Looking Back at Howard Dean's 50-State Strategy

Despite opposition from national Democrats, the former Vermont governor's bid to build up party infrastructure in every state was a success in the unlikeliest of places -- at least while it lasted.
by | May 6, 2013
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. (Photo: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in early 2005, one of his main efforts was to undertake a "50-state strategy," a bid to build up party infrastructure and candidate recruitment at every level and in every state -- even in solidly Republican bastions.

"We strengthened the parties so sitting governors could find good candidates" for offices high and low, Dean said. "That's much easier to do from Topeka than it is from Washington."

State party chairs loved the idea, but among national strategists, the approach was controversial. Dean bumped heads with then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who believed in a more conventional strategy of focusing limited campaign resources on swing districts. On CNN, Paul Begala said Dean's gambit amounted to "hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." (Begala later apologized.)

Dean has long since left the DNC -- he served four years, departing in early 2009 -- and the 50-state strategy has faded from memories. But looking at it from today's vantage point, the project offers a nifty example of how modest investments in party infrastructure can pay tangible dividends -- and how those dividends can disappear once the investments dry up.

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Before we crunch the numbers, we should note that the patterns below can't be linked exclusively to Dean's 50-state project. After all, the Democrats experienced two of their strongest election cycles during that time. They benefited from a strong congressional tailwind in 2006 and a winning presidential candidacy in 2008. Meanwhile, the numbers began to turn negative during the midterm election of 2010, a Republican rout.

That said, the patterns are suggestive. In the 20 states we looked at -- those that have voted solidly Republican in recent presidential races -- Democratic candidates chalked up modest successes, despite the difficult political terrain. Then, after the project stopped, Democratic success rates cratered.

The 20 states we looked at are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. We excluded any state that has voted Democratic in recent presidential contests or was considered potentially competitive for the Democrats, even if the state ultimately sided with the GOP (such as Arizona and Missouri).

Here's how the Democrats fared in the reddest of red states between January 2005 and January 2009, the period when the 50-state project was in operation:

  • State House seats: Net gain of 39 seats, a 2 percent increase of all seats in the states analyzed
  • State Senate seats: Net loss of two seats
  • Governorships: Net loss of one
  • Attorney generalships: Net gain of one (elected seats only)
  • U.S. House seats: Net gain of three seats
  • U.S. Senate seats: Net gain of one seat
  • Presidential performance: In 15 of the 20 states, the Democratic nominee saw an increase in vote share between 2004 and 2008. In three other states, the vote share remained constant. It dropped in only two states.

"Where we really made a big difference was in states like Nebraska, where Obama won an electoral vote in 2008," Dean said. "He had a real party to work with."

Overall, Democrats either improved their results in the reddest states between 2005 and 2009 or, at worst, suffered only minor setbacks, which, given the obstacles the party faced in these solidly Republican states, was almost a victory in its own right.

Now let's compare this record to the one between January 2009 and January 2013.

  • State House seats: Net loss of 249 seats, a decrease of 13 percent of the existing seats in those states
  • State Senate seats: Net loss of 84 seats, a decrease of 12 percent
  • Governorships: A decrease by half, from eight governors to four
  • Attorney generalships: A drop by two-thirds in elected AGs, from nine to three
  • U.S. House seats: A 40 percent drop, from 44 seats to 26
  • U.S. Senate seats: A drop from 11 seats to 8. (It could drop further by 2014: Of those eight remaining seats, three senators are retiring and another three face tough reelection contests.)
  • Presidential performance: Only two of the 20 states (Alaska and Mississippi) saw higher support for Obama in 2012 than in 2008. In most of the 20 solidly red states, Obama's 2012 vote fell back roughly to John Kerry's level from 2004.

Altogether, these post-2009 declines are, to put it bluntly, pretty catastrophic. In these 20 solidly red states, the Democrats controlled 13 legislative chambers in 2005, a number that fell to just three in 2013. Of the 40 chambers in these states, only two experienced a net gain of Democratic seats between 2005 and 2013; in the other 38, the Democrats lost ground.

And because state legislative seats and lower statewide offices provide the "bench" for future runs for governor and Congress, these developments could prompt a self-perpetuating death spiral for the party in these states.

One divide that's apparent in the data is between the Great Plains and the West on the one hand, and the South on the other. To the extent that the 50-state strategy worked, it did so in the small-to-medium states in the western half of the U.S. By contrast, the effort did little, if anything, to stem the long-term shift in the South toward the GOP. Perhaps that's because the libertarian leanings of the Great Plains and the West are more compatible with Democratic social positions than is the Christian brand of conservatism that is influential in the South.

To understand the regional distinctions, consider the presidential vote share. Some of the Democrats' biggest gains between 2004 and 2008 came in North Dakota (a 10-point gain), Nebraska (10), Utah (9), Montana (8), South Dakota (7) and Idaho (6). Many of the same states also saw Democratic advances -- modest ones, but gains nonetheless -- in state legislative seats.

Part of the Democrats' success in 2009 compared to 2005 may be due to Obama's primary efforts in 2008; one of the key reasons he managed to beat Hillary Clinton was that the then-Illinois senator assiduously courted sympathetic voters in small-population Western and Plains states. Still, observers in these states said the 50-state project didn't hurt.

By contrast, most Southern states showed no rise-then-fall pattern; in the South, the Democrats simply accelerated downhill. Between 2005 and 2013, the Democrats lost more than 20 state House seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee, each a bigger decline than any registered in a Western or Plains state. Southern states also led in state Senate losses, with Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana registering double-digit decreases in Democratic seats.

"There may have been a 50-state strategy in other states, but it didn't work here," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "The move toward deep red has been inexorable."

In Tennessee, "Republicans are ascendant in every sense," agreed University of Tennessee political scientist Anthony Nownes. "It will take several years, if not a decade or more, for the Democrats to be truly competitive."

At some point, Republicans "will reach a saturation point or a point of diminishing returns," said one political observer in Oklahoma. "In some ways it would seem that the Democrats cannot lose much more ground -- they will hit bottom and can only go up." In the meantime, the observer added, "supermajorities lead to factionalism. Democrats should be able to capitalize on that in the future."

Beyond the knowledge that a concerted 50-state project could once again juice the party's numbers in the West and the Great Plains, the Democrats do have one bright spot: Texas, a state that is on an almost inevitable demographic path to minority-majority status.

Texas was the only one of the 20 states we looked at where the number of Democrats in the U.S. House delegation increased between 2005 and 2013. The bump in Texas was modest -- from 11 to 12, in a state where the delegation increased by four due to reapportionment in 2010 -- but taking future population trends into account, the Democrats at least have some reason for optimism over the medium term.

At this point, even Dean has retreated somewhat from a full-blown 50-state strategy. A group he recently helped launch that aims to flip Republican-held state legislatures is focusing on swing states rather than solidly red ones.

Still, Dean said he continues to believe that every state, no matter how unfriendly to his party, deserves to have a basic level of institutional, financial, technological and personnel support, which can be "relatively inexpensive."

"It would be a terrible mistake to leave even one state out of a basic package of training, IT and staffing," he said. "I don't advocate putting a zillion dollars into Alaska, but I do advocate having a competent, well-run Democratic Party in place, because you never know where lightning is going to strike."

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