April 25, 2004


The Multilevel Marketing of the President (MATT BAI, 4/25/04, NY Times Magazine)

For Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, and the rest of the Bush team, Ohio is beginning to look a lot like Florida without the oranges. The most recent polls show Bush and Kerry essentially tied there; according to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, Bush's approval rating in the state has dropped from a record 76 percent a year ago to 46 percent now. And it would be hard to imagine a world in which Bush could win the White House without winning Ohio (a feat, in fact, that no Republican has ever accomplished). As the election grows closer, the two sides, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars, will unleash a storm in Ohio so intense -- ads on every channel, knocks on every door, mailboxes and in-boxes overflowing -- that it could inspire a horror movie. Rove and his associates are known as a controlling bunch, and it has to be frustrating for them to know that so much of what could ultimately decide the race -- an ambush in Iraq, a spike in gas prices -- is entirely beyond their control. They crave something more empirical, some new formula with which to guarantee victory in November. And they think they've found it in the reassuringly hard data of street-level politics.

Traditionally, it was the Democrats who went door-to-door, registering voters while the G.O.P., pressing its significant financial advantage, relied on 30-second ads and paid mailings. But Rove came away from the 2000 election convinced that Bush would have won by a comfortable margin had it not been for Democratic ground forces. (Although Bush won Ohio, his commanding lead in the polls -- 10 points on the final weekend -- drained away to a margin of fewer than 4 points on Election Day, when Democrats turned out in force.) During the midterm elections of 2002, Republicans successfully tested their own turnout strategy, which they called the 72-Hour Project. For 2004, Rove's team has devised the most ambitious grass-roots model in the party's history.

Up close, what Bush is assembling on the local level looks less like a political campaign than what is known in business as a multilevel marketing scheme. In an MLM, like Mary Kay Cosmetics or Tupperware, each independent entrepreneur who joins the sales force -- a Betty Kitchen, say -- also becomes a recruiter who is responsible for bringing in several new entrepreneurs underneath her. The result is a pyramid-like sales structure that broadens to include more and more recruits with each descending level.

The notion of translating the MLM concept into politics is visionary -- and also a little disquieting. Pyramid-based companies have proved amazingly successful at raising up armies of enterprising Americans; Amway, the world's most successful MLM, has more than 3.6 million distributors. But some MLM's thrive by imposing their own strange and insular cultures on their recruits, and while they offer the illusion of self-employment, those at the top of the pyramid often demand a rigid kind of uniformity and loyalty. Amway has often been compared to a cult -- so often, in fact, that on its own Web site the company feels the need to answer such frequently asked questions as ''I've heard rumors that Amway is a cult; is this true?'' and ''Why do Amway meetings appear to some people like a cult?'' When I met with Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, in suburban Washington, and suggested that the Bush campaign could fairly be compared to Amway in its approach, he agreed without hesitation. ''Amway, no question,'' he said.

By descending the levels of this newly created Bush pyramid, from its headquarters in Washington down to the doorsteps of the exurban town houses sprouting up all over Ohio, you can see not just the outlines of the 2004 campaign taking shape but also the emerging portrait of politics in a new century. As steel and coal have faded, so, too, have the great political machines those industries created in Ohio's cities. These urban strongholds, hit hardest by job losses, are the places where Democrats have long ruled the streets. But Republicans believe they can control a new, more promising demographic: the fast-growing, conservative communities just beyond the suburban sprawl, where tony malls are rising almost monthly out of fields and farmland. For Republicans, this means a whole new market of potential entrepreneurs to enlist and mobilize. If Bush can harness the power of the exurbs, he can create a kind of organization the country has not yet witnessed -- a political machine for the new economy.

Ohio is the Democrats' black hole, a place they can't win but are likely to contest, leading to losses (including Senate seats) in states they could have held. Every dollar and minute spent in OH puts places like CA, HI, IL, etc. at risk.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 25, 2004 10:12 AM

I wish Republicans were as good as the New York Times/Democrats think they are.

The author of this article just had to use the words "cult", "strange", "insular", "horror movie". Liberals are really funny little rascals aren't they? He should have thrown in the word "zombie", while he was at it. To his credit he didn't use facist, or nazi, being how he's probably a nice guy.

Posted by: h-man at April 25, 2004 2:58 PM

Don't be too hard on the guy; being from the Times, he can't have much day-to-day contact with genuine conservative. I suspect if there is an actual Republican in New York City, that said person is an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 25, 2004 6:28 PM

I live in central Ohio. I have a nodding accaintance with the current Governor. When he was first elected, I thought he was an amiable dope. I have since decided that he is a bad tempered dope.

His problem and the problem of the Ohio democratic party in general is that they are still locked into the Eisenhower mentality of 92% marginal tax rates. Ohio has the 3rd highest tax rates in the country and precious little to show for it, and this after 14 years of Republican government.

Right now the only figure in Ohio politics who has a consistent anti-tax message is the Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Unfortunately, he would have trouble beating a more establishment figure like AG Jim Petro in a Primary because he (Blackwell) is Black and he will not pick up a lot of crossover votes.

Bottom line is that Ohio has yet to join the Reagan revolution. The reason Rove is building his own machine here is that he is afraid of the sclerotic local organization and that it has alienated the voters of Ohio.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 26, 2004 12:22 AM

"His problem and the problem of the Ohio democratic party in general"


should be:

His problem and the problem of the Ohio Republican party in general

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 26, 2004 12:32 AM


Sounds like the Republican outfit in Cook County, which had some strength up until about 1975, and then collapsed completely because there was no vision or leadership. And also because the country-club suburban Republicans had a hard time supporting Reagan the way they should have.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 26, 2004 6:42 AM

Jim the difference is that these guys control the legislature and all state wide offices. Unfortunately, conservatives are few and far between. Just this morning a memo from the aid de camp to the speaker of the house ploting the destruction of the only state wide conservative Ken Blackwell surfaced in the paper.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 26, 2004 2:52 PM

Don't be too hard on the guy; being from the Times, he can't have much day-to-day contact with genuine conservative. I suspect if there is an actual Republican in New York City, that said person is an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.

Posted by: Robert Brady at July 19, 2004 3:11 PM