Sixteen months after he launched his campaign for the White House, Sen. Barack Obama may, just now, be entering his campaign's most perilous stage. Facing a rift of sorts within the Democratic Party and concerns over the scope of his political base, the Illinois Democrat is pursuing an unconventional path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave: unlike those before him, he has pledged to redraw the electoral map by putting new, traditionally Republican states in play.
A slew of political factors will determine Obama's success in turning red states blue. But the Senator, in no small measure, will be aided in his task by reforms that preceded his run for the presidency. For all of the hoopla surrounding the candidates, the 2008 presidential election will be the first truly national test of the viability and prescience of Howard Dean's 50-state strategy.
Four years ago, when Dean was vaulted to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee -- following a failed presidential bid months earlier -- he pledged to rewrite the rules concerning where and how Democrats would compete. In the subsequent months, resources and staff were invested into unconventional and even previously untouched locales. The idea was that the party simply couldn't compete without a margin for error.
But at the time, party insiders, who believed Dean was stripping away important resources from key races, were privately and, on occasion, publicly livid.
"He says it's a long-term strategy," said Paul Begala, the longtime Clinton aide and Democratic strategist. "What he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose."
When the Democrats made major congressional gains in 2006, questions persisted as to whether the electoral success had simply been the product of a fortunate circumstance. Dean himself admitted to Time Magazine, "I didn't expect much to come of this strategy for four or even six years."
Now, four years have passed. And the Democrats have nominated a candidate that seems perfectly equipped to test-drive the party's 50-state vehicle. Obama has built his candidacy off of the pledge to expand the electoral playing field. Moreover, his campaign has leaned on an ability to drum up both grassroots support and the recruitment of Republicans and independents -- two stated objectives of the Dean vision.
On Thursday, Obama symbolically endorsed the DNC's efforts, declaring that Dean would remain party chairman heading into the general election.
As Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, told The Huffington Post: "I think that we are going to have a larger battlefield in 2008... I think we are going to stretch the Republicans. I don't think they can take for granted nearly as many states as they have in the past. And I think we are going to add several to the Democratic column this year and so our coalition is going to be broader."
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But what tangible benefits will the 50-state strategy actually provide?
Obama will likely start the general election with 180 or so "reliably Democratic" electoral votes. With the goal of getting to 270, the DNC believes it could play a role in carrying the rest of the burden. The party already has more than 200 field staffers on the ground, and grassroots training programs in all fifty states. In addition, new Internet and communications operations have been started with the goal of facilitating participation in, and donations to, Democratic causes.
These might seem like ad-hoc measures. But if Sen. John Kerry had received ten additional votes per precinct in 2004, he would have won Iowa, Ohio, New Mexico, and, subsequently, the White House.
Perhaps the most significant, and controversial, move made under the 50-state strategy has been the modernization of the party's voter file, in which Dean has invested more than $8 million dollars.
"We have gone light years from four years ago," said Moses Mercado, a Democratic operative and a former adviser to Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign. "Then it was a rag tag of what the party had accumulated and it wasn't what other local officials were using. The DNC got every state on a national voter file. The new file has better tracking to include voter history -- they now know the political habits of those who have moved... I don't feel the urgency now that we are behind because we have the infrastructure to capture the excitement of the primary."
But not everyone has been on board. Before he joined Hillary Clinton's campaign, Harold Ickes constructed a voter database of his own, in part because he wanted to target left-leaning interest groups, in part because he didn't particularly trust Dean. A debate currently rages as to which database is more useful. But in the end, having options will prove better than having none. And Obama seems poised to benefit from this type of ground work.
"The 50-state strategy has been implemented to varying degrees in a lot of states and Obama is going to make a lot of these states competitive," said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and Center for American Progress. "And in a lot of these states, by virtue of the primary competition, they have generated a lot of registration and work on top of what the Dean folks have done. The whole controversy as to whether the 50 state strategy was a good idea -- with the establishment Democrats poo-pooing it -- I'm getting the impression that is less of a controversial idea then it once was, and it does fit into what Obama is trying to do."
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The evidence of at least some progress is already visible on the ground. In late May, the Boston Globe identified six traditionally Republican states that Obama would have the greatest shot of turning.
Next to Virginia, Colorado appeared most ripe. Even though the state, with the exception of 1992, hasn't voted Democratic in more than four decades, it has witnessed an influx of younger, more liberal voters, as well as suburbanites emigrating from California. Spurred by the DNC, the state's Democratic Party has taken productive steps to improve its fortunes. Starting in 2005, field directors were sent out to rural areas, a new voter file was purchased, and ballot initiatives were run in non-traditional counties. In time, electoral results materialized. Currently, Colorado's governor, both houses of the state legislature and one of its Senators are Democratic; all of which, official claim, will transfer well to the presidential level.
"The thing about the Obama campaign that was interesting is that when they came into Colorado they set up about ten offices in the state," said Pat Waak, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. "It was great. It reinforced the same effort that we had been working on for the past three years or so. It means that with all the training that we've done over the past three years and with our own efforts we are enabled for success in the fall campaign."
Added Democratic pollster Celinda Lake: "I think the 50 state strategy put in play a lot of western states that are extremely good for Obama, because they are change oriented and increasingly Democratic. Though no one noticed it, the west is purple."
Obama's task, however, is not just to flip states into his column, but rather to make enough areas competitive so that McCain and the Republican Party are forced to drain their resources. In this regard, Dean's vision may prove more successful.
Take Idaho. In 2006, the Democratic Party was able to field an aggressive challenger in what had been, since 1994, a safe GOP district. With help from on-the-ground staffers and the influx of small but strategic resources, Larry Grant forced his Republican opponent, Bill Sali, to turn to Washington for money and two separate appearances by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Grant ultimately lost, but ripple effects were felt on other races. Among the Obama folks, the lessons from that 2006 race apparently still resonate. According to the state's Democratic Party chair, the Illinois Democrat has pledged to open an office in Idaho for the fall -- an unheard of development in recent presidential elections.
"Bear in mind that I received assurance when I was back in Chicago that they would have paid people on the ground in Idaho," said Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark. "Now clearly they won't have the same presence in Idaho as they do in Colorado and New Mexico where Obama has a chance of winning. But they will have people on the ground here and we haven't had that since 1964. If you mix that kind of operation with what our state party already has, who knows what is going to happen."
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Not every Democratic operative or political observer is convinced that the 50-state-strategy will prove consequentially beneficial for Obama. For starters, the DNC is currently strapped for money compared to its Republican counterpart, with $4.4 million in the bank going into the general election (the RNC has $40 million). As such, the party may be indirectly forcing Obama's hand -- persuading the Illinois Senator to forgo public funding despite the hits he may take from good government reform groups.
"I think there is some infrastructure, even if it is minimal, that will be a benefit for anyone who pursues the [50-state-strategy]," said Tad Devine, a long-time Democratic operative and adviser to Kerry. "And the way to do it, and I wish we did it in the Kerry campaign, is to stay outside of public funding, amass a resource advantage bigger than your opponent and put new states in play. The way to win is to target the states that not only you can win but forcing your opponent to defend... Obama can do this by arguing that he has a whole new system of public funding."
But other steps are needed. Indeed, with unsure financial commitments from the DNC -- their coffers should bulge now that the primary is over -- and with the 50-state strategy still in its early stages, the Obama campaign faces the uphill task of organizing its own efforts in non-Democratic states in a matter of months.
In early May, the Senator took the first step down that road by launching a country-wide voter registration drive, with the hopes of playing off of his primary successes. The campaign would not discuss how and where Obama would look to open offices, spend advertising dollars, or coordinate resources. Since securing the nomination, however, the Senator is tightening his control over the party. News circulated this week that Obama will persuade the DNC to refuse any lobbyist funding, a stance in line with his own campaign. And a high-ranking Obama official, Paul Tewes, is slated to help oversee fundraising efforts at the committee.
The potential beneficiaries of the Obama-Dean alliance could be numerous. Down-ticket Democrats are not only banking on an influx of resources into their races, but are hoping that a synthesized effort between the presidential candidate and campaign committees provides a political boost even in traditionally hostile locales. The environment is certainly ripe. Already Democrats have ripped three congressional seats away from the GOP in special elections. The Cook Political Report list 27 seats GOP House seats that will be in play, in addition to seven in the Senate.
"It is not that Obama needs what the DNC under what Dean has done," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institute. "It is that the Obama nominating campaign has reinforced what the DNC was doing. And all of this will be primarily helpful down ticket. It gives Democrats some opportunities to win Senate, House and other legislative contests and over time puts them in the position of turning around some truly red states."