For Democrats in the Bay State, the most important person at the Symphony Hall gathering in Boston on Monday night was John Walsh. The chair of the state's Democratic Party is not the media-savvy insider that one finds swirling around contemporary American politics. He's a throwback to a time when party leaders knew how to organize precincts, get out the vote, and wear out a decent pair of shoes going door to door to find and motivate voters.
Barack Obama is going to win Massachusetts this fall, and his margin of victory may decide whether Elizabeth Warren goes to the Senate or back to Harvard. Recent polling suggests that the Senate race remains a dead heat. Scott Brown's favorability ratings are on the rise, and he has, thus far, positioned himself as a senator that Massachusetts voters can embrace while they simultaneously embrace the president.
Enter John Walsh and his remarkably succinct strategy. Just about 36 percent of Massachusetts voters are registered Democrats, compared with 11 percent who are registered as Republicans. Independents, or unenrolled, voters account for 52 percent of the electorate, and they lean Democratic. Walsh's strategy is to knock on their doors. He's determined not to go through another January 2010, when the Senate seat held by Democratic icon Ted Kennedy went to Brown. It was a humiliating loss for the party, and Walsh took it personally. He cut his teeth on get-out-the-vote efforts, leading Deval Patrick to victory in 2006, over the party's preferred candidate, Tom Reilly. Patrick asked Walsh to assume the leadership of the same party Walsh had just outmaneuvered with an explicit grassroots strategy. But the strategy failed in the special election of 2010.
One of the main lessons Walsh took away from that defeat was that a media strategy doesn't knock on a voter's door, provide a human contact, and motivate them to vote. So he sent his party members into the streets to meet voters. It's quaint, old-fashioned, not at all hip and modern. It's not a media strategy. But it is highly effective. Recognizing the challenges of direct mail, the clutter of television ads, and the fact that those who still have landlines don't answer them, he turned to precincts and breathed life into a coordinated campaign strategy.
The party went from defeat in January 2010 to victory 11 months later, reelecting Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, who faced a stiff challenge from a tea-party-backed Republican and kept all statewide offices and the congressional delegation Democratic. Walsh and his party then immediately cast their sights on Scott Brown. The party put together "interconnected organizers" of volunteers, about 10 per precinct. They were charged with connecting with 50 voters each, and the activists were rewarded for their efforts with incentives and recognition by party leaders. He encourages his party activists to connect with people they know first, then those they share acquaintances with, then the unknown voter who is inclined to vote Democratic but has rarely been contacted by a party member.
The party has redefined "community" for its get-out-the-vote purposes to go beyond geography: Churches, social clubs, union halls, and social networks are all now brought into the mix. On top of that, the chairman figuratively plays the role of Santa Claus. He checks voter lists and checks them twice. He oversees a party operation that has stimulated activity among the local town committees by giving them access to voter information that allows them, with relative ease, to pinpoint Democratic voters or Democratic-leaning voters, with the purpose of getting them to the polls via direct contact.
Of course, any successful party effort creates a competitive effort to catch up. The GOP in Massachusetts has launched MassVictory and is working to reach out to their base, unenrolled voters, and Democratic voters who have, thus far, prevented Elizabeth Warren from turning all those Obama supporters into her own.
While Warren and Obama stole the show on Monday, John Walsh's old-fashioned politics may turn out to be the deciding factor in the president's margin of victory here and whether or not Scott Brown remains a U.S. Senator.