A few days after the 2004 election, America Coming Together, the giant pro-Democratic voter turnout group that had raised about $200 million from George Soros, Peter Lewis, and a variety of Hollywood moguls, released a list of its accomplishments. Obviously, ACT, as big as it was, had not put John Kerry over the top, but the group had “held conversations at 4.6 million doorsteps about the truth about the Iraq war, about the state of our healthcare system, about the economy.” It had registered half-a-million new voters. In the last days of the campaign it had made 23 million phone calls, sent out 16 million pieces of mail, and delivered 11 million fliers. And on top of it all, it had “launched the largest get-out-the-vote effort the Democratic Party has ever seen,” turning out “unprecedented levels of voters in the battleground states.”
It all sounded very, very impressive. And then ACT listed its accomplishments at the polls, and the results seemed far less impressive. ACT had “helped ensure George W. Bush’s defeat in several of the key states and made the race close in others.” It had “enabled Democrats to take back the Oregon state legislature for the first time in 10 years.” It had helped Missouri Democrat Robin Carnahan win election as Missouri secretary of state. And finally, “In New Hampshire, we saw wins for the presidential race and the governor’s race, as well as a gain of four state senate seats.”
And that was it. Soros and all his colleagues had spent $200 million to elect a Democratic secretary of state in Missouri.
The question that hung in the air at the time was whether, after such a defeat, the big donors would continue to support ACT–to get ready for the next big campaign–and help it grow into an even larger turnout machine. And now we have the answer: No.
On Tuesday ACT, which had already downsized dramatically in the months since the election, pink-slipped most of its remaining staff and shut down all its state offices. The money had dried up, the donors were on to other things, and the “largest get-out-the-vote effort the Democratic Party has ever seen” was over.
Throughout its life–it started when Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List, Steve Rosenthal of the AFL-CIO, former Clinton operative Harold Ickes, and others held a downcast post-election dinner in November 2002 at a restaurant in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood–America Coming Together operated on the assumption that big, big money would bring victory to the Democratic party. The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law had just taken effect after the 2002 elections, and it revealed in stark terms that Democrats, despite their image as the party of the little guy, had for years been far more dependent on seven-figure contributions than Republicans were. With unlimited contributions to the parties banned by McCain-Feingold, Malcolm, Rosenthal, Ickes, and their colleagues–the group included representatives of the Service Employees International Union, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Sierra Club, and several other groups on the left–had to find a way to keep the big Democratic donors engaged. America Coming Together–a so-called “527″ group that could still legally accept big contributions–was the answer.
In July 2003, they traveled to Southampton, to the estate of George Soros, where Soros’s political consultants made a pitch for spending large amounts of money on Democratic-voter turnout. Soros, his friend and giving partner Peter Lewis, and several others present agreed that it was a good idea, and the money began to flow. “We came out of that with a big commitment from George and Peter Lewis and some of the other participants,” Ellen Malcolm told me when I interviewed her for my book, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. “So all of a sudden this little idea…” Malcolm paused for a moment before saying, “We could do more.”
A lot more. Soros, who would eventually give ACT $20 million of his own money, virtually dictated the size and scope of the new organization; he was personally responsible for its massive effort in all the swing states. “He’s very good at pushing out the limit,” Malcolm told me before the election. “At one point, we thought we could only do seven or nine states. And George would come in and say, ‘No, you can do this.’ He helped us put together some other ways to raise money and pushed us into doing all the states. And he was right.”
When rich Democrats across the country saw that Soros and Lewis had joined up with America Coming Together, they decided to hop on board, too. There was Hollywood producer Stephen Bing, who gave $12 million. There was Hyatt hotel heiress Linda Pritzker, whose family gave $5 million. And the Service Employees International Union, which gave $3 million. And Massachusetts technology entrepreneur Terry Ragon, who gave $3 million. And Texas technology executives Jonathan McHale and Christine Mattson, who together gave $3 million And the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which gave $2.1 million. And New York philanthropist Lewis Cullman, who gave $2 million. And Rockefeller heir Alida Messinger, who gave $1.5 million. And Agnes Varis, head of AgVar Chemicals, who gave $1.5 million. And Illinois broadcasting magnate Fred Eychaner, who gave $1.5 million. And Seattle tech entrepreneur Robert Glaser, who gave $1.2 million. And the Teamsters Union, which gave $1 million. And Colorado entrepreneur Tim Gill, who gave $1 million. And television producer Marcy Carsey, who gave $1 million. And Pennsylvania financier Theodore Aronson, who gave $1 million. And Oregon publisher Win McCormack, who gave $1 million. And heiress Anne Getty Earhart, who gave $1 million. And Texas technology entrepreneur James H. Clark, who gave $1 million. And the American Federation of Teachers, which gave $1 million. And Florida millionaire Dan Lewis, who gave $1 million. And Ohio philanthropist Richard Rosenthal, who gave $1 million. And clothing entrepreneur Susie Tompkins Buell, who gave $1 million.
And those were just the ones who contributed $1 million or more. In all, America Coming Together, along with its sister organization, the Media Fund, raised and spent about $200 million. And as Election Day approached, the organization gave off an air of confidence born of the belief that it was simply too big to fail.
In a way, it didn’t fail. In 2004, America Coming Together helped create a record Democratic turnout–a performance that would have been a fabulous success had not the other guys turned out even more. In the end, though, the problem for ACT was not that it failed to turn out voters. The problem was, despite its claims to be reaching more people than ever before, it really did not reach a lot of new people. America Coming Together was not, in fact, America coming together; it might more accurately have been named Traditional Democratic Party Constituencies Coordinating Like Never Before. You could go to any office of ACT and find lots of people from NARAL, or the Service Employees union, or Planned Parenthood. They were the same old groups doing the same old thing, only more so.
Despite all the hype and all the press releases, the effort really wasn’t about converting new voters to the Democratic party. Rather, it was about squeezing just a little more juice out of a lemon that had been nearly squeezed dry in the past. Steve Rosenthal’s well-regarded successes in previous elections had not involved attracting large numbers of new people to the cause. They involved getting union voters to turn out in ever-greater percentages, even as the percentage of union households in the electorate shrank. The problem was, you could do that for only so long. At some point, every union member or union household member of voting age could turn out and it still wouldn’t be enough to elect a Democratic candidate. For that, you had to expand your appeal, and that was something ACT failed to do. Malcolm, Rosenthal, and Ickes discovered that you could call it America Coming Together, but saying so didn’t make it true.
–Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time. This piece is adapted from the book.