Chris Finnie: Missing the Point About the Grassroots


By Chris Finnie
Special to Calbuzz

Calbuzz recently highlighted a link to Talking Points Memo, headlined “Meg Whitman Copies Obama Playbook,” in which writer Christina Bellantoni argues that eMeg’s $150 million campaign for governor is effectively cloning the president’s 2008 operation.

Sorry boys, but Christina’s clueless.

Whitman may be trying to duplicate some of the tactics of Obama’s game plan – appealing to Latino voters in Spanish, targeting young professionals and spending a lot of money (none of it, notably, raised from the grassroots as Obama’s was).

But like so many other politicians before her, she is missing the essence of the matter: she doesn’t have an emotional connection to voters. And that makes all the difference

Where’s the passion?

Before Obama, the new Internet Age, from-the- ground-up campaign was pioneered by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race. Political pundits were agog at his online organizing and fundraising; suddenly every candidate wanted Meetup groups and web organizing tools.

But they were often disappointed with the results, because they mistook the map for the territory.

I volunteered with both the 2004 Dean campaign and the 2008 Obama campaign. In both, many of the volunteers felt passionate about the candidate and connected with the other volunteers we worked with. Both campaigns did a great job of fostering those connections. And they persist to this day.

The Obama campaign did a masterful job of using technology, not as an end in itself, but to harness and organize this grassroots fervor. When I worked phone banks in Boulder Creek, California, the communication from Chicago was always quick and seamless. And the personal acknowledgements to volunteers were frequent and effective.

California Rep. Maxine Waters, D-L.A., highlighted this point at the state Democratic convention in April. Speaking to grassroots activists at the annual “Red to Blue” fundraising dinner to support Democratic candidates in Republican strongholds in California, Waters said campaign strategy is too often all about money, specifically the money that campaign consultants make on media buys.

She said that as long as the primary way consultants make money is by buying media, candidates will be increasingly distant from voters, and office holders isolated from the people they represent.

Harkening back to the days of real town hall meetings, Waters spoke of the passion generated when candidates meet in storefronts with local volunteers who walk and phone for them – not as a staged media event, but as a central part of their campaigns.

What Whitman lacks

Meg Whitman may have as many paid staff members on her communications team as the Obama campaign fielded in all 50 states. But I doubt she’ll attract many people to sit in a neighbor’s living room and make phone calls to support her.

She will continue to burn through vast amounts of money on media buys but never achieve the grassroots support Obama was able to mobilize.

She will not have anyone like the woman in Florida who rented an office and recruited volunteers, then presented the whole thing to the Obama campaign when they finally made it to her state.

The Whitman campaign may boast of having volunteers, but they’re little more than a prop. The plain fact is that there is no space in her corporate-style marketing campaign for personal communication or authentic interactions with the candidate. Heck, she won’t even talk to the media. As Rep. Waters told us, this approach will increasingly isolate her from the people she needs to reach.

Whitman also will not gain that support because California voters simply don’t like her. Not even the Republicans, which the Field Poll numbers show clearly.

Sure, they’re willing to let her try to buy the election; the party is grateful that she’s spending her money, and not theirs. But she doesn’t have a message that grabs anybody and nearly all of what she’s proposing has been tried by Schwarzenegger and hasn’t worked.

Most importantly, she has no emotional connection to voters.

Unfortunately for us Democrats, Jerry Brown’s campaign has been nearly as lackadaisical in building grassroots support, and is just beginning to reach out to volunteers.

John Laird = Obama Playbook

As Brown begins to do this, he would be well advised to look to the effort of former Assemblyman John Laird, who’s running in the special election race for the coastal 15th state Senate district.

Laird has volunteers setting up phone banks for him on their own all over the state. Community groups that came together through Organizing for America groups are making calls, as are statewide volunteers from Democracy for America.

Groups all over the state are organizing themselves, or working as a group to support Laird’s bid, because they feel passionately about his progressive ideas and having him in the Senate to enact them.

Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee may have more money, with millions from big oil and insurance companies, and a big assist from Whitman, but Laird has the sort of people-powered campaign every politician should hope for.

Chris Finnie sits on the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee, serves as a delegate to the California Democratic Party, and is a member of the CDP Organizational Development Committee. She became a political activist in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and has since served on campaign staffs with Cegelis for Congress and McNerney for Congress. She also volunteered in the Obama campaign in 2008, and has acted as a volunteer consultant with several other campaigns. She ran for chair of the California Democratic Party in 2009 as what Calbuzz called the “bran muffin” candidate. In her spare time, Chris works as a freelance marketing copywriter.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar patwater says:

    I was with you until you put up John Laird’s SD 15 bid as the model campaign. Didn’t he just get clobbered by Blakeslee in the first round of voting? Call me crazy, but I think results matter.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      Nobody won the first round of voting. Because it was a special election, a candidate had to get 50%+1 to win. And none of the four candidates on the ballot did. Blakeslee did well–as the governor intended him to do when he scheduled this confusing and expensive special election. Many of the ballots for him were turned in along with primary ballots. Because they had a contested primary for governor and for U.S. Senate, Republican turnout for the June primary was much higher. That advantage is over for the August runoff.

      In addition, the candidate with the biggest vote count wins in August. There’s no threshold. There is, however, still a high level of voter confusion and apathy when confronted with yet another special election for the same seat. There is still the $1.3 million in money from big oil and big insurance that has allowed Blakeslee to flood the airwaves with negative and deceptive advertising.

      The Laird campaign has a lot to overcome. And they have a lot of people working to help. More than 200 early voters turned out in the Plaza in Watsonville on Sunday for a barbeque and rally. I run phonebanks in Santa Cruz at least two nights a week as a volunteer, and have for seven weeks. Our average turnout is around a dozen volunteer callers and one night we got over 20. Many people come multiple nights. And I personally know of other groups doing the same thing.

      As Smoker points out below, Laird does connect with people. Many of the volunteers I work with do not live in the 15th state Senate district. I don’t. Yet we’ve all volunteered countless hours–in most cases because John was our assemblymember and we liked the job he did. He is also correct about the campaign. By establishing field offices in all of the five counties in this district, the Laird campaign has been very effective in organizing exactly the type of actions I describe. No organization of this type, no matter how well done, will be effective though without that connection with grassroots activists and voters. John has made that connection by standing up for us and for issues we care about for many years in public service. Civil rights, the environment, education, and public services are just a few of the things he’s worked for. And he doesn’t back down. He goes back to the table with a smile on his face and gets the job done. It’s hardly surprising people would work for somebody who represents them as John has. If that doesn’t win this election, then there’s something seriously wrong with our system of government IMHO.

  2. avatar smoker1 says:

    Obama connected with voters. I don’t know if it was his style, his story, his speeches or the fact that he represented a fresh start from Washington insiders. All the money, technology and organization helped, but it was one campaign where all of that was eclipsed by the candidate.

    Laird does connect with a large number of people because of his strong commitment to civil rights and the environment. But he is not Obama. His campaign depends on organization which is pretty good.

  3. avatar SezMe says:

    I think Chris is missing the essence of the matter as well. The goal of a campaign is to win. Full stop. Getting votes does that. Making connections and building a grass roots effort is one way to do that. Spending gobs of money is apparently another. Chris confuses her preferred approach to the the process with the product…the governorship.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      You’d be wrong there. I know what the goal of an election is. And I know there are many ways to do it. Money is certainly one of them.

      You are right that I don’t prefer that kind of campaign. I think it often distorts the facts and robs the voters of their chance to make an informed decision. I’ve worked in advertising for 25 years and know how badly it can be used. Nowhere worse, honestly, than in politics.

      But buying elections also has had a mixed record of success in California politics. It did not work, for example, for Michael Huffington.

      Grassroots campaigns do not always work either. I do, however, believe they have the best chance of success when the money is as lopsided as it is in the two campaigns I discussed. It can work in these kinds of races. Jerry McNerney won with a largely grassroots campaign, against a better-funded incumbent, in a Republican-majority district in 2006.

      Also, I was specifically responding to an article comparing the Whitman and Obama campaigns–and pointing out the many, many ways they are different. I’m not predicting the winner in the governor’s race. If I could do that, I’d stick to the stock market and make a bundle!

  4. avatar cbarney says:

    money or charisma to one side, i think chris is absolutely right about the importance of actual people in the campaign who care about the result. the electorate is neither a market nor a mob, it’s the citizenry. enlisting it in your campaign is different from buying it or enchanting it.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.