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Rebooting Democracy

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

As Kos noted yesterday, despite last week’s wave of media enthusiasm for Clinton, Obama’s delegate lead didn’t shrink at all. The delegate math doesn’t look good for Clinton: she’ll need a big win in Pennsylvania, an upset in North Carolina, and solid victories in Florida and Michigan revotes, all still up in the air.

So, barring the unlikely, Barack Obama will preserve his delegate lead and become the Democratic nominee. At the risk of starting the Monday morning quarterbacking a bit too early, how did Obama put the Clinton machine on the brink of defeat?

Other than the obvious—charisma, fundraising, Iraq, to name a few—consider this:

Obama’s overall delegate lead: 117
Obama’s delegate advantage in caucuses: 129 delegates

The Clinton campaign’s decision to “skip” the caucuses by not matching Obama’s investment in local organizing, may be the biggest political strategy blunder since the ignore-the-Swiftboat call.

Idaho. Maine. Texas. Nebraska. These are not obvious “Obama states” yet he grabbed big delegate leads in each of these caucuses.

Why? Because Obama’s campaign embraced bottom-up campaigning. Because it pumped money into local organizers. Because it gave tools to precinct captains and volunteers.

While Obama also ran television advertising and leveraged endorsers, Clinton’s campaign is marked by its top-down messaging and its use of local political machines. Obama perfected bottom-up organizing – and the caucus system rewarded him.

I’m torn when it comes to caucuses. On one hand I respect their political intimacy, the retail politicking, and the face-to-face discourse they require. And I’ve admired the Obama movement in its execution: armies of Obama’ites rolling up their sleeves, packing events, knocking on doors, calling neighbors. It’s the image of democracy thriving.

On the other hand, caucuses are overtly undemocratic. I’m on the Advisory Board of Why Tuesday? and we’ve reported why caucuses can be extremely difficult for voters to participate in. Single moms, service employees, hospital workers, hell, just an average working citizen having to spend two hours locked in a room—many times on a Tuesday evening—is a lot to ask for democratic participation.

Fortunately, I think we can have it both ways. My estimation is that, whether Clinton pulls off a surprise victory or not, top-down campaigning is toast in our party. The benefits of bottom-up inclusion, financial and organizational, are too great to sacrifice in favor of top-down control. And whether it is a caucus or primary, the bottom-up, caucus-style, army-driven political strategy is here to stay.

While our democracy is refreshed through bottom-up campaigning and all-star candidates with inspiring messages, we must find ways to sustain this increased participation, starting with a dialogue about the state of our voting system. When it comes to our primary calendar, we must make voting more accessible, whether its eliminating caucuses, moving them to to Saturdays (as Nevada and Wyoming did), or just adding absentee caucus ballots. And, in the general, we should consider instituting a national Election Day holiday, expanding mail-in ballots, and experimenting with Internet voting.

Our grassroots has been liberated through bottom-up campaigning. Now we need to upgrade our voting system to sustain this renewed enthusiasm in democracy.

Don’t you think it’s time for an upgrade?

Joe Trippi is a CBS Political Analyst and Principal of Trippi & Associates. He is a member of the Why Tuesday? Advisory Board.

3 Responses to “Rebooting Democracy”

  1. Xavier Says:

    Sen. Clinton’s campaign has utilized the web very effectively, although it goes unnoticed by our friends over at TechPresident and those in the mainstream media. Yes, it could be better, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

    While a lot of attention has been paid to Obama’s California field organization using the Internet, the Clinton campaign tested that same model in May of 2007 and decided to use it on a smaller scale. The California HillStars program, which coupled online and offline social networking appears to have been very effective, especially when it came to mobilizing early and absentee voters.

    If my friends on the Obama campaign in California had spent a little less time changing their profile pictures to “HOPE” or “PROGRESS” and a little more time pounding the pavement at Senior Centers and Retirement Homes (as my grandmother and I did), perhaps they would have done better.

    The Clinton campaign also, until recently, had a very effective social networking component to their site which many grassroots organizers across the country used. A good friend of mine had a 395-member group in rural Ohio, which she tapped into as soon as the formal campaign moved into the area to fill volunteer shifts and build crowds for local events.

    Clinton supporters have been using http://www.HillarySpeaksForMe.com to upload homemade endorsements, supporter videos, and even songs. They might not be will.i.am or “yes we can,” but I for one much prefer to hear from the young woman with Lupis who is supporting Sen. Clinton because of her long history of working towards curing diseases and providing health care for every American than I would watching a video from some well-to-do actor or actress talking about some ethereal plane to which our country will magically be brought should Sen. Obama be elected.

    The campaign also hosted two “Virtual Town Halls,” the first involving over 20 satellite locations across the country. Questions were submitted via email, twitter, text message, the web site, and in person at the various events.

    Hillary’s campaign is about real people, and I think that is an upgrade.

  2. Xavier Says:

    By the way, Joe, I love following you on Trippi and am glad to hear your shoulder’s feeling better

    I don’t mean to sound snarky, but I think the campaign gets an exaggerated reputation of being too top-down. There is a lot of openness, it just doesn’t get recognized as such.

    For example, did you know that the campaign posts DAILY video updates for its top volunteers which includes campaign updates and calls to action. The campaign’s web-based phonebanking tool is (in my opinion) far more functional the Obama campaign’s.

    Now if only Sen. Clinton would start using her Twitter account to send more interesting tweets…

  3. Xavier Says:


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