Howard Dean and the 50 State Strategy

Originally published June 2016.

The mission of Liberal Democrat Expand is to bring about a ‘650 Seat Strategy’ for the Liberal Democrats. Our aim is for the party to have no no-go areas. A message for every voter. The idea finds its origins with Governor Howard Dean in the form of the ’50 State Strategy’.

Howard Dean is a respected Democrat politician in the US. He served as Governor of Vermont for 12 years until putting himself forward to be the Democratic Nominee in the 2004 US Presidential election. During his campaign to be the Democratic Nominee he pioneered innovative internet campaigning techniques and fundraising tools, which would later be used and developed in the 2008 Obama campaign.

It was while serving as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee that Governor Dean developed the ’50 State Strategy’. The 50 State Strategy rejects the idea of consolidating resources in swing-states. Instead, it advocates building in all areas, so that nowhere is left behind. That is not to say that no targeting is done whatsoever. Governor Dean sums this up better than anyone else could:

“It would be a terrible mistake to leave even one state out of a basic package of training, IT and staffing. 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.”

Governor Dean served as chairman of the DNC from 2005–2009, and the 50 State Strategy helped the Democrats regain control of Congress in 2006 and arguably laid the foundations for the 2008 Obama campaign’s community-organizing model. Unfortunately the 50 State Strategy was not pursued by the DNC following Dean’s departure.

“Where we really made a difference was in states like Nabraska, where Obama won an electoral vote in 2008. He had a real party to work with,” said Governor Dean. Fortunately, a 2013 analysis by supports Dean’s claim and the 50 State Strategy. The analysis compares Democrat gains at the State and Federal level (across 20 heavily Republican-leaning states) between 2005–2009 (during Dean’s Chairmanship) and 2009–2013 (after his chairmanship). They were states that had not voted Democratic in any recent presidential contests. And the results are indicative:

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.
And then between 2009 and 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.

This analysis suggests that the 50 State Strategy really had a positive impact in these Republican-leaning states. There are of course mitigating factors: between 2009–2013 for instance there was a Democrat in the White House, undermining the ‘protest’ vote.

We should not be confined to our strongholds. A 650 Seat Strategy will ensure that no party anywhere in the country is left unable to field a candidate or run a campaign. We need to be growing at all levels — parish councils, borough councils, county councils, and electing Police and Crime Commissioners and Mayors — not just on a Parliamentary level. And aside from these elected positions, every vote counts and every voter counts. The party needs to be building a real dialogue with voters across the country. The party needs to be ready.