The way Congressman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic City Committee, sees it, nothing has changed –- not the players, not the game, and certainly not the goal.
Philadelphia’s political machine -– a network of Democratic Party officials, neighborhood bosses known as ward leaders, multi-block area captains often called committee members, and paid door-knockers, runners and drivers they hire to work on Election Day –- will drive up voter participation. The registered voters in the city’s 1.54 million, minority majority population have the capacity to deliver the state of Pennsylvania and its electoral college votes for President Barack Obama.
But unlike Democratic Party candidates before him, Obama’s camp won’t be paying for the services of Philadelphia’s political machine. Instead, the campaign will depend on a network of volunteers and a blitzkrieg of commercials.
The Obama campaign’s decision not to use the paid "volunteers" isn’t new. Team Obama famously opted out of machine-style politics in 2008. But this year, with the election expected to be won by a razor-thin margin, people deeply enmeshed in Democratic politics in Philadelphia are split about what the strategy means for the campaign.
Some, like Brady, said they think Obama will still reap the residual benefits of the machine's efforts on behalf of other candidates. But others are expressing open frustration and doubt that Obama can win without directly engaging the services of the political machine or others like it around the country.
Paying people to knock on doors, talk to voters and make sure they get to the polls is not illegal. Neither is remunerating people who hand out sample ballots, call voters on Election Day or knock on their door a few hours before the polls close to make sure people inside have cast a ballot. And when the Philadelphia Democratic Party holds its annual fundraising dinner next week to finance the political machine's get-out-the-vote effort, candidates for state-wide, county and city offices -- as well as local business owners and residents -- will make donations to the committee that will finance that work. So, too, will Obama supporters who believe in the machine, said Brady.
“I’m talking with the campaign every day. We’re working together. They just aren’t paying us, not directly. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be out there for Obama in Philly," Brady said. "You just can’t say that’s true. People who know politics in this city know that the machine works.”
Tickets to the annual dinner cost $150. Critics of machine politics call that payola because donors expect access to and specific results from the people they help to get elected.
Anthony Williams, a Pennsylvania state senator and 3rd Ward leader in Philadelphia for most of the last 20 years, ranks among the Philadelphia Democrats who are concerned.
Williams is also the immediate past chair of the Ward Leaders of Color Group, a collection of 16 African American and one Latino ward leaders who Williams said are frustrated and worried.
“I’m hearing from people every day who are whining and ringing their hands about what they are going to do on Election Day if no money comes through,” Williams said. “I guess on Election Day we’ll all see how much that mattered.”
Political machines saw the apex of their power in the last part of the 19th century and earliest part of the next, according to Ryan Enos, a Harvard University political scientist who studies the psychology of voting. But in some cities, such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, political machines remain the infrastructure though which political hopefuls are expected to work.
Still, there's quite a bit of research showing that volunteers -– when organized and enthusiastic –- can be just as effective as paid workers in getting people to vote. That's because voters have the capacity to differentiate between a true, enthusiastic believer and a paid marketer. With the latter, conversations are often shorter and less engaged, Enos said.
According to Enos, few campaigns are more familiar with the science and psychology of voting than the notoriously data-driven, research-intensive Obama campaign.
This week alone, the Pennsylvania Obama for America website issued a call for volunteers to work a phone bank in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Then, a supporter posted another call for volunteers, this time to walk and make get out the vote calls in Philadelphia’s 19th Ward. And, in another section of town, a Barack Obama and Dancing with the Stars enthusiast invited others to her home to watch the show on mute while participating in a get out the vote phone bank.
The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment about its get out the vote efforts in Philadelphia.
In 2008, candidate Obama said he would not make use of the paid political machine operatives that politicians before him had used to win Philadelphia or other big cities and key states. Obama detractors and even some supporters said the candidate’s stance had less to do with principals and more to do with a pragmatic reality: If the establishment candidate, then Sen. Hilary Clinton, had wanted to, she could have locked up the machine’s services.
By the time the general election season had started, Obama’s campaign had managed to recruit buses full of volunteers who showed up in Philadelphia almost every weekend to knock on doors, said Edgar Campbell, leader of west Phialdelphia’s 4th Ward since 2008.
Campbell knows the political machine well. His sister served as ward leader 20 years. And before her, their father worked as the godfather of Philly’s 4th Ward.
In 2008, Obama’s volunteers had energy and iPads full of data, Campbell said. But on Election Day, paid political machine operatives had an advantage: most lived in the communities where they were trying to get people to vote. They could knock on doors, call people by name and nicknames and have direct, detailed conversations about the candidates, Campbell said. For their efforts, most were paid about $100.
“Do you think he would have carried Pennsylvania without Philadelphia?” Campbell asked about Obama.