"People yelled and carried on": Howard Dean tells Salon how he remade DNC -- and Dems' new path forward

The man who implemented a 50-state strategy as DNC chair dishes on how Democrats can take back the country again

Published November 25, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

Howard Dean        (Reuters/Phil Mccarten)
Howard Dean (Reuters/Phil Mccarten)

Howard Dean will forever be associated with one unguarded moment on a microphone in Iowa. But his real contribution to politics over the past decade was during his time at the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2008, when he implemented the 50-state strategy. This blueprint for Democrats to compete throughout the country combined local organizing and technical wizardry. And it bore fruit: Democrats gained by virtually every metric in deep-red states during this period, from presidential vote share to state legislatures.

After President Obama’s election in 2008, the 50-state strategy was effectively jettisoned. Large swaths of the country have been ceded to Republicans, with predictably terrible results. I talked to Gov. Dean about what the 50-state strategy accomplished and why he prefers empowering bottom-up organizing to making decisions exclusively out of Washington. Our conversation follows.

Tell me about the origins of the 50-state strategy. What was the goal?

My experience from having campaigned and from being governor is that there are Democrats everywhere, and if you want to nurture the party you have to nurture all of them. If you focus only on the states that are mostly Democratic, it’s demoralizing to the other states. So you never get any growth. So the origin of the 50-state strategy was to be prepared to go anywhere. The idea was, if you ever wanted a Mark Begich, you had to invest in Alaska before a Mark Begich came on the horizon so you could be ready. Mark Begich is the example that I use. Nobody expected Ted Stevens to be indicted, but when he was, we were ready. So the origin was to invest in the party throughout the country. There was also another aspect to it. My strategy to win the presidency was to find a way to win without Ohio and Florida. Obama came along and ran an incredible campaign, which was great and very metric-oriented to get votes out. But I was prepared to preside over a Democratic campaign in 2008 where we didn’t win Florida or Ohio, but we win in the West, we’d win in Colorado, possibly Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. That would put us over the top, and would have as well for Kerry in 2004. So, that was another part of it.

How did it actually work? You gave funding for state parties to train their own full-time staff?

This was the hard part for me. My experience as a governor was that the state party was weak. They were also kind of a pain in the neck. I was a centrist governor, and they were always complaining about things that I was doing, and I was very annoyed by it. So I didn’t have a good experience with the state Democratic parties. But I also knew that one of the reasons they were weak was nobody would fund them. So nobody would fund them because they were weak, and they were weak because nobody would fund them. So it was a hard decision for me, do you take the leap of faith, and understand that you’re going to get burned on some of these parties, but you’re going to have to do it? The problem was that people in Washington are always moving people in and out of races and telling them who can and can’t run. And they don’t do as good a job, they’re not as in touch with what’s happening on the ground.

So we decided we would guarantee every state, the goal was four staffers, some got three, some got five, depending on the size of the state. We would guarantee staffers paid for by the DNC. They get to choose the staffers, but we get to train them three or four times a year. And then we put a tech capacity in these states so they could do what Iowa always did, maintaining a voter file. The model was the same, Iowa had been doing it for a long time. I actually wanted to buy the VAN. I made a mistake. It was a little pricey at the time, but looking back now, it would have been great. Buy the VAN and run the company. And then Catalist came along, which was a big pain in the neck. Only because to have the voter file controlled by some people who were outside the DNC, I thought was a bad thing. If you want a Democratic Party, you have to have a Democratic Party.

So anyway, we did it. We put money into the states. And lo and behold, the difference between not taking the House and taking the House in 2006 was 17 candidates that people like Kathleen Sebelius found in Kansas. We didn’t know much about them, it was the people in the states. They found them, they nurtured them, they trained them, they now had the capacity in their states to get out the vote and identify voters. And it worked. And in the Senate, I have to say, we did really well in the Senate because we were a little lucky, Jim Webb came along and Macaca happened. But we picked up seats too because of people like Mark Begich in Alaska. We found they had great people there but they had no money, but suddenly they had a computer capacity, they could get some votes out.

We also had some rules, we would give you the technology capacity, but you would be obligated to allow candidates to use it for free. See, in order to raise money, states would sell their lists to their own candidates. So we said OK, we’re going to do this, but you’re going to give these people lists, on the condition that they give it back to you after the campaign with all their markings. There was a lot of resistance to that too. Illinois was problematic, because the House Speaker is the chair of the party and also personally owns the list. So for Illinois we had to do it through Durbin. We couldn’t use the state party. So really it was a 49-state strategy.

And there was also this local component too, right? Was the idea that, once people actually had contact with a Democrat in their neighborhood at the local level, they’d be more receptive to the party in general?

That was a different program. It was called the neighbor-to-neighbor strategy.

It’s part of a piece, though, right? It’s all part of an overall strategy.

Yes, underlying all of it was this idea that the Internet was wonderful, but it’s not a substitute for personal contact. And then the model we built was, instead of 1,000 college kids door-knocking the last weekend of the election …

You’re familiar with that strategy.

Yeah. So we wanted 1,000 college kids to take responsibility, each one to knock on 25 doors over an 8-10 week period before the election, to get to know people. We knew that personal interaction meant everything. And obviously the candidate couldn’t knock on every door in the state. So you had your representatives do it. And we wanted to be sure that happened in an organized way. So, I think it was called neighbor-to-neighbor. We said take control of 25 households and talk to them five times between now and the election. And then we had people call us back and say, some of these people on our lists are people who our parents haven’t spoken to for 25 years. So we had to swap out names. But it was pretty good, it was kind of neat.

We also did, we hired people within my campaign to come in and redo the DNC. For all the McAuliffe controversy, when I got there the DNC had no mortgage, no debt and a brand-new building when I took over. They didn’t have anything in the building in terms of tech. So we redid that. But McAuliffe left the party in such good shape, I never heard of anything like that.

What do you say to those who argued that the 50-state strategy for Democrats, it brought in a lot of Democrats who were right for those particular regions, but it may have diverged sharply from the mainstream Democratic message? Was that a problem?

There was some discussion about that, and actually that happened. We ended up with some conservative Democrats from Western Pennsylvania, for example. But my point was, you can be a small regional minority party if you want to, and stay ideologically pure. But it’s more fun to have the speaker. I’d rather have inter-party fights in the majority than stay pure in the minority. So we wanted to keep a majority. And the Republicans have actually done this too. Now they did it through gerrymandering, but still. And also the Republicans have better messaging, that’s a whole other story.

I read a piece in Governing magazine. And it showed that, and you were talking about the West and the Great Plains, that’s where there was real success from 2005 to 2008. And less so in the Deep South. Should it have really been more of a 40-state strategy?

Well, it was a 40-state strategy in some ways, it wasn’t really, but ... We got lucky. With five staffers, and a bunch of tech and training, you can influence 40 states. The big states, California and New York and Texas, we couldn’t influence them with five staffers. So we got lucky in Texas, a group of trial lawyers took over the party and funded it, and it wasn’t perfect, but we knew each other, and they were OK. In New York, when [Eliot] Spitzer took over he appointed a guy named Dave Pollack, who completely got it. In Ohio we had a young guy, minority leader in the House, Chris Redfern, really inspired. So we got lucky in the big states that you couldn’t influence otherwise. So it was meant to be a 50-state strategy, but from a practical point of view, unless you have billions to spend on campaigns, you can’t do everything. Especially in those states where you’d have to spend so much.

I believe in the South the Democrats will come back, but you can’t do it if you don’t pay attention. I went down to Mississippi to a dinner when I was chairman. A guy gets up, he must have been born in 1920. A wizened old guy with a deep Southern accent. And I’m thinking oh boy. The next thing I know, he introduces the chairman of Ways and Means, which is one of the most powerful, and the guy’s a young black guy. What it said to me was, the Democratic Party is a big tent, and all we have to do is fund this stuff and we can make some inroads. And I think we can. Alabama is going to change because of all the car plants coming in. When you raise the standard of living, and education gets better, you get more competitive. We had two great candidates in Georgia this year, for governor and Senate. It was a terrible year for us, but what if that would happen in a presidential year that pulls out the people that Obama pulled out?

The point is that if you give up before you start, then you give up. The 50-state strategy was never about giving the same amount of money to Alabama as you give to Colorado. Never about that. But it was about giving everybody a base, and some competence level to work off, and then they were on their own. And it’s amazing what people will do if you give them a chance. Especially people who have been beaten down for years by the national party, who feel that nobody cares about them. The DCCC and DSCC wouldn’t put any money into these places for years, they didn’t care. And anybody who could self-fund, they became the candidate. That’s no way to run a party.

Republicans now have majorities in over two-thirds of state legislatures, and the largest House majority since the 1920s. How did this unravel so quickly after being built up during your tenure?

Well, first of all, the Republicans have been very focused on state legislatures, we have not. Secondly, actually a party gets hollowed out when they have the president. The party becomes part of the reelection campaign of the president, the party is run from the White House. And that’s to a certain extent true of the Republicans as well. So, the DNC doesn’t have any flexibility to do the things that have to be done. They have to check with the White House, and if the White House doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t get done. And also the money that got diverted to OFA and all these other things, that was a mistake and it didn’t work.

So, all presidents do this, it’s not an Obama problem; again, the Republicans did basically the same thing. But that really hollowed out the Democratic Party. And then, state chairs did get a little bit of money so they can say that the 50-state strategy is not dead. But they’re not putting the energy into the states that they used to. They didn’t put any energy in the state parties in the Clinton administration either.

So given the elections during your tenure, and the midterm elections afterward, do you feel vindicated by the strategy that you took?

Well, I’d much rather not have to feel vindicated that way. Give me back two-thirds of the legislatures, and the governorships in many states, I’d be happy to take that and go fly off into the sunset.

One thing that strikes me is that the GOP basically adopted a lot of these techniques.

That’s true, but we adopted some from them too. In my time, the first thing I copied of theirs, I don’t remember the name now, but it was a computerized way of segmenting the electorate. Much more sophisticated than we had. So we aimed to copy them on that.

Like micro-targeting, things like that?

Micro-targeting, yes. We learned that from the Republicans, so we steal stuff from each other. That’s kind of how we do it. And then Obama’s presidential campaigns revolutionized everything. The Republicans have a ways to go before they catch up to that.

If you were back at the DNC, how would you begin to rebuild the party?

I wouldn’t go back to the DNC. No, I wouldn’t. Because I’d have to have enough freedom to do what I wanted. When I came in, I didn’t get a single vote inside the Beltway. I think there were about 375 votes for the DNC, and 75 of them were inside the Beltway and none of them voted for me. So I could do whatever I wanted, so I canned all the consultants, put my own people in there and rebuilt the place the way I saw fit. And people yelled and carried on about it, with a lot of bad language, but I didn’t care. I didn’t pay any attention.

You’ve got to be outside the Beltway, independent. Right now we’re an inside the Beltway party, even though we don’t have as many people inside the Beltway. That was the case when I got there. I mean, it’s just the mind-set of everything, and Democrats in particular can fall prey to that mind-set, it’s why we’re so awful at messaging. That was the one thing I never could do. We got the state parties strong, we figured out how to raise money on the Internet based on what I did in my campaign. But I could never get the Washington Democrats to stay on message. They always thought they had a better idea. And I tried, I mean, I like these people. Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, they’re very smart and they’re good senators. But they think the rules don’t apply to them. That’s not how it works in politics. The rules do apply to you, and if you go off on your own you may win but your party won’t. So the reason I wouldn’t go back, I wouldn’t go unless the party wasn’t controlled from Washington.

So maybe let me rephrase that. If you were in a position to give advice, or it was after this administration is over and you had the same situation as before?

What you’re asking is how do you rebuild the party. First of all, we need to internalize the metrics of the Obama presidential campaign. Their campaign, I have never seen anything like it. For a president to win with an 8.5 percent unemployment rate is stunning. So first of all, internalize all that stuff. Second of all, I’d go back to the old rule, every party gets training, they pick their people, and some of them picked bad people, they did, and I cut them off. I demanded leadership to change, which doesn’t always happen when you’re dealing with who gets elected state party chair. But most of them did great, really great, in places like Kansas and Nebraska we did really, really well.

But anyway, so I’d reinstate the 50-state strategy, with discipline. I’d update the database to keep up with the Obama campaign. It would be great if the president shared his database with the party, but they don’t. And it’s getting worse because of the outside money; they keep everything outside the party, and then you don’t have everything central to go back to. You have to rely on it candidate by candidate, and that’s a disaster.

The Republicans really are more disciplined, they’ve always been more disciplined than the Democrats, with the exception of the Obama campaign. So I’d take all the metrics of the Obama campaign, put them into the party, start making sure that the campaign committees in the House and the Senate are disciplined. And then rebuild the state organizations, in every single state, including places like Alabama and Mississippi. And I would let and encourage local people to decide who their candidates should be, as opposed to having somebody from Washington try to push people in and out of primaries. Which is very stupid, and the Democrats cannot seem to stop doing it. I guess the Republicans do it too, and sometimes it’s necessary. The Republicans needed to exterminate the Tea Party. And they did. And that worked out for them. But I think the voters should choose candidates, not someone out of Washington.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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