After the close Super Tuesday contest, the Democratic race was indisputably tight. You’d think coming out of such a closely contested race, the media spin on the event would be all important. So what did Hillary do? She announced, the very next day, that she had lent her campaign $5 million of her personal wealth in order to neutralize Obama’s fundraising advantage.
Then, after four defeats in caucuses and primaries this weekend, Hillary Clinton announced that her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, was stepping down. National Review’s Byron York joked that the announcement was part of “[Clinton’s] ongoing effort to send out as many signs as possible that her campaign is troubled, desperate, and flailing about.”
These are the headlines of the past week for Hillary Clinton. So why isn’t she talking about the good news? There were two big pieces of good news for the Clinton campaign that, despite whatever momentum Obama’s accruing, can’t be ignored.
One, her base is still strong. Hillary beat Obama by a whopping 20 points among women voters on Super Tuesday. And two, Hillary’s seemingly financially troubled campaign bounced back by raising $10 million in five days online from more than 100,000 donors — shattering the campaign’s initial goal of raising $3 million in three days.
The latter development is significant because it demonstrates that there’s no lack of support or enthusiasm for Hillary’s campaign. The bigger question for Hillary is that if this level of support exists for her campaign, why hasn’t she been asking for it? Did she just now realize that the Internet is revolutionizing politics?
The Tribune newspapers blog “The Swamp” reported this past week that Joe Trippi — Howard Dean’s former campaign manager who pioneered the art of online fundraising and organizing in the ’04 campaign — interviewed for a job with the Clinton campaign. (Trippi ended up running the campaign of John Edwards.)
According to “The Swamp,” Trippi presented the campaign with two ideas:
1) Clinton should ban all donations from PACs and lobbyists. 2) She should create, as the centerpiece of her fundraising and public-relations campaigns, a web-based program to collect $100 each from one million women around the country.”
As for the first point, Obama hammers Hillary every chance he gets for taking lobbyist and PAC money, suggesting her campaign is therefore beholden to Washington insiders. As for the second point, after the recent money troubles and the response online in the past week, Trippi looks pretty darn prescient.
Of course, why would Clinton have heeded Trippi’s advice at the time? She ultimately raised over $100 million last year and was the clear institutional favorite. Why did she need such a broad outreach to voters when she had the backing of the Democratic machine?
Well, if she didn’t need the support of individual voters and backers then, she should have realized that she would likely need it at some point in the future. It’s hard to cultivate the grassroots when you need them, if you haven’t been planting the organizational seeds for them to grow ahead of time.
Though Dean flamed out spectacularly in ’04, Trippi saw enough success with that revolutionary campaign to know that with the ubiquity of the Internet, the successful paradigm for presidential politics had already shifted to a more decentralized grassroots model. While Obama’s website boasts of the number of individual donors it has — over 250,000 in January alone — it’s hard to tell whether Obama’s campaign arrived at a grassroots fundraising strategy as a result of a profound strategic insight or, as is the case with most people who plead with anonymous strangers to fulfill their desires on the Internet, because it was the only option available. It’s very easy to decide not to take fat checks from PACs and lobbyists when the vast majority were lining up all last year to support an institutional candidate and preordained favorite like Hillary Clinton anyway.
But, more important, grassroots fundraising is significant because it’s the most obvious barometer of a campaign’s overall engagement with voters. Once someone writes a check to a campaign, it’s a safe assumption that they then consider themselves to be invested in that candidate and are likely to offer more than just monetary support to get their candidate elected.
A donation also helpfully leaves the campaign with the name and address of a potential volunteer. And Obama is clearly winning the volunteer race. Both candidates have a virtually identical search function on their websites that allows supporters to search for events near their location (see here and here). A day before the so-called “Potomac Primary” of Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland on February 12, a search for events within 100 miles of the zip code of National Review’s D.C. Bureau — an area that also includes Baltimore and highly populous Northern Virginia — was revealing.
Obama’s website listed a whopping 165 events — everything from “Spagoers 4 Obama!” to the more mundane “Precinct 84 Poll Watching and Phone Banking” — nearly all of them keyed to getting out the vote in the next day’s primary.
By contrast, Hilary Clinton’s website listed ten events in that same area. Three of those events are taking place in May or June. One of the “events” is simply listed as “Election Day (Washington).” It’s helpfully starred as a “featured event.” Pretty pathetic.
Now Clinton isn’t expected to win any of those primaries for a variety of reasons (e.g., large black populations in D.C. and Maryland, Virginia governor Tim Kaine’s endorsement of Obama). Obama leads Hillary by 16 points in Virginia and 18 points in Maryland, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll. However, Hillary still has a strong enough base of support that a 16-point lead shouldn’t translate into a 16-to-1 advantage in organizing activity. Hillary has supporters, they’re just not actually, you know, going out and supporting her in meaningful ways that might attract other supporters and turn out votes she doesn’t already have. Additionally, cultivating large numbers of committed core supporters could have real electoral effects. In caucus states, ground organization and commitment by supporters really matter. Of the eleven states that have held caucuses so far, Obama has won ten states to Hillary’s one.
While the conventional wisdom just a few months ago was that Hillary was unbeatable largely because of the $100 million war chest she acquired over the course of the year, it now looks like the bigger, more indicative number of the Democratic race was the over 480,000 donors that Obama attracted last year. For much of last year, Clinton wasn’t even releasing the number of individual donors she had.
More donors has translated into more money and more support in the long run, whereas Hillary’s initial high-dollar strategy has only turned her campaign into a beast of an organization that needs to keep being fed. Obama’s emphasis on smaller donations from many more supporters also means that he can keep going back to the well of pre-existing support. Last year, half the money Clinton raised was from donors who gave the maximum $2,300 allowed by law, so the campaign has to work harder to find new donors.
Clinton’s campaign has been limited by campaign-finance measures while Obama is enjoying success by not testing their limits. Obama’s use of Internet technology has done more than campaign-finance restrictions to broaden his base of support.
But the lesson for Hillary is that if she was the beneficiary of machine politics last year, than Obama’s grassroots fundraising is the deus ex machina that’s likely going to win out. There’s no longer a question: The Internet has definitively revolutionized politics. After she earned $10 million in the past week, maybe Hillary finally got Joe Trippi’s memo. She’d better hope she can turn her behemoth of a campaign on a dime and adopt a more nimble grassroots strategy going forward — if it isn’t already too late.
— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.