Ground game

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 20, 2006

061020_patrick_main2
GET BEHIND ME: Patrick’s charisma has earned him thousands of victims.
Is it that easy?
But does this argument really hold up to scrutiny? True, a recent analysis of the benefits of grassroots organizing — Get Out The Vote! How to Increase Voter Turnout (Brookings) — seems to bolster Dukakis’s claim. Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale and one of the study’s authors, explains the argument this way. For any demographically discrete group of voters, face-to-face contact increases turnout from that group’s members between seven and 12 percent.

“Conventional tactics like robo-calls or e-mail or direct mail tend to be relatively ineffective,” Green says. “The maximally effective kind of strategy is one that makes a person connect with voters, especially face to face.”

There’s a catch, however. For this approach to work, Green continues, a campaign needs a “disciplined canvassing crew that can speak credibly and persuasively about the candidate.” And to get a group like this — my argument here, not Green’s — the attendant circumstances need to be just right.

When Dukakis ran against Ed King in 1982, for example, his supporters were motivated by a keen sense of grievance. King, who’d knocked off then-governor Dukakis in the 1978 primary, was a conservative Democrat fond of lavishing praise on Ronald Reagan; to the Dukakoids, he was a usurper and an apostate. This year, meanwhile, Democrats have a nominee blessed with charisma and great rhetorical gifts — and their collective frustration is incredibly intense after 16 years of Republican governors. It’s hard to imagine Mark Roosevelt, the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb against popular Republican governor Bill Weld in 1994, winning that race by recruiting a bunch of precinct captains. And it’s just as hard to imagine Tom Reilly succeeding with the same approach this year.

Michael Goldman — a former Democratic political consultant who hosts the Simply Put program for Bloomberg Radio — is quick to lavish praise on Patrick’s campaign, which he predicts will become an academic case study. “They’ll be talking about this campaign at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for years to come,” Goldman says. On the other hand, Goldman notes, the campaign benefited from “a perfect storm — a charismatic candidate, people looking to beat back 16 years of Republicans, and a field person [i.e., John Walsh, the field-focused campaign manager] who people genuinely liked and respected and wanted to work for. It’ll be another 50 years before you see it again.”

UMass Boston political-science professor Paul Watanabe is similarly skeptical about the broad applicability of the Patrick model. “It’s like opening up a new restaurant,” Watanabe says. “It may be modern, it may be sleek, but if the food isn’t any good, no one will come.

“Everyone since Howard Dean has tried to mimic Howard Dean,” Watanabe adds. “But if it were that easy, Howard Dean might have been more than a presidential candidate who became extinct pretty quickly.”

Networking versus media
The Dean reference is particularly apt, since Patrick — like Dean — has come as far as he has thanks largely to smart use of the Internet. If you’re reading this near a computer, go to healeyforgovernor.com, the Web site of Kerry Healey, Patrick’s Republican rival, and check out the options under “Get Involved.” You can give money, sign up to volunteer (they’ll get back to you), register to vote, get contact info for local newspapers and talk-radio shows, and send pre-written e-mails to your friends. Not bad, but nothing earthshaking.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Kerry Healey Patrick, Donald Green,  More more >
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