As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, November 07, 2008

Echoes Of Failure: The 2008 California Election Roundup

Back in 2006, I and a lot of other grassroots progressives were angered that California showed little to no movement in its Congressional and legislative seats despite a wave election. You can see some articles about that here and here, when I explained why I was running as a delegate to the state Party. And frankly, I could rerun the entire article today, but instead I'll excerpt.

I've lived in California for the last eight years. I'm a fairly active and engaged citizen, one who has attended plenty of Democratic Club meetings, who has lived in the most heavily Democratic areas of the state in both the North and South, who has volunteered and aided the CDP and Democratic candidates from California during election time, who (you would think) would be the most likely candidate for outreach from that party to help them in their efforts to build a lasting majority. But in actuality, the California Democratic Party means absolutely nothing to me. Neither do its endorsements. The amount of people who aren't online and aren't in grassroots meetings everyday who share this feeling, I'd peg at about 95% of the electorate.

I mean, I'm a part of both those worlds, and I have no connection to the state party. I should be someone that the CDP is reaching out to get involved. They don't. The only time I ever know that the CDP exists is three weeks before the election when they pay for a bunch of ads. The other 23 months of the year they are a nonentity to the vast majority of the populace [...]

Only two Democrats in the entire state of California were able to defeat incumbents last November: Debra Bowen and Jerry McNerney. Both of them harnessed the power of the grassroots and used it to carry them to victory. They also stuck to their principles and created a real contrast with their opponents on core issues. The only way that the California Democratic Party can retain some relevance in the state, and not remain a secretive, cloistered money factory that enriches its elected officials with lobbyist money and does nothing to build the Democratic brand, is by building from the bottom up and not the top down. By becoming more responsive to the grassroots and more effective in its strategy, we can ensure that California stays blue, which is not a given. This is a long-term process that is in its third year, and will not happen overnight. But it's crucial that we continue and keep the pressure on.

In 2008, we experiences that most anomalous of events, a SECOND wave election in a row. Barack Obama won the biggest victory at the top of the ticket in California since WWII. And yet, the efforts of downticket Democrats yielded only minimal success. This is despite a decided improvement in the party in terms of online outreach and voter registration. So something is deeply, deeply wrong with how they're conducting campaigns.

I'm going to lay out the good, the bad and the ugly and make some suggestions as to what we must do to improve this for the future.

The Good

This wasn't a wipeout at the downballot level. The voters agreed with the Calitics endorsements on 8 of 11 ballot measures, with 1, Prop. 11, still too close to call. We did manage, at this hour, a net gain of two Assembly seats, which could expand to three if Alyson Huber in AD-10 has some luck, and a gain of one Senate seat if Hannah-Beth Jackson holds off Tony Strickland in SD-19. It is true that those numbers, 50 in the Assembly and 26 in the Senate, would be high-water marks for this decade. And we came close in a few other seats that we can hopfully capture in the future. In the Congress, we have thus far gained no ground, but a couple seats, CA-44 and CA-03, look well-positioned for the future, and with Bill Durston set to run for a third time, his increased name ID and the closeness of partisan affiliation in that district should make it a targeted seat at the national level.

Voter registration was the driving factor here. In red areas, Democrats did the leg work of registering thousands upon thousands of voters and making uncompetitive seats suddenly competitive.

The Bad

They forgot to turn those new voters out.

What shortsighted CYA masters like Steve Maviglio and Jason Kinney fail to understand, apparently, is the concept of opportunity cost. When you have Barack Obama on the top of the ticket winning 61% of the vote, it is simply inexcusable to have gains that are this modest. Maviglio doesn't tell you that AD-78 and AD-80 were gerrymandered to be Democratic seats, so essentially we got back what was expected in the Assembly, and with a 106-vote lead, who knows what's in store with SD-19. The concept of a wave election is that such energy at the top of the ticket will necessarily trickle down. And that's what I based my initial projections on, that Obama would make "out-of-reach" seats suddenly competitive. But he didn't. And there are two reasons for that: ticket-splitting and voters that stopped at the top, causing a significant undervote. I don't have numbers for Obama at the district level, so it's hard to be sure about ticket dropping, but the ballot measures are generating about 600,000-800,000 less votes than the Presidential race or Prop. 8.

If you want a further analysis, djardin did a great analysis comparing Barbara Boxer's share of the vote in 2004 in Assembly districts, when John Kerry was on top of the ballot, against the vote share from the Assemblymembers who were built for the district in 2008, with Obama. The numbers are astonishing.

District Candidate Boxer Vote 2008 AD Vote
*78 Marty Block 57.9% 55.0%
*80 Manny Perez 57.5% 52.9%
*15 Joan Buchanan 52.6% 52.9%
30 Fran Florez 49.8% 48.3%
26 John Eisenhut 48.6% 48.3%
10 Alyson Huber 48.1% 46.2%

In most of these races, the AD candidates are slightly underperforming the 2004 Boxer vote. The exception is Joan Buchanan in Assembly District 15. Buchanan may have been helped by demographic changes in the district.

It's simply ridiculous that any district candidate would underperform the Boxer vote, after four years of incredible registration gains and a 61% performer at the top of the ticket. It's inexcusable, and nobody inside the party should be feeling good about missing out on the second wave election in a row. These moments don't happen often. And these failures are what lead Yacht Party leaders like Mike Villines to crow about how "Republicans will still be empowered to protect Californians from higher taxes." He knows that he keeps dodging bullets and doesn't have to worry about a backlash for his party's irresponsibility.

These expectations are not unrealistic and this is NOT about gerrymandering, regardless of what fossils like George Skelton say. Alyson Huber, Linda Jones and John Eisenhut had virtual parity in terms of registration in their districts. Fran Florez had a much higher Democratic share. Obama should have carried them to victory. Thanks to him, Democrats took multiple state houses and made gains all over the country, in far more difficult circumstances. There are systematic barriers to a progressive wave here right now.

So what is to account for this? It's important to note that the problems we saw with the No on 8 campaign should not be viewed in isolation. They are a symptom of the poor performance of the consultant class here in this state. No ground game? Check. Maviglio is crowing about the fact that they had a lot of volunteers on ELECTION DAY. That's too late. Based on what I've heard, the CDP dumped all their door-hangers on the local parties, who had no volunteers to hand them out and instead relied on the Democratic clubs to do it. That's dysfunctional and disorganized. Furthermore, that makes clear that no money was put into field - door knocking, phone banking, etc. Instead, the consultocracy again relied on slate mailers and a modicum of TV ads, hoping the IE campaigns, which spent over $10 million, would take up the slack. There was a low-dollar donor program, and it netted something like $200,000, which doesn't pay for two days' worth of spots, and it didn't start until 8 weeks out.

There's no sense of urgency, no notion of the permanent campaign. Did ANY CDP messaging mention the yacht tax loophole? Did they exploit the Republican budget, which was unnecessarily cruel? Was the drive for 2/3 used as a banner across campaigns to frame a narrative on the election? Were any issues put to use? No.

Part of this is what I call our political trade deficit. We export money and volunteers and get nothing in return. The energy and effort put into the Obama campaign locally was impressive, but it didn't translate into anything locally.

California is a state that was expected to vote heavily for Obama. California donors accounted for perhaps 20% of his record-setting $640 million-plus. In the final days of the election campaign, Californians provided even more for the Democratic nominee: They volunteered.

Even though California was not a swing state, Californians still mattered. Some took leaves from work to knock on doors and traveled to the battleground states of Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and others. They even have a name, "bluebirds," people from blue states who flock to Republican strongholds and swing states to help Obama's campaign.

Jack Gribbon, California political director for Unite Here, the unions that include hotel and restaurant workers, oversaw an independent campaign focused on the swing area of Washoe County in the battleground state of Nevada. Knowing that Las Vegas and Clark County, in which the city is located, would probably vote for Obama, Gribbon sought to help swing the more conservative Reno-Sparks area toward the Democrat.

Using multiple voter lists, Gribbon targeted 16,000 voters, most of them with Spanish surnames, many of them Democrats and some of them newly registered.

It's incredible that Californians can be so easily motivated to contribute to a national effort, which requires a lot of work on their behalf, picking up and moving across the country, but they cannot be tapped for a local ground game.

But I don't blame Obama on this. He's trying to win an election. It's not his fault that he's more charismatic or more of a volunteer magnet than the California Democratic Party. The point is that the party has to supplement this, by working in off-years and early in the year to build a grassroots base. And there's a blueprint for this. It comes from Howard Dean. This was part of his memo after the election:

Governor Dean's first step was to assess our Party's strengths and weaknesses and put in place a strategy to address those issues. Dean developed a business plan to rebuild the Democratic Party, modernize our operations and expand the electoral map. The emphasis was on lessons learned and best practices, and it included the following key components:

· Rebuild the Infrastructure of the Party – After assessing the needs on the ground, we hired full-time permanent staff in all 50 states, trained staff and activists, introduced new measures of accountability, and developed a unified technology platform. Over the past four years we've held 140 trainings for candidates, campaign staff, organizers, Party leaders and activists in all 50 states.

· Upgrade and Improve the Party's Technology/Modernize the Way We Do Grassroots Organizing - Over the past four years the DNC has made significant investments in technology, creating a truly national voter file, improved micro-targeting models and developed 21st century campaign tools that merged traditional organizing with new technology.

· Diversify the Donor Base – Shifting the emphasis of Party fundraising to include both small donors and large donors, the DNC brought in more than 1.1 million new donors and raised more than $330 million from '05 – '08. The average contribution over the last three years was $63.88.

· Amplify Democratic Message and Improved Outreach – Created a national communications infrastructure to amplify the Democratic message and reach out to groups we haven't always talked to and expand the map to regions where Democrats have not traditionally been competitive – including the South and the West.

· Professionalize Voter Protection Efforts – Created a year-round national, state and local effort to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote.

Those are the bullet points, but the details are important. Training and deploying full-time staffers throughout the state is very desperately needed. They could implement a version of the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program that proved so successful nationwide. The DNC voter file is an amazing tool that I have had the opportunity to use. California, a leader in technology, ought to have the most comprehensive online database of its voters in the country, which we can use for micro-targeting and outreach to distinct communities. And finally, this is about PERSONAL CONTACT AT THE STREET LEVEL. Two years after I campaigned for delegate on a platform of making the party present in people's lives year-round, not just at election time, that is still not a part of the picture. This is why everybody walks away to go volunteer and donate elsewhere. They have no connection to the state party, no interest in the state's issues, and are in many ways contemptuous of the efforts of state politicians. They haven't been drilled on why the government is unmanageable thanks to the 2/3 rule, and they haven't internalized the urgency of why that must be dealt with.

The silver lining is that these thousands of California-based volunteers, who learned organizing on the Obama campaign, could actually be channeled and put to use by the CDP if they chose to do so. The role of the next state party chair in this effort is crucial.

Quite simply, what has been tried isn't working. In two election cycles with massive gains at the national level, in California we have crumbs. Something is deeply wrong. Something is broken. And that must be fixed.

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