And it just so happens that even though Jim Webb might not be the insider’s darling yet he could be the most qualified to become the next Obama-like rockstar in 2016.
Even before Obama, Jim Webb’s 2006 Senate campaign laid down the FIRST blueprint for what a “winning” grassroots campaign could be in the 21st Century after Howard Dean pioneered the internet and people-driven strategy in 2004.
First, whether by accident or design, Webb was actually “drafted” to run thanks to the efforts of bloggers Josh Chernila and Lowell Feld as chronicled in the book “Netroots Rising.” A passionate economic populist BUT also a war hero and served as Navy Secretary under President Reagan was the kind of mix Democrats needed in a state like Virginia.
Since he owed his candidacy to people asking him to become a candidate, he smartly let his supporters keep driving the bus with more creativity once the campaign officially began.
As many probably recall, his campaign’s opposition tracking led to the legendary “Macaca” moment where an Indian-American campaign worker was welcome to the “REAL Virginia” during his speech by Republican candidate George Allen...the first political gaffe to destroy a politician via YouTube.
But aside from finding aggressive ways to expose the racism of his opponent, it also meant aggressive ways to mobilize people on the ground FOR the candidate. That mean that volunteers were given the power to innovate under the guidance of Chernila as Grassroots Coordinator of a volunteer community called The Brigades - the alumni chapter is home to some of Northern Virginia’s strongest activists to this day.
But aside from a focus on the typical volunteer roles of door knocking and phone calls, the Brigades were also about proactive outreach efforts. After the “Macaca” incident South Asian volunteers branded themselves as “REAL Virginians for Webb” with their own T-Shirts and Business Cards. Then I had an idea for reaching another demographic we created a Generation Webb program that featured a website with videos and events to reach young voters.
Hence, after an improbable primary victory just four months after announcing his candidacy, Jim Webb pulled off a legendary 9,000-vote general election upset victory against a presidential hopeful that wound up flipping the Senate to the Democrats. Virginia has been a “purple” state ever since.
So, how does this all translate into 2016 for Jim Webb or any other candidate? Here are 4 key ways:
1) Be a Rockstar!
As they say, Democrats want to fall in love while Republicans fall in line.
To win, you need to do more than come up with a brilliant policy idea or wait for an opponent’s gaffe to create a wave of support, you need to inspire an aura of excitement. The critics probably don’t see a new one on the horizon but there’s an easy way to remedy that: start being awesome!
As proven by Webb as well as “Straight Talk Express” John McCain or Ron Paul you don’t have to be superficially charismatic, attractive or unique as a person to make it happen if your CAMPAIGN is attractive and unique...especially if you can build a brand as an authentic and even reluctant citizen leader not just an ambitious professional politician.
Actions speak louder than Words.
2) Be an “Explainer-in-Chief!”
Everyone was so enamored with how President Clinton explained the President’s record at the DNC Convention in 2012 but his message should have been old hat already if the party was doing its job. As Jim Webb does in his campaign video above, he is also willing to educate his audience on the issues and won’t just throw out a series of talking points. He also will take the time to promote his record of achievements which is even more important to show proof you can get results.
This is also true because the winning candidate will need President Obama to improve his poll numbers and the best way to do that is to highlight what has worked in the last six years. And President Obama is right that it is a problem for ALL Democrats because his policies are their policies too.
There will be pressure on candidates to distance themselves from the President and I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities for that but this is the best way to win over the Obama loyalists and persuadable people who are down on him because the media only covers the overblown crisis-of-the-minute like ISIS or Ebola.
3) Be a “Hope & Change” Candidate!
Not only should candidates support the President’s record, they should also share his “Yes We Can”-themed and “Pragmatic Progressive”-focused messaging. Everyone is going to start wondering if Jim Webb is going to run to Hillary’s Left but I don’t think it was ever clear that Barack Obama was despite his Iraq War opposition. The perception that someone is THE “progressive” candidate can easily label someone as the fringe option not as a mainstream player. If Jim focuses on his positive message and his ability to listen to new ideas, compromise and make government work he will avoid the trap that other insurgent campaigns get into when they focus too much on ideology as some kind of partisan warrior.
4) Be a “Grassroots” Candidate!
Democrats talk a lot about progressive values but they also have to practice what they preach with a campaign operation that learns from the President’s previous campaigns and Webb’s pioneering Brigades team. When you match people-driven policies with people-driven politics you get better results so that means more money invested in digital and field outreach (including attractive salaries and work requirements to attract the best talent) and less devoted to annoying and ineffective TV ads.
You create buzz among the base by informing and building a relationship with them as part of a team that is part of a broader movement not by treating them like one-way email pen pals that constantly owe you a bigger allowance.
The bottom line is Democrats need to start building on these lessons if they want to succeed again. There are no excuses anymore as there are are more registered Democrats than Republicans in America and demographics are leaning their way every day. Hence, the country is becoming more progressive on issues ranging from the minimum wage to gay marriage to marijuana.
Yet Democrats succumb to the hype of right-wing scare tactics and how well they can target ads or raise online dollars they will continue to lose to a party that is fighting to take away our Rights and kill the American Dream in plain sight as their primary agenda.
Like Jim Webb, I underwent a political transformation myself after seeing this occur over the years and especially after witnessing the fraud and incompetence of the Iraq War. And I believe Democrats can not only win but create a mandate if they are more strategic and an even “inclusive” when it comes to persuading men (especially younger “Sportscenter” voters) by speaking the stats-savvy language of a Nate Silver or Ezra Klein so they don’t think the Unemployment rate is 32% for example.
Time will tell if 2016 candidates will proudly exclaim “Yes We STILL Can!” and get to work.
About “Forward Progressive” Blog:
Jim McBride is a social and media strategist was the Founder of Generation Webb and Generation Obama-Washington, DC chapter as well as one of the lead organizers of Virginia For Obama’s grassroots-led primary campaign. He is currently the President of the grassroots community Network For Progress and has over 20 years in communications and political work.