At a Luncheon Society ™ event several years ago, Michael Dukakis talked about walking precincts. He could not understand those who favored high cost television ads or mailings over the elbow grease of building a grassroots operation. He believed that the best way to know the voters was to knock on their doors and ask for their support.
Dukakis insisted that a good grassroots organization could deliver an extra 5% turnout, which could be the difference between a win and a loss. Massachusetts, Dukakis noted, had 2,300 voter precincts and each precinct could have 5 block captains. If you built a volunteer army of 10,000 people, Dukakis noted, you became unbeatable. Those who solely relied on media campaigns and direct mail pieces often discovered their support was often a mile wide and an inch deep.
However, one person took issue. He said that California was too big, too much a “media state” and walking precincts was on the wane because there were too many high tech approaches to drive voter contact. Los Angeles was not like Boston or New York, the person continued. LA was 88 communities held together by miles of double-ribbon freeway and at the end of the day, walking all of those neighborhoods was just too hard.
“That’s not hard. I used to walk precincts when The Boston Strangler was on the loose,” Dukakis replied. “Now that’s hard.”
The Luncheon Society Regular. Mike Dukakis has joined The Luncheon Society on a regular basis since 1999. In January, he led a discussion in Los Angeles for his 13th appearance and a month later in San Francisco for his 14th visit. In 2010, we hope to get him into Manhattan to visit the third pod of The Luncheon Society.
Over the years, The Luncheon Society has quietly convened hundreds times for movable feasts at over 40 restaurants like Palio D’Asti, which is hidden away on California Street in San Francisco or Chez Mimi, which caters to the entertainment industry in Santa Monica. The kindness of a gracious friend allowed us to use The Lotos Club, one of the oldest literary clubs in the United States, frequented by the likes of Mark Twain and today residing in a Manhattan mansion once owned by the Vanderbilt family.
As the years have passed, these Dukakis gatherings have become mini-reunions for old friends, contributors and former campaign staffers from the 1988 presidential effort. They convene in Los Angeles or San Francisco, catch up and enjoy a wonderful conversation. Barry Bunshoft, a San Francisco attorney, knew Kitty as a young school girl and was an elementary school friend of Mike. Paul Costello served as the Press Secretary for Kitty during the 1988 campaign.
These days Mike and Kitty Dukakis split their time between Boston and Los Angeles. He teaches at UCLA’s Graduate School of Public Affairs during the winter quarter and spends the rest of the year back in Boston at Northeastern University, the home of The Mike and Kitty Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.
Now in his mid 70’s Dukakis is clearly enjoying life after politics in academia. For a brief period late last year, he was thought to be the obvious choices to serve as Ted Kennedy’s appointed replacement until a special election could be held. Many felt that Governor Duval Patrick blundered badly by choosing Paul Kirk instead of Dukakis, the three term governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, who was endorsed by the Boston Globe as the best choice to fill the vacancy.
Walking Neighborhoods and knowing your 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s. Before the internet, direct mail, television and radio, candidates actually walked their neighborhoods and personally reached out to voters. Organizations were built and voters were broken down into four groups; 1’s were for you, 2 leaned toward you, 3’s leaned against you, and 4’s were solidly against you. The trick was to work with the first three groups and that was how you won politically.
Since the 1970’s, many candidates focused the efforts on large and expensive media campaigns. Buying television time was easier than building out a grassroots effort. It took little care or feeding, only a checkbook. However, one must never confuse the act of building a political brand with the art of getting out the vote. Those who confuse the two often suffer the consequences.
Of course, this made a number of media consultants wealthy, regardless if the candidate won or lost, since they made their money on commissions ad buys. As union strength retreated into urban areas, the rust belt and altogether disappeared in the industrial south, the reliable drivers for getting Democratic voters to the polls began to sag.
By the 2004, Democratic presidential campaigns retreated to a 26 state contest, and effectively wrote off whole sections of the country, including the Mountain West and the Old Confederacy to the GOP. Campaigns went through the motions to build a ground game, but efforts were organized in the 11th hour when the battle was effectively lost and those who were knocking on doors were flown in from out of state with no connection to those who lived in places like Ohio, Iowa and Florida.
Moreover, Republicans got smarter and learned many of the lessons that Democrats had forgotten. Large conservative mega-churches quickly became recruiting grounds for new voters and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) drives. In 2004, Republican operative energized the base with patriotic arguments about the Iraq War and placed state initiatives against Gay Marriage in a number of critical states like Iowa and Ohio.
After Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral Vote and the Supreme Court vote, some hoped that Democrats would get the message. As far back as 1968, Richard Nixon knew Ohio’s importance to the political calculus, so Democrats should have begun to organize the state right down to the street level as soon as the Supreme Court rendered its decision on Bush v. Gore. However when John Kerry lost Ohio by 110,000 votes in 2004, many whined about tainted ballots but failed to ask what it took to build sustainable majorities.
Dukakis drove the point home. In 2004, there were 10,000 Mississippi voters who donated to John Kerry’s campaign, but none of them were asked to walk a precinct or organize their neighborhood. There were 10,000 opportunities to build a grassroots network. Might it have been possible for Kerry to win Mississippi? Probably not. However, had Democrats shown unexpected strength in the South, Republicans would have had to refocus on their base by redeploying resources away from other battleground states.
In 1988, Mike Dukakis organized half of California’s 24,000 precincts and focused on those that historically drove Democratic turnout. Dukakis is fell short and Bush carried California, but another story is found in the numbers. In 1984 Reagan carried California by 1.5 million votes, but thanks to the efforts of Dukakis, they cut the Republican majority by 80% and only lost to Bush by 343,000 votes. In 1992, Clinton won the state with 46% of the votes and the numbers got better with each presidential cycle. Democrats never looked back. By 2008, Obama won the state with 60% of the vote without breaking a sweat. One could say that California pivoted Democratic with the groundwork laid by the Dukakis campaign over 20 years ago.
The Rise of Obama and the growth of Grassroots Campaigning. 2008 was a watershed for Democrats because we embraced a 50 state campaign. Barack Obama discovered the hard way he could be beaten by good old fashioned organizing. In two primary states, New Hampshire and California, Obama built up leads in the polls only to stumble to Hillary Clinton. In New Hampshire, while the media focused on Hillary’s tears, the Clinton campaign employed the best grassroots organizers. In California, the Clintons built up huge banks of absentee voters and turned back the Obama challenge.
However, unlike Kerry, Barack Obama learned from these two losses. They built an organization but there was an additional element. The historic nature of the first African American presidential nominee energized the party faithful not seen since John Kennedy. There were no iconic posters for John Kerry and no campaign songs by Will.i.am for Jimmy Carter. Early on Obama became a phenomenon and his staff leveraged social media to raise huge sums of money through small average donations. Money and resources were poured into grassroots efforts and there were paid staffers in locales where Democratic victories had not been seen since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in a landslide. While Obama was helped the economic freefall of September and October, having an organized infrastructure in place allowed his campaign to convert on the opportunity.
The results spoke for themselves. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat won with more than 50% of the popular vote. States like Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa, which eluded Kerry in his presidential quest were solid wins for Obama. 10 million more voters were added to the Democratic column.
The big prize was supposed to be a Democratic win in Virginia; it was to be the bellwether strength of the Obama campaign because if an African American could win there, he could win elsewhere. Not only did he win Virginia but Obama beat McCain in North Carolina, the state of Jesse Helms, a place which had not gone Democratic since Jimmy Carter won a generation ago in 1976.
Going into 2010. Dukakis worries that the lessons of 2008 have been quickly forgotten by political operatives. As we move into the 2010 midterms, organizing your state or Congressional district down to the precinct level will mean life or death for a number of Democrats who operate in right-leaning districts.
Even if you have organized down to the granular level, you can still face a rogue tsunami. Dukakis found himself 50 points ahead on the eve of the 1978 Democratic Primary for Governor but lost to Ed King in a shocker as he was swept away by the undertow of Proposition 2 ½, the Massachusetts version of California’s Proposition 13. Others are able to tap into a zeitgeist below the surface. Few remember that a southern segregationalist like George Wallace showed surprising strength in liberal Boston during the 1972 and 1976 Massachusetts Presidential Primary on the strength of busing alone. Building a political organization can contain the high tide of discontent when a surprise shows up at your front door.
During the 2006 mid terms, Dukakis pointed to the failure of his friend Phil Angelides to mount a grassroots campaign in California to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold, who had inflated expectations based on his 2003 win in the recall, was simply floundering as Governor. However, Angelides took a traditional approach, bought lots of television media, ignored organizing the state, and got whipped by 20 points in a year when the Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House, 5 seats in the Senate, and elected its first female Speaker of the House.
Dukakis points directly to Senator Michael Bennet, the surprise pick of Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to succeed Ken Salazar, who was appointed Secretary of the Interior. A bright and energetic person, Bennet has little political base in Colorado and has failed thus far create the infrastructure needed clear the decks of any primary challengers. He has a tough primary opponent with former Speaker Andrew Romanoff and a tougher fight with Jane Norton in the general election. If Romanoff wounds him in the primary, he is finished come November.
When we sat down with Dukakis in Los Angeles back in January, he worried that Scott Brown might make a move on Martha Coakley but by the time we reconvened in San Francisco at the end of February, it was long over. In the case of Coakley, she claimed she lacked the time to create a retail-based grassroots campaign, but she had just come off of a successful race for Attorney General only two years earlier; the organization should have remained in place. Aside from her many missteps, she should have been able to shake off an attractive candidate like Scott Brown in a state as reliably Democratic as Massachusetts.
Its about sustainability. When John Kennedy ran for the Congress in 1946 and the Senate in 1950, he was helped by his good looks, his war record, and his father’s financial largesse. The Kennedy family had built an organization separate from the regular state Democratic Party machinery and it served them well. There was a legion of support that grew up with the Kennedy family politically, people who would leave their law firms on a moment’s notice to go out, raise funds, and campaign. They traveled to the far reaches of the nation in 1960, wept after Dallas, and returned for political seasons for RFK in 1968 and EMK in 1980. However, they aged, got on with their lives, and soon retired for the scene.
By 1994, it became clear that the Kennedy infrastructure was showing its age and in need of retooling. For the first time in nearly a half a century, it looked like a Kennedy might lose a race in Massachusetts. After years of token opposition, Teddy had a real fight on his hands. Mitt Romney ran as an earlier version of Scott Brown, a good looking Republican moderate who aimed his sights on the changing suburban voter who was somewhat immune to Teddy’s charms. As the summer turned to fall, the race tightened considerably.
Political pros were brought in and family members who had normally ran the political operations were shunted aside. Kennedy later won a solid victory in 1994 but it should have signaled something more profound; the powerful legacy and magic of the Senator’s last name had been eclipsed by new and different political forces than when he emerged on the scene as a fresh face.
When he died of brain cancer in 2009, it initially surprised me that both the Senator’s widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy and his nephew Joe Kennedy II opted out of participating in the special election; either would be stellar in the role. However, the polling data later showed that Teddy’s coattails did not extend beyond himself and any Democrats would have had a tough slog.
The final lesson from Professor Dukakis is this: He or she who is best organized will win. In 2005, a lawyer named Duval Patrick came to the visit Mike and Kitty Dukakis and asked what he would have to do in order to run for Governor successfully. Mike gave the same talk as he has given to the Luncheon Society countless of times over the years. Organize your precincts, ID your supporters, and bang on every door. Patrick beat two highly popular Democratic officeholders in the 2006 primary and became the first African American Governor of Massachusetts.
By the way, the Block Captain for the Dukakis neighborhood was none other than Mike Dukakis himself.