Dean Explains The Democrats' '50-State Strategy' Howard Dean, former presidential candidate and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, implemented the "50-State Strategy" to help the Democrats win big in 2008 — and it appears to have worked. This campaign approach doesn't write states off as "unwinnable."
NPR logo

Dean Explains The Democrats' '50-State Strategy'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Dean Explains The Democrats' '50-State Strategy'

Dean Explains The Democrats' '50-State Strategy'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Here are headlines from some of the stories we're following today here at NPR News. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin urged fellow Republican governors to keep the new administration and the Democratic Congress in check. Palin was speaking at the Republican Governors Association in Miami today. And some of the nation's largest banks tried to assure lawmakers today, they're using money from the $700 billion bailout to make more loans and help financially strapped homeowners avoid foreclosure. You can hear details on those stories and much more coming up on All Things Considered. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here for Science Friday, he'll look at new findings on using cholesterol drugs in people who don't have high cholesterol, plus snapshots of newly discovered XO planets and how regular household bleach wipes out bacteria.

Now, it wasn't just President-elect Obama last Tuesday was a good day for the whole Democratic Party. They'll now have a more solid majority in the House under speaker Nancy Pelosi and in the Senate Democrats came very close to the number they need to block filibusters. The Party picked up seats in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire. The man who led the Democratic National Committee to those victories, former Vermont governor and presidential candidate himself, Howard Dean. When he took over the chairmanship of the DNC, Dean implemented what he called the 50-State Strategy. It was a bold new initiative to find fresh Democratic candidates and novel ways of campaigning all across the country.

Now, not everybody was on board with his plans but it appears that his strategy worked. We're talking to Howard Dean for the rest of this hour but if you want to talk to him about the 2008 campaign, the election, the future of the Democratic Party, give us a call, our number is 800-989-8255, you can also send us an email, its Howard Dean joins us now from the Democratic National Committee headquarters here in Washington. It's good to have you have with us, Governor Dean.

Governor HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Andrea, thanks for having me on.

SEABROOK: Now, it's reported that you won't be seeking another term as chairman of the DNC. Why?

Gov. DEAN: That is the prerogative of the new president to name their own chair and there is an election, but the election is generally uncontested and I think we ought to continue that tradition. You know, President-elect Obama is going to be sworn in on the 20th of January and I suspect around the 21st of January he will have a chair that he chooses to run the Democratic National Committee.

SEABROOK: Let's talk about some of the results that came through last Tuesday, you must be pleased. How much credit do you claim for what happened?

Gov. DEAN: Well, we claim some of it and it helps to have an extraordinary candidate. Everybody always says this is the most important election of our lifetime. Well, whoever is alive now is going to be able - the 2008 was the most important election of their lifetime no matter how many elections they go through. They had the best team that I've ever seen run a presidential campaign on the Democratic side. There have been some good campaigns. I take nothing away from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for example which was extraordinary but this - there were no leaks, there was no drama. People got along, there was extraordinary discipline. So, you know when you have that for a campaign it makes a big difference. But what we did that was so helpful was we got the Democrats to stop playing this idea that you were going to get 50 percent plus one of the electoral votes.

The Democratic message when I became chairman was essentially being carried by people like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Ludlow because there were no Democrats that would stand and speak for the democratic point of view and democratic values, in places like Utah or even Nevada sometimes. And so you know, we - first calculations someone rode leads through the west. We didn't know we were going to have a candidate like Barack Obama who could win in Florida and Ohio. So we decided we would find a way to win without Florida and Ohio. And that solution was that Nevada, Arizona, we didn't know we were going to have Senator McCain either, so Arizona was on the table, New Mexico - Colorado, I think I mentioned Nevada - Montana. If we could win those states then we wouldn't have to win Florida or Ohio.

Then we decided to contest every single state, not - look the 50-state strategy does not mean we put $10 million into Utah with three weeks to go. What it means is you have a democratic presence there, you work hard and you support elected officials there. And you have up to date technology we put $40,000 in every state, every year to make sure they have a voter file that's all worked on the same principles. We have a national voter file which we never had before. We have all the commercial information that the Republicans had and if we figure out how to use that and identify voters, we have a national party again because we've competed in every single state.

SEABROOK: But the party's leadership especially in Congress wasn't all for the 50-state strategy and they had good reasons not to be.

Gov. DEAN: Their job is different than mine. Their job was to get as many people elected as they could in 2006 and they did a very good job. But my job is to build a long-term business plan for so the Democrats can win elections when times are good and those - so we can win elections where times are not so good. And so we did actually help them a lot. We borrowed money, we let - gave them some, we had people and staff in the states. Many of the seats they were picked up, were picked up in red states that George Bush had won, and the reason was that people - for example in Kansas, the governor of Kansas assigns some staff to a woman she thought was terrific and that person ultimately was running a neck in neck race and when the day triple C(ph) realized that they - those races, they were able to put lots of money in the last three weeks because they were close and we won. So it's a joint - and you know there's always lots of sturm(ph) and drawn that goes on in Washington but the fact is, we all work together and we came up with huge result in 2006 and then of course we hit the jackpot in 2008.

SEABROOK: Governor Dean, I want to hear from some of our callers. They are eager to ask you questions. This is Steve in St. Louis, Missouri. Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, Governor Dean. I am - I live in state west county and have not really been involved in the political process until this election where I volunteered many, many, many weekends to the Obama campaign. And I found it's just a great experience because I wasn't given talking points or told what to do. I was just able to go and connect with people and tell my story and why I wanted to be involved. But I'm concerned because after spending all those weekends, and I just found it so easy, I mean, to be honest, I haven't been backed to the office of the Obama campaign since the election because I've been so busy. So I wanted to know what the party is planning to do to make sure that volunteers and people who have been so committed to this election don't just, you know, every four years, think that they can - after the elections - just tuck things away and go back to their daily lives and that.

Gov. DEAN: That is unbelievably important, there's a point I make particularly to the young people. Elections are not every four years, politics is permanent. You always have to be involved in permanent politics and if it's not doing what you did over the weekends and talking to people all the time, then it's being involved in your community. It's working in mayor's races, its running for the City Council. Not just in the big city like St. Louis but in the smaller places, Kirkwood and so forth. So I do believe - look, President-elect Obama, his campaign believes in empowering people, that's what their campaign was all about. That's we believe in at the DNC so I'd be surprised if there was a fundamental shift in strategy as President-elect Obama takes over the workings of the DNC.

First of all, they have pretty much control of the workings of the DNC since the day he was really became the nominee in June sometime. I have confidence in these folks - I've worked side by side with them. The description of what you just said, they let you empower people by going out and giving your own reasons for why you voted. I wanted to vote that way. That's exactly what we have been encouraging people to do. The only question left in the air is what they want to do about staffing state parties and that's - we've staffed them for four years. Not all of them. I mean, all the state parties - we've paid for certain staff and certain upgrades to their technology. That question is going to now be up to the Obama folks. But this is completely consistent with everything they did during the campaign so I think you're going to see most likely a continuation of the basic strategy.

SEABROOK: Steve, thanks very much for your call.

STEVE: Thank you.

SEABROOK: I want to ask you about a particular issue that it seemed like both sides kind of skirted around and that is immigration. We have an email here from Al in (unintelligible). He says, considering mass deportations and families being torn apart every day, I would like to ask Howard Dean if he would encourage the next Congress and President Obama to come back to comprehensive immigration reform bill within the next year.

Gov. DEAN: Well, I've known that that is the Obama administration's intention but I doubt that it's going to happen in the first year. Look, we have been overtaken by the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. And I think that's going to be a job one for everybody as soon as President Obama takes the oath. You know, he's working very hard now to name his economic team - that's comes first it's clearly his first priority. So well, though I do - first of all I think mass deportation is really not going on. We don't want them to go on. That makes no sense. It's not good for the economy. President-elect Obama has spoken out about that during the campaign.

But secondly, I would agree with the caller, we absolutely have to have comprehensive immigration reform. Barack Obama's on record favoring that but I do think that we're going to need little time for this one because we have to do as he said, we have to deal with the economy, we deal with renewable energy and health care. Those are all crucial, both security and economic issues, and then there's a lot of other things we've got to deal with as well and that's certainly one of them.

SEABROOK: Governor Dean, a question from Dean in Portland, Oregon. He asks, did the recent election disprove the notion often touted by the Clinton camp, that Democrats could only take control of one of the two branches of government by running as centrists?

Gov. DEAN: You know, one of the things that's remarkable about President-elect Obama is that he's a new generation candidate, and he really is. He's 47 years old and a new generation really cuts off at 35. But he thinks like one of these new generation folks and what they say among other things is let's unite the country and focus on the things that we can work together on and not folky folks on the things we disagree on. And one of the by-products of that, I believe, is that the placement of people on the political spectrum and the verbiage that goes with it is going to become obsolete. I don't think that most young people think of themselves as conservative or liberal or centrist. I think they are inclined towards each other. Evangelicals for example under 35, here's their top three issues.

One poverty, two climate change and three Darfur. Well, I don't know. Is that a liberal issues or conservative issues? I don't think you'd want to say young Evangelical Christians are liberals but - so I think this talk about centrism and conservatism and where you are on the liberalism and all that stuff. I think that's obsolete with a new generation, I think they're issue focused and I think they're caring focused and I think they're unity focused, and I don't think they're particularly partisan. I mean, it turns that they voted 66 percent with the Democrats in the last election but I think that's because our message resonates, our message of inclusion and working together in unity resonates so much better with them and other than divisive messages that you saw on the other side.

SEABROOK: Still, it was said through the campaign that Barack Obama is quote unquote, one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate. And...

Gov. DEAN: Well, who was it said by? I mean, it was said by people who believe that liberal is a dirty word as it turns out Barack Obama is a unifier.

SEABROOK: And what of Joe Lieberman. I mean, he's not to this - he's probably center left, I say.

Gov. DEAN: This is the interesting thing. This is to - to stack him up against Joe Lieberman in this comparison is very interesting and is very apt. Joe really is a centrist. If you - at the old way, a centrist. He's also a polarizing figure. His rhetoric was very polarizing. So here you have a centrist, moderate, who's a polarizing figure. Now whether Barack is a liberal or not, I'll leave up to the pundits of excluding Fox which of course will always say that. But he is a unifier. He's not a polarizing figure at all. Well, no matter where you think he is in the political spectrum, Barack Obama is not a polarizing figure.

So here you have a so-called centrist polarizing figure. And then you have a so-called liberal who is not a polarizing figure. That's the difference between the old politics and the new politics. And that we're going to see a lot more that. I think you're going to find it impossible to say where Barack Obama belongs on the political spectrum and people my age will be very upset about it and people his age will think it's great.

SEABROOK: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go back to the phones now and talk with Allison in (unintelligible). Hi, Allison, you're on Talk of the Nation.

ALLISON (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to ask about how the camp - first of all - I'm ecstatic about the decision of the campaign, have their results of the election that's absolutely fabulous. But I became a bit disgruntled with my party - the Democratic Party - about 18 months ago because I felt that all I was hearing is Hillary, Hillary, Hillary and that they were almost excluding any potential other candidates. And I became very disenfranchised and considered my other options as far as parties, and I just wanted to - since it all ended up great, we have a very unifying president-elect. And I really think the ground troops throughout the 50 states did a tremendous job in getting out the vote. And I just wanted to see if the DNC was aggressively pushing a particular candidate at the beginning, how it would have evolve. I mean, I don't want this to be a trend in the future.

Gov. DEAN: We never push a candidate ever. I was the referee. Around last May, when the campaign was at its hottest point, I think all the Hillary people thought I was with the Obama and all the Obama people thought I was with Hillary. You know, it's our job to stay neutral and unlike the senatorial committee and the congressional committee, we don't even pick candidates in primaries. We do not do that. We stay neutral. We want to give everybody a chance because I think DNC - there has to be one place in the party where everybody feels that they can be treated fairly. And that is meant to be the Democratic National Committee.

SEABROOK: Thanks very much.

Gov. DEAN: So the reason you heard all that about Hillary, Hillary, Hillary is that the news media was talking about. And the news media don't ever confuse the news media with the Democratic National Committee. They do what they have to do and we work behind the scenes to make sure that everybody has a fair shake.

ALLISON: Right, that's great. I just - you know my mail box everyday was Hillary this, Hillary that and that's great. I mean, (unintelligible) word out.

Gov. DEAN: Not from us.

ALLISON: I just wanted to make sure that, you know, I guess my perspective wasn't clear on who was pushing who.

Gov. DEAN: No, we try to stay neutral and give everybody a chance.

SEABROOK: Thanks very much for your call, Allison. Let's go to Gene in Cordon, Indiana. Hi.

GENE (Caller): Yes. Hello.

SEABROOK: Go ahead with your question for Governor Dean.

GIN: Well, in the Florida primaries and the Michigan primaries, the Florida Republicans moved the data up and of course, that caused the Democrats to say that their votes wouldn't be counted. And then in Michigan, the dates were moved up and anyhow, I'm looking at the Republican governors meeting in Florida right now. And I'm wondering if the Republican governors decide to try to sabotage the process for the next go around. Will the DNC just say, well we won't count those votes and will we fall prey to their little scheme and they'll be laughing all the time.

SEABROOK: Good question.

Gov. DEAN: Well, it is a good question. We actually didn't say we won't count the votes. We said, we'd like you to adopt a process within the rules and then the states didn't want to do that so there's a big flop about it which ultimately got solved. We are actually working or we have been, under my chairmanship, whether that continues under the new chairman or not, I don't know, but I suspect it will. With the Republican National Committee, they resolve the problems that went on in the primary discrepancies. The interesting thing is the Republicans had five states that were out of compliance, and they actually never did get their votes back. President-elect Obama caused Michigan and Florida to get their votes back at the convention. But the five states, I think was Wyoming, I think New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan - I don't remember what the other state was - that violated the Republican side. It only had half delegations at the convention. So this clearly has to be worked out but there has to be rules. There was a lot of complaining about this when we went through it, that if you set rules, and then you changed the rules in the middle of the game, it's not fair to one of the candidates. It's just - you can't do that.

SEABROOK: Governor Dean, what all of our listeners want to know in a word, what's next for you?

Gov. DEAN: I do not know. I do not know but I (unintelligible) the sentiments. Thanks for having me on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: We're so glad to have Governor Howard Dean on. He was the head of the Democratic National Committee moving on to the next thing. I'm Andrea Seabrook, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.