I was rather struck by the fact that my post entitled “Two EMail Messages” provoked only two comments, both of them simply links to other sites. I fear the point of the post may have been lost. My purpose was to contrast the prosaic and utterly unremarkable content of the phone script with Phil Green’s beautifully articulated cry of despair, something I would have been proud to write had I his polemical skill. I was trying to illustrate how mundane actual political work is, at the ground level.
I have now made my first 19 calls, leaving the remaining 12 for this afternoon. The result? I left 10 messages on answering machines, was told that 5 numbers were disconnected, got one no-answer [no answering machine], one weird sound, was told tartly by one woman to please remove her from our call list, and spoke to one enthusiastic supporter who thanked me for my service. Is this really a good use of the time of a man who is, as Clint Eastwood puts it in one movie, a legend in his own mind? Indeed it is. Since I have nothing better to do, the opportunity cost is zero. But there is more to it than that. Let me explain.
The fundamental fact about midterm elections in America is that most eligible voters don’t vote. Roughly 35-40% of those who can vote bother to do so. Republican Freedom Caucus member Mark Walker has won the 6th North Carolina CD the two times he has run by about 59-41%. For the sake of numerical simplicity, call it a 60/40 district. This is an enormous hill for young Democratic challenger Ryan Watts to climb. It would seem that he must persuade one out of every six Republicans to switch parties, an impossible task. But appearances can deceive. Consider.
Suppose that in November the Republicans in the N.C. 6th CD are a tad dispirited, and not energized because Trump’s name is not on the ballot. Let us imagine that they turn out at a low but not at all impossible 33%. At the same time, suppose the local Democrats are fired up, by babies torn from mothers’ arms, by Mueller indictments, by the threat of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and come to the polls in numbers more to be expected in a presidential year, say 50% of them. Now 1/3 of 60 is 20, and ½ of 40 is also 20, and suddenly a 60-40 district becomes a 50-50 race, in which an upset is entirely possible.
What has to happen for this fantasy to become reality? Here we come to the on the ground reality of American politics, which is that organizationally, it is radically decentralized. I am not just talking about the fact that the political organization of each state is a world unto itself, but that this decentralization reaches right down to the county level. Sometimes, in presidential years, a national campaign achieves a startling degree of efficiency, as in fact Obama’s two campaigns did, but for the most part, and especially in off-year elections, candidates must rely on the organizational muscle of the local party, and that varies greatly from state to state, county to county.
For whatever historical reason, the North Carolina Democratic Party is a rather pathetic mess, so much so that in 2008 and 2012, when I worked here for Obama, I observed that his campaign staff simply bypassed the state party. It made no use, for example, of the state party’s outdated and inadequate database of voters, addresses, phone numbers, and party registration. If Ryan Watts is to achieve a Democratic voter turnout sufficient to turn a 60/40 district into a 50-50 race, he is going to need accurate voter records. Now, Chatham County, where I live, is one of the few Democratic bastions in a Republican CD, and it has a pretty good county Democratic machine, but Alamance County, 30 miles to the northwest, does not. So the Chatham County Dems are offering a helping hand to the Alamance County Dems by making calls to update the lists and reach out to supporters in Alamance.
And that is why I sat at my desk yesterday, and will sit at my desk today, working my way down the list of numbers and reading from my script.