lessons from America

Dean speaks strategy

Earlier today, friend and top blogger Sean Quinn of 538 got to interview Howard Dean, chair of the Democrat party and originator the 50 state strategy. 

“We asked him to explain how the 50-state strategy had benefited Barack Obama and Democratic candidates during this 2008 cycle. He was ready with the answer – when you go into places like Utah and South Carolina and Alaska, you give yourselves the opportunity not only to develop the Democratic voter file there, you lay the groundwork for having the infrastructure to support legitimate candidates like Mark Begich, a slight favorite to topple the indicted Ted Stevens.”

Read the full interview,including the importance of the ground game, here.


October 3, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , | Leave a comment

50 States not 42 days

This is a theme I’ll be returning repeatedly to over the coming months. Its about how to expand the electoral map; about how to build up the party base and win down-ticket races; about how to encourage more people to turn out to vote and be convinced that they have a stake in the political system. Its about all of those things and more.

In the American context, the 50 State strategy / campaign was first raised by Howard Dean and is now taken on by Obama, who has just promised to open up campaign offices in every single state. Now, as Markos (founder of the Daily Kos), explains:

“It doesn’t mean Obama will win 50 states, obviously. But it does mean a commitment to 1) an expanded presidential battleground, 2) long-term party building, and 3) attention to the down-ballot races that will ultimately decide whether the Obama Agenda will see the light of day. The more seats Obama’s Democratic Party can amass in the House and in the Senate, the stronger his influence and the bolder his legislation can be. In other words, this is much bigger than the presidential race, and I’m extremely encouraged that a presidential campaign has decided to take such a broad approach to these coming elections.”

Challenging this view / perceived hype, Charlie Cook, a top political analyst, responds:

“Presidential campaigns are pass-fail, and pass is defined as winning 270 electoral college votes. Ask former Vice President Al Gore about moral presidential victories. With 270 electoral votes the definition of success, “50-states” isn’t a strategy, it’s a cliché. Sure, a candidate might give some modicum of attention to all 50 states; the appearances are important. But if that candidate spends significant resources in the 20-25 states that are a lock for him or his opponent, he will look pretty foolish when his top priority states run shy on money down the final stretch.”

So there we have it, the necessity of relentlessly pursuing swing states demanded under the winner-takes-all system may well squeeze out the room for a healthier dynamic. It’ll certainly take a concerted effort to overcome the received wisdom of the standard electoral maths. And in one sense it – and maybe this is a slightly heretical point – it doesn’t matter when push comes to shove in the final stages of the race and resource decisions get made solely in favour of ensuring that “pass”. For the first stage of the strategy, and a worthy one at that, is trying to persuade people that their voice and their vote matters, and that they have a stake in the political process, no matter where they live. The appearance of trying to be competitive in as many places as possible is a good starting point for that; especially if (and this I know is far from current political reality) you can then go back to voters and explain that you will be campaigning for a change in the way the electoral college works so that there is more of an incentive for campaigning for votes everywhere right through to polling day. Interestingly, there is something brewing on that front: the campaign for a National Popular Vote.

But for the moment we have this potential scenario, which psephologist Stu Rothenberg sees as a possible byproduct of the 50 state strategy:

“Obama is likely to “waste” votes in Illinois, New York and California (winning them with large majorities), and he may gain some ground in normally Republican states — getting closer than most Democrats normally do, but not winning. If this happens, and if Obama narrowly loses one or two larger, traditionally Democratic states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, we could see an updated version of 2000, with McCain winning the White House at the same time that Obama gets more than half a million more votes.”

What this shows is that even a 50 State strategy is not sufficient to counter the negatives of a winner-takes-all election. Some form of electoral reform – proportional representation of one manifestation or another – is needed to ensure votes count whereever they are cast and the result reasonably accurately reflects how people nationwide have voted in an election for a nationwide position.

And, as closing thought: millions of wasted votes in safe seats and unwinnable ones; a ‘wrong winner’ nationally. Can’t happen here in the UK, surely? ….

NB. This post first published on the MMVC blog 11 June 2008

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy | , , , , | Leave a comment