Raging Against the Machine

Postcard from St. Louis

ST. LOUIS—When you’ve missed two consecutive nights of sleep, reality can get a little blurry.

When TV cameras, radio reporters and hundreds of confused activists stampeded Jeff Smith’s campaign office, where I had been working for the past two months, I wasn’t in the best condition to understand what was going on. The facts, as I understood them, went as follows: 1) For two months, I had been working for Jeff Smith, a 30-year-old adjunct professor from Washington University who was running for Gephardt’s old Congressional seat against Russ Carnahan, who has the biggest name in Missouri politics; 2) We had no local endorsements to speak of, no elected position to brag about, and a campaign staff whose combined experience could be documented fully on one sheet of paper; and, 3) As of late evening on primary night, we were winning.

Some time after I fell asleep on a table and had to be carried to a couch, things changed. As the more conservative areas of the district began reporting, our lead slipped. By the end of the night, we were losing. By the next morning, we were out of the race.

Carnahan’s strategy was to run a “district-wide campaign.” In a nutshell, this means you say what you know people want to hear, and you make sure never to take a position that might alienate somebody. In practice, this meant that Carnahan came out in favor of gay rights when he was in front of a gay group, but he didn’t put his position on gay rights anywhere where a conservative voter might be able to find it. He told a questioner at a forum that he supported single-payer healthcare, but on the stump he avoided specifics in favor of poll-tested platitudes.

Carnahan’s “district-wide campaign” also fastidiously avoided grassroots organizing. Jeff, who had no institutional support, had made grassroots organizing a central tenet of his strategy, and we expected that the Third District race would be largely a test of whether a grassroots campaign could beat a traditional Democratic campaign—a campaign that focused on television and endorsements over personal contact.

A few weeks before election day, the Smith campaign held an “organizing convention” to rally more than 200 volunteers for the final phase of the campaign. At the same time, Carnahan hired a group called Grassroots Solutions to contact voters on behalf of his campaign. While voters were receiving phone calls, personal visits and postcards from neighbors who supported Jeff Smith, Grassroots Solutions sent paid employees (many of whom had never heard of Russ Carnahan before they got their jobs) to knock on doors and call voters.

From the beginning, Jeff had run his campaign a little bit differently. He raised money like every other politician, but he always focused on building support in the community. Over the course of the campaign, Jeff spoke with over a thousand voters in a series of small meetings (10-30 people) that we called “community coffees.” At these events, Jeff would answer questions for as long as three hours, and he always stuck around to schmooze (yes, Jeff is Jewish) with voters. And he believed, in a passionate way that bordered on fanaticism, that every vote counted. Gabe Kea, a young media consultant, still remembers meeting Jeff. Kea was stuck at a red light when a short guy in a suit ran up to his open window. As the light turned green, the crazy short man handed Gabe a brochure, shouted something about Congress and invited Gabe to call him if he had any questions. And Jeff’s effort often paid off. After reading the brochure, Gabe ran into Jeff at an event for MoveOn.org. Gabe signed up to help the campaign and wound up helping us reproduce 10,000 copies of our campaign documentary—a feat we probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off without his help.

And the commitment to grassroots action didn’t stop with Jeff. My job was to manage a team of 12-14 full-time organizers who were each responsible for a portion of the district. These organizers were mostly Jeff’s former students, and the average age of the organizing team was about 21. The organizers were responsible for finding supporters in their areas and turning those supporters into activists. By election day, they were managing a team of over 200 activists and responsible for finding more than 20,000 votes. They developed relationships with community leaders and neighborhood gossips, church pastors and school janitors, teachers and students. Their job was to learn the community they were working in and use the social structure of their area to spread Jeff’s message. The plan was beautifully idealistic, wonderfully exciting and completely wrong. Or at least that’s what everybody said.

Early in the campaign, Jeff met with an influential Democrat who was known to control the Democratic machinery in his ward. The man claimed to sympathize with Jeff’s beliefs, but he explained that supporting Jeff would not be the prudent thing to do in a race where Russ Carnahan was widely expected to cruise to a massive victory. Jeff asked if the man knew of anybody else in the ward who might be worth talking to, and the man thought about it for a second before answering. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “Me and my wife are the only people in this area who would be worth your time.”

Those, like myself, who don’t hail from the Midwest, will be surprised at this kind of attitude. In St. Louis, those who control their local Democratic Party Committees consider themselves the most powerful force in politics, and for good reason. Public works projects in St. Louis are marked with two signs. One tells drivers what is being built and the other announces that the project is brought to you by the local ward alderman. Construction workers, contractors and others who benefit from public works have no question who is responsible for their livelihood. On election day, a Democratic Party poll worker hands voters a sample ballot indicating who the ward Democratic machine has endorsed. For voters who are constantly being reminded that they owe allegiance to their ward alderman, a ward endorsement holds a lot of weight. More importantly, ward endorsements shape media coverage. Pundits frequently use endorsements as a proxy for support in races that don’t warrant opinion polling. If a candidate gets no ward endorsements, the media often decides that they are not worth covering, long before most voters start paying attention to the race.

A quick glance at the Third District election results would seem to vindicate Russ Carnahan’s “district-wide campaign” and his mealie-mouthed message. Carnahan, who focused his resources on television ads that would hit the entire district, was no area’s top choice. He finished second in the St. Louis City, second in St. Louis County and second in Jefferson County. Press reports from the campaign’s aftermath hint at a simple thesis: By avoiding stands that would alienate either liberals or conservatives, Carnahan became the consensus candidate; nobody loved him, but nobody couldn’t stand him.

A closer analysis of the election gives a very different message. First, Jeff did better than anybody expected. A week before the election, the Arch City Chronicle, one of the few papers that endorsed Jeff, predicted that Jeff would finish in fourth place, 7 points behind Carnahan. The Chronicle was probably more optimistic of Jeff’s chances than most media outlets.

More importantly, Jeff won the city of St. Louis without a single ward endorsement. In five wards, independent Democratic machines endorse candidates in opposition to the dominant ward organization. Jeff didn’t get any of those endorsements either. In a city where organized labor still retains much of the clout of its heyday, Jeff didn’t get a single union endorsement. The local paper, which has a monopoly on political coverage, endorsed another candidate. So did the African-American paper. Jeff had almost no support among the city’s powerful elected officials. For most St. Louis politicians, Jeff Smith’s victory is totally inexplicable.

A few specific examples illustrate the general trend. The 23rd Ward is considered to have one of the most effective ward organizations in St. Louis. It is controlled by the mayor’s father, a man who is both respected and feared by most Democrats in his ward and deferentially known as Mayor Slay. Jeff, a student of St. Louis politics, recommended that we leave the 23rd Ward alone, but Alexander Lurie, the organizer in charge of the ward, developed great working relationships with a few Democrats from the area. At first, they were reluctant to be seen opposing the ward organization. One man waited two weeks before putting up a yard sign outside his house. He was willing to help Jeff in other neighborhoods, but he was afraid to publicly go against Mayor Slay. Jeff fell 60 votes shy of beating the 23rd Ward’s chosen candidate, Joan Barry. The 23rd Ward is overwhelmingly pro-life and socially conservative. In more progressive wards, Jeff did even better. In the 15th Ward, Jeff won more than twice as many votes as Carnahan, who had been endorsed by the Ward organization.

Those who prefer to see campaigns in terms of political labels can invent an easy explanation for Jeff’s victory. Jeff ran as a progressive. That cost him the election by weakening his appeal in conservative Jefferson County, but it allowed him to pull off a win in the city. Carnahan, who played to the middle, couldn’t win the liberals or the conservatives, but, by being everybody’s second choice, he was able to claim the overall victory. This explanation makes some sense, but on closer examination, it has some gaping holes. The 23rd Ward was nearly as conservative as Jefferson County, but Jeff trounced Carnahan 673 to 518. A socially conservative candidate dominated the 16th Ward, but the ward still preferred Jeff to Carnahan. In Jefferson County, conservative areas may have seen Carnahan as more acceptable than Jeff, but in the city, conservative wards were more likely to support Jeff.

Jeff’s success in St. Louis City can’t be explained by endorsements or ideology. What Jeff did was turn ordinary voters—the kind who don’t run ward committees or cut $2,000 checks—into activists. One example illustrates the model of organizing we used. A little over a week before election day, one of Jeff’s early supporters suggested that we make 10,000 copies of our campaign documentary. Jeff, a few staff and a handful of early supporters were eating pizza at a supporter’s house and talking about a television ad we were planning to run when the supporter, Matt Coen, threw out the idea. As the field director, I knew we would never be able to distribute 10,000 videos in a week, but, filled with the hubris of youth and afraid to admit weakness, I mumbled something implying that we could get 10,000 videos to primary voters before election day. When the first shipment of videos arrived a few days later, I still hadn’t figured out how to get them out the door. By our next campaign event, I was certain we were going to have 9,000 paperweights when the election was over. I had brought a box of videos to the event, and I was planning to hand them out afterwards, but I knew we wouldn’t get more than 30 handed out. The first person to leave the event saved me. As I handed him a copy of the video, he mentioned that a friend of his hadn’t been able to attend the event. I suggested he take a copy of the video for his friend, and he offered to take a few extra copies for his neighbors. With that offer, we had a new activist, and a new organizing plan. The voters who left that event took an average of five videos with them. They pledged to pass them to friends and neighbors, and we offered to get them more if they needed them.

After the event, the organizer in charge of that area and I went to a local pub for some food. On the way out, we handed some videos to a group of young people drinking on the patio. I assumed we’d just wasted a couple of videos, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. A few days later, I ran into the same people at a coffee shop on the other side of town. They had passed the videos out to their friends and organized a viewing party for their neighbors. They hadn’t bothered to tell the campaign that they were helping. They just did it.

Having voters pass out videos to their friends wasn’t just a way of getting our message out. The videos gave people an excuse to talk to their neighbors about politics. People started bringing them to neighborhood gatherings and handing them out to strangers. Young people turned keggers into video watching parties. Senior citizens showed the videos at their nursing homes. The videos allowed everybody to participate in the campaign. They gave people a sense of ownership and power.

But the videos were just one part of a broader strategy. If voters weren’t delivering videos for Jeff, they could host a neighborhood event, knock on a couple of doors or just talk to their friends. Jeff’s campaign gave everybody a way to participate, and it allowed them to start by reaching out their own communities. Jeff knew he was never going to get the traditional political players, so he went after the majority of voters who have never been part of a political campaign. Jeff won St. Louis because he recognized that everybody is a leader. He won because, although he didn’t win the support of those few people who are officially honored as leaders by the Democratic Party, he won the help of thousands of people who were leaders in other ways.

If Jeff’s organizing model works, it is good news for democracy. Jeff’s model encourages political discussions in all areas of life, not just in official meetings. Even better, it emphasizes all the people who are traditionally left out of politics. It emphasizes minorities, who have too often been excluded from official party organizations. It emphasizes young people, who are rarely major players in party politics. It emphasizes independent voters who care about politics but don’t want to tie themselves to a political party. What we found in Missouri is that minorities, young people and independents have tremendous political power because they generally belong to large and tight-knit communities. Nobody has tapped that power because these groups do not have party leaders, and these groups have disproportionately avoided politics. Jeff’s campaign was dominated by people who had never been active in politics before, because Jeff gave them a chance to use their power. If Democrats want to reengage their base, they need to forget the party establishment and create a strategy that recognizes the power of every voter.

Samuel M. Simon ’06, a social studies concentrator in Eliot House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. He will be asleep until classes start.