May 12 2013

The power of organization

Published by at 8:53 am under Idaho,Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
The Idaho
Column

Contrary to many expectations, Idaho has a good many Democrats, more than a lot of people suspect. More than 200,000 Idahoans voted for Barack Obama for president last year, and more than 200,000 votes in the two U.S. House races in the state went for the Democratic candidates.

Of course – and no minor point – there were about twice as many votes cast for the Republicans in those races, so in Idaho the Democrats lost. Still, the D numbers are something to conjure with.

I bore that in mind last week a report from Lou Jacobson, a writer on politics for Governing magazine who specializes on politics not on the federal level but in the states. His provocative question: Did the Howard Dean 50-state strategy actually do any good for Democrats? Short answer: He says that it did. Idaho relevance: Democrats should pay attention and take heart; and it could matter to Republicans in many places too.

The longer answer, explaining jargon and party history …

During his tenure as national Democratic chair from 2005 to 2009, former Vermont Governor Dean launched an ambitious and, to many professional pols in both parties impractical, effort called the “50-state strategy.” The norm in politics is to tightly target one’s efforts in swing areas, and secondarily build up support in the base – and let slide the areas in strong opposition. For national Democrats, that means forgetting about places like Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Nebraska … you probably know the list. (Republicans have their opposing list, too.)

Dean thought this was all wrong, that the national party could, by carefully planting enough seed money and building organization in all 50 states, change the political atmosphere in even the toughest places – maybe not turning red states blue, but shifting them to less deeply red, building a bench of candidates at local levels who eventually could run for, and maybe win, higher office.

He got blasted for the proposal; pundit Paul Begala famously said (he eventually apologized) Dean would be “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.”

But Dean pushed his plan through in his four years in the chair. And what happened? Jacobson, while noting that 2006 and 2008 were good Democratic years for reasons beyond party organization, wrote, “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.”

He also concluded this: “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.”

That means serious efforts at party organization in Idaho can, to some extent at least, yield results.

Whether Idaho Democrats manage that is an open question. But it is something they could do, suggesting that their cause, while difficult, is not beyond hope.

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