Election 2008

In Obama-Hillary Battle for Super Tuesday, Retail Politics Is the Key

At stake is not just the Democratic nominee, but whether the party will be revived from the grass roots.
All the ingredients are there for a historic outcome on Tuesday, not just for Hillary Clinton's or Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but for the Democratic Party.

The country's appetite for change is unassailable. States that used to watch from the sidelines are engaged. Voters have not been as active or energized in years. Both campaigns are spending record sums on ads and running get-out-the-vote operations not seen for decades in primaries or caucuses. That final ingredient -- the grass-roots organizing -- may make the biggest difference in 22 states that vote on Feb. 5, not just for the candidates but for the identity and fate of the party.

The Clinton and Obama campaigns are not just about the candidates, but about different strategies of governing, leadership and what kind of party the Democrats are and will be. And the biggest fault line appears to be whether a historic grass-roots effort by Obama can beat a professional top-down operation with its own grass-roots component, by Clinton.

In other words, the stakes are not just Obama versus Clinton, but the party's Old Guard versus its vanguard. As Tuesday nears, both are touting their grass-roots effort.

"We've put together a grass-roots campaign," Hillary Clinton told thousands of cheering supporters at the San Jose Convention Center at a Friday evening rally. "This weekend, be part of our bring-your-own-phone calling effort. We will call 1 million Californians this weekend."

"We are running the biggest field campaign in California since Robert Kennedy in '68," Erin Callahan, Obama's northern California spokeswoman, said late last week, noting the NorCal effort has 700 community groups, 250 volunteer teams and many others. The Southern California effort is even bigger. "When we started, people didn't think you could do that in California. We have proven you can."

"This is a really important historic moment," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told hundreds of Obama volunteers and supporters at a packed early Saturday rally in San Francisco, speaking of the leadership choice faced by Democrats. "We're coming from behind in this race. The momentum is building. I just talked to Barack Obama in Idaho. They expected 3,500 people. They had over 14,000."

Like Clinton, Kerry urged his candidate's volunteers to bring out their voters.

"This is a really important and historic moment in the journey for all of us," he said, in closing remarks he would echo in rallies in San Jose and Sacramento. "You have so much more power than you think. You can resolve to bring 20 people to the polls ... It's not enough to say 'Yes, we can.' It is 'Yes, we can' if you do the work that is necessary."

The race tightens

The San Jose rally for Clinton was a telling barometer of just how close the contest for the Democratic nominee has become. Like January's Nevada caucuses, where she won a large segment of the Latino vote, that same voting block is seen as possibly swaying the California Democratic primary. On Saturday afternoon, the press reported that Clinton unveiled a new stump speech. But on Friday night in San Jose, she stuck with the old policy-and-prescription script for a known and reliable political ally, Latino voters.

Clinton was introduced by, among others, Dolores Huerta, a legendary figure in the farm workers movement, who, after leading "Si se puede" chants -- yes, we can -- compared Hillary Clinton to the even more beloved farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez. "Do you know Hillary Clinton and Cesar Chavez have something in common," she said. "They both started their careers going door to door registering voters in South Texas, and we know that Cesar did the same thing in East San Jose."

"Cesar Chavez fasted for 36 days," Huerta continued. "He cared about the environment. She cares about the environment. She voted no to put nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. That is why Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has endorsed Hillary Clinton ... Hillary Clinton sponsored and co-sponsored over 30 pieces of legislation for working people. She is the champion of working people."

Summing up, Huerta said, "Well, they say she can't bring people together, but she brought us together today."

The room cheered. It was filled with a middle-class and working audience, not college students. Perhaps half or more of the audience appeared to be Latino. Earlier speakers included other women who had been elected to Congress, who extolled how they and Clinton were breaking glass ceilings. When the candidate finally took the stage, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stood with Clinton.

"We have a moment in history, California," Feinstein said, eliciting cheers. "California is the biggest state. Tuesday we go to the polls. I am asking you to walk the walk, and talk the talk, and elect our president."

"She rocks. Hillary Clinton rocks," a young woman standing next to me exclaimed to her boyfriend. They both held up signs, hers saying, "Hillary Clinton, Smart Choice."

San Jose is an epicenter in the California vote. Obama officials announced during Kerry's Saturday rally in the city that Obama's wife, Michelle, would lead a rally there Sunday night. The nomination is very much in play in the state, as evidenced by a poll done for the state's major media organizations that reported on Sunday that Clinton was leading Obama by only 2 percentage points, which is a statistical tie.

Kerry was told about that poll by a reporter at a question-and-answer session after his Saturday rally in San Francisco. The reporter wanted to get a comment for Sunday's newscast. "Wow, that's close," Kerry replied, off-camera, as the reporter said the same pollsters found Obama was once 17 points behind.

When the cameras were turned on, Kerry was more strategic. He said he didn't trust polls and he urged Obama supporters to keep working -- and take nothing for granted. Earlier he told the audience, "As we know in this business, the old guard only gives up power and breaks the mold reluctantly."

The choice

That prospect of governing differently was part of the buzz among Obama's supporters. In the seats reserved for precinct captains in San Francisco was John Toker, who said the last presidential campaign he worked on was for John F. Kennedy in 1960 "when I was 17." He said he had been to trainings and explained how he was using software to notate who was a supporter, who was undecided, who was an independent voter -- which under party rules could vote for a Democrat -- who would volunteer, all critical details for Tuesday's vote. After the rally, Toker said he would be door knocking, to talk to voters, ask and answer questions.

"The way you are supposed to open a conversation is to tell people why you are supporting Obama," he said. "My initial story is I am a professional mediator, and that is his m.o. (means of operating) all along." Toker explained, "It is listening to people with all different points of view and trying to find some shared value, even with those you disagree with, and to use that to form a common ground."

"I would think if he was elected he would do something like that," Toker continued. "He would surround himself with people who may disagree with him, to try to get the diversity of opinions, instead of everyone saying yes."

But the most telltale sign of a tightening race in California came at Kerry's rally in San Jose, his second stop of the day, where the crowd looked just like the one that turned out for Hillary Clinton the night before -- only it was perhaps 500 people, not the several thousand drawn by the candidate herself.

"It's pretty diverse -- and they say it is only youth, but look at all the gray hair," said Nejleh Abed, a local dentist and school board member. "They keep trying to put everyone in a box, but you can't put his supporters or Obama in a box."

Abed, who said her children were biracial like Obama, recognized many people in the room. She saw her son's football coach, who apparently was skipping practice to come. "I see a patient of mine," she said. "I am going to give him a free cleaning for this. He is so starchy. I think he's a Republican."

"I am so psyched to see the diversity here," she said, as Kerry began his remarks.

"This is a big deal. This is a big deal," the Democrat's 2004 nominee said, saying Tuesday's vote was rare moment in history where the country could truly change direction.

But Kerry's get-out-the-vote message wasn't much different than what Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., from nearby Walnut Creek, told the Clinton supporters the day before.

"I couldn't be more proud to tell you that she is coming to California to win," Tauscher said. "And what does she need to win? She needs you."

Indeed, the contest on Tuesday will not just be about who will be the next Democratic nominee, but how the Democratic Party will move into the future and whether its new grass-roots campaigners will be driving that change.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).