The New York Times today.
The anonymously financed conservative groups that have played such a crucial role this campaign year are starting a carefully coordinated final push to deliver control of Congress to Republicans, shifting money among some 80 House races they are monitoring day by day. … Many of the conservative groups say they have been trading information through weekly strategy sessions and regular conference calls. They have divided up races to avoid duplication, the groups say, and to ensure that their money is spread around to put Democrats on the defensive in as many districts and states as possible — and, more important, lock in whatever gains they have delivered for the Republicans so far.
“We carpet-bombed for two months in 82 races, now it’s sniper time,” said Rob Collins, president of American Action Network, which is one of the leading Republican groups this campaign season and whose chief executive is Norm Coleman, the former senator from Minnesota. “You’re looking at the battle field and saying, ‘Where can we marginally push — where can we close a few places out?’ ”
This highlights the questions that I was trying to get at in my earlier post, and raises some possibilities that I didn’t consider. The basic claim I am trying to make is straightforward: that party organization (and to a certain extent party goals) depend on the machineries which are available for fundraising and for getting the message out. This is a pretty well-accepted claim in political science. The reason that local party organizations with ward captains etc dissipated is because political entrepreneurs within these parties decided that TV advertising was more efficient. One of the major reasons for the increased role of conservative activists within the Republican party over the last thirty years was the mailing list system pioneered by Richard Viguerie (which eventually turned into a racket – but that is a different story). Mailing lists were used to raise money, to target incumbents, and generally to shift the party’s center of gravity towards the right. As Dave Karpf (whose dissertation talks about these issues a lot) points out, MoveOn (PDF) provides another potential disruptive model. However, the Obama campaign deliberately sought to clamp down on MoveOn and other independent groups during the 2008 campaign, and these groups have been having a considerably harder time playing defense of a sitting administration that they don’t always agree with, than offense against a Republican administration that they disagree with bitterly. The Obama model – of fundraising and organization through tailored and relatively tightly administered sites – provides a different model again.
After Citizens United, I would argue that you can plausibly identify three organizational models (or, perhaps more accurately, organizational families with certain shared characteristics) out there.
The first is the uncoordinated group party. This is the 2003-2004 Dean primary campaign, the netroots, MoveOn and the Kerry 2004 presidential campaign (which sought to compensate for weaker fundraising than the Republican party with a strong reliance on money and advertising by outside groups). It’s also represented by some aspects of the Tea Party (the ones stressed in Jonathan Rauch’s article. Here, one sees a lot of decentralized activity by activists and interest groups without much in the way of central planning. The advantage of this form of organization is spontaneity, mobilization and the ability to respond quickly to certain kinds of opportunity – the disadvantage is the risk of duplication of effort and difficulties in responding to major organizational challenges that require high levels of coordination.
The second is the coordinated campaign party. Here, I’m not only thinking of traditional parties, but also of the Obama 2007-2008 primary machine and the 2008 Obama electoral campaign. This tries to leverage some of the organizational energy of more freewheeling approaches – but subordinates it as much as possible to a centrally planned campaign with coordinated messaging. The Obama campaign quite deliberately shut down alternative organizational efforts, preferring to concentrate fundraising and message control in its own hands. The advantage here is tight control and ability to respond systematically rather than opportunistically. The disadvantages are the disadvantages of hierarchy – blockages in upwards flows of information, frustrations of possible allies who are shut out of decision-making and so on.
What the Republicans seem to be arriving at in the wake of Citizens United is a third possible mode of organization – the coordinated group party. Here, the traditional party campaign structures play a secondary role. Instead, the major fundraising and electoral expenditures are coordinated among purely private groups, which aren’t at all effectively regulated. The advantage here is obvious – the ability to pump large amounts of unregulated money into the political system and to avoid the complicated rules on coordination of spending with candidates’ campaigns (since this is only a group of ‘private’ and ‘non-political’ organizations talking among themselves, they don’t have to comply). The disadvantage is that when there is e.g. a Presidential campaign, the inability to coordinate with that campaign may pose some real issues.
So for me, there are three interesting questions. The first is which model – if any – wins? That is, not necessarily which model wins out in the current election, but which model proves so attractive over the next decade or so that it reshapes party organization on both sides of the aisle.
The second is: what implications does this have for the regulation of campaign finance? In particular – if the coordinated group party is the winner, then US political parties are likely morph into an attenuated official ‘rump’ that serves as a rubber stamp for the things that only an accredited party can do, attached loosely to a much more important set of independent fundraising organizations that coordinate the important decisions about spending and advertising among themselves.
The third is: what implications does this have for policy? If the key decisions determining who gets financial, organizational and advertising support and who does not, happen within external groups rather than in committees where politicians have at least some leverage, it’s plausible that there are going to be consequences. It could be that there is less coordination on issues than before – a looser structure may bring various conflicts and contradictions to the surface. It could be that there is coordination – but that it involves a different set of issues than those that parties prioritize, or tighter focus on a smaller subset of those issues. It could also be that if the Obama model wins out, we could see a party which is much more focused on the president and his or her preferred agenda than in the past. Much will depend, obviously, on who has control of the money, and whether different groups who can bring money and resources to the table have similar or diverging interests.
I genuinely hadn’t thought about the possibilities of independent groups coordinating among themselves and providing an alternative to traditional forms of party organization. If this takes off, it will be a significant innovation. It will also be one that the Obama campaign (which is likely strongly organizationally invested in the model that won the 2008 election) is going to be unlikely to want to emulate in 2012, for better or worse.