political strategy

Should Democrats Resurrect the 50-State Strategy?

Vibrant local campaigns in states like Hawaii are a good thing but won’t help the national parties much. Photo: Julie Thurston Photography/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

It’s generally assumed that candidates at the top of the ballot have a “coattails effect” benefiting or damaging down-ballot candidates, particularly in this era of straight-ticket voting. But now comes an argument that it can work the other way around, as the New York Times reports:

[A] new study by Run for Something, an organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting liberal candidates … showed a reverse coattails effect: It was lower-level candidates running in nearly hopeless situations — red districts that Democrats had traditionally considered no-win, low-to-no-investment territory — who helped the national or statewide figures atop the ballot, instead of down-ballot candidates benefiting from a popular national candidate of the same party.

“The whole theory behind it is that these candidates are supercharged organizers,” said Ross Morales Rocketto, a co-founder of Run for Something. “They are folks in their community having one-on-one conversations with voters in ways that statewide campaigns can’t do.”

It’s a good argument for mobilizing candidates and resources behind them in “enemy territory.” But it only holds true if a larger jurisdiction — a state or a congressional or legislative district — is highly competitive. Otherwise, who cares if a doomed candidate marginally helps equally doomed up-ballot candidates?

That’s why this corollary association in the Times piece is a bit iffy:

In 2005, when Howard Dean became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he tried to institute a “50-state strategy” to build up party infrastructure and candidate recruitment at every level and in every state — even in solidly Republican districts. The hope was that if there was at least one Democrat running in every county, it would help the party build a larger base for future elections. 

There’s no question that building up party infrastructure in what are considered hostile areas is essential if you want to make them less hostile over time. But the reality is that in a country where winner-takes-all elections are the norm, the payoff for party investments is going to vary by place. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, there were only eight states where the winning candidate won by under five points: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Throw in a couple of other states that were thought to be competitive but turned out not to be — say, Minnesota and New Hampshire — and you’ve got ten battleground states. Perhaps a few more have regularly competitive gubernatorial and Senate races, and maybe 15 percent of House races are competitive at most.

So if the “reverse coattails effect” touted in the Run for Something study is valid, it’s still only going to matter in smaller races underlying bigger competitive races.

If you want to see national parties engaging in a true 50-state battle, then get rid of the Electoral College. Even though that hoary and anti-democratic system is invariably advertised as friendly to small states, it’s more accurate to say it’s friendly to small and large competitive states. In a popular vote system a vote is a vote, and one in Hawaii or Wyoming or Rhode Island or North Dakota counts just as much as one in Florida. That doesn’t mean presidential candidates will visit them all (Richard Nixon was the last presidential candidate to insist on appearing in all 50 states, and it wore him out), but it probably would mean the national parties would find an interest in investing everywhere, perhaps in the down-ballot races that could help turn out the vote.

Should Democrats Resurrect the 50-State Strategy?