Expanding the Electorate, The Philly Way

Last October 7, the already bizarre Philadelphia mayoral election became one for the books. From incumbent mayor John Street's egg-on-his-face appearance at a block party for a man facing drug charges, to Firebombgate (a firebomb may or may not have been thrown into the challenger's HQ), the race seemed to have been scripted for a reality show on political campaigns. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." On October 7, when an FBI listening device was found in the office of Mayor Street, the weird turned pro.

Conventional wisdom now says that the discovery of the bug revitalized Street's floundering campaign, gave his message a sharper focus, and galvanized Democrats to flock to the polls and take a stand against a perceived Republican conspiracy originating in Washington to bring down a Democratic mayor. The bug certainly changed the conversation of the campaign to a topic that Street could use to his advantage, but no 17-point victory (Street won 58-41) can be chalked up to one event. The conventional wisdom ignores several factors that contributed to a Street victory -- including unprecedented voter registration efforts that are serving as a blueprint for battleground states in 2004.

Two groups decided to use the primordial ooze of Philadelphia rough and tumble mayoral politics to test out innovative new voter registration programs. The impact of these efforts, which appear to have helped Street cruise to victory, could reverberate through the 2004 elections and underscore the recent new emphasis on the grassroots in political campaigns.

Better Than Ads

Voter registration has long been the province of committed activists, slaving away for months to try and get citizens involved in the political process. Progressives have always understood voter registration's importance, but political operatives scoffed at the idea. Their argument was that you can't win elections using precious resources (people, money and time) on registering people to vote who you're often not sure will even show up on election day and can't guarantee will vote for your candidate.

That thinking is changing. With the proliferation of channels available to TV viewers, it's becoming harder and harder for political TV ads to cut through the clutter and reach voters (and that doesn't even include the effect of commercial-killing devices such as TiVO). Some of the money that used to go toward TV and radio is now going (via 527 groups -- more on them later) to person-to-person contact. And the first step is registering voters.

More and more strategists believe that, with the electorate becoming more polarized, energizing your base is playing a greater role in winning campaigns. Congressman Chaka Fattah, whose organization helped run a major voter registration drive in the Philadelphia race, suggested to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The margin of victory for Bush [in 2004] could be the margin of apathy among the party base." Fattah also pointed out that voter registration "can add a similar percentage of 'decided' voters to your base, at a fraction of the cost that you spent on TV chasing the undecided." Once those voters are registered, you can then go after them with affordable get-out-the-vote programs instead of expensive persuasive media.

Additionally, as veteran labor operative Steve Rosenthal told In These Times, progressives' voter base is more "expandable" than the other sides'. Rosenthal could be speaking for all progressives when he says of his projects, "Our mission is to expand the electorate by registering hundreds of thousand of black, Latino, women and union voters, and there are way more of us than there are of them."

Redefining the Electorate

Rosenthal's Partnership for America's Families (PAF) is one of the "527s" that have sprouted in the wake of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. These groups aren't covered by the soft money ban, so they can raise millions at a time. Given their ability to bring in money the way the major parties used to be able to, many feel the 527s will perform some of the field functions of the Democratic Party in 2004. There are about a dozen progressive 527s each with their own niche for turning out voters in 2004. PAF is focusing on registering minority voters in swing states -- particularly in big cities such as Philadelphia.

PAF's goal in the Philadelphia mayoral election was nothing less than to redefine the electorate. They registered 86,000 new voters from predominately African-American and Latino neighborhoods; Street won the election by 85,000 votes. (For the record, Philadelphia's nonpartisan Committee of Seventy says that 34,000, not 85,000 new Democrats were registered in the race.) Tom Lindenfeld, the veteran political consultant who helped design the PAF program, pointed out to the Philadelphia Inquirer that if one-third of the voters they registered went to the polls, they would have made up 5.7 percent of votes cast in the race. And 5.7 points can swing many an election.

PAF's program -- a combination of voter registration, person-to-person contact, and get-out-the-vote -- was a labor intensive, aggressive effort that sustained itself over the course of several months. PAF utilized canvassers, direct mail, and phone calls for voter contact. On Election Day, the mayor had 2,000 campaign workers on the streets to pull targeted voters to the polls.

But that's not the whole story. They say that all politics is local. How local? Try neighborhood-to-neighborhood. In Philadelphia, PAF visited each household up to four times with a personalized rap. (The person-to-person contact was followed up with the mail and phone calls.) It was a high-tech operation -- the kind that makes the notion of going door-to-door with a clipboard and a pocketful of pens seem quaint, if not archaic. These canvassers were equipped with Palm Pilots that they used to record voter responses that could then be uploaded into a database back at headquarters. This allowed canvassers to talk to voters about issues that concern them -- right down to the neighborhood intersection where they want a new traffic light.

Lindenfeld says that PAF isn't going to just pack up and go home -- they're going for another 85,000 new voters registered in time for the 2004 election. This is good news for progressives as Pennsylvania looks to be a tightly contested state in the Presidential race and Democrats feel they have a shot at defeating GOP Senator Arlen Specter in 2004. PAF is already active outside of Pennsylvania; their plan is to organize in 17 presidential battleground states next year.

What makes PAF formidable is its sizable war chest. As of last month, the group had pulled in $3.5 million; its ultimate goal is $12 million. $12 million spread out among only 17 states in highly targeted communities can go a long way. For one thing, PAF has been able to get into communities earlier than ever before; voter registration for 2004 has been underway in Cleveland and St. Louis for months. Rosenthal excitedly told the Washington Post that he has the funds to hire seasoned campaign vets who have won statewide campaigns to run these voter registration operations. In the past, this kind of responsibility has typically fallen to twenty-somethings working on their first or second campaigns. Can you say "upgrade"?

Hip Hopping the Vote

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) was also active in Philadelphia's mayoral election, registering an unprecedented 11,000 voters. HSAN was founded in 2001 by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Ben Chavis Muhammad, former executive director of the NAACP and organizer of the Million Man March. Simmons has been increasingly politically active of late, with his most visible effort having been a recent New York City rally numbering in the thousands that protested Mayor Bloomberg's education cuts.

The mission of HSAN is to use the energy of hip-hop to engage young people for social action and education advocacy. HSAN's stated goal is to register 20 million voters in five years -- this would amount to a significant influx into the electorate of, presumably, younger left-leaning voters. (Along with several other groups, HSAN is also part of World Wrestling Entertainment's "Smackdown Your Vote!" campaign to sign up two million young people in time for the 2004 election.) HSAN has held close to a dozen "summits" across the country that use prominent rappers to attract attendees to talk about issues ranging from voter participation to the business side of hip-hop. Philadelphia marked the first time that attendees had to register to vote (or show a voter registration card) to be allowed admission.

By most accounts, the Philadelphia event was a success. The 11,000-plus voters registered was the most ever signed up at a hip-hop event. Thousands of young people turned out to see their idols, including DMX, Reverend Run, LL Cool J, Wyclef Jean, Doug E. Fresh, and Musiq. But none of them performed; instead the artists held a panel discussion titled "The Power and Unity of the Street Toward Political and Economic Empowerment." Youth were encouraged to participate in the electoral process and harness their energy to achieve career goals. Clad in Simmons' Phat Farm shoes, Mayor Street even made an in-person appeal for help with his re-election. (Alas, the Mayor was met with a chorus of boos.)

Can They Do It Again?

So what did these groups do right? Can their efforts be replicated in other parts of the country?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the hip-hop summit attendees went to the event not for a civics lesson, but for the opportunity for some hip-hop networking. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that "many of the young people who asked questions at the event wanted to talk about how to make it as hip-hop artists rather than about the advertised topics of the panels -- economic and political empowerment." Several spent their time trying to figure out ways to get their homemade demos to the honored hip-hop guests.

Chavis had told reporters that the Hip Hop Summit Action Network planned to capture the names of the 11,000 registrants into a database for future voter contact. The hip-hop summits could easily register hundreds of thousands of new young voters across the country. But repeat contact after the events will be crucial to keep the youth engaged in the political process. Otherwise, you'll have a bunch of new young voters who lose interest once luster of seeing their hip-hop idols in person wears off.

PAF did a lot of things right. Getting involved early was a key first step. As Rosenthal told the Washington Post, "The Democratic program aimed at minority voters has often been to ignore them for one year and 50 weeks out of a two-year election cycle, then send in recorded phone messages from Bill Clinton and last-minute mail." These voters -- particularly in the African-American community -- have historically felt like they were taken for granted by the Democratic Party. By visiting these communities early in the process and having a real person-to-person dialogue with each household, PAF showed them that they were important to the mayoral campaign.

PAF is also hiring locals whenever possible to do the organizing in their targeted states. We saw how successful Howard Dean was when he bused in 3,500 volunteers from out of state to tell Iowans how to vote. Sending canvassers into their own communities to talk to voters is much more effective. In Philadelphia, PAF shrewdly recruited Congressman Fattah's vaunted West Philadelphia organization to help run the show.

Like most things in campaigns, it comes down to money. PAF's successful fundraising has given the group the resources to do it right. Their resources allow them to get experienced campaigners like Fattah and Lindenfeld to put together their voter contact programs. They can afford the high-tech tools of voter contactl the Palm Pilots and computerized databases with each household's top issues. Now let's see if they have the means to replicate the intensity and breadth of their campaign in Philadelphia simultaneously in several other states. With $12 million, that shouldn't be a problem.

Grassroots campaigning has seen a resurgence in recent years. The Republicans have even seen the light; they registered thousands of new voters in the run-up to their big wins in the 2002 midterm elections. Efforts like PAF's in Philadelphia could serve as a new paradigm -- real, labor-intensive efforts with extensive resources registering voters months before Election Day. And then cultivating those registrants through repeated person-to-person contact with localized issue pitches throughout the campaign. All for roughly the same price as buying a couple of 30-second TV spots during the last episode of "Friends."

Jamil Khan is a political consultant based in Philadelphia, Penn. He has worked with dozens of campaigns from coast to coast.

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