There's been lots of talk lately about the GOP's $10 million outreach plan and 100-page "Growth and Opportunity Project" report and what the party needs to do to rebrand or reorganize itself in the future....this seems to be an opportunity for progressives to mock their failures but i think it should be an opportunity for us to shut up and learn too.
By simply studying how the Republicans are responding to the defeat you will notice that they want to evaluate and adapt on the organizing front...even if not policy-wise.
I went to CPAC this weekend to watch two tech panels and soak up the atmosphere because it was an opportunity to learn from how the opposition is learning from us....and in some cases, how we should learn from them.
It is tempting to go to CPAC with the goal of capturing a "Macaca" moment....and someone did! Although this clip of an ignorant student putting a positive spin on slavery is shocking it is important that we not simplify our view of the attendees because of it.
I think he still represents a fringe at CPAC (which based on their straw poll is 54% young people under 26 who are largely libertarian in their social views)...besides, to me what elected officials like Michelle Bachmann are saying is much worse in comparison considering their actual power in Washington.
So, for me, the best way we can utilize these gatherings is not to mock, but to observe. Here are my thoughts:
#1 Although attendance is dwindling, let's ask ourselves....can progressives match conservative event organizing and therefore networking and relationship-building?
Let's face it....progresssives don't have anything that generates the same kind of buzz. Although some of it might come from outlandish statements by outlandish speakers the fact is the ingredients of such a gathering are lacking on our side.
The Campaign for America's Future-sponsored "American Dream" conference, which brings together progressive organizations like unions and grassroots groups, is sizable but lacks star power and youth.
Believe it or not, when it comes to the base the Republicans have a strength for youth outreach. During the expensive Reagan Dinner fundraiser on Friday night, there were two other free parties in the convention center for young people from College Republicans groups etc.
Progressives deserve credit for specialty events though, as Netroots Nation and New Organizing Institute's Roots Camp are more "bottom up" and get a younger crowd focused on the nuts and bolts of organizing and activism.
You also will find youth at events hosted by Young Democrats of America and College Democrats of America and Campus Progress, but since they are segmented from the rest of the movement they don't have the resources to put on events of such magnitude ranging from the speakers to the panels to the exhibit halls. After some moentum leading up to 2008, YDA was nearly bankrupted partly because of the lack of sustained donor support.
Is there anyway to involve OFA and the DNC in the future to develop a broader gathering? That is the scope we need to bring the movement together.
In DC, we see the microcosm of this dynamic, as we have First Friday happy hours and capitol hill clubs designed to bring conservatives together but nothing to match it on our side. In recent years my organizations Network For Progress and Generation Obama have tried to play a part on bringing Obama-supporting progressives together but the institutional support for these efforts needs to be more comprehensive and then spread nationwide.
Improving this kind of coordination not only will help us connect but could have positive ramifications in terms of communication that is needed to develop more effective unity on messaging and organizing efforts.
#2 Are progressives willing to discuss tactics not just policy?
Progressives like to talk about why our side is right on any number of issues but we need to also focus on technique as well. How else do we think conservatives keep winning elections....pure enthusiasm for their position regardless of the facts!
I was very impressed by the humble nature of the two tech panels i attended....ironically moderated by Republican "Event Evangelist" Chad Barth of Eventbrite, which represents a rare positive case study for the Right. The web site was smartly used by the Romney campaign (and grassroots progressives) to host a variety of events ranging from fundraisers to socials to volunteer activities, as it far surpasses the event platform technology used by barackobama.com.
But that was just a fraction of the story, so conservatives were actively recognizing where they need to improve on the technology front and the RNC's recent report articulates some next steps.
Progressives need to pay attention because as they say you can learn more from failure than you can successes....at the very least the report can confirm why our methods are more effective. Yet parodies like this one by Super PAC American Bridge of videos made by RNC chairmen are not the best move.
It seems like the Republicans are seeking their own "50-State Strategy" but do Democrats still have one....due to the extensive gerrymandering of congressional districts we will if we ever want the House back. And as we know, these days you need it to accomplish any PROGRESS in Washington.
LET'S LEARN FROM WHAT THE GOP IS LEARNING:
- did OFA & DNC publicly evaluate what went wrong in 2010? (No!)
- where is all the OFA & DNC tech talent now (laid off!)...and what is their plan for 2013?
- has Debbie Wasserman Schultz ever made a video to speak to Democratic Party supporters??? I would like to see one!
So, don't get cocky, progressives...we just beat a candidate who thought it was OK to tell 47% of the country they can screw themselves! (figuratively AND literally!!!)
This Huffington Post article summed up some tips the reports gives to Republicans:
"Spend less on negative advertising and spend more on ground game. Target young voters, especially young women. Build a national database that includes email and cell phone numbers. And, above all else, learn to work together."But after watching the truly "bottom up" organizing for Obama in 2007-2008 dwindle away with little interest from OFA or the DNC and its affiliates, these are good suggestions for Democrats too....just to a different degree.
Can we spend less on TV and more on making sure organizers have health insurance and a salary that equates to more than minimum wage per hour?
Although Republican Super PACs got a lot of attention, the Obama campaign spent millions of dollars on ads too...and the effectiveness of those messages weren't much better.
A greater emphasis on grassroots-led outreach facilitated by experienced community organizers is the best direction in this highly-networked new world.
Put an emphasis on the word "experienced" as traditionally paid organizers are mostly young and inexperienced recent college graduates willing to work 12-hour days but that shouldn't necessarily be the goal for effective campaigns.
More flexible hours and appropriate compensation based on skills and experience, especially within the community being organized, needs to be a higher priority and will appeal to more veteran staffers. I don't think a voter of any age wants to hear from an organizer who is not familiar with the neighborhood and only connects with them unannounced at their door step instead of on facebook or at the local civic association meeting.
On that note, can we invest in an outreach strategy that involves real relationships not just cold voter contacts and fundraisers?
OFA once spawned outreach efforts like Generation Obama and Students for Barack Obama and Virginia for Obama and DC for Obama etc etc. These were communities fostered by staff of the primary campaign built on my.barackobama.com and facebook too. But by 2012, Generation Obama was the DNC's Gen44, a fundraising program for young professionals without any field or social media-focused voter outreach activities. The program didn't even have a twitter account.
OFA also launched Tech for Obama, it sounded like a great opportunity to get web-savvy activists together to develop cool initiatives to get the message out online but was mostly a fundraising program and an opportunity to re-post general campaign content.
Meanwhile, my.barackobama.com was a fossil without any upgrades until the much-maligned Dashboard in June 2012 that largely included 2007 technology, like on the aforementioned event platform that required knowledge of html to format event descriptions.
So, despite all the innovation coming from the "top down" in Chicago, the campaign on the ground was more antiquated and didn't meet its true potential. But where this organizing deficiency really hurts is after the election, as most progressives hibernate while conservatives ring the phones off the hook on Capitol Hill probably because they are still plugged into grassroots Tea Party-like communities.
The new Organizing For Action is supposed to be chapter-based, which is a step in the right direction. But time will tell....OFA started out that way but it was mostly due to grassroots energy not institutional support.
Either way, if our side pretends we're diametrically the opposite of the Republican campaign model and can do no wrong we could be outflanked in the mid-terms again....if so, I just hope someone takes the time to write a "Growth and Opportunity Project" report by 2016.