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September 18, 2006

How Democrats Lose on GOTV

Dana Fisher has an eye-opening article comparing the grassroots strategies of the left and the right:

According to Karen Hicks, who worked as the National Field Director for the Democratic Party in 2004 after running Howard Dean’s presidential campaign for the state of New Hampshire: “The trend within the Democratic Party has really been to outsource contact with voters to paid vendors and direct mail firms…[as well as] hiring people just to contact voters because it’s a shortcut. It’s a more reliable way to do it.”

Although she recognized the efficiency of outsourcing grassroots politics, Hicks also noted that canvassing does not foster long-term dedication and commitment or develop much local infrastructure: “At the end of the campaign, you’re left with nothing, basically, because all those canvassers walk out the door. It’s not a job that most people do time and time again.” So the organizations get members and money out of canvassers, and most of the canvassers go back to their schools or jobs, or move on to an entirely different campaign when it’s over. As a result, this type of outsourced politics leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized.

Indeed, progressive causes and progressive candidates have been losing out to conservative issues and candidates who use a very different model of organization. In contrast to the outsourced politics of the left, political groups on the right work through pre-existing civic associations formed by churches and other locally grounded networks to create lasting connections with its political base. Adopting more and more of the social conservative platform originally developed by the Christian Coalition, Republicans are able to tap into the extensive network of local groups that the Coalition developed since its creation in the late 1980s.

At the end of the day, though, it's infinitely more effective to have a neighbor step out and make a connection than a paid organizer ring a doorbell to make contact. For all their command-and-control tendencies, the right has been genuinely empowering and relying on the grassroots. The left has been paying and counting on professional political operatives. Is it any wonder the right continues winning elections?

September 18, 2006 | Permalink


No kidding. Some Democratic political operatives called the Dem GOTV plan "stranger to stranger" for obvious reasons.

Rebuilding this infrastructure will take a lot of time and money. The folks Dean hired in Utah and Mississippi will have to go neighborhood by neighborhood, looking for people to run as PCO.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Sep 18, 2006 2:05:51 PM

The problem here isn't that canvassing is "bad," just that there's no follow-through. Canvasses generate great lists. Any union or community organizer worth their salt will tell you that you're nothing without a list. Canvasses generate lists of people willing to give money to something. A lot of those people would be thrilled to do something beyond give money. Most people don't like to be seen as walking checkbook.

Nicholas mentions that Dean people will have to go neighborhood by neighborhood. How will they find people once they're there? One of their best tools would be lists generated by canvasses, where they exist (although Utah and MS are not prime canvas territory for most organizations, I suspect).

Getting access to those lists is a whole 'nother ball of wax, though, depending on the organization that controls it.

Posted by: Brennan Griffin | Sep 18, 2006 6:57:03 PM

Is it really fair to say that only the Democrats outsource their GOTV operation? Why do the majority of Americans feel disconnected from any political party? Why do so many people simply not vote?

I've worked election GOTVs and I've canvassed for an organization. I agree that the process does not add to a meaningful grassroots base. But, having members solely as an efficient means of gaining financial contributions and caring about citizens only as an efficent means of gaining political office will never increase an organization / political party's connection to real people.

I believe critics should get off their high horse when it comes to paying people. People need work. It is not unreasonable to expect to be a paid activist. After all, if organizations and political parties spent the time to develop true grassroots organizers - people who build relationships with individuals and develop volunteer networks that work on issues year round, not just during election season - we'd be a more powerful force at the polls and in the public square.

The problem isn't outsourcing canvassing efforts. The problem is thinking that any canvassing - be it by volunteers or paid workers - is effective. Yes, Dana Fisher is correct that some Republican strategies are more effective than Democratic ones. But there are also examples from the left of groups that build relationships with their members before attempting to exploit their pocket books or voting choices.

Posted by: C.J. Minster | Sep 18, 2006 7:13:24 PM

Actually, canvasses do work for GOTV. There's plenty of evidence that canvasses are a fairly efficient form of voter outreach. Peter Levine has some recent studies, but there have been others as well. http://www.peterlevine.ws/mt/archives/000936.html

Now, do rooted, pre-existing networks work better? Undoubtedly. But canvassing for GOTV purposes is probably cheaper in many ways, because it involves hiring a lot of unskilled people over a short amount of time, rather than hiring skilled, full-time people year round from election to election.

Plus, until 2004, I don't think most elections involved much in the way of outsourced canvasing - they depended on groups like ACORN, labor unions, and other groups to mobilize their members around doorknocking, with a little paid canvas on the side. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think this is true.

Posted by: Brennan Griffin | Sep 18, 2006 10:08:16 PM

I worked for a fundraising vendor for 7 years and one of the problems we ran into was we had to go through a consultant to communicate with the DNC, DSCC, DCCC. We tried hard to foster a relationship with the people our callers spoke with and we worked hard to make sure the adresses and phone numbers were updated, but we would send the data back to the campaign committies and six months later we'd get another list and it would have some of the same people on it with the same mistakes.

The problem is the vendors and consultants are working hand in hand to get as much money as possible from the Democratic party and they don't much care if the Dems are winning or losing.

Posted by: jbou | Sep 19, 2006 1:54:27 AM

This is somewhat tangential, but one of the strangest things I've ever seen was hired, minimum wage picketers at a local grocery store. They were protesting the non-union polices of the store.

Huh? Shoppers were supposed to be convinced to boycott this store by....hired picketers? Economic boycotts are the ultimate grassroots action, or at least they're supposed to be.

Second comment. My limited exposure to political canvassing in the '04 Kerry campaign, as a volunteer, left me hugely unimpressed with the efficiency of the operation. What a waste of time & effort. Next campaign, I will volunteer for the Sierra Club or some other group that has got some clue about what it's trying to accomplish.

Posted by: Mark | Sep 19, 2006 9:28:12 AM



I worked for the company that did the DNC's 04 fundraising canvass and did moveon.org's leave no voter behind project.

Same company is running DNC fundraising and Moveon GOTV again this time around. Some of us former employees are trying to pressure moveon to improve the campaign. Please click the link to the mydd diary to find out more.

For tons of background, go here:

Posted by: Dan | Sep 19, 2006 10:30:15 AM

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