This post first appeared on the opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Thursday, October 9, 2008.
His strategists decided that lawn signs don’t matter. His supporters aren’t happy.
Obama volunteers across the nation are wondering why they cannot get lawn signs for distribution. Signs are an important political ritual in their communities, and they need them to generate a visible cascade of support for their candidate. While their stories vary, what they share is growing frustration with their state and national headquarters.
The sign problem is not due to a shortage of funds, bureaucratic bottlenecks or incompetence. It is deliberate; Obama’s senior staff decided long ago that lawn signs were inconsequential and a waste of resources.
From chief strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe down to state and local campaign officials, the party line has been consistent: Lawn signs don’t vote. Well, neither does a TV ad.
As the election nears, the decision to blow off lawn signs is provoking discontent among Obama supporters. Recently these simmering grievances boiled over in the Washington Post and on national blogs like Daily Kos and FiveThirtyEight.
Bill Hillsman is the maverick media adviser who helped design the upset victories of Sen. Paul Wellstone in 1990 and Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998. In a recent interview with the Minnesota Independent, Hillsman addressed the unrest among the rank and file.
“The problem with the campaign was that people thought they were walking on water, and they weren’t really willing to listen to any advice coming in from the outside. It’s been a very top-down, command-and-control type of campaign, which is different from what a lot of people expected it to be. They expected it to be very much a grass-roots, broad-based dialogue type of campaign, and it’s turned out not to be that way.”
Since day one, the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign has been retail politics: volunteer recruitment, door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and voter registration. These grass-roots tactics led to stunning successes during the primary season.
Even so, this game plan worked best in caucus states. Large primary states like California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio exposed the shortcomings of the strategy. Clinton’s wholesale politics proved superior in those elections.
Virginia has been particularly hard-hit by a shortage of lawn signs. Yet when the campaign headquarters finally received several thousand signs, the Washington Post reported, it decided to give Obama signs only to volunteers who had knocked on at least 40 doors.
The organizing experiences of a blogger from Missouri refute this logic:
“This isn’t the primary where you are calling on motivated people; this is a general election where you are calling on average voters and you are lucky to get people to go vote and you are really lucky if they want a sign to show their neighbors how they are going to vote.”
The Obama campaign will turn out record-breaking numbers of young and new voters. It will also get the Democratic base to the polls. Nevertheless, this alone will not win the presidency. Independents will decide this election and, as Hillsman highlights, you win their hearts and minds with wholesale politics.
“In order to get independent voters, you can’t get them by field work or volunteer organization or grass-roots organizing, because they don’t exist on any lists. You can’t really mail to them. So the best way to get them is through mass communications, and the Obama campaign has proved to be not that adept in mass communications.”
Presidential campaigns are ultimately about influencing public opinion. There is a mass psychology operating during the last 30 days of a presidential election. During the endgame, wholesale politics trumps retail politics.
If you doubt that axiom, witness McCain’s decision last weekend to go all negative, all the time. McCain’s chief strategist is Karl Rove protégé Steve Schmidt. A master of the politics of fear, Schmidt is turning Halloween into a monthlong event. Brace yourself: For the next 30 days, the campaign will saturate the media with ghouls and goblins—costumed, of course, as Jeremiah Wright the “anti-American racist” and William Ayers the “terrorist.”
Will Axelrod’s and Plouffe’s decision to double down on door-knocking succeed? I hope Hillsman is wrong, but given his political moxie, I will not be betting the farm on an Obama victory.
© 2008 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.