The immediate cause of the reelection of President Barack Obama is that the Obama campaign and its allies conducted a ground game much superior to that of the Mitt Romney campaign and its allies. The Democrats’ greater number of effective, on-the-ground activists and leaders made the difference.
A great many conservative organizations did mobilize large numbers of grassroots members and donors. In some cases with considerable resources, these conservative organizations worked hard to activate in the election the bases they had built.
Often the cumulative impact of politically effective conservative organizations can swing elections to conservative candidates. But not always, of course.
Back in the 1960s, I learned from Raymond V. Humphreys, the longtime director of political training at the Republican National Committee, something called the “Abe Lincoln Four-Step.” It was Abraham Lincoln’s description, years before there was a Republican party, of the systematic way to win an election.
Here is the Abe Lincoln Four-Step:
1. Obtain a complete list of all the voters.
2. Ascertain with certainty for whom each will vote.
3. Have the undecided spoken to by those in whom they have the most confidence.
4. On Election Day, make sure every Whig gets to the polls.
Advances in technology since the mid-19th century have changed how these four steps can be accomplished. And changes in election law now enable many people to vote before Election Day. But accomplishing those four steps is still the best way to maximize one’s chance of winning an election. That is why I have made sure that my educational foundation, the Leadership Institute, always includes the Abe Lincoln Four-Step in our political training programs.
Please note that the Abe Lincoln Four-Step is a systematic, universal plan. It includes the entire electorate. In practice, such a comprehensive approach can be carried out only by a political party or, sometimes, by a very well-funded candidate — and even then, never 100 percent completely.
In the United States, to be sure, political activity is not limited to political parties and political candidates. That is a good thing. Everyone has the right to associate with others in political activity independent of party organizations or candidates’ committees. Many do.
Exercising their rights, Americans support tens of thousands of at least nominally non-partisan groups that are active in politics, from organized labor to the National Right to Work Committee, from MoveOn.org to a local tea-party group.
Each such group can have its political impact. Some have a big impact. At the margin, some groups, alone or in concert with allied groups, can make the difference between victory and defeat. But none of them can fully implement the Abe Lincoln Four-Step. Only a well-organized political party or a well-organized candidate’s committee can come even close to doing that.
A political party is an empty vessel, which has meaning only through the principles and actions of those who choose to use it for their own purposes. Without working through a political party, conservatives will never implement our principles in the policy-making process.
At the same time, without a large coalition of at least nominally non-partisan, cooperating conservative groups, the Republican party would win few elections. So it is downright stupid, on the one hand, for party officials to resent the political participation of independent conservative groups and, on the other, for conservative leaders to refuse to cooperate with party committees on behalf of candidates whom those conservative leaders want to win.
By law, anyone can take part in a political party. No one can be turned away from participating in the nominating procedure of the party of his or her choice. If more conservatives exercised their rights to participate inside the Republican party, there would be many fewer content-free party leaders.
Starting on Election Day itself, I have received uncounted e-mails and phone calls reporting the disastrous failure of the Romney campaign’s project called “Orca,” a massive and expensive program to get out the vote. Most Americans had never heard of Orca, but horror stories about it are circulating in some news media and online, including NRO.