Posts Tagged ‘50 State Strategy’

Strategies Change Based on Circumstance

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I’ve been fairly critical of the certain segment of progressive activists who generally assume that everything good that happens is the result of the “50 State Strategy” Howard Dean came up with as DNC chair, and consequently attribute anything bad that happens to the decision to end it in 2009. Indeed, I’ve been fairly critical of the strategy itself. Dean basically devised it in an overreaction to his crushing defeat in the Iowa caucuses when, after busing in volunteers from outside the state and ignoring precinct captains and prominent local activists, he was trounced by Kerry and Edwards, whose campaigns had courted these local fixtures who could actually deliver votes in the caucuses. Dean’s response was basically to overestimate the effect local effects have on elections, or at least national elections. Congressional general elections are not the Iowa caucuses, after all. And so, Dean took DNC money and paid for state parties to hire additional field staff, which left less money to spend directly to Congressional candidates. But hey, Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008, so it’s not really a big deal now, nor would I necessarily say it was a failure, even though the 2006 elections pretty clearly showed that Dean was overreacting to 2004. But all’s well that ends well.

By contrast, 2010 simply isn’t 2006, or even 2008. Whereas the Democrats were an opposition party in 2008, and especially in 2006, now they control every lever of the legislative process, especially the White House. And the sort of strategy that works for an opposition party simply doesn’t work for a governing party. The criticism that the DNC is too heavily geared towards advocacy for the Obama administration is just stupid; how voters feel about Obama’s Presidency will be (along with employment) the primary factor in how Democrats do in national elections, and to a lesser extent state elections. That’s just the place our national elections have evolved to; we have a parliamentary political system without having a parliamentary governing system. People view the President as the leader of government, assign outsized blame/credit to him for what the government does, and then votes accordingly. If unemployment stays around 10% and Obama’s approval ratings slip to the low-to-mid-40’s, it won’t make a bit of difference how many field organizers the Democratic Party has on payroll. This is something Republicans did a good job of recognizing, and getting their members of Congress on board for, for the most part, and something Democrats really need to figure out. Everyone staking out their own positions and haggling against one another isn’t really effective at managing public opinion, signing on the White House’s agenda and working to get it through Congress quickly would provide a much better political strategy, especially given that the President is much more popular than any Congressional actor, and certainly more popular than Congress as a whole. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman posturing against the President is one thing, but the Democratic caucus as a whole would do well to look out for the political fortunes of their President, because they’re inextricably wedded to him electorally.

On a more personal note, I’d add that one problem with the SPP worship is that the field organizers it paid for weren’t necessarily that good at what they were doing. Speaking from personal observation, Ohio Republicans ran strategic and tactical circles around their Democratic opponents in 2006. In fact, it wasn’t even close; it was sort of like watching the #1 team in the country play an FCS division school. But Republicans were so unpopular, nationally and at the state level, that it simply didn’t matter how good their campaigns and staff were; people didn’t want them in charge of government anymore. And so even though the Democrats were operationally overwhelmed, they won 4 of 5 state executive offices, got more votes for their House candidates, and even got Sherrod Brown elected to the Senate. All this, of course, because George Bush and Bob Taft were incredibly unpopular.

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More 50

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

by Brien Jackson

To follow up on my post from yesterday, I made the flippantly off hand comment that I didn’t really understand why progressives are so invested in the 50 state strategy, and I think I ought to elaborate on that.

Without wading into conceptual arguments about what the 50 state strategy was, let’s look at what it did. If nothing else, what Howard Dean did with the 50 state strategy was to recruit viable candidates for marginal to outside chance races who could capitalize on Republican falterings and declining Republican popularity in general. This was very good for the margins of the Democratic caucuses in Congress, but the most practical effect of this was to help Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats. At the very least the main beneficiaries disagree with progressives on certain issues. Mark Begich, for example, favors drilling in ANWR because he wants to get elected, and drilling is very popular with Alaskans. And because Begich wants to get re-elected, he’s going to vote in favor of drilling in the Senate. And that’s great for Senate Democrats, because it gives them a fighting chance of holding the seat in 2014. But this kind of things holds across the board, and applies to lots of Blue Dogs, and it’s generally the sort of thing that ends with Kos and Sirota advocating a primary challenge. Which is why their reflexive support for the strategy that makes it possible for these guys to have Congressional seats doesn’t really make sense.

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The 50 State Strategy

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

One story that’s been lingering for a while I suppose I should weigh in on is the future of the “50 state strategy” Howard Dean brought with him to the DNC. The netroots has taken a fairly stark interest in it (I don’t really know why), and from the outline we’ve gotten from the DNC so far it seems like the answer is…sort of. Roughly speaking, the broad outline of the concept will stay in place, but it will be much more centralized at the DNC, and will focus more heavily on swing states then reflecting a real “50 state” strategy. Nate Silver describes it thusly:

It sounds like, under Tim Kaine, the Democrats will be moving to a somewhat more top-heavy resource allocation. The allocation is still likely to be broader than it had been in the pre-Dean years, however, and the Democrats are still likely to field viable candidates in a higher proportion of states and districts than the Republicans do. The key intraparty battles will not be those to determine if, say, a congressional candidate in Arizona gets more resources than one in New Jersey. Those sorts of things can be settled “scientifically” on a return-on-investment basis: how much does a marginal dollar spent in AZ-6 go toward strengthening the Democratic majority in Congress than one spent in NJ-11?

One thing that I think is going unsaid (understandably on the part of proponents) is that there’s really no evidence that the program worked. Yes Democrats did markedly better in 2006 and 2008 then they did in 2002 and 2004, but George Bush, George Bush’s policies, and Republicans in general got massively more unpopular with the country between 2004 and 2006. I doubt that even Dean himself would claim that the 50 state strategy is responsible for the public’s turn on Iraq, or their outrage over the pathetic response to Katrina, etc. So without any way to control for a massive shift in public opinion, there’s no real way to judge the effectiveness of the program relative to other ideas, and it’s very likely that Democrats would control the White House, Senate, and House even if Terry McAullife were still running the DNC.

It’s also worth pointing out that the depth of the strategy’s success is a little dubious as well. Republicans still control a lot of House seats, naturally, and they also won races in Kentucky, Georgia, and Mississippi that Democrats had hoped to pull out. Yes they were close, but they were losses in an overwhelmingly Democratic year nonetheless. Which isn’t to say that the strategy is a losing one, per se, rather that it has its limitations, and there are some races that Republicans are going to win no matter how much effort you put into them.

The one unmitigated plus of the strategy was the effort to recruit strong candidates to seemingly long shot races. Because of that, they were well positioned to take advantage of openings as they came. For example, it may have taken “macaca” for Jim Webb to beat George Allen, and 7 felony convictions for Mark Begich to beat Ted Stevens, and they might have been very narrow victories all the same, but if Webb and Begich aren’t in the picture, Allen and Stevens may weather the storm. It’s hard to overstate the value this effort at recruitment has had on Democrats’ prospects nationwide.

Because of this, and because the strategy for gaining power is slightly different than the one for maintaining it, I think the DNC is best served by a sort of watered down version of the plan. They should certainly continue to encourage good candidates to run all across the country, but at the same time resources have to be saved for the races most likely to be contentious, in which the Democrat has a reasonably good chance of winning. And the program should be more concentrated at the national level, now that Democrats are the governing party rather than the opposition. The political landscape has changed, and Democratic strategy needs to move with it. Assuming that the last cycle’s winning strategy would work again and again and again was Karl Rove’s calculation in 2006, and as I remember, that didn’t really work out so well for him.

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