The need for a permanent “ground game”

I’m a proponent of the 50 state strategy advanced by Howard Dean when he was chair of the Democratic National Committee.  Since I’m a progressive Democrat in Georgia this should not be surprising.  First, Dean and his strategy are identified with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  And secondly, I’m in Georgia, a state which is often ignored by the national Democratic Party except for the fund-raising potential in Atlanta.  So the 50 state strategy appeals to me in two respects.

The 50 state strategy was devised in opposition to typical post-Nixon modern campaigns. In the typical campaign:  polling is done, a message is formulated based on popular sentiments, and ads are run in select markets to try to move uncommitted voters in the direction desired by the campaign.  In my view typical campaign strategy often moves one step further, and affects not only the presentation of the party’s message, but actually results in the party changing its philosophy based on polls.

In the 50 state strategy, funds to hire field organizers are provided to the Democrats in  all fifty states, and their job is to craft an approach and message appropriate to the political terrain on the ground.  It is, fundamentally, an approach which fights for every inch of ground on a precinct-by-precinct basis.

The Obama campaign approach was somewhat of a hybrid.  The campaign benefited by both work which had already been done by the DNC in formerly GOP territory (the GOP could not afford to take North Carolina for granted, for instance), and by increasingly egregious mistakes on the part of a declining GOP.  They also weren’t afraid of local organizing, although it was done primarily in swing states, in the service of the typical ad-driven strategy.

There were a number of factors involved in the debacle of 2010, but I think one of the main errors the Democrats made was to just stop focusing on local organizing after the 2008 victory.  The lessons learned in the 2008 victory were just put on the shelf for the next presidential cycle, and the Right out-organized the progressive movement.

Tip O’Neill had it right.  “All politics is local”.  Even if we are taking up a national issue, the only way for activists to really translate a progressive solution to the issue into a lasting win is to win the hearts-and-minds at the precinct level.

At this point we need to take the techniques learned in both Obama wins, and merge them with the 50 state strategy.  We need to have the “ground game” permanently in place, everywhere at once.  While having a staff organizer in every precinct in the country isn’t realistic, having a few skilled organizers in every state could enable Democrats to have visibility in every precinct, and a readiness to react to local issues.   With this in place we could start winning school board elections, mayoralties, and county commission slots on a progressive platform, in areas which we have in the past ceded to the GOP.

This could mean that we could at least put up a good fight during midterm elections, and avoid 2010 scenarios.

To sum it up, the Democratic Party should fund permanent field organizations, whose job is to fight for every inch of ground in every state, based on the progressive principles of the Democratic Party, but tailored for local conditions in a manner only people at the local level can do.  We nee a permanent and comprehensive “ground game”, and we need to have it at least partially in place before 2014.