By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008
For several weeks, some of Hillary Clinton's fiercest supporters, most of them women, have been struggling with a defeat that burns and a question with no soothing answer: What next?
Sometimes anger settles in the mind like sediment, waiting to be shaken or stirred.
Diane Mantouvalos is an anger-shaker. The night before Clinton announced the suspension of her campaign, Mantouvalos was at home in Miami checking posts on her blog and sensing a mood that went beyond disillusionment, beyond sadness, beyond "I'm upset and bummed out." As co-creator of Hireheels.com, which describes itself as "a forum of power chics for Hillary," Mantouvalos hangs out on the sassy edge of the blogosphere. Feeling more empowered than embittered, the public relations consultant wondered: "Wouldn't it be great if we could thread all of these disparate factions and form one coalition?" A brassy coalition of rebels.
On June 8, the evening after Clinton conceded the Democratic presidential contest to Barack Obama, Mantouvalos organized a conference call with some 40 bloggers, political activists and other hardened loyalists of the New York senator's, in what became "a jam session of very intense opinion" -- about the party, its leadership, its presumptive nominee, the media. Five hours later, Mantouvalos, age "north of 35," had built a new Web site, JustSayNoDeal.com, which has become a clearinghouse for the renegade forces that are now confounding Democratic Party officials and Obama campaign operatives.
Democratic leaders insist -- and polls indicate -- that the vast majority of Clinton supporters, including women, already have flocked to Obama or eventually will. But the effectiveness of the Internet as an organizing tool for dissent is creating concern and uncertainty about the scope and intensity of those unwilling to fall in line.
While Clinton and Obama are scheduled to campaign together today in the symbolic New Hampshire town of Unity, many in this loose confederation of nonconformists have embraced a mantra that runs counter to the notion of reconciliation: "Party Unity My Ass." They have taken to calling themselves "Pumas" and have adopted as their logo -- on T-shirts and Facebook pages -- the portrait of a snarling cougar. Though not all have the same specific grievances or agree on a course of protest, they are linked by their dissatisfaction with the primary process and its result, and are unpersuaded by the gestures of heroine Hillary.
Several groups are planning marches in Denver, the site of this summer's Democratic National Convention. Others are organizing a Clinton write-in campaign or have switched to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), creating sites to promote his candidacy. Some have more targeted interests, such as establishing an ongoing critique of misogyny in the media, pressing for changes in Democratic National Committee rules on delegate selection, even the ouster of national party chairman Howard Dean. "Howard Dean is running this party like it is a Soviet-style dictatorship," fumed Faith Chatham, a Clinton delegate to the Texas Democratic convention.
In Texas, where the complaints about party leadership have been persistent and noisy, some Clinton stalwarts are trying to mount challenges to the Democratic caucus results. "It ain't over," said Harriet Irby, a longtime Democratic precinct chairwoman in Tarrant County, claiming there were many irregularities and insisting that she will sit out the presidential election if Obama is the nominee, and vote only for down-ballot Democrats this fall.
Some of the dissenters have gotten creative, if silly. Organizers of Dncboycott.com have introduced "Operation Donation Vacation," urging prospective donors to send a check to the DNC for zero dollars. Watching the collective efforts of the Just Say No Deal coalition take root is pure delight for Mantouvalos.
"Oh, we're up to no good," she said, her voice coated with mischief. "We just can't stop ourselves. What can I say?"
The Internet has a viral way of gathering and emboldening the like-minded, who speak to each other online, share information, inflame each other's passions. Hard-fought presidential primary battles have always produced disenchantment, fury and other strong emotions that are difficult to tamp out. Tensions lingered between the troops of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford in 1976, of Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in 1980, of Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale in 1984. But there was no online world to stoke the embers back then, no vehicle for instant gratification and empowerment.
"With the Internet, it makes being a jihadi a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be," quipped Jody Powell, a close aide to Carter, whose defeat in 1980 was helped along by a divisive Democratic National Convention. Powell added, however, that the big difference between 1980 and 2008 is that this year Clinton and her leading surrogates are moving quickly to quell hostilities and bring opposing camps together. In 1980, Powell said, "the losing candidate, Senator Kennedy, and his senior people were pretty actively engaged in fueling this stuff."
Mantouvalos, a self-described independent who grew up in Boston and said she nearly always votes Democratic, believes party leaders are underestimating the seriousness of the opposition movement. Using various metrics -- e-mails to JustSayNoDeal.com (125,000), databases of organizations involved with the effort, registrants to and hits on selected protest Web sites -- Mantouvalos estimates the coalition of more than 100 groups represents at least 10 percent of the 18 million voters who backed Hillary Clinton during the primary battle.
"This is not the usual reaction to an election loss," Mantouvalos said. "I know that is the way it is being spun, but it's not prototypical. Anyone who doesn't take time to analyze it will do so at their own peril."
How to analyze it, is the question.
"I'm not in a position to gauge how large or small it is," said Becky Carroll, national director of Women for Obama. "Our job is to reach out to all supporters of Senator Clinton's." But she adds: "Far more women want to find ways to come together."
Carroll said the Obama campaign's outreach to women has grown through the primary season to now number 30,000 core organizers and surrogates, who actively recruit online, through block parties, phone banks, book clubs and other outreach efforts. Yesterday, Michelle Obama appeared at a conference for working women with former New Hampshire governor and Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen. In addition, in the coming weeks the campaign will host a number of "unity events" around the country, some specifically aimed at women.
While acknowledging the "raw emotions" that remain from the closest Democratic presidential competition since primaries became the dominant method of picking a nominee, Carroll said Obama already has "a base of support among women."
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe cited five national polls released in June that showed Obama leading McCain by 12 to 24 percentage points among women. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey put Obama's margin at five points.
According to the Post-ABC poll, 62 percent of women who backed Clinton say they will support Obama, compared with 25 percent who say they will support McCain. The poll, however, did show a residue of bad feelings from the primary battle (40 percent of Clinton supporters described themselves as dissatisfied with the outcome, and 7 percent described themselves as angry). But on the question of which candidate is trusted more to handle "issues of special concern to women," Obama outpointed McCain 56 percent to 29 percent among all women regardless of political affiliation.
The Obama-McCain comparison is what Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has been trying to emphasize. A prominent Clinton supporter, Wasserman Schultz said for women who care about reproductive rights, the economy and a range other issues, the only choice is Obama. "The opportunity to elect a woman has been missed this time, and that's deeply disappointing," she said. "While I understand the temptation to gravitate towards a Puma attitude, I don't think that is productive. In fact, I think that is counterproductive. It will result in an outcome, if it becomes widespread, that elects John McCain by accident or de facto."
Not a problem for Cristi Adkins, a registered nurse from Reston. She co-founded Clintons4McCain.com, a site that is more anti-Obama than pro-anybody else. "I think he is dangerous. I think he is unvetted and unqualified," said Adkins, an independent who said she voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. She is the kind of woman McCain and the GOP are targeting. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has been a point person in this effort, recently holding sessions with women in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Defining the Just Say No Deal coalition is not simple. The clearest and strongest sentiments seem to be that party leaders tried to force Clinton out of the race prematurely, allowed sexism and misogyny to go unchecked in the media, and made decisions about the Florida and Michigan contests that were designed to favor Obama.
"Their goal was to stop Hillary Clinton by any means necessary," said Robin Murray, an Indianapolis therapist and social worker whose nine-minute YouTube video, " Mad as Hell/Bitch," detailed examples of sexism in the campaign and became a visual anthem for many feminists.
Given that she is a supporter of abortion rights and holds other beliefs that are at odds with McCain's, Murray was asked why she would consider voting against her own interests. "Whether it's appropriate or whether it will work doesn't matter at this time," she said. "The vote is a protest vote -- be it if I vote for McCain, if I don't show up, or if I write in Hillary's name." Added Murray: "I view it in a holistic way. It says, we will not be controlled and manipulated by these singular issues in order to cast a vote that we feel is deceitful, negative, there is just no pretty way to say it -- they cheated."
This kind of talk drives James Roosevelt crazy. As co-chairman of the DNC's rules and bylaws committee, he presided over the meeting that decided the fate of the Florida and Michigan delegations. He calls the notion that Obama got preordained, preferential treatment "just ridiculous." While he understands the disappointment of Clinton supporters -- his daughter and wife backed the New York senator -- he says the party's rules were "followed and interpreted fairly."
Roosevelt mentions that he has heard numerous allegations about violations that occurred during the Texas caucuses, but notes that to date only one challenge has been filed to a Texas delegate. "There's a process for people to express their concerns," he said, "and that's what it's yielded."
But the Pumas soldier on.
"Our Number 1 goal is we are protesting the 2008 election," said Boston area blogger Darragh Murphy, founder of Puma PAC (whose name stands for "People United Means Action"). "It's not an organized effort to leave the Democratic Party, but to get it back, to bring real unity to the party. Millions of voters are still very unhappy. We're going to still be here on November 5."
Every Sunday, Diane Mantouvalos hosts a conference call for the Just Say No Deal coalition. The overall effort is wearing her down, even as it invigorates her.
"It's just like a campaign," she said. "It's a viral movement that is virtual at this point, but it is moving at the grass-roots level to be a counterpoint to MoveOn.org, which no longer speaks for most of the coalition."
She doesn't think these disparate voices of dissent will soften with time, as party leaders anticipate.
"You ask me what's going to happen? I have no idea. I can just tell you we're going to keep going."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.