Howard Dean�s 50-State Strategy
Measuring Dean’s Gamble in 2006 -- and in 2016

When former Vermont governor Howard Dean took the helm of the Democratic National Committee, he made a strategic decision to pump resources into all 50 states, in an attempt to build the Democratic Party in places where it hasn’t been competitive in presidential races and most federal races for years. His so-called “50-state strategy” has been the source of much controversy, leading to Dean’s public battles with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel, who favors focused spending on targeted races.

Who is right? There are two ways to try to measure the answer: what happens in 2006 and what happens in 2016. The true measurement of Dean’s decision will not be measurable for at least a decade, and that only if the Democrats continue to invest in his strategy for several election cycles. The Democratic Party’s electoral problems in congressional races in recent years are grounded in a political geography that they must transform if they are to ever have a relatively secure majority. In today’s electoral politics, when the national partisan division is evenly divided, Republicans win more than 50% support in 30 out of 50 states, which translates into Republicans winning 60 of 100 U.S. Senate seats if every voter voted for the same party in races for president and Senate. Republicans also would win a majority of the vote in 41 more of today’s House seats than Democrats in such an election. If Democrats cannot either break out of a 50-50 political reality or reshape where they win support, their majorities will always be dependent on their candidates winning in Republican-leaning areas.

Looking to immediate results in 2006, some charge that given Democrats’ finite resources and once-in-a-generation chance to make gains this year, Dean has been unwise to spend money in solidly Republican areas in states like Nebraska, Indiana and Texas. Looking through the lens of short-term results, a potential tidal wave in Democratic votes this year may lead to Dean being termed either a genius or a fool: he will be a genius if Democrats win House seats that would seemingly have been impossible to win a year ago, but he will be dismissed as a fool if they miss out with a series of tantalizingly narrow defeats.

“Dean is a Fool”: The way you build long-term is to succeed short-term

  • Lessons from a shrinking number of competitive states in presidential races: In 1976, 24 states were presidential battlegrounds, representing 345 electoral votes and most of the nation. By 2004, that number had more than half, to a mere 13 states representing 159 electoral votes. What’s more, in 2004, 48 of 51 presidential contests went to the same party as in 2000 – underscoring how difficult it is to overcome rigid state partisanship in presidential elections even when your side has more than half a billion dollars to spend. So why sink resources in 50 states, rather than just 13?

  • With U.S. House districts tilted against Democrats, you must win when you can and hold on: The rigid partisanship of states in presidential races is mirrored almost across the board in U.S. House races, and Republicans currently have an advantage of 41 more seats in an evenly divided year – with the median district being one that a Republican in an open seat would be favored to win by 4.5%. On top of that structural barrier, Republicans start off with the advantage of incumbency, which gives incumbents on average a likely boost of between 6% and 9%. In each of the four national elections since 1996, more than 98% of incumbents have won, and more than 90% of all races were won in comfortable wins of more than 10%. Of the 23 seats that were won by 10% or less, they are concentrated in 17 states. Of those 17 states, only 10 represent pick-up opportunities for the Democrats (CO, CT, IN, LA, MN, NC, NM, NY, PA, and WA). So why sink resources in 50 states, rather than the 10 where history indicates actual pick-up opportunities?

“Dean is a Genius”:  Lift the Party Up, State by State

  • It would take an unprecedented national shift for Democrats to win many House seats. Guess what? Its happening: The tilted state partisanship of most of America’s congressional districts means that no matter how you draw the lines, a majority of voters in each district will prefer one party to the other. In a nationally even year between the parties in congressional elections, therefore, Republicans typically will win an open seat race in a district that has a 55%-45% tilt with, surprise, 55% of the vote. And if the national climate shifts to a 54% year for the Democrats – the Republicans will still likely carry that district, albeit now by only 51% to 49%. Faced with the fact that most districts tilt toward Republicans and Republicans start out with more incumbents, Democrats need to do enormously well nationally to shift even just the 15 seats necessary to win a majority of the House. But this might just be the year that Democrats win the 57% or 58% of the national congressional vote that they need to take back the House with room to spare. The 50-state strategy was luckily timed to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity and create opportunities in races that few dreamed would be competitive this time last year – which is why Republicans are pouring out resources now to defend House districts in Republican strongholds like Kansas and Nebraska.

  • In elections witnessing unprecedented national shifts, parties pick up large numbers of seats down-ticket: In a national tidal wave by one party in an election cycle, even though a marginal number of U.S. House seats might change hands, the dominant party can pick up an enormous amount of state legislative seats down-ticket. For example, the Republican wave in 1994 led to an increase of 514 more Republican state legislative seats. This year, there are 6,119 state legislative contests in 46 states and control of twenty state legislative chambers is decided by five or less seats. What indicates that Dean’s 50-state strategy might be useful here is that of these ten potential chamber pick-ups, five of them are in states that Bush won in 2004: Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, and Tennessee. If these Democrats can stay in office, they can help shape these states’ future political agendas and practical policy matters like redrawing district lines in the next scheduled redistricting in 2011.

  • Ticket-splitting means rock-solid presidential red-states don’t equal rock-solid red-voting in all statewide races: Just as in state legislative races, it seems likely that a Democratic tidal-wave would lift the chances of their candidates for governor and other statewide offices across the country. The Democrats are in range to pick-up eight Governors’ mansions, and four of them are in states that Bush carried in 2004: Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio and Nevada. One by-product of winning high-profile states races is that it establishes these Democrats as candidates who later have a better chance of winning federal elections in Republican-leaning areas.

Initially, it seems that Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy has been a wise gamble in this coming year of a Democratic tidal wave. But there’s more to the story. Perhaps unexpectedly, Dean is meeting Rahm Emanuel’s goal of building long-term success by building short-term successes – but the hidden truth is that if this year’s partisan shift turns out to be a mere blip, rather than a realignment, the Democrats will need to turn to a 50-state strategy time and again to win elections consistently and to shake up its current dispersion of partisans to cover more areas within states.

This demand is due mainly in part to the natural geographic advantage Republicans currently hold in being the party that is more geographically dispersed across America. What this means is that barring an enduring national partisan shift toward Democrats, Democrats will almost never be secure in the red states and red districts where they see opportunities in this year. Assuming ongoing use of single-member district congressional elections (although that rule could be changed to multi-seat district system by congressional statute), Democrats face a clear challenge. Without cultivating a larger base and turnout operation over time in the 50 states and in rural and exurban areas where they now are in the minority, they will not be able to sustain the greater than 55%-45 edge they will need to secure lasting majorities in American congressional elections.