BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
The most important lesson of the Obama presidential campaign, according to former Governor Michael Dukakis ‘60, is that successful campaigns are founded upon organizations that employ the grassroots power of direct person-to-person contact.
Dukakis says his own political career as a member of the town meeting of Brookline began with the common sense step of knocking on doors and asking for the support of voters. When he ran for the governorship in 1972, he made sure to have a captain in every precinct across the state, working to make sure every voting household would be directly contacted, and he managed to defeat his opponent, the incumbent state attorney general, while spending only $25,000 on mass media.
Dukakis admits that he made many mistakes in the 1988 campaign for the presidency, but he says that in retrospect he should have gone with his instinct and mobilized grassroots support across the country. The Obama campaign, which succeeded in Iowa through grassroots, faltered briefly before recognizing the potential for the internet to open access to a broad base of support. The result was fundraising of over $750,000,000 from 4,000,000 supporters, shattering all the records.
But despite the phenomenal success of the Obama organization’s grassroots strategy on the national level, local candidates have reverted to reliance on mass media and ignorance of the person-to-person organizational strategy. The only candidate employing the tried-and-true methods in the present Massachusetts senate race, says Dukakis, is Alan Khazei ’87, but unfortunately the compressed schedule of the special election will likely minimize the benefit this provides.
To Dukakis, a serious candidate will start organizing 18 months ahead of the election. The process begins with the selection of an experienced organizer who can work the field tirelessly and appoint a captain in every precinct. Once each precinct is staffed by local block captains, the process of knocking on the door of every voting household begins, and it doesn’t end until each house has been canvassed multiple times.
The most obvious proof of this strategy’s success is, for Dukakis, the victory of Governor Deval Patrick ’82. When Patrick came to Dukakis in 2005, he was an unknown across Massachusetts. Dukakis told him to get a captain in every one of the 2,157 precincts across the state and begin organizing a direct appeal to voters. “And this neophyte, who had never run for elected office before and who very few people knew, not only beat two much better known and quite capable candidates to win the nomination, but he went on to win the election over the incumbent lieutenant governor by 20%. How did he do it? It was all grassroots organizing.”
Red-states and Blue-states, Republicans and Democrats, he believes an aggressive candidate should reach out to every voting household and make a direct appeal using the voice of members of the local community who have joined the campaign organization. Do this, and you will win.