up deciding this whole Democratic race.
Over the past week or so, a consensus has emerged among the chattering classes. Hillary Clinton will not catch Obama among pledged delegates. He seems to be in a good position to overtake her lead among the superdelegates. And with the moment for a “do-over” in Michigan and Florida seeming to have passed, it will be very difficult for Clinton to overtake Obama’s lead in total popular votes. Right now, the rationale for her continued candidacy seems predicated on surprising Obama somewhere that he should win. Which means that the eyes of the political world are turned to North Carolina.

Obama and the Decline of the Soundbite

To this point, Obama’s big speech on race yesterday is getting widespread praise for its unexpected honesty and candor. Watching MSNBC, I heard it called unprecedented and brilliant, and was actually compared to Martin Lugher King’s “I Have a Dream” address.
If you do a quick survey online (and ignore The Corner) the criticism, such as it is, boils down to one simple thing — the speech was too long. It offered too many opportunities for negative soundbites. In fact, as I was watching the speech, one of the very first headlines that MSNBC put up read:

Obama: Racial anger is “real”

But that only remains true if the one way that people hear the words of Obama’s speech is in a 20-second clip. The thus-far remarkable thing about this election is that it no longer has to be that way.
The campaign put the video of the entire speech on YouTube before lunch. Twenty-four hours after Obama walked off the stage in Philadelphia, this 37-minute address has already been viewed more than 1,000,000 times. As I write this post, 20 additional people are watching the speech, it’s currently the “most-viewed video” at YouTube. ‘d bet my lunch that another 1,000,000 people will watch this speech before the week is out.
The New York Times posted a transcript of the speech in full online, and by 3:00, it was among most popular stories on the website. Formatted for the web, Obama’s remarks spill over seven pages, but the article has already been emailed and shared by thousands of NYT readers.
And the web isn’t the only nontraditional outlet for the speech either. Minutes after Obama walked off stage, I got a call from a college buddy who was driving through Richmond on the way to North Carolina. He was flipping through the radio dial, heard the speech, and stopped to listen. As soon as Obama wrapped up, a DJ cut in to explain why the station had stopped playing music to carry the speech live. My buddy thought he was listening to NPR, but it turns out this was a local hip-hop station.
I’m sure millions of people watched clips from Obama’s remarks on the network evening news. But millions more are experiencing the speech outside the mainstream media. They’re reading, watching, and listening to this speech in full, then discussing it and sharing it. The evening news is still important, and the cable shows still matter. But the filters are no doubt becoming less important, and that in turn means that the soundbite might lose some of its stranglehold on political communications.

The McCain Mechanics for the General Election

For Republicans, Bush-Cheney 2004 is the model of a successful presidential campaign. The operation was run from top-to-bottom from an office in Arlington, Virginia. There was Karl Rove, who was the chief strategist. There was Ken Mehlman , who was the campaign manager. Beneath them, there were consultants, deputies, communications staff, and field teams. The political department divided the country into six regions, and assigned managers to each. The press department divided the country into five regions, and assigned spokespersons for each. There were staffers on the ground in all of the battleground states, but the campaign centralized everything.
John McCain’s campaign is also headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, but if this report from Marc Ambinder is accurate, his campaign is planning on approaching the 2008 race in a way that is profoundly different:

Instead of funneling authority through a few central figures at campaign headquarters in Arlington, VA, plans call for it to be dispersed to up to ten “regional campaign managers” – spread at satellite campaign offices throughout the country…The regional managers would have the authority to hire and fire, to adapt field programs to fit the needs of the states in their region. Unlike regional political directors, they would be part of the senior staff table at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters. Message and media, for the most part, would still be run through Arlington.

The closest model for this type of campaign is that of John Kerry in 2004. He centralized his message and media operations from a campaign office at McPherson Square, inside the District, then outsourced much of his field operation to 527s like America Coming Together. Those political organizations were then left to organize voter registration drives and GOTV in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and by law, they were completely autonomous from the Kerry campaign, with contact between the two entities strictly disallowed. This entire 2004 strategy, however, was born out of necessity. The 527s could take unlimited donations from big donors, while Kerry could not. Had his advisers been given GOP-like resources, they likely would have chosen to run the campaign in a way similar to that of Mehlman and Rove.
And Democrats won’t be taking the Kerry route in 2008.
Sen. Clinton’s campaign is centrally organized — perhaps to an even greater degree than that of Bush/Cheney 04. Until she went broke in January, her fundraising operation was dominated by appeals to big money donors. Her senior staff is filled with veteran Democratic party insiders. Even after serious errors in political judgment, campaign strategy and message is developed in large part by its pollster — Mark Penn. Once the vision for the campaign is mapped out, field operatives like Ace Smith and Michael Whouley are dispatched to states, Mandy Grunwald develops the ads, and press staffers like Howard Wolfson deliver the talking points.
Obama’s campaign is something else entirely — with energy and organization pushing from the bottom up. He, of course, employs strategist and consultants, field operatives and press staff. But much of the support and enthusiasm for his candidacy begins directly with voters, and his electoral strategy is founded on the idea of empowering their efforts. The fundraising operation is predicated on giving individuals the ability to tap into their personal networks of friends and family to raise small dollar donations in large numbers. Right now, the volunteer created Yes We Can video is featured on the front page of barackobama.com. And in an even more direct example, the campaign set up wikis for its volunteers in California and Texas as a way to distribute information and resources to precinct captains.
Ambinder calls the McCain strategy decentralization, but it’s not. Splitting the field strategy into ten satellite campaigns will in effect create ten top-down, regional campaigns for president. It’s a tactical response that might give the GOP some added mechanical flexibility.
In 8 months, we will know whether that was brilliant or foolish, but it is definitely not a real change in strategy.


Almost 24 hours after the polls closed on March 4th, Barack Obama finally released his fundraising totals from the month of February. To no one’s surprise, he broke his own fundraising record in smashing fashion. The Clinton campaign had released their numbers a week earlier, and the $35 million she raised was impressive by any standard — except for that of Barack Obama. In the shortened month of February, he pulled in $55 million.
More than 80 percent of Obama’s donations were raised online ($45 million). More than 90 percent of the online donations were for $100 or less; more than half were for $25 or less. For a candidate in a party that not so long ago had very little in the way of a small donor base, that’s amazing.
727,972 people gave money to the Obama campaign in February. Of those, 385,101 were first-time contributors. At some point during the month, Obama broke another important milestone: his total number of contributors passed 1 million. As of last week, the number stood at 1,069,333 and counting
Micah Sifry is the one observer I’ve seen who put those numbers into context:

In 2004, when the total US population was about 296 million, the total number of donors giving $200 or more to all federal campaigns and committees–that is, to all presidential and congressional candidates, PACs and party committees–was 1,140,535, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That is, about .4% of the US population made a contribution of more than $200.
In 2000, when the total population was about 281 million, just 777,877 made a $200+ contribution, just over one-quarter of one-percent of the population.
Barack Obama’s campaign has already mobilized more individual donors than the entire large donor pool of 2000, and they are closing rapidly on the entire large donor pool of 2004. This is breathtaking.

As he notes later in the post, it’s not a completely fair comparison because 90 percent of Obama’s donors are giving less than $200. But still, one million contributors is an extraordinary number and an important one.
For starters, despite the overheated rhetoric from the McCain campaign and many in the mainstream media about Obama’s reluctance to commit in advance to public financing in the general election, his donor base represents “public financing” in the broader sense of the term: a million citizens supporting a candidate with whatever they can give, whenever they can afford it. That McCain — who has championed campaign finance reform — cannot accomplish something similar and must instead rely on the same old bundlers and corporate sources as the GOP campaigns of the past speaks volumes.
On the other side of the coin, Obama’s (and to a lesser extent, Clinton’s) small-donor success has the potential to move the Democratic party away from a need to rely on moneyed interests. Eight years ago, the Gore campaign worked the big dollar network extensively. Four years ago, Democrats pushed big money into 527s like America Coming Together in order to level the playing field with Bush. Now, that’s no longer necessary. It appears that for Democratic presidential campaigns in the future, money from big donors is just going to be gravy.
And the potential of electing a president who isn’t beholden to anyone but the citizens of the country could be a huge deal for our national political process.

McCain vs. Campaign Finance Reform

Before he won the New Hampshire Primary, the political future of John McCain was in serious doubt.
In October, his campaign for president had just $3.4 million cash on hand (with much that money reserved for the general election) and a debt of $1.7 million from overdue credit card payments and unpaid bills.
By November, McCain’s financial worries were so serious that he negotiated a $3 million loan to keep his campaign afloat.
By December, he was broke again, and McCain went back to the banks, asking for another $1 million to keep campaigning. And this time, the lenders told him they needed some collateral.
Knowing that cash would be a problem for the nomination contest, McCain had earlier opted into the national public financing system, and the Federal Election Commission had already certified that he was owed $5.8 million in public matching funds. He also used the FEC certification to get on the ballot in several late-primary states, including Ohio, instead of paying canvassers to collect signatures.
But in the primary process, public financing is a loser’s bargain. If he ultimately chose to accept the federal money, McCain wouldn’t receive any of those funds until March, and even more seriously, he would be limited to a total spending cap of $54 million until he became his party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention in September. Accepting the funds would put him at a major strategic disadvantage in the general election.
Those facts left McCain with a decision to make. Even agreeing to put up the matching funds as collateral for a loan would have forced the campaign to adhere to the spending limits. So, once he started winning primaries, he planned to opt back out of the system and raise private money until he was the Republican nominee. There was a precedent for that — Richard Gephardt had been allowed to do the same thing four years ago.
But to get the new $1 million loan immediately, he and his lawyers tried something clever — they told the bank that if money again became a problem, they would opt back into the public financing system, accept the public funds from the FEC in March, and use that cash to pay back his loans — even if he had suspended his campaign for president.
And there is no precedent for that particular opt-in, opt-out, then maybe opt back in–legal maneuver.
On February 6, with the GOP nomination all but locked up and the money again flowing, McCain formally notified the FEC of his plans to withdraw from the presidential public financing system.
On Thursday, FEC Chairman David M. Mason, a Republican, issued the commission’s response. The letter is available here.
He told the campaign that McCain can’t withdraw from the public financing system for the primaries until the FEC gives him permission to do so. It cannot do that until it has enough members to maintain a quorum.
Right now, there are only two appointees serving on the commission, and the Senate and President Bush continue fight over the nominees. With four vacancies, the FEC isn’t in a place to make any decisions of any kind. It doesn’t have enough members to make any sort of binding decision or impose fines on anyone. The way things stand now, that leaves a lot of grey in the world of campaign finance.
But even with only two active members, the FEC asked McCain to explain his rationale for why using the promise of public funds to secure his loan did not actually commit him to using those funds. If the commission could issue a decision on McCain’s situation tomorrow, there is no guarantee that they would choose to release him from his commitment to public financing.
On Monday, the Democratic National Committee got into the act. Chairman Howard Dean announced that he would be filing a formal complaint with the FEC to demand that John McCain remain committed to the campaign finance rules.
That same day, McCain’s lawyers told the FEC that he did not need their approval to withdraw from the public finance system. Lawyers for his bank reinforced his claim that he never technically promised public money as collateral.
Now we’re at an impasse, again, and one where there is no clear precedent.
McCain has already spent $49 million in the primary, meaning that if he is forced to adhere to the spending limits, his campaign must essentially cease all activity until he becomes the nominee 6 months from now. If he were to continue to operate in clear violation of the spending limit, McCain could be in legal jeopardy — potentially subject to fines and up to five years of jail time.
His lawyers have the option of taking the FEC to court, but as Rick Hasen has pointed out, there’s no way of knowing what authority the judicial system has over an FEC without quorum. We simply don’t know if the courts have the power to order the commission to make a decision as it is currently composed or to somehow make its own decision from the bench.
But this much is clear: If there exists even a hint of a possibility that John McCain might be willfully violating election laws, he has a real image problem. His name is synonymous with the cause of campaign finance reform, and he owes his good press clips to a reputation as a “straight talker.” Deceptive manipulation of the campaign finance system would not go over well. Moreover, the controversy undercuts his frequent attacks on Barack Obama for equivocating on earlier statements that he would accept public financing for the general election. That’s why Howard Dean is working to exploit the issue and make voters aware of it. If this legal process drags on, it has the potential to make him both a hypocrite and, ultimately, a loser.

Obama’s New Labor Muscle

Back in October, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union met to weigh an endorsement. They’d been courted the most by John Edwards, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had both lobbied the union as well, and the chapters in Illinois and New York were firmly in the camps of their respective senators. Unable to make a decision, the leadership of SEIU declined to make an endorsement before the early primaries, and it was scored as a major loss for the senator from North Carolina.
On Friday, SEIU announced that the union had made a decision — with Edwards out of the race, they were backing Barack Obama.
Politically, the SEIU endorsement is important. It has around 2 million total members, second in size among unions only to the National Education Association — which has not picked a candidate. Leaders estimate that the union has 150,000 members in the states with primaries scheduled to take place over the next two months, and Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Rhode Island, and Oregon have particularly strong chapters. Its political action committee is also one of the biggest in the country, expected to raise $30 million in this election cycle.
Obama had previously been supported by the state SEIU chapters in Nevada and California. He lost Nevada narrowly, and lost California by a considerable margin. But those endorsements came just days before their elections, and probably weren’t a good test of SEIU’s organizing abilities.
SEIU should make an immediate difference with independent expenditures. On top of her initial fundraising advantage, Hillary Clinton has received significant support from outside groups in the early primary states. So far, these organizations have spent $5.2 million on her behalf, with the largest contributions coming from Clinton’s own labor backers — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers — and from Emily’s List. Separate groups have spent $1.5 million supporting Obama. Now, Ben Smith is reporting that SEIU is preparing to dedicate up to $5 million in independent spending on Obama’s behalf in Ohio and Texas. Whatever dollar advantage Hillary Clinton had there is likely gone.
For years, SEIU has worked to cultivate strong ties in the nation’s immigrant communities, and the union has a large Latino membership. Support from Spanish-speakers put Clinton over the top in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and she is counting on support from Latinos in Texas to offset Obama’s advantage in the African-American community. If Obama can close the gap among those voters, or even narrow it by 4 or 5 points, Clinton’s path to victory is much more difficult. Starting Tuesday, SEIU will make an enormous effort to influence their Latino members to support the Illinois senator.
Support from the Service Employees could have big repercussions in the wider world of labor, as well. In 2005, SEIU was one of seven of unions that came together to form the Change to Win coalition. In January, Obama was endorsed by another Change to Win union, UNITE HERE, which represents hotel, restaurant, apparel and laundry workers. This last Thursday, a third, the United Food and Commercial Workers, threw its support behind the Illinois senator. A fourth, the United Farm Workers, endorsed Sen. Clinton in January. And the other three unions in the coalition — the Teamsters, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America — have yet to endorse a candidate. But that could change: the entire coalition is scheduled to hold a conference call next week to determine whether to make its first joint endorsement.
If labor support for Obama manifests itself at the polls, it could shake up the demographics of the race in a potentially decisive way. To this point, Hillary Clinton has won a majority of voters without college degrees, and those with incomes under $50,000. If Obama can add union households to his coalition of African-Americans and affluent white voters, he could have an advantage in nearly every state that remains on the primary calendar.

Independents and Democratic Primaries

Last night, as soon as the polls in Virginia closed, Barack Obama was instantly declared the winner. For the people on the news, independent voters immediately became the first topic for discussion.
Thirteen states have open primaries, and Virginia is one of them. When voters in the Commonwealth show up at the polls, they are simply asked to declare which party’s ballot they’d like to cast. Once they vote, they put a card indicating their party preference in a basket on the way out the door.
Last night, according to the exit polls, Independents made up 22 percent of the Democratic voters in Virginia, and Obama won 69 percent of them.
But in a lot of states, calculating Independent support just isn’t that simple.
The networks projected Obama to win the Maryland primary just seconds after the polls in that state closed as well. But Maryland’s primary is completely different — it is closed, and you must be a registered Democrat to get a Democratic ballot. That said, the exit polls still have 13 percent of the Democratic voters describing themselves as Independents, and once again, Obama won that demographic–62/27. What’s with the discrepancy?
In every state that has a primary, there’s a question of whether it’s open or closed. Most states are like Maryland and hold closed primaries that require that you be registered with a party to get that party’s ballot.
Even if a state does allow independents to vote in the primary, there’s a question of whether the primary is actually open — like Virginia — or open with party registration. In Iowa, for example, Independents and Republicans are welcome to vote in the Democratic caucus, but to do so, they must switch their party registration on site.
Finally, we get to the situation last night. In Maryland, as in most states, there is an important difference between registered Independents and self-described independents.
Registered Independents are unaffiliated with both the GOP or the Democratic party, and in a closed primary, they’re only given a ballot for any nonpartisan races that happen to be contested.
Self-described independents are people who register with a party, but for whatever reason, don’t think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats.
My Dad, for instance, has been a registered Democrat his entire life. He’s a regular primary voter. But in the general election, he’s not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter or a Democratic senatorial candidate since Terry Sanford. The reason he doesn’t bite the bullet and switch parties? Because in our part of North Carolina, nearly every local elected office is held by a Democrat, and most of the state elected offices are too. He calls himself an independent, but if he wants any say at all in the electoral process, it’s got to be with the party of Jefferson.
On Election Night, there’s certainly merit in discussing which candidates have a bit of crossover appeal. Indeed, when Obama and McCain talk about electability, their primary performance among indies is certainly part of the equation. But some precision is in order. Independents are not always who we think they are.