In 2008, the Obama team's massive ground game left a few local party officials openly skeptical. In Western North Carolina, they wondered until late October where they fit into the Obama Election Day strategy, or if the strategy was simply all about Obama.
In the end, the Obama team led voter registration and drove an intense get-out-the-vote effort targeting first-time voters, leaving poll greeting and ballot education at the polls to county parties. The hounds to the hunters.
It worked. In Buncombe County, Democrats won 36 of 36 races and tipped the state blue by 14,000 votes.
In the 2010 midterms, however, the DNC and Organizing for America will have to convince voters who went to the polls for the first time to vote for Obama to vote for Democratic candidates and incumbents lacking Obama's charisma. The Pew Research Center's Andrew Kohut describes Obama's legion of surge voters as "relatively sleepy" since the election. The challenge will be to wake them up and get them back to the polls again.
Leading that effort has fallen again to Obama confidant David Plouffe. Matt Bai writes in the New York Times Sunday Magazine:
That could be a tough sell. The thrust of Bai's article is that Obama never earned his stripes in the party trenches before running for office and never worked as a party strategist. He is "a genuine outsider who spends a fair amount of energy reassuring Democrats that he really does care about the organization."
"Let's be clear -- these are not Democratic voters," Cornell Belcher, the Obama campaign pollster, cautioned me. "They're Obama voters." The lesson that Plouffe and his operation took away from the dismal 2009 elections is that Obama can act like a matchmaker of sorts, introducing the party's candidates to new voters and vouching for their intentions, but it's only going to matter if the candidates themselves embrace the so-called new politics. What that means, practically speaking, is that the White House is urging candidates to divert a fair amount of their time and money -- traditionally used for buying TV ads and rallying core constituencies -- to courting volunteers and voters who haven't generally been reliable Democrats.
OFA may have "virtually supplanted the party structure." But there is a difference between moving in and fitting in. As in 2008, there is the same recurring question: Are OFA's activities meant to help the party or to help OFA? So long as the question still gets asked at the county level, the marriage of the DNC and OFA will remain unconsummated.
There remains "something of a cultural chasm between the White House and the party apparatus," Bai writes. Older Democrats "have a harder time imagining that a bunch of volunteers and a dozen virtual town-hall meetings are going to matter more than labor endorsements and some killer 30-second spots." Insiders remain unconvinced that OFA is anything more than a fad, and Obama's election anything more than a fluke fueled by voter dissatisfaction and "an absurd amount of money."
Yet back in Buncombe County -- Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler's conservative district -- progressive Patsy Keever embraced the "new politics" and ousted an incumbent state representative in the recent North Carolina Democratic primary. Even though outspent 4-to-1, Keever's boots-on-the-ground campaign -- led by an Obama field veteran -- trounced a traditional one built around ad buys and bulk mail.
That may be change progressives can believe in. But for many party stalwarts the honeymoon is still on hold.