March 2007: the New June 2003

Dear candidates and campaign managers:

Why is it, after grassroots donors gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Dem presidential candidates in the 2004 cycle, that you are now completely ignoring them in this cycle? I’m not saying you shouldn’t be courting large donors. But instead of spending ALL your time between high-dollar fundraisers and donor “call time,” why not just spend at least 15 or 20 minutes per day doing things to win the hearts of the mass base of Democratic donors and activists?

And sorry, but your online videos and cool websites do not win hearts. Only genuine attention and creativity from you, the candidates and campaign managers, will do that.

It was genuine personal attention and creativity by both Howard Dean and Joe Trippi that created the conditions in which their campaign raised something like $40 million online. You had Dean speaking from the heart, every day, in a non-phony way, about the base and its centrality to the campaign. It wasn’t just that he said the things he did–it was that he really meant them. He had somehow (and I still don’t understand how it happened) made a break with “normal politician mode” and switched over to normal human being mode. (Yes, of course, the night of the Iowa primary, when the presidential campaign switched from its base-phase to its national-phase, that would have been a great time to start acting a little more like a “normal politician,” but that’s another story.)

For his part, Trippi was making almost all his big campaign strategy decisions with the goal of winning over and mobilizing the base as his top priority. (And yes, it would have been better if he had made a few traditional decisions better, such as fixing the Iowa field operation. But that’s also another story.)

But in this cycle, all of you seem to be acting as though Dean and Trippi proved nothing. And so today I’m making a prediction–one that I hope you’ll prove wrong: no Democratic candidate will be beat Dean’s record of raising around $40 million online before Iowa.

Many among the netroots would be happy about such a failure, since they were so annoyed by all the fundraising in the ’04 cycle. But there are two reasons such a failure would be very bad news for progressives and for politics in general: First, all of you will still eventually resort to ceaseless fundraising in this race–only, without a real connection and without big email lists, you won’t raise very much, so it will all be in vain. Second, if small grassroots donors do not dominate this cycle as they did in 2004, then one of the most beautiful reversals in the history of U.S. politics–that of small donors coming out stronger, earlier and more decisively than big donors–will have been erased.

I think part of what’s happening is that you guys are misunderstanding what happened in the Dean campaign that brought in all that money (or maybe you’re being misinformed). Maybe you think the secret to Dean’s success in online fundraising were his cool online tools (that would explain Obama’s bragging about his tools in his announcement video). Or maybe you think it was his popularity in the blogosphere (that would explain why so many of your are falling over each other to please bloggers).

But if you go back to that game-changing 2nd quarter FEC filing deadline, you’ll see that it wasn’t either of those things. What happened in that incredible moment was that Trippi, with Dean’s sign off, did something extraordinary. He released his quarterly fundraising total a week before the reporting deadline (unthinkable according to the conventional wisdom of primary campaign strategy). Trippi put all the cards on the table and he reached out to the base and said:

“We’re behind the big money candidates. We’re behind, and if we stay behind, this campaign is over. We’re putting our campaign in your hands. It’s up to you whether Howard Dean can compete against the big donors and the establishment. It’s up to you–and you actually have the power to not only keep him in the race, but to make him the front runner.”

The campaign put a progress bar (The Bat!) up to show the base exactly how far they had to go to make Dean the front runner. And the base stood up and delivered.

That was the second quarter of 2003. In this race, everything is moved up a quarter. So that same drama of the last week of June will this time take place in the last week of March. Hey–what do you know: that’s right around the corner!

That strategy can work for any candidate: “establishment” or underdog. If you’re the Big Money candidate, don’t be afraid to own it: ask your base to put you so far ahead (like Bush in 2000) that the contest will be settled early and you’ll be able to conserve your funds for what will certainly be a brutal general election battle; tell the base that’s the key to winning in 2008.

If you’re the underdog, then do what Dean did and ask small donors to drown out Big Money by making their voices heard and their power felt so strongly that the Earth shakes (like it did in 2003). Your finance directors will worry that such an underdog message will alienate large donors–but that’s just silly. They don’t care. They get it. Ask a few of them this afternoon when you’re doing your “call time.”

Of course you should keep doing your high-dollar fundraisers. You absolutely should set up pyramid schemes like Bush’s Pioneer/Ranger racket. But you should also take some time out of every day to call upon the base, directly, honestly, like a real human being speaking to other real human beings. Yes, that means sending them notes via email that you write yourself, and personally posting on your blog. But it also means that when you’re making those critical decisions that shape your campaign—in the back of the plane with only your top consultant and top advisor—you should be asking: Is there anything we can do here to involve the base? Is there any way we can do this differently to involve them and rely upon them?

Politics will benefit regardless of which of you puts your campaign in the hands of the base–just so long as one of your does it. But if no one does it, then it turns out that what happened in 2003 didn’t change politics after all.

Comments 5

  1. nick s 27 February, 2007

    no Democratic candidate will be beat Dean’s record of raising around $40 million online before Iowa.

    One big reason: plenty of people who want to give small online donations are going to wait until the fall. Why? Two words: “Al Gore”.

    The task for the declared candidates is to get something out of closed wallets between now and then. That’s eight or nine months. And though Dean and Trippi deserve fundraising props, I don’t know whether the bat is going to swing it this time.

    Atrios has made the point that small donations are a way to ensure that candidates aren’t beholden to big donors. But candidates can’t say that while they’re courting the big donors themselves. (And that’s always going to be more effective in smaller-money campaigns such as House races, where it’s depressing to see freshman Reps on the scrounge from the moment they hit DC.)

    So, Zack: how does a candidate break into what I’ll call the “Saving Myself For Al” demographic?

  2. Steve Chaffin 6 March, 2007

    Another reason that this might not happen is that the Dean folks were aggressive in grassroots fundraising. We held house parties early on . Remember the Civil Union signing ceremony parties. This got us started and we did parties on a regular basis. David Salie was the guru of this effort and he is now with Party2win. No one is doing this kind of thing so far in this cycle. I will be attending my first house party at the end of this month for Obama, but nothing from any of the other camps.

  3. Vermonter 6 March, 2007

    I thought the actual online total (of the total ~50 million in fundraising) was closer to around 20 million…

    Maybe ‘m wrong, but I’ll go look and report back if so…

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