Strip-mining the grassroots?: DNC fundraising in 2004, 2006, and beyond
by greg bloom, Thu May 25, 2006 at 05:51:26 AM EDT
(This is the first entry in a series I'm reposting from my diary at DailyKos. I'll be writing in the next few weeks about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- including the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause. I'm not the first to have made this argument, but the story has not yet gained traction. I think it's crucial to the Left that it does.)
In 2004, the DNC launched a campaign unlike anything the party had done before -- thousands of canvassers hit the streets of all the major cities, raising money to 'beat George Bush.' "It's the greatest thing I've ever heard," Terry McAuliffe said of this novel enterprise. Others were not so impressed. "Political panhandling,"it was called in Dkos. "Astroturfing." You probably saw the canvassers yourself, at your door or on a busy sidewalk. But in the frenzy of that year, the massive operation blended in among the noise.
After the election, the DNC direct-fundraise campaign was announced to have been an unprecedented success, shooting several million dollars past its goal. The catch (does there always have to be a catch?) was that very little-if any-of this money actually made it to any concrete effort to beat George Bush.
When away from the podium and out of the press, McAuliffe himself was quick to acknowledge the slippery financial truths of this operation. He was (as we know) not engaged in winning an election -- he was base-building. Unbeknownst to the people who gave money to the nice young canvassers on the street or at their door, the real objective of this operation was to expand the DNC's membership rolls. The money these people gave just paid, for the most part, to keep the canvassers out there asking for more money.
To be clear -- this is something of an open secret within the fundraising industry: successful fundraise canvasses just break even, at least at first. In the meantime, the 2004 DNC canvass operation added three quarters of a million names to the DNC's super-weak database. That's a serious number, especially for a party that's seriously soft on small donors.
But as someone who personally hounded thousands of people on the streets of New York City, pushing them to give hundreds of dollars, again and again -- turning away people who wanted to volunteer, shrugging at people who wanted to register to vote, cutting off conversations about what the Democrats and John Kerry actually stood for so that I could make my quota, working sixteen hour days under the false pretense of beating George Bush -- I had to question whether the ends justify the means. I have come up with difficult answers.
It's a question that has been brought up before, but we need to keep it up. I'll continue to pose it in the next several posts. It runs broader and deeper than just the DNC; but this is a good place to start.
Last point for now, though certainly not least: The DNC fundraising campaign was McAuliffe's pet project, but Howard Dean has extended its life. The DNC has renewed its contract with the subcontracting outfit, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc, that operates these canvasses. They've just finished the 2006 national training for the staff that will be running 20 offices across the country. For millions of people, GCI's DNC canvassers will continue to be the most visible embodiment of the Democratic Party. Let's talk about what they're doing out there.