Living in Society

Blow Up the Coordinated Campaign

Johnson County Democrats
Johnson County Democrats

In Iowa, the Democratic Party organizes the nuts and bolts of statewide campaign operations around something called the “coordinated campaign.”

The coordinated campaign has been a blessing and a curse.

On the short list of preparations for 2016, one hopes the coordinated campaign is blown up and re-invented into something that can win against what has become a better organized Republican campaign operation. 2014 brought us Senator Joni Ernst, Governor Terry Branstad, and continues to re-elect incumbents each election cycle. Iowans deserve better than that.

As much as one believes that Democratic elected officials would provide better policy and governance for the vast majority of Iowans, the message is not getting out and Republicans are suppressing the wackiness found in extreme elements of their party enough to garner substantial, and winning support in the electorate. Most active Democrats I know are good people, willing to do the work of a political campaign. The problem has been with the way party leadership organizes each cycle’s effort, and what work is getting done.

What is the coordinated campaign, exactly?

It is a pooling of resources through the Iowa Democratic Party from campaigns up and down the ticket into a unified field effort.

Candidates pay to play, and the focus is usually on the big ticket races: president, governor and members of the U.S. Congress.

A manager and central staff have been hired to run the program and develop campaign options for approval by stakeholders in coordinated campaign.

The coordinated campaign organizes a field program with a paid canvass and targeted mail campaigns designed to help turn out Democratic voters and persuade targeted voters to vote for Democratic candidates.

In addition to statewide candidates, the coordinated campaign works on statehouse races in an effort to build a Democratic majority in the Iowa House and Senate.

Political insiders might nit pick with some of this, or add additional details, but this is the broad picture of what has been the coordinated campaign in the years since 2004 when I have engaged more actively in politics.

Why do I say the coordinated campaign should be blown up?

Democrats require some organizing mechanism, but continuing to repeat the past will produce the same results. Here are four reasons to blow up the coordinated campaign:

1. There is limited buy-in from local activists to what the coordinated campaign has planned. Campaign choices—locating resources like paid staff, offices, house parties and mailers—are made by others and local activists talk among themselves that some decisions don’t make sense. They have been asked to participate, but that participation has been framed as staffing a shift at an established phone bank or door-knocking event outside our precinct. It has been a clear disconnect from precinct politics that used to be a Democratic strength.

2. Republicans were stunned by the Democratic organization of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, and they caught up. I used to laugh at Team Nussle’s efforts to organize phone banks and canvasses in 2006, but no more. The Republicans—partly due to the political leadership of Terry Branstad and Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann— have caught up and surpassed Democrats, as evidenced in the results of the 2014 general election.

3. Democrats failed to articulate their message. Where Republicans made significant inroads is their effectiveness of identifying stakeholders in government and offering solutions. They framed solutions as bipartisan, but the core message that won elections is the sense of belonging their campaign helped create. Because the coordinated campaign focuses canvasses and get out the vote efforts on targeted voters, it left messaging to others, and a broad sector of the electorate on the table. Republicans have been Hoovering these voters up.

4. Democrats don’t get the role of third party resources. Because of its structure, the coordinated campaign made poor use of third party resources. As if when the check wasn’t deposited in the bank account, it didn’t exist. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate took a drubbing from liberal bloggers in the 2014 campaign, and some of the criticisms were rightly placed. However, liberal bloggers are not the coordinated campaign. In a time of the Citizens United ruling, Democratic leaders must figure out how to better balance outside resources to advance Democratic issues, while walking the legal tightrope of campaigns not coordinating with third parties. Some accuse Republicans of coordinating with outside groups illegally. Unless lawsuits are forthcoming and prevail, the role of third party resources in campaigns has been a Republican advantage. As annoying as it is that Senator Ernst wears an Americans for Prosperity pin at public events, Republicans have become masters of campaign finance laws, giving them an advantage the coordinated campaign can’t match.

Few others have taken the coordinated campaign to task in public. While there are no solutions offered here, I invoke the rule of 1,000 words. Ideas toward a better process will be the subject of a future post.