All Politics Is Personal: A Comeback Story

Tip O’Neill famously declared that “All politics is local,” but one Super PAC that played heavily in the 2014 midterms might want to adjust that maxim to this: All politics is personal.

Unlike most outside groups (that rely heavily on paid advertising) Person to Person PAC‘s mission was to deploy conservative activists from all 50 states into a handful of targeted races where they then conduct personal voter contact such as door-to-door campaigning and phone calls.

“I think the shift has happened with the entire Republican Party, and, frankly, the conservative movement,” says Patrick Davis, the group’s treasurer, regarding the move toward more personal voter contact. “We decided after 2012 that automated phone calls and the impersonal nature of television and radio advertising was just not enough for us to be winning elections.”

Republicans have long lamented that Democrats are outmaneuvering them in terms of putting “boots on the ground.” It’s no surprise why many outside groups lean toward TV advertising and paid phone calls over other forms of voter contact: Grassroots organizing is more time consuming, more difficult, and harder to quantify. If your goal is to generate media attention and buzz about your group, putting a thousand points on television is more likely to do that than claiming you knocked on X number of doors. It’s probably also true that we fetishize technology, and that this probably plays into underestimating personal forms of voter contact. And lastly, media strategists (who pocket a percentage of TV ad buys) have an obvious financial incentive to encourage their clients to run ads.

For Person to Person PAC, this move to a more personal brand of activism is a form of reinvention — of getting back to the basics — and not just in terms of how Republicans ought to run campaigns, but, more also, in terms of the group’s principals. There are no second acts in American lives, they say, but Davis, whose 2008 advocacy for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raised hackles, and Italia Federici, who became embroiled in the Jack Abramoff scandal a decade ago, are out to prove them wrong.

Back in 2008, the Huckabee campaign ended up asking Davis’s Common Sense Issues group to stop making controversial automated phone calls. Today, Davis reports that high-profile candidates are much more receptive to outside help when, instead of coming in the form of a negative TV spot or phone call, it comes in the form of a smiling conservative volunteer.

Meanwhile, Federici, a co-founder of the group who works as a field director, tells me she considered not getting back into the political process. Ultimately, though, she came to realize “the only reason that I would have turned that opportunity down is — it would have been a fear-based decision.” (Of late, there has been a lot of talk lately about forgiveness. David Brooks and Peter Wehner, for example, argue we should extend grace to Brian Williams. I’m probably more interested in the way that relatively obscure people find themselves thrust into the media’s crosshairs. Jon Ronson’s terrific piece on Justine Sacco was on my mind as Federici described to me how she felt “scarred” from the Abramoff experience. “There’s a bit of a bunker mentality that can set in,” Federici said, “and it’s on the disorienting side.”)

Success has many fathers, and there were numerous factors that contributed to the GOP’s success in 2014. Still, everything I know about politics tells me it’s smart to work on a ground game — that grassroots politics (not just negative TV ads) matters. There are lessons we must keep learning over and over again. And sometimes, it takes imperfect messengers — those chastened by past experiences — to muster the courage to try something so obvious, yet innovative.

Listen to my full conversation with Patrick Davis and Italia Federici here. And download the podcast on iTunes.

Also, don’t miss our recent conversations with Chuck Todd, Tucker Carlson, and Jon Huntsman.