The Democratic chair plans to fight in every one of the 50 states. Is this shrewd strategy or a recipe for disaster?
DIAMONDHEAD, MISS.--Here's what the front line of Howard Dean's revolution looks like: two dozen senior citizens seated inside this gated community's clubhouse listening intently as operatives from the state Democratic Party pitch them on becoming precinct captains. A rep named Jay Parmley approaches an oversize easel and flips to a page showing John Kerry's share of the 2004 presidential vote here in Hancock County. "28%" is scrawled in magic marker. "Kind of scary," Parmley says.
But he flips the page to show former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's share of the vote here in his unsuccessful 2003 re-election bid: "43%." The discrepancy, Parmley explains, shows that the better Mississippians know a Democrat, the more likely they are to vote for him. Which is why he's here recruiting precinct captains. If Democrats can define themselves on a "neighbor to neighbor" basis, Parmley says, their candidates can win again, even here, in a red county in a red state.
If that doesn't sound revolutionary, consider this: Mississippi's Democratic Party hasn't trained precinct captains for more than a decade. Until recently, the state party consisted of a single full-time staffer. In 2004, the Democratic National Committee invested so little here that activists shelled out thousands of their own dollars to print up Kerry yard signs. That all changed last summer, when newly elected DNC Chairman Howard Dean began rolling out his "50-State Strategy," a multimillion-dollar program to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up. Over the past year, the DNC has hired and trained four staffers for virtually every state party in the nation--nearly 200 workers in all--to be field organizers, press secretaries, and technology specialists, even in places where the party hasn't been competitive for decades. "It's a huge shift," Dean tells U.S. News. "Since 1968, campaigns have been about TV and candidates, which works for 10 months out of the four-year cycle. With party structure on the ground, you campaign for four years."
The strategy is also a reaction to the past two presidential cycles, when the shrinking number of battleground states the Democratic nominee was competing in left no room for error. Both elections were arguably determined by a single state: Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. Says Dean: "We've gotten to the point where we're almost not a national party."
But Dean's plan has helped feed a fierce intraparty battle between the DNC and the committees tasked with electing Democrats to Congress: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel has been especially vocal to Dean over concerns that the DNC is misallocating resources in a year when the Democrats are poised to take back the House. Grousing about insufficient funds from the DNC, Emanuel recently told Roll Call "there is no cavalry financially for us." Emanuel declined interview requests, but DCCC sources say more money should go to Democratic candidates in tight races, not to field organizers in long-shot red states.
A big bet. With the future of the Democratic Party at stake, Republicans are watching closely, too. "Dean could wind up looking like a genius eventually," says a top GOP strategist. "Or this could be the election that could have been."
The promise and peril of Dean's plan come into sharp relief in the Magnolia State, where neither this year's U.S. Senate race nor the four House races are considered competitive. And while Democrats enjoyed more-or-less single-party status here for the hundred years following the Civil War, Republicans now hold the state's two Senate seats, the governor's mansion, and most other statewide offices. The last Democratic presidential nominee to win the state was Jimmy Carter, in 1976. But Dean argues that such failures are the result of the national party's having packed up and left red states. "Nobody stands up and says, 'Here's why I'm a Democrat,'" he says. "That's why right-wingers have managed to brand us in unattractive ways. To be branded right, you need real people on the ground."
The gambit has remade the Mississippi party with four full-time, DNC-paid staffers and a fundraiser. In four months, finance director Wendi Hooks has tripled the number of $1,000-plus donors to 24 and expects to more than double the party's budget this year, to $400,000. Two field representatives have recruited captains in more than 500 precincts so far, along with volunteers for phone banks and canvassing. "I've been trying to contact the party since I moved back here in 1992," says Harold Terry, 43, a Jackson native who volunteered last week at a phone bank. "Someone finally got back to me three weeks ago."
The new DNC hires tell similar stories. Rita Royals is a 57-year-old former rape crisis counselor who paid to print her own Kerry signs in 2004. That same year, DeMiktric Biggs, a student at Jackson State University, sent a county-by-county voter analysis to almost everyone on the state Democratic committee--and never got a reply. Now, the party is using his work to plan its ground game.
As the 2006 election nears, the precinct captains whom Royals and Biggs are training will be put to work leveraging the DNC's updated voter file--improved since technical glitches stymied many state parties' get-out-the-vote efforts in 2004. Of course, with President Bush winning Mississippi with nearly 60 percent of the vote, the Democratic Party isn't expecting dramatic results anytime soon. "The Republicans had 30 years to put themselves in the position they're in," says Dean. "To think we're going to turn the party around in four is wrong."
That timetable makes operatives at the other Democratic committees even more uneasy. But the 50-State Strategy, for the time being, is focused more on keeping or regaining control of state legislatures, which have taken on more national political value because they draw the lines for U.S. House seats. In Mississippi, Democrats control the Legislature but have lost dozens of seats recently. In Arizona, Republicans are three seats away from veto proof majorities in the state House and Senate. The state Democratic Party there has used its DNC field organizers to do aggressive outreach to American Indians and Hispanics, particularly during the huge immigrant rights protests earlier this year. "The DNC has enabled us to become part of the fabric of these communities," says Arizona party chair David Waid. "There used to be this sense of coming around only when we wanted your vote."
Waid and other state-level operatives say their beefed-up parties have also helped in candidate recruiting. "If you can show a candidate you have the support infrastructure to get them elected, he'll run," says Jerry Goldman, party chair in McCormick County, S.C., who now works closely with his state party. "You have to show a candidate that he's not out there by himself." In Arizona, Democrats have candidates in every legislative district for the first time in a decade. "Successful candidates for Congress come from winning offices at the county or municipal level," says Arizona's Waid. "We build that farm team, and it enhances our chances for taking back Congress."
Cultural chasm. At least that's the theory. But in many red states, even some Democrats say their failures have as much to do with the national party's positions on cultural issues like gay rights and school prayer--which have become politically potent only in the past 25 years--as they do with ground organization. Discussing his national party's stance on hot-button issues, Mississippi state Rep. Dirk Dedeaux says, "They don't have to tinker; they have to disavow it. I'm opposed to gun control, opposed to abortion on demand."
Dedeaux says top-of-ticket Democrats can win on economic issues, particularly in poor states like his, but only by narrowing the GOP advantage on social issues. "Democrats believe government is responsible for the needs of average people, not just Big Oil and Big Tobacco," he says. "These aren't sensational issues. They're meat and potatoes."
According to that view, if liberals like John Kerry win the nomination for president, all the precinct captains in the world couldn't muster enough Mississippi votes to put them over the top. Joel Ingram, chairman of the Lamar County Democratic Party, has struck out in trying to organize precinct captains because there's no strong national Democratic candidate at the moment to motivate people. "I believe the solution is top-down," he says. "To get people off the sofa, you need a strong candidate at the top." Howard Dean probably wouldn't make the cut, either. "It would be our fondest dream to have Dean be the nominee," says Mississippi Republican Party Chair Jim Herring. "Or Hillary Clinton."
In the meantime, Dean's bigger challenge may be fending off attacks from his own party. The DCCC's Emanuel reportedly stormed out of a meeting with Dean recently, and the two are said not to have talked since. DCCC sources say Emanuel is steamed that Dean has burned through tens of millions of dollars by hiring direct-mail firms and other vendors, leaving the DNC with $10 million on hand, less than a quarter of the Republican's war chest. The fight now, say DCCC sources, is for the money that's left.
But Dean tells U.S. News that he has pledged $12 million to so-called coordinated campaigns: state-level plans that include Senate and House races, along with lesser offices. "I'm an outsider, and people in Washington don't like advice from outsiders," says Dean. But he says that he works well with the leaders in the House and Senate and that "eventually I'll work well with the DCCC and DSCC."
For now, he seems to be working well with the grass roots. After the presentation in Diamondhead, Lisa Boughton, 40, signs up to be a precinct captain. "In small towns like this," she says, "you vote how your neighbor tells you to."
This story appears in the July 24, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.