January 24, 2008

Obama against the machine

Here is a fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal about the very different campaigns that Obama and Clinton are running in South Carolina. Basically, the key distinction is that Clinton is relying on the age-old model of essentially paying for black voter turnout -- giving lucrative consulting contracts to prominent leaders and handing out "walking-around money" to local politicians responsible for getting out the black vote on polling day. This kind of thing has been going on ever since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, but as the WSJ notes, it "hasn't been effective at fostering sustained black participation in state and local politics. In South Carolina, blacks make up nearly a third of the population, but they are significantly underrepresented in elected office, even in areas where they are the majority. "

Obama, in contrast, "is trying something many observers say has never been done here: He is circumventing entrenched local leadership and building a political machine from scratch. His staff consists largely of community organizers -- many from out of state or with no political experience -- who are assembling an army of volunteers. It is a strategy often used by labor organizations and in neighborhood and town politics... Mr. Obama's team says his grass-roots approach -- tapping younger African-American voters who have never been engaged in elections -- has the potential to permanently change the way politics are practiced here."

Obama's strategy may or may not work -- the Clinton campaign remains dubious. But it displays a desire to engage with voters in a meaningful way that, to me, is the most ambitious and interesting aspect of Obama's candidacy.