- The Shadow Party’s grassroots get-out-the-vote network
- Organized by leftwing government union bosses
- “The largest voter contact program in history”
- Employed 1,400 full-time paid canvassers, many of whom were convicted felons
- Ceased operations in August 2005
Launched on January 17, 2003, America Coming Together (ACT) was a member organization of the America Votes coalition. It was also a member of the so-called Shadow Party, a nationwide network of nonprofit activist groups pursuing leftist agendas and campaigning aggressively for Democratic political candidates. Moreover, ACT organized the Democratic Party's Government Union wing, which was represented by such entities as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and AFSCME.
The original idea for ACT appears to have come from union activist and Democratic strategist Gina Glantz, a New Left veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Following the sweeping Republican victory in the November 2002 mid-term elections, Glantz (an official with the SEIU) convened a meeting of hard left activists at a DC restaurant to discuss strategy for the upcoming presidential race. Present at this 2002 meeting were ex-Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, SEIU president Andrew Stern, ex-AFL-CIO political director Steven Rosenthal, Sierra Club head Carl Pope; and EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm.
Glantz proposed creating an "umbrella group" to coordinate the efforts of leftist organizations in the 2004 presidential campaign. All in attendance agreed that the recently passed McCain-Feingold Act -- which had taken effect on November 6, 2002 -- would not prevent independent groups such as theirs from soliciting "unlimited" donations, as long as they observed two simple rules: (1) Do not explicitly advocate the "election or defeat" of federal candidates, and (2) Do not work directly with the candidates' campaigns or their political parties. This interpretation of federal election law was controversial, but it formed the basis for ACT's fundraising activities and those of all other Shadow Party groups.
Glantz's vision of an "umbrella group" of leftist issue-advocacy organizations had a grave flaw. The wealthiest and mightiest groups she proposed including under her umbrella -- unions of government employees such as the SEIU and AFSCME (a member of the AFL-CIO) -- were engaged in a brutal power struggle. Until that struggle was resolved, Glantz's umbrella could amount to nothing more than a pipe dream. This was no ordinary union turf battle. At stake was control of the American labor movement -- and potentially of the entire Democratic Party, which depends on union contributions for survival. For details about the SEIU-AFSCME power struggle, click here.
"We are fighting among ourselves when there is a common enemy, a very strong common enemy," complained Harold Ickes to the Washington Post on June 5, 2003. Gina Glantz added that the turf war was giving the George W. Bush team "a happy day for the White House."
It was at that point that the billionaire philanthropist George Soros intervened. He invited Steven Rosenthal and Ellen Malcolm to his Southampton, New York beach house in July 2003 and listened to their vision for a voter-outreach group that would encompass labor, pro-abortion, and environmentalist forces under one big umbrella (i.e., America Coming Together). Soros liked the idea and pledged $10 million to it on the spot. Before the meeting adjourned, Soros convinced other funders at the meeting to contribute an additional $12 million, bringing the total to $22 million. As noted earlier, IRS filings list July 17, 2003 as ACT's official launch date.
In August 2003, ACT announced that Rosenthal's group, Partnership for America's Families, would be absorbed into ACT. Rosenthal, for his part, would keep his job as CEO of ACT, but would also serve as president of Partnership for America's Families, which would "focus almost exclusively on registration efforts in urban areas."
Thus, Soros had effectively ended the aforementioned turf war. More importantly, his Shadow Party had absorbed two powerful labor leaders, in the persons of Steven Rosenthal (of the AFL-CIO) and Andrew Stern (president of SEIU).
All told, during the 2004 election cycle Soros and his close associate, Peter Lewis, gave a combined $38.5 million to ACT and its fellow Shadow Party member, the Media Fund. Propelled by this seed money, the two organizations proceeded to collect $196.4 million which they used to establish voter-mobilization programs in every presidential battleground state, and to flood the airwaves with pro-Democratic ads in the early spring of 2004.
Joint Victory Campaign 2004 (JVC) emerged as a leading funder of ACT during the 2004 election cycle. Between December 31, 2003 and June 30, 2004, JVC gave ACT 14 separate contributions totaling $13.2 million. Another key funder was the SEIU, which gave ACT $500,000 in March 2004.
On August 16, 2004, Business Week reported that three Shadow Party groups -- ACT, the Media Fund, and MoveOn.org -- had together spent $85 million on get-out-the-vote drives, compared to only $33 million on anti-Bush advertising.
Throughout the 2004 election cycle, ACT ran what its website called "the largest voter contact program in history," with over 1,400 full-time paid canvassers as well as many thousands of volunteers working from 55 separate offices, contacting voters door-to-door and by phone. (By election day 2004, ACT had opened more than 90 offices in 17 states from which it deployed more than 25,000 paid canvassers and volunteers.)
On June 23, 2004, the Associated Press revealed that an undetermined number of ACT's fulltime canvassers were felons who had been convicted for crimes ranging from drug dealing to burglary, assault, and sex offenses.
To target likely Democratic voters with as much precision as possible, ACT used high-tech, very expensive voter-file and mapping software. This enabled ACT's canvassers to go through the motions of pretending to carry out voter-registration drives that were (in compliance with election law) nonpartisan, when in fact they were targeting only voters whose demographics suggested that they would be likely to support Democrats. These included: (a) "swing" voters (which ACT defined as "pre-retirement women" and "younger voters" who were, in ACT's opinion, likely to be politically uninformed); and (b) "Democratic base voters" -- such as blacks and Hispanics -- who, according to ACT, "vote Democratic but need extra contact to persuade them to vote."
ACT used intrusive, high-pressure tactics to register and mobilize these voters, both by phone and by door-to-door canvassing. Not only did its canvassers register voters, but they compiled extensive personal dossiers on the latter -- including such private information as their driver's license numbers and Social Security numbers -- information that could later be retrieved on demand via the canvassers' hand-held Palm Pilots.
Follow-up was key to ACT's get-out-the-vote strategy in 2004. According to the organization's website, its canvassers extracted firm "promises" from individual voters, and then followed up to make sure that "promises are kept."
To ACT's great disappointment, however, George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. In a January 11, 2005 column in The Almanac of American Politics, political analyst Charlie Cook credited ACT with having brought Democrats to the brink of success:
"[D]emocrats, chiefly through America Coming Together, mounted what was not only the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation in the party's history, but it was probably the best field work by a factor of at least 10. Merging the latest in technology with old-fashioned shoe-leather, Democrats not only met but surpassed their vote total targets in key states such as Ohio and Florida. With voter turnout unexpectedly climbing from 105 million in 2000 to 119 million in 2004 … [Democrat voter mobilization efforts were] not quite good enough to win, but it was awfully close."
In March 2005 Harold Ickes became president of ACT, replacing Ellen Malcolm, who remained an ACT board member but began to devote the bulk of her energies to the task of running EMILY's List, the organization she founded in 1985.
By August 2005, however, ACT had shut down its operations. This was largely due to the fact that George Soros, angry that his massive donations to ACT in 2004 had failed to result in Bush's defeat, stopped funding the organization. Nonetheless, in the spring of 2006, former ACT officials reported that prior to its demise, the organization had (a) raised almost $4.5 million for the 2006 election cycle, and (b) compiled a valuable database containing the names of 65 million Democrats. At this time, the ACT website referred visitors to the website of America Votes, another Soros-funded entity.
In August 2007, Politico.com reported that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was fining ACT a total of $775,000 -- the third largest enforcement penalty in the Commission’s 33-year history -- for having illegally used unregulated soft money to support Kerry and the Democrats in 2004. All told, ACT had raised roughly $137 million -- $33.5 million in federal funds and $103.5 million in non-federal funds (which can be collected in unlimited amounts and are therefore much easier to generate than federal funds) -- for its get-out-the-vote effort that year. According to the FEC, approximately $70 million in disbursements characterized by ACT as “administrative expenses” for door-to-door canvassing, direct mail and telemarketing were earmarked to help specific federal candidates, and thus should have been financed almost entirely with federal funds -- but they were not. The Commission also ruled that even for the approximately $30 million in administrative and generic voter-drive expenses, ACT should have used at least 90 percent federal and 10 percent non-federal funds. Instead, ACT did precisely the opposite -- using only $3.4 million in federal funds and $26.4 million in non-federal funds for these expenses. “ACT failed, the FEC summarized, “properly to attribute and report expenditures attributable to specific candidates, failed properly to allocate and report joint administrative activities and used non-federal funds to pay the federal share of such allocated expenses.”
 There were 17 states in all: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Washington
The major resource upon which this profile is based is the book Shadow Party, by David Horowitz and Richard Poe (2006), pp. 195-198.