Barack's Brilliant Ground Game
July 10, 2008; Page A13
For a campaign that says it wants to end the politics of the Bush-Cheney years, the Obama for President effort has cribbed an awful lot from the Bush-Cheney playbooks of 2000 and 2004.
For starters, Barack Obama's manager admitted to the New York Times that he wanted an "army of persuasion" modeled explicitly on the massive Bush neighbor-to-neighbor "Victory Committee" of '00 and '04. Those efforts deployed millions of volunteers to register, persuade and get-out-the-vote.
Sen. Obama's organizational emphasis wisely avoids the Democratic mistake of 2000, when Donna Brazille's plea for a stronger grassroots focus was ignored by the Gore high command. It also avoids the mistake of 2004, when Democrats outsourced their ground game to George Soros's 527 organizations. The latter effort paid at least $76 million to more than 45,000 canvassers – many hired from temp agencies – to register and turn out voters. It was the wrong model: Undecideds are more likely to be influenced by those in their social network than an anonymous, low-wage campaign worker.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has harnessed the Internet for persuasion, communication and self-directed organization. A Bush campaign secret weapon in 2004 was nearly 7.5 million email addresses of supporters, 1.5 million of them volunteers. Some volunteers ran "virtual precincts," using the Web to register, persuade and organize family and friends around the country. Technology has opened even more possibilities for Mr. Obama today.
The Obama campaign is trying to catch up with the GOP's "microtargeting" program, which uses powerful analytical tools and extensive household consumer information to focus on prospects for conversion and extra turnout help. Another Obama adaptation of a 2004 Bush campaign technique is a stepped-up, rapid response effort. Charges do not go unanswered, the campaign stays relentlessly on the offense, using every channel of communication.
The Obama campaign has also copied the Bush strategy of broadening the general election map. In 2000, the Bush effort targeted not just the traditional battlegrounds, but also West Virginia (last won by the GOP in an open race for the presidency in 1928), Tennessee (Al Gore's home), Arkansas (Bill Clinton's home), Washington and Oregon.
Hoping for a breakthrough somewhere, Mr. Obama also wants to force John McCain to play defense. So in addition to traditional battleground states, he's running TV ads and organizing in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska, Montana, Alaska and North Dakota. And where Mr. Bush targeted Latinos, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and education voters to narrow Democratic margins, Mr. Obama is going after evangelicals, veterans and values voters with ads and outreach to trim the GOP's margin.
There are problems, however. Mr. Obama's people admit they want to sucker Mr. McCain into spending money. To be successful, a bluff must be credible. In places like Nebraska and North Dakota, Mr. Obama can't rely on local issues – like Mr. Bush did with coal in West Virginia in 2000 – to unexpectedly win a critical state. Organization alone won't suffice. And putting Obama dollars into Texas, for example, to help win five state House seats may simply cause Texan Republicans – not Mr. McCain – to raise money and work harder to counter.
Democrats don't have the same large volunteer pool the GOP does with its Federated GOP Women, College and Young Republicans, and local party committees. In the primaries, Mr. Obama instead moved hordes of volunteers from state to state. It was a brilliant tactic, but Nov. 4 is different. The volunteers adequate for primaries held over five months will simply not be enough to compete in 51 separate elections (all 50 states plus the District of Columbia) all on one day.
Mr. Obama's biggest problem is that when it comes to substance, he's following the playbook of a Republican other than George W. Bush. In 2000, Mr. Bush won the general election on the same themes and positions as in the primaries, including compassionate conservatism, the faith-based initiative, tax cuts and Social Security reform. There was no repudiation of past positions, no chameleon-like shifts in positions.
Instead of consistency, Mr. Obama has followed Richard Nixon's advice, to cater to his party's extreme in the primaries and then move aggressively to the middle for the fall.
In the primary, Mr. Obama supported pulling out of Iraq within 16 months, called the D.C. gun ban constitutional, backed the subjection of telecom companies to expensive lawsuits for cooperating in the terror surveillance program, opposed welfare reform, pledged to renegotiate Nafta, disavowed free trade and was strongly against the death penalty in all cases. But in the past few weeks, Mr. Obama has reversed course on all of these, discarding fringe liberal views for relentlessly centrist positions. He also flip-flopped on accepting public financing and condemning negative ads from third party groups, like unions.
By taking Nixon's advice, Mr. Obama is assuming such dramatic reversals will somehow avoid voter scrutiny. But people are watching closely, and by setting a world indoor record for jettisoning past positions, Mr. Obama may be risking his reputation for truthfulness. A candidate's credibility, once lost, is very hard to restore, regardless of how fine an organization he has built.