Barack Obama’s move to merge key elements of the Democratic National Committee into his own campaign’s Chicago headquarters appears aimed at the goal of a centralized and united Democratic Party.
The shift of the DNC’s political and field organizing operations to Chicago will consolidate the Democratic presidential campaign apparatus more than in either of the last two cycles, when staffers at DNC headquarters overlapped – and occasionally competed – with aides to Al Gore and John Kerry.
Obama’s move also seemed aimed at producing minimum conflict: The DNC didn’t immediately fire any of its staff, and Obama’s aides have publicly embraced DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s vision of a party competitive in all 50 states. But it also left no doubt about where the new center of power lies: On the 11th floor of an undistinguished office tower on Michigan Avenue.
“We’re looking at every way possible that we can most efficiently run this campaign,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
DNC aides publicly welcomed the transition, which is a standard effect of any presidential nomination.
“I don’t think anyone could have ever predicted what’s about to transpire,” said DNC chief of staff Tom McMahon, who predicted that the combined Obama and party campaign would “dwarf” Democratic efforts in 2004.
The move to Obama’s headquarters puts the Windy City squarely at the center of American politics for the first time since it was the scene of a Democratic Party meltdown at the 1968 convention. Then and now, it’s a city whose central political feature – top-down machine control – is one legacy Obama has taken from his allies in the reigning Daley family. His campaign has been a model of leak-free discipline and clear lines of authority from the candidate and his guru, Chicago-based David Axelrod, through his campaign manager David Plouffe and a tight-knit staff.
Dean’s Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has won the affection of state party officials by dispatching paid organizers to supplement state party staff in every state in the country, and has worked to update databases of voters. But it has been outmatched by the muscular Republican National Committee – which benefits from control of the White House – in fundraising and communication. In those latter areas, the RNC – in a mirror image of the Democratic side – has filled gaps in Senator John McCain’s smaller organization.
Now, Obama’s large, deep-pocketed effort seems set to absorb and transform the committee’s key functions, and to reshape it after its own model, and largely on its own turf—though Obama’s former Iowa state director, Paul Tewes, will remain in Washington to oversee the party’s fundraising and media operations there. Obama’s aides credit part of their success to the Chicago location, with its relative isolation from the national media.
“Pulling people into the same city is a good idea,” said David Wilhelm, an informal adviser to Obama who served as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign manager in 1992 and is also a former DNC chairman. “It can have a very important effect on the outcome. A seamless level of coordination and collaboration between the national, state, and presidential campaign itself will mean the ground game can be effective and the 2 to 3 percentage points that can be the difference between winning and losing.”
But the move to Chicago also inspired some concern among Democrats who would prefer the party play a larger, independent function, and not merely serve the nominee.
“The DNC has responsibility beyond the presidential campaign—to senators and governors and members of the House of Representatives as well as state parties--and when you dismantle the DNC and move it to the same location ofthe presidential campaign headquarters, there could be an implication there that the move is being made to capture the DNC wholly for the presidential campaign,” said Donald Fowler, who served as DNC chairman during the 1996 presidential election.
Recalling the friction with the 1996 Clinton campaign over allocating more national party resources to the presidential race, he said, “I would be leery of the DNC forsaking their interest in all of these offices to focus exclusively on the president campaign.”
Obama’s DNC takeover extends beyond Chicago and Washington. His campaign is also expected to take control of the elements of state Democratic Party operations that are financed by the DNC as part of Dean’s “50 State Strategy,” according to state and national party officials. Those officials said the campaign would likely absorb the party staffers only in battleground states, and state officials were still absorbing plans Thursday.
“The Obama campaign has obviously demonstrated they know what it takes to win. Streamlining and centralizing the DNC political staff makes a lot of sense to me,” said Joe Werner, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Some state officials were less excited about the prospect that party staffers would report to Chicago rather than the state parties, but none voiced major objections.
"If that's the case and the DNC has signed off on it, that’s the way it's gotta be," said Abe Amoros, political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
A Democratic official said Obama would also focus on steering large contributions from wealthy donors to the committee’s coffers, which could then be used to pay some staffers in Chicago and in the states. Obama aides whose work does not involve “direct advocacy,” but focuses instead on, for instance, fundraising or turnout, may shift to DNC job titles and email accounts, while DNC staffers may shift to Obama’s campaign.
But the key aides will be working side by side in the sprawling cubicles in Chicago, effectively part of the same organization, a move that many Democrats praised as a welcome departure from the party’s balkanized tradition. One former DNC chairman, Steve Grossman, however, expressed concern that the demand that staffers leave their families behind in Washington to head to the center of power in Chicago – a common situation for Obama aides – would drive away some DNC staff.
But Obama seems intent on avoiding the organizational woes of earlier Democratic campaigns. His campaign has valued centralized power over creative tension, and his internal motto is “no drama.”
And so the shift will be a marked departure from 2004, when tensions between the DNC and the Kerry campaign sometimes ran hot.
“They were both in Washington, but they might as well have been in different cities,” said one Democratic official, who noted that in key states the organizations sometimes duplicated their efforts – and occasionally stepped on one another’s toes.
In a mark of their divergent visions, then-DNC Chairman Terry McCauliffe later called Kerry’s failure to unseat President George W. Bush "one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics.”
Avi Zenilman contributed to this report.