50-State Strategy May Come Down to 20

By: - September 15, 2008 12:00 am

(Updated 3:08 p.m., Sept. 15, 2008)

The Democratic candidate for president left his party’s convention with a lead in the polls and a promise to run a 50-state campaign that included Republican strongholds as well as traditional battlegrounds.

That sounds like Barack Obama departing Denver , but it was actually Michael Dukakis in 1988. The former Massachusetts governor quickly abandoned the 50-state strategy when his race with GOP challenger George H.W. Bush narrowed to several tossup states.

Obama may experience a similar fate 20 years later. Despite vowing to compete everywhere, the Illinois senator may be forced to scale back that plan and concentrate his money and time on states where he truly has a chance of winning.

Republican candidate John McCain has made it more difficult for Obama to stick to his plans. Following a successful convention of his own, McCain has tightened the race in part by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Obama had opened seven offices in Alaska with the hope of capturing the historically Republican state, but Palin’s selection makes that goal elusive. She also could boost McCain in other western states that were central to Obama’s strategy of expanding the playing field.

Though states will be added or dropped as the campaign evolves, Obama and McCain generally are fighting over Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon in the West; Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin in the Midwest; Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in the South and New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in the East.

National, state-by-state campaigns are rarely attempted because candidates don’t have the money to spend on advertising, offices and staff. Even if they did, it doesn’t make sense to compete in states where one party has a solid advantage over the other, as say Utah is for Republicans.

Ronald Reagan tried for a “50-state sweep” in 1984 and nearly pulled it off (he lost Minnesota , home state of challenger Walter F. Mondale) despite launching the effort late in the campaign when polls showed he could win every state. Richard Nixon kept his promise to travel to all 50 states in 1960 but it may have cost him the election because he failed to spend more time in close states at the end.

Obama has said 2008 would be different. At the urging of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean , Obama embraced the idea of setting up a campaign operation in every state. Obama would have enough money, party officials figured, because he decided to forego public financing and raise his own funds. He is aiming for a million budget.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Howard Dean to pursue a 50 state strategy, because his job is to build a national party with the long haul in mind,” said Charles Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report. “For a presidential campaign, a 50 state strategy is as much a cliche as a strategy. It’s basically saying, ‘We’re going to pay some attention to all 50 states, we aren’t going to ignore any state.’ Obviously every state doesn’t get equal resources but it does give his supporters and donors a sense of involvement regardless of whether they live in a battleground state.”

Cook said as long as Obama has plenty of money and as long as the battleground states are well funded, there is no harm in “throwing some crumbs” to the other 30 states.

Part of the thinking behind Dean’s strategy is tactical. Obama wants McCain to spend money defending states where Democrats usually don’t compete-what Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) likened to the political equivalent of the U.S.-Soviet arms race. McCain, who accepted million in public financing, should have as much money as Obama because the Republican National Committee can also spend on his behalf.

Democratic Party leaders, anticipating a close election, also want to improve voter turnout by building a get-out-the-vote operation in states that the party ignored in the past.

Higher turnout may not be enough for Obama to overcome McCain in many states, but Obama and other party officials say it could boost other Democratic candidates running for Congress and state legislatures. Obama has said the 50-state strategy “will not only help us, but help congressional candidates, help Senate candidates, help local races as well.”

Democrats not only want to pad their majorities in Congress, but turn statehouses blue because the majority party draws new congressional and legislative district boundaries after the 2010 Census. In the Indiana House, the Democrats have a one-seat advantage so a large statewide turnout for Obama could help the party retain its edge even if Obama loses.

“I think he’s going to lift all the candidates,” said state Rep. Lenny Winrich, a Democrat from Grand Forks , N.D. , a reliably Republican state in presidential elections, where Obama has opened nine offices. “He’s going to bring out voters who haven’t been traditional voters before.”

Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, flew to Houston in June to tell a group of Democratic contributors that the campaign would send 15 staffers to Texas to help organize volunteers to register voters. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said it would help create a Democratic majority in the state, where Republicans control the legislature.

“Even if Obama loses Texas , he helps our legislative candidates if he brings out other voters,” said Rey Trevino, a Democratic activist from Lytle , Texas .

Dean, who repeated the 50-state vow during a speech last month at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, told PBS afterward if the Democrats want to be a national party, “we’ve got to ask everybody for their vote, including people in really conservative states.”

But a presidential race is not about building a political party. It’s about winning the White House in a nation so evenly divided that one state-even one county can make a difference. In a 48-hour period Sept. 8-9, McCain and Palin stumped in a Kansas City , Mo., suburb while Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden dropped by Columbia and a St. Louis suburb. Any of those three counties could tip Missouri .

U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) has not been shy about questioning the 50-state strategy. The former top adviser to President Bill Clinton says that the election will come down to about 18 states. “The most important thing is what happens in the battleground states,” he said on the Charlie Rose Show.

But Dean asserts that the Democrats even have a shot at winning Arizona , McCain’s home state. But presidential candidates rarely lose their home state (Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, the 2000 nominee, was the last).

Photo by Stephen C. Fehr, Stateline.org >
Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix (left) talks with Gov. Janet Napolitano at Invesco Field in Denver, where Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last month. Sinema and the governor believe the Democratic presidential nominee has a chance to win Arizona on Nov. 4.

“Absolutely Arizona is in play,” said state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) of Phoenix . “I recently hosted a fundraiser and Howard Dean and (actress) Scarlett Johansson came. Who’s going to send them to a state that doesn’t count?”

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) said she proved in her own statewide races that Democrats can win. “You’d figure it would be a lockdown state for McCain but a third of the voters are undecided. Is it tough? Absolutely. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.”

Randy Pullen, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said in Napolitano’s “wildest dreams they win in Arizona.” He said there are 100,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the state and McCain’s choice of Palin has galvanized the GOP base heading into the final weeks.

“It’s like a football game,” Pullen said. “Democrats have done great for three quarters but we’re in the fourth quarter now and it’s all trending in our direction.”

Obama strategists have said that some states will get more resources than others. In other words, it wouldn’t make sense for Obama to buy TV ads in Utah when the money would be put to better use in Ohio . They also acknowledge that while the campaign is sending people to every state, only a few battleground states will decide the Nov. 4 election, as in 2000 and 2004.

In many of the close states, officials in both camps have said, Obama and McCain will talk about local issues to reach the voters they believe will vote for them. The result is individual, state by state races instead of a national one.

In Nevada , for example, Obama and McCain have bickered over the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain . Obama, who opposes the repository, has produced a TV ad criticizing McCain’s support for it. The storage facility is about 100 miles from Las Vegas .

During a stop last month in Wilmington , Ohio , the hub of air cargo carrier DHL, McCain promised a federal antitrust review of a DHL plan to partner with UPS to carry its air shipments, threatening over 6,000 Ohio jobs. Early this month, Obama told striking airline service workers at the Los Angeles International Airport that the industry should meet their demands for higher pay and better working conditions.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.