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It’s Called Political Science For A Reason

DemocratsPoliticsIn an article allegedly posted yesterday, but one which I have not been able to find a link for, US News’ Dan Gilgoff reports on the continuing misadventure that is known as Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy.

[C]onsider 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.

I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but this is sort of a pet peeve and I’ll shout it until I’m blue in the face. There is a reason you’re not competitive in those areas, and it has nothing to do with not having four staffers on the ground.

Look at the evidence the Democrats cite in their reasoning:

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%.”

So their reasoning is if one guy who lost got 28% and another guy who lost got 43%, then obviously someone else can get to 50% plus one and finally win. Despite a track record of not getting any where near enough votes to win, they’ll throw money at it. It’s a county party way of thinking.

It’s communal politics and unless the district, due to population shifts, is trending toward your party, then it’s flawed logic.

Districts typically change from solid to competitive for one of two reasons – an influx of new voters with dramatically different attitudes or a movement by the national party away from the values of the prevailing attitude.

For instance, in the Western US, you have a large influx of people who are relocating from the East to the West. As more people with different values enter a district, the vote will switch. I’ve cited the example of the state House district held by Raymond Sanchez in Albuquerque a few times.

When Raymond was first elected, the north valley of Albuquerque was filled with families that had spent generations in New Mexico and voted reliably Democrat. The district began to change as more and more wealthy families wanted to live near the river. They bought out the old families, built sprawling houses along the river, and vote based on economics and taxes – they vote GOP.

It took a long time, but when John Sanchez ousted Raymond, it wasn’t because John was a good candidate, it was because Raymond’s district changed.

The other reason a district shifts its vote is due to the party changing directions. From the late 1960s through to the early 1990s, the Democrats pursued, to greater and greater extent, a more liberal philosophy. They lost the South because they moved their party away from the values of the south.

So Dean can talk about making every seat, and every state competitive, but when the results come in 16 weeks from tomorrow, you’re likely to see fewer Democrat victories as opposed to more – despite massive expenditures on infrastructure. The reason for that is simple – the party will have squandered resources on states with no chance of winning at the expense of viable candidates in squeaker races.

Let’s look at one more New Mexico race to illustrate this.

(Note: the reason I always cite New Mexico is because it’s home, and I know the state intimately, but it’s also a great state to watch for scientific purposes because it’s as close to a 50-50 state as your likely to find.)

Bill Redmond was running for Congress in 1997 in a special election to replace Bill Richardson. When Richardson announced his departure, I ran the numbers for this race based on some formulas we had worked up for targeting likely pick ups.

The formula told us that under the best circumstances, Redmond could get, as a Republican, a hair over 43% of the vote. That was the best any GOP candidate could hope for.

When the final tally came in, we were one-tenth of one percent off on our calculation. We had driven up the name ID of a Green party candidate in the hopes of turning enough Democrat voters off to the Democrat (who was a flawed candidate). By beating up on Carol Miller, enough people realized there was an alternative to Eric Serna that didn’t require voting for a Republican.

It was the only way to guarantee that 43% would win the election. The only way we could win that race was by spending money on a marginal district. That same money would have been wasted if the RNC spent it trying to make Hawai’i competitive.

On another note, Bill served for the remainder of that term and lost his re-election bid to Tom Udall in 1998. When he lost in November, he got 43% of the vote. In his re-elect, our formula was off by just under two-tenths of one percentage point.

Written by Michael Turk