My thoughts on IL-6
by Daniel Biss, Thu Mar 23, 2006 at 08:02:21 AM EST
As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the Cegelis-Duckworth race these past few months, I was pretty shocked by the (closeness of the) result, and struggled all of yesterday with the question of how to interpret it and what to say. I think I'll just stick with a personal narrative.
Let me first say that I live in Chicago, and have no particular insights into the 6th district beyond what you'd expect of someone who lives about 15 miles away.
That said, I was a Duckworth supporter from day 1, not because anyone told me to be, and not because anyone paid me to be, and not even because I'm a particularly big believer in the "fighting Dems" strategy, but just because I thought she was a (much) better candidate. I still believe this, although of course Tuesday's results give me pause. (I volunteered for Duckworth and remain confident that it was the right thing to do.)
I think this is a kind of unusual perspective among the netroots. Most people I read who live around here seem to be very attached to Cegelis, and folks on the outside naturally view the question in big, abstract terms (what's the national strategy? what's the role of the grassroots? who should decide what for whom and how?). For me, it was just a question of knowing the district (a little), knowing the candidates (a little), and having a very, very, very strong gut feeling about who was the right one to get behind.
All of this leaves me trying to figure out why things were so close given the obvious advantages Duckworth had (to beat the dead horse: money, endorsements from anyone who mattered, a staff made up of experienced pros, and a moving story which led to tons of free media).
I don't think it's as simple as grassroots-versus-insiders. On election day, Duckworth had over 200 canvassers (and, no, most of them weren't paid outsiders; from what I could tell, most were working people from the district). In the past 2 months, Duckworth volunteers phone-banked through the entire universe of Democratic primary voters. I know that grassroots support means more than GOTV volunteers, and that Cegelis spent 3 years building something, but the fact remains that 6 months ago, Cegelis had practically no name ID in the district, so it's hardly clear that she used her head start wisely.
The point, which I guess is obvious, is that in an election with such low turnout, any campaign with a decent grassroots network can be competitive. Consequently, the whole question of how this race was going to play out turned on a single issue: How real was Cegelis's supposed grassroots support?
What bugs me is that EVERYONE seemed to take a completely faith-based approach to answering this question. The Cegelistas never gave us numbers, never said anything besides that it felt great, there was lots of energy, lots of support. Just this endless drumbeat of "The candidate's doing lots of coffees, there are lots of volunteers, etc." Well, we've all heard that one before...
On the Duckworth side, the assumption was just that these people didn't know what they were talking about. From what I can tell, everyone, from the bigshots who pushed her candidacy in the first place on down, just assumed that it was all smoke and mirrors and when push came to shove, she wouldn't have a real organization.
We now know, of course, that the Cegelis camp was right (well, with a caveat; it's important to remember that turnout was godawful all around).
But so anyway what really bugs me is the way the Duckworth supporters came to their conclusion. Their belief, ever since November of 2004 (and possibly before), was that Cegelis wasn't a credible candidate. I believed it. (I still believe it, in the sense that I still believe that she'd have no chance against Roskam.)
And because they believed that so strongly, they were perfectly content to assume that nothing about her organization was credible. Now, I'm usually hesitant to bandy about internet buzzwords like top-down/bottom-up, but this is literally the most advanced case of top-down sickness I've ever heard of.
And I think this is really corrosive, or at least represents a whole legion of missed opportunities. The problem wasn't, like some have suggested, that "the establishment" was scared of Cegelis, an independent Democrat. The problem wasn't, like some have suggested, that "the establishment" hates progressives. The problem was that people took a look at Cegelis, decided she was a bad candidate, and concluded there was nothing valuable about her campaign.
I've said from the beginning that Duckworth's candidacy was introduced in an avoidably awful way that did damage to grassroots morale (see Lynn Sweet's column in today's Sun-Times for her thoughts about this). But that bothered me in a mostly abstract way: I think it's never a good idea to punch progressive activists in the gut. I bought into the groupthink that while it was a little ugly, it wouldn't really matter in the long run, because surely the Cegelis team didn't have much to offer anyhow.
Well, we now know that was just wrong, and just dumb, and we found out the awful way, by in one fell swoop proving that a group of volunteers could deliver and simultaneously demoralizing them, perhaps irreparably.
Yuck. But anyhow, this all brings me to a version of the question Chris Bowers asks here.
How the hell is anyone supposed to evaluate anything? We live in this great new world where information flows in all sorts of crazy directions at all sorts of crazy speeds, but in the end, when the dynamics of the situation don't gradually make their way toward consensus, how are you supposed to make a decision? Matt complains that it's impractical for him to fly to the district to check it out himself, but I'd go one further -- short of sitting in the campaign office for a solid week (at least), how could you have "checked it out"? These things are almost impossible to gauge, even from close up, without investing an awful lot of time.
Put another way, I believe in leadership, and so I believe that you can measure the effectiveness of an organization by looking at its leader. But in our new world, it's easier for the "little people" to be leaders on a small scale. We now have evidence that there was good leadership somewhere in the Cegelis campaign -- how were we supposed to know that in advance, if it never came from the candidate? How do we even identify those leaders now, after the fact?