The 50 State Strategy

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.