Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was it a Fifty-State Strategy (or Just the Opposite)?

Now that Barack Obama is President-elect and Howard Dean has announced that he will step aside as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the floodgate of electoral postmortems has been blown wide open with effusive feel-good's on the subject of the Obama (Dean) philosophy of map-widening. Stories abound on the subject of exactly how Barack Obama won, in many of which space is saved among the references to Bush's low approval ratings and Steve Schmidt's insistence on Sarah Palin and McCain's "fundamentals are strong" gaffe, to pay homage to what was originally Dean's mantra of fifty-state competitiveness for the Democratic party. The reason the Democrats had lost in 2000 and 2004, Dean argued when he took the reins of the DNC, was that they had concentrated all of their resources into trying to consolidate a handful of plum electoral prizes with blue hues--mostly on the two coasts--and then slugging it out to the death over an even smaller assortment of "winnable" purple states like Ohio and/or Florida. With such a narrow playing field, Dean suggested, the Republicans could leverage their funding advantage in those purple states and eke out victory every time.

As brilliant as Mr. Dean (and his more recent counterparts at the top of the Obama campaign) now appear, it is worth considering the extent to which the fortunes of the two parties were shifting during Dean's post-scream administrative ascendancy: In the midterm elections of 2006, when Dean was receiving his first wave of kudos for having expanded the map, most of the television-viewing country was buried up to its neck in nightly news reports about Iraq that were so bloody and so terrible that in many households the youngest children were forbidden from watching the six o'clock evening news. The President's approval ratings had begun tanking in the summer of that year, and by the end of the election cycle the Democrats had overtaken the GOP in fundraising for the first time in memory. Dean's hand-picked candidate for Mayor of Salt Lake City won, but his hand-picked candidate for Senator from Tennessee lost, as did his hand-picked candidate to succeed Joe Lieberman in Connecticut.

Fast forward to 2008 -- particularly the last few days and weeks -- and the mantra from a slothful (if not actually credulous) mainstream press is that Obama won by expanding the map into places like Nevada and Virginia and North Carolina, forcing the Republicans to play out the entire game on their own side of the field. This much is indubitably true: George W. Bush never had to worry about making campaign stops in North Carolina or Virginia and, while he did make stops in Nevada, never really fretted any of the aforementioned states in either one of 2000 or 2004. Indeed the shift in the electoral map from 2004 to 2008 has been so significant and so unmistakable that to title a column such as this one in a contrarian tone is to invite ridicule: How can anyone argue that Obama's expanded map was the secret of his success, when an un-expanded map would've gotten him 252 electoral votes?

But the issue isn't really whether Dean and Obama were smart enough to pull off a widening of the map at all--no, it's rather the opposite: Dean and Obama were too smart to waste resources where they would have done no good, and to that extent they were too smart to miss the downright Machiavellian opportunity that the term "fifty-state strategy" presented for strategic deception of the other side, beginning all the way back in '06: To win by conceding any realistic hope of competitiveness in a small, comparatively dry assortment of states--without sounding weak and defensive in the process.

Try to imagine Barack Obama standing before a lectern, on a chilly evening in late November of 2007, telling a small gathering of pool reporters that he plans never to visit Tennessee a single time in the upcoming general election campaign. Try to imagine him saying out loud that he won't compete for Arkansas, won't share a single stage with Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky, considers West Virginia like a lost cause and Missouri a bonus prize. The press would've portrayed him as a mealy-mouthed stooge who can't muster the courage to give a speech to an unsupportive crowd, and he'd have lost. The key to Democratic victory in Presidential elections, after all, was always supposed to be the interior south. That's how we got Bill Clinton in the first place.

Four years ago, John Kerry's selection of John Edwards was based at least in part on his desire to bring the heart of Dixie into electoral play, and John Kerry lost because it didn't work. It was he, John Kerry, who'd walked the walk of the fifty-state strategy--to the extent that his comparatively meager finances would allow--and because of it he went down in flames. Indeed I still remember the night of the Democratic primary in South Carolina in 2004, when all the reporters were scrambling to make sense of Mr. Edwards' victory, and one lowly reporter had been dispatched to the White House for a comment from the other team. "South Carolina is Bush Country," had come the terse reply from the West Wing. They couldn't have given a mouse's fart whether Kerry or Edwards won the primary there; they didn't have to.

The genius of the Dean/Obama vision was that instead of expanding the playing field, they reversed it--which is far from being the same thing. There was no point, in the end, to competing for Arkansas and Tennessee and Kentucky, if the group of people who voted in this swathe of the country would never embrace a Democratic agenda for the country anyway. Instead the demographics in places like Virginia (with its bursting DC suburbs) and North Carolina (with its exploding bank sector--in both senses of the term), were surgically targeted by a campaign that knew all too well how weak it would make them look to openly invite the support of the gun-rack ownin' Dixiecrats in the uplands. Mr. Obama and Mr. Axlerod and Mr. Plouffe recognized, if Mr. Dean perhaps did not, that Democrats could win by conceding the states that, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, had been their wheelhouse.

As the country moves forward, more states will come demographically into play for the Democrats (though the next census will continue to ameliorate their advantages in the northeast and along the Pacific coast, too). Nevada and Montana and Colorado and New Mexico are all tending blue, not because of any genius move by Howard Dean but for the simple fact of the Californian diaspora, which makes the Yankee diaspora of a generation ago look vague and indecisive by comparison. With the ubiquitousness of modern information technologies, there's simply no longer any good reason to sit for an hour and a half in each direction on the one-ten. (And in case you missed it, Obama positively clobbered McCain in Nevada--by a twelve-point margin that was so far astray from even last-hour polling numbers that it would've been the second-lead in the November 5th news coverage, had the press been paying that kind of studious attention to anything other than the topline numbers from the night before.) Virginia and North Carolina may both be slipping from the Republicans in a relatively structural way, as well, while Indiana is probably a fluke of Mr. Obama's omnipresence in the Chicago media market.

The mistake for the Democrats now would be to convince themselves that the expression "fifty-state strategy" was ever more than a rope-a-dope, and to plow further blood and treasure into the lost causes along the southern Appalachians and across the lower Mississippi into the southern plains. As the last two elections have shown, making a more appealing case in places like South Carolina will not win you the White House, and making a less appealing case there won't lose it for you either. The good news is that, far from deserving less credit than they're getting, the Obama team is more than clever enough to see all of this before any of the rest of us had even noticed.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


A. Gordon said...

On your Machiavellian comment, I don't know if you saw this on Political Wire, but someone suggested last Wednesday that the Obama campaign, along w/ PA Gov. Ed Rendell, duped the McCain campaign into thinking that PA was actually in play causing them to spend boatloads of time and cash there while ultimately losing by 11+ points (according to latest CNN data). If you recall, Gov. Rendell "leaked" a week-old internal poll suggesting that Obama was only up by 4-5 points (or so). If this turns out to be true, and we'll probably never know, I'd have to say it's the most brilliant strategy I've ever seen.

On Kerry: Let's face it, Kerry lost because Kerry was a doofus and there were too many social issues on ballots in states where he needed to win (thank you Karl Marx, er, Rove).

I believe that what's really interesting here is that there's some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy concerning residents of the Deep South. Democrats don't campaign there because they don't really have any shot and thus the residents remain totally ignorant of the rest of the country and in the dark technologically because the Republicans know those states are in the bag so they don't have to compete there either and you wind up with a whole swath of the country that's still longing for simpler times and living in the 70's. Democrats may not have any shot now of winning these states, but if they never bother to make inroads, they never will. Because, let's face it, Californians will NEVER relocate to Alabama or Mississippi (sorry guys).

On a completely different note. The Republicans are apparently having a reality check and have launched a Rebuild The Party website indicating what their goals agenda should be. Three things stood out to me:

1. The toxic atmosphere of which they speak, they not only helped create, but one could easily argue that they were the primarily responsible party.

2. Obama-bashing isn't going to work (though it might help make them feel good, if only temporarily) when he's got the back of almost 70% of the country. (If he blows it, that's a different story.)

3. WHY, why, why, why, why would you publicly state your long term strategy less than a week after an election? If the Republicans need to learn ANYTHING from the McCain campaign it's that they need to keep their mouths shut. That said, if they like the taste of their shoes and failure, then by all means, who am I to judge.

Anonymous said...

Hey, hey, hey, there are many of us out there who think it would have been a better world if Howard Dean had gone on to win the White House, and had not been tricked,ill-used and crucified by the MSM for that supposed scream. If you'll recall, icky Carville called for his resignation on the day that the Dems took the Senate. Huh? All that being said, I think that there was some money being spent on a 50-state strategy, i.e. Georgia. They will probably steal that state this year, but watch it go blue in 2112. I think South Carolina is somewhere else that they could spend some money. The thing is that these god-forsaken red states have no people in them. No people = no votes. So we are on the right side of that equation.

However, I must disagree with your somewhat dour assessment of the campaign and the outcome. I saw a campaign office in my small town that had never before had a national presence, and many precincts went for OB, even though this area is the reddest of red. I think the tremendous outpouring of volunteer help made a tremendous difference. Precincts which were poor and white didn't go completely for OB, but some were very close. I think that was the biggest difference. I had Republican friends who drove voters to the polls and knocked on doors. They are not going to drive 50 miles to volunteer, but will if the office is available nearby. So I think that there will be advances made in the future, and those allies will be with us for a long time.

The other subject is governing. I am hoping that the mood of the country has swung to the good-guys side to the extent that we can finally get many--dare I say--Liberal ideals passed into law. The people I meet on the street and at meetings is so tremendously positive and upbeat, and we are always giving each other those terrorist fist beats. It's a new day in America, enjoy!

Dave O'Gorman said...

The Pennsylvania rope-a-dope was indeed brilliant, though I suspect that the Republicans would've seen some outlier polling of their own before committing so many resources to trying to win there.

The thing I couldn't figure out was why they conceded Colorado, New Mexico, and Iowa (which add up to 21 electoral votes, and which were all polling closer than PA)? If you trade one set of 21 ev's for another and still lose 18 more out of Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, Indiana, Missouri, Florida, and Ohio, you still lose.

I think the Republicans have to talk strategy right now because they have to seem proactive about righting their ship -- not that some of the concerns expressed here aren't good ones, I just don't think they have any choice.

Georgia probably doesn't come into play until they clean out the riff-raff in the Governor's office, just as in Ohio and North Carolina and Virginia before it.

A. Gordon said...

Aaaaah, that's the trouble with statistics and surveys, you can make them say anything you want if you ask the wrong questions. I failed to explain this adequately, however, to my graduate Econ prof (who is British, btw) when this topic came up for debate. I regret having lost that argument.

Why they conceded in the West? Two words: ground game. I don't know about NM, but Obama's ground game here in CO and in NV was the likes of which even God has never seen. I mean, he CRUSHED McCain in NV and he lost in CO by 9 points. Obama got 40% in Colorado Springs! Kerry only got 30.

Ground game.