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irregular times logoThe Invisible Issue of 2004: Organization

Candidates' preparations for the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries are becoming harder to ignore as we get nearer to the end of 2003. Unlike the Republicans, who will not have the freedom to choose anyone but Bush for their nominee, the Democrats have been given nine prominent candidates from which to choose their nominee in 2004.

There have been many nationally-televised debates including these candidates, and there are many more to come. Debates are essential, as they give voters the chance to evaluate candidates according to their ideas about the policy issues that face the American nation. However, this year, the Democratic Party's choice of nominee may have less to do with policy issues and more to do with an issue that is invisible on the debate stage: Organization.

Let's face it: when it comes down to policy issues, America is split right now. About half of likely voters tend to support the Democrats on policy matters, but the other half supports George W. Bush and his Republican plans for America. Swing voters, who normally play a significant role in the electoral equation, will exert only a tiny influence in this presidential election. Americans either love what Bush is doing to America or they hate it. There's just not that much ambivalence on the subject. The middle ground only barely exists.

Attitudes about the war in Iraq are an especially strong example of this pattern. Americans on the left see that Iraq has turned into a deadly mess that is isolating America from the rest of the world and driving our own nation into hundreds of billions of dollars of debt. Americans on the right seem to believe that everything is going great in Iraq, and say that we ought to celebrate Bush's "mission accomplished" there. This conservative attitude, undiminished no matter how many disasters pile up in Iraq, is summed up well in the statement by Britney Spears that she simply trusts Bush and assumes that he's going to do the right thing. After all, she says as she chews her gum, he is the President!

Some political pundits seem to have stuck to the old scripts that they've read for the last three or four presidential elections. They say that the Democratic party will nominate the candidate that they believe will appeal best to Republicans, because, somehow, a Democrat who acts like a Republican is what Democrats really want, deep in their heart of hearts. Democrats, these pundits say, are supposed to believe that only by nominating someone who acts Republican can the Democratic Party win the White House.

Apparently, it has escaped these pundits that this strategy did not work in 2000, with the Republicanesque candidates Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. Gore and Lieberman did such a bad job of motivating Democrats that large numbers defected to the Green Party and voted for Ralph Nader, giving George W. Bush the edge he needed to grab the Electoral College. However much the Democratic Leadership Council hates the progressive majority of the Democratic Party, the clear fact is that when the progressive majority is taken for granted, the Democratic Party loses the White House. The blame does not lie with the progressive voters, it lies with the conservatives of the Democratic Leadership Council, Joseph Lieberman prime among them.

Everyone knows how easy it is for presidential candidates to make promises about what they're going to do if they get elected. Voters need a more accurate measurement of a candidate's effectiveness, personality and political philosophy. That's why we here at Irregular Times are proposing campaign organization as a central factor in our evaluation of the presidential candidates for 2004.

In order to build an effective election campaign, every candidate has got to raise money. Money isn't used just for advertising. It's also used to build the infrastructure candidates need to circulate petitions and help their supporters get organized. The money supports candidates' travels around the country so that they can get in touch with potential supporters in more than just their own home towns.

Now, most of the mass media news outlets just keep track of how much money candidates are raising. That's part of the story, but even more important than the amount of money raised is the way that candidates go about raising that money. How candidates get financial contributions for their campaigns says an awful lot about their campaigns are organized. This, in turn, provides voters with a pretty good insight about what kind of president each candidate would be.

Consider this chart:

2004 election campaign funding patterns chart

By the way, other statistics of this kind are available at our Irregular Tracking page. There, you can find out who's got the most people signed for grassroots meetings, who's getting the most news coverage, and what kind of momentum each candidate is achieving. For now, though, let's focus on the implications of the chart shown above.

This chart shows the percentage of donations for each candidate that are under $200. Now, a contribution over $200 is a great thing, and if any of our readers want to make a big, fat donation to any of the Democratic candidates, we say go for it. However, we're betting that most of our readers just can't afford to send a check bigger than $200. In fact, it's our guess that most of the people reading this article can only send $25 or $50 to their candidate of choice, and even that much is a difficult sacrifice. That's because most of the people who read Irregular Times are working Americans. They're not corporate executives, and they don't just sit around letting their investments or inheritance accounts do all the work for them.

So, what this chart really shows us is not just how big the checks are that each candidate tends to receive, but what kind of Americans are supporting each candidate. This, in turn, tells us how well each candidate is doing in reaching out to ordinary Americans, and not just super-wealthy political insiders.

What are the surprises here? Well, personally, I'm shocked to see how much North Carolina Senator John Edwards depends upon really big campaign donations. Edwards talks the talk of the working people, but when it comes down to it, he doesn't seem to be able to get their support. Only one third of his donations are from working Americans. The rest come from big donors. This tells us that Senator Edwards does not have the organizational skills necessary to reach out to everyday voters.

We're also surprised to see that Reverend Al Sharpton has a high percentage of large donations. His speeches are aimed at working people, but he seems to get most of his support from folks who are more well-off. Of course, Sharpton hasn't done very well in general. He's only got a couple hundred thousand dollars in his campaign bank account.

George W. Bush's huge failure to get donations from working Americans is not much of a surprise. Bush's policies seem designed in order to hurt working people in order to give special benefits to the richest Americans. About three-fourths of donations to George W. Bush's campaign are from wealthy Americans who can afford to write really big checks. So, we see that Bush has specialized his campaign in order to appeal to the rich and powerful while ignoring the rest of us. What seems like a strength for Bush (lots of big checks) also shows where Bush's organization is vulnerable. Bush and his entire campaign have lost touch with ordinary American voters.

The good news is that two of the Democratic campaigns seem to have focused their organizations on building connections with ordinary, working Americans. Only 12 percent of the checks that Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich only receives are larger than 200 dollars. Howard Dean's campaign is right with Kucinich, with just 13 percent of donations coming in for more than 200 dollars.

What's really startling, given the huge reliance of the Howard Dean campaign on small donations from working Americans, is that the Dean campaign has raised far more money than any other Democratic campaign - three times more, actually. So, Howard Dean has not just tried to build an organization based on working Americans, he has found a way to work with those Americans, organizing in a way that brings his campaign more success than any other.

Dennis Kucinich has his heart in the right place, but has not been bringing in nearly as much support as Howard Dean. Kucinich is doing the right thing by reaching out to working Americans, but for some reason, he just isn't being as successful in his efforts. The Kucinich organization is based upon good ideals that just have not been applied well in practice.

Into the Oval Office

So, this chart shows us how well the different candidates have managed to organize support among working Americans. What really makes this information relevant is that it provides us voters with some real insight into what the candidates will do once they're in the White House.

His campaign shows that George W. Bush is great at making friends with rich people, but he just can't figure out how to talk with ordinary Americans. As president, Bush reflects this bias with policies that are shaped by rich people with exclusive access to the White House, ignoring the needs of working Americans.

The presidency of John Edwards would probably follow a similar pattern, despite the working class protestations he makes. If John Edwards mostly works with rich folks as a candidate, that's probably what he'd do as president too. Sorry, John, but what else are we supposed to think?

If we take the Kucinich campaign as any indication of what a Kucinich presidency would be like, we see that it would be filled with good intentions that could not be communicated into reality. Kucinich has great ideas for his campaign, but he can't seem to bring many other people along for the ride, so he ends up with little actual support.

Howard Dean, on the other hand, has so far shown himself to be the anti-Bush. Dean doesn't just talk about what's wrong with the Bush Administration. The Dean campaign actually embodies a real alternative to the politics of George W. Bush. Whereas Bush's organization gives access to the rich almost exclusively, Howard Dean's organization works as hard to include working people as the Kucinich campaign does, and actually succeeds, beating out more traditional, slow-paced Democratic politicians such as John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards.

Some people prefer not to pay attention to the organizational issues of presidential campaigns, saying that doing so demeans the election into a mere "horse race". These people say that we ought to just pay more attention to "the issues" - in other words, what candidates say. Well, the issues are all well and good. We write about them quite often ourselves, but when the presidency itself is on the line, it's essential that voters have something other than just words to go by.

Watch what the candidates do, not just what they say, and you'll get a much clearer picture of what's at stake, in the primary elections of next spring, and the general presidential election of November, 2004.

Read a related article: How well is the Clark / Lieberman Iowa dropout strategy really working? New York petitions have a story to tell...

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