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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Replacing the Battleground Mentality with the Mapchanger Attitude in the Democratic Party

By Jerome Armstrong
Ten years from now, the Democratic Party will have fully broadened its election strategy beyond the battleground mentality that dominates strategic thinking today. Democrats will be a national party, leaving no uncontested race anywhere in the nation, and will have rebuilt a party infrastructure down to the precinct everywhere in the nation. The Democrats will have regained their majority status as the governing party, and the mapchanger approach to elections will have been the reason.
The notion of “running Democrats everywhere” seems fanciful (to put it nicely) to DC beltway insiders and veteran political strategists. At the Presidential level, those strategists that subscribe to the beltway mentality believe that Democrats should forget about half the states, and focus all of our resources on trying to win a bare majority of electoral votes.
As the Democratic Party shrinks from a national party into a regional stronghold, the battleground also shrinks further and further. In the 1992 and the 1996 Presidential elections, with three candidates in the race, as many as 30 states were viewed as competitive battleground contests up through Election Day. In 2000, that number dropped to just 17 by Election Day. In 2004, the number of contested states early in the presidential contest stood at 18, and was whittled down to about eight by Election Day.
The battleground strategy – or more accurately obsession – that the Democratic establishment in DC pursues of narrowing electoral campaigns to ever shrinking “swing states” is self-defeating. It does not build any new converts to the party, it makes it easier for the Republicans to walk away with huge chunks of the country unchallenged and it starves the Democratic Parties in those “red” states.
At the congressional level the focus is on trying to win just enough seats to win back the majority. This incremental notion is exactly why the Democratic Party has not been able to reclaim a majority on the House side of Congress since losing control over a decade earlier. Every two years, since 1994, the congressional strategists mark out the 10 or 20 seats representing the best opportunity to win back bare control of the House, make a minimal show in 10 or 20 more, and cede the remaining GOP seats to Republican control-without even a party-supported oppositional candidate.
Those strategists have argued that they simply do not have the money and resources to fight on a broader front, and it is true – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was outspent by its Republican counterpart $186 million to $93 million in the 2004 cycle.i Yet, the party must have a better approach than narrowing its efforts only to the districts it sees as “winnable”. That may serve the short-term interest of trying for a slim majority in the House, but it completely ignores the long-term interest of acting, behaving and campaigning as a truly national political party.
As blogger Chris Bowers of MyDD noted November 5, 2004:

Abandoning a district also has repercussions for future elections. Failing to challenge your opponent’s message in an area is damaging to your message in that area in the future. Failing to provide a choice to those willing to support you – and there are always tens of thousands willing to support you in any congressional district – sends a message that you do not represent or care about those people. Even worse, failing to challenge an incumbent sends a message that you are afraid of your own beliefs and that you are not working to make this country a better Democracy.
Running a candidate in each of these districts would also have helped to identify Democratic activists in each of these districts. Identifying, encouraging, and assisting potential Dem[ocratic] activists throughout the entire country would help to strengthen the Party, both now and in future elections cycles. These are the people who can help to bring the Democratic message to every corner of the country.ii

The battleground mentality is cautious and narrow, and it plays to the Republican strong hand. The Republicans realize exactly which races are the battlegrounds, and focus all of their resources in kind, on the same races. This allows the party with the stronger array of resources to have the upper hand, and that is the Republican Party, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into new media, machine politics and database inventories that give them superior voter targeting capabilities.
In contrast, the mapchanger attitude urges an aggressive and broad challenge to Republicans. It provides the national party with the best opportunity to utilize the tens of thousands of grassroots activists in every state and congressional district. The power of people becomes the strongest resource and gives the national Party the ability to pour resources into those states or districts that become surprisingly contested.
Further, the battleground mentality leaves half the country without a contest of ideas. We abandon progressives in rural areas of the country and let Republicans rule there, without even a contest-and those Republican incumbents then go out and raise money for Republican challengers in contested races.
Challenging Republicans in “deep red” districts would force Republican incumbents to spend a great deal of time and money defending their seats instead of campaigning for other Republicans and donating to their campaigns. Walter Ludwig’s Project 90, which encourages Democratic candidates to run in “red” Congressional districts, found that

between 2000-2004, Democrats failed to compete or barely challenge in over a quarter of U.S. House races, and the Republican incumbents in those districts contributed over $60 [million] to their colleagues in closer races.iii

Activist bloggers do not advocate that the people wait for the Democratic Party strategists in DC to adopt the mapchanger strategy. The Republican Party has become an election machine. The Democratic establishment, while they believed they were the party of governance, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars while ignoring what the Republicans have been building.
Instead, Democratic Party officials and politicians have been under the powerful sway of a cabal of media and polling consultants in DC, whose principle contribution seems to be an extension of this battleground mentality into decisions over campaign expenditures, advocating that the majority of funds be spent on polling and media in a strategic manner that rewards their services with increased profits.
Even for this upcoming cycle, all of the Democratic candidates in big races are going with inside-the-beltway media consultants whose best practices remain entrenched within a conflict-of-interest approach. It is a fact that consumer businesses no longer receive commissions based on the amount of advertising that is done-that racket only remains in DC (particularly on the Democratic side). And if you look closely at what media consultants are doing, they are really only project-managing the task of creating television commercials. That is, they will usually outsource the creation and the placement of the ad, and thus are merely the middleman for the politicians. As project managers, they should be paid a set monthly fee, not commissions without end that sometimes reach into the millions. The Democratic Party and its candidates who are participating in this scam are ripping off people that are contributing through donations.
For beltway outsiders to take more of the duties of the Democratic Party apparatus is really the only option that seems to be available. Waiting for those tired and defeated Democratic consultants to “get it” means remaining in the political wilderness beyond the next decade.
The netroots and grassroots progressive community should begin to take matters into its own hands. It is time to go beyond merely collectively grouping hundreds of thousands of dollars and pushing it toward candidates and consultants that perform business as usual. Building a progressive movement is going to take more than that sort of hit-and-run attitude of activism. We should be creating institutions that effectively spend the dollars raised for campaigns, rather than relying on the establishment channels.
In order to begin the mapchanger process, and really reform the Democratic Party, progressives must organize online in a manner that takes control of the Democratic Party at the precinct level. This ‘trickle up’ strategy will yield results by creating a state-based power that dictates the party strategy from within the Democratic Party establishment.
Yes, the Democratic Party has a problem with branding. Yet if we can rebuild the party across the country, at this very local level, the message and branding problems will be much easier to address. They are certainly not going to be solved within DC. In fact, in many ways, the debate over strategy and tactics versus ideas and principles is a false one. The election strategies that a party puts into practice reflect its values. A national party cannot, through a slogan, say they are putting people first, and then in the next election blow off half the people of the nation.
No matter how you look at it, challenging Republicans in all races and all geographic areas is a good idea – it builds the Democratic Party’s brand, it exhausts the Republicans’ resources and it sows the seeds for future Democratic wins.

iCenter for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets web site, www.opensecrets.org. Accessed 4/13/2006.
iiChris Bowers, “Uncontested,” http://www.mydd.com/story/2004/11/5/115834/784, as quoted in Crashing The Gate (White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green, 2006) 157.
iiiWalter Ludwig, as quoted in Crashing The Gate (White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green, 2006) 158. (Ludwig’s Project 90 document is available from him personally.)

22 comments on “Replacing the Battleground Mentality with the Mapchanger Attitude in the Democratic Party

  1. Stephen on

    It seems to me Democratic strategy should arise from answering some simple questions: On what issues do the majority of Americans feel they are currently being screwed?
    And, given the answers to those questions, what will the Democrats do to alleviate those issues?
    The questions are so obvious I hesitate to mention them for fear of beating a dead horse (or elephant, as it may be):
    Does seeing executive salaries and benefits balloon to levels that are exponentially greater than their workers, and indeed to levels unprecedented in American history, get under your skin?
    Does seeing those same executives being shielded from more and more taxes even as the national deficit balloons irk you in any way?
    Does knowing that those same executives are justifying their salaries by shutting down American factories right and left in order to ship jobs to nations with lower wages and cowboy-era environmental laws bug you?
    Does hearing the argument that “jobs may be forced overseas for competetive reasons” used as a threat to justify wage and benefit cuts day after day after day cause a slow burn in your veins?
    Does having so many American dollars now invested in China to build the factories to hold what were once American jobs, and so many Chinese yen now invested in American debt created by giving ever more tax cuts to the wealthy and business, make you suspect that we won’t do a damned thing if China invades Taiwan tomorrow? Does that possibility give you any moral qualms?
    Do you really believe that it is more important to send Americans overseas to be killed under false pretenses than it is to protect the aged and infirm in America?
    Does the fact that some heavy Republican contributors and former Republican (and likely future) employers are getting rich off the decisions that are killing Americans daily in any way tick you off?
    Does the fact that wealthy individual and business contributions to Republican Party coffers threatens to reach parity with the amount of money the Republican-controlled Congress allows to trickle out for alternative energy research strike you as being somewhat incomprehensible, at a minimum?
    Is the high point of your day watching the cash register in the grocery store checkout line?
    Is the high point of your week putting gas in the car?
    Is the high point of your month receiving your home heating bill?
    Is the high point of your year receiving your hospital bill?
    Is the high point of your decade telling your children “I’m sorry – but I just don’t see how we are going to be able to pay for college.”.
    Is the high point of your life being told that the promise behind your pension is null and void?
    In a nutshell, Democratic strategy should be to tell America:
    “Its O.K. to get mad – you’ve been screwed. Now let’s do something about it.”

  2. elephty on

    Is it no longer possible to find public servants who understand and apply the principles that have inspired those who desire freedom all over the world?
    Is cynicism the logical understanding to which philosophy leads? Philosophy is partially the aggregate of appropriate questions, not a set of palliative answers.

  3. elephty on

    There is currently a power struggle within the Democratic Party. There doesn’t need to be one, but since democratic voters and representatives are normally “independent” thinkers there will always be points of contention among its members.
    No matter what the republicans and the news media have to say the diversity of thought within the Party is one of its strengths. The conformity observed among the republicans is its main weakness.
    One of the reasons that the current administration has been such a failure is the method it uses to reason. It begins with a conclusion and then fills in with the rationalizations after the fact.
    The method is irresponsible and reckless. It has increased the number of terrorists in the world. It has turned the Middle-East into a terrible place of disorder, crime and violence. It failed to protect the U.S. on 9/11 and the list goes on.
    It is important for liberals and progressives to remember that the republicans lost the election of 2000, when a corrupt Supreme Court interpreted the law so strangely that it included a caveat that the decision they made would not apply in any future considerations of the same legal issue.
    The republicans also lost the election of 2004, therefore they were “forced” to use extra-legal means to achieve their goal of maintaining power at all costs. It is instructive that not a single republican voice has been raised about how wrong it is to subvert the Constitution and ignore the rule of law.
    Cheating is suddenly acceptable except in national sporting events, because cheating would shut-down the gambling industry.

  4. Walter Ballin on

    I agree with DkinUT that the Democrats must stand for something. We cannot win by being Republican Lites. However, I also believe in the 50-state strategy called for by Jerome Armstrong, and the Democrats do need to target many more Congressional districts. Neither of these things conflicts with each other.

  5. DkinUT on

    I keep seeing talk about the “50-State Strategy” versus targeted races…and moderates versus internet liberals, and the like. Would somebody in my party PLEASE just talk about what we believe IN…not what we’re against?
    I DON’T CARE what strategy we use, or whether we win or lose, if I can’t tell whether I even BELONG in my party. I used to be certain I was a liberal Democrat in a moderate-to-liberal Democratic Party. Now, I can’t tell if my party leaders are Democrats or moderate Republicans. I can’t tell if the core of the party is moderate, liberal, Democrat, or Green-In-Waiting. WHO THE HELL ARE WE? Does the Party Platform MEAN anything? How about starting from the positions articulated there and expanding on them? How many of us actually know what the platform says?

  6. Eric E on

    A commenter to Josh Marshall put it well in saying that the I’m right and if you disagree you’re stupid attitude of the Kos/MoveOn crowd is rather tiresome. And probably that group is making political consultants more of a boogeyman than they are. But they are absolutely right that building party machinery starts from the ground up and that it relies on footsoldiers: people willing to talk in bars, on porches and at community meetings. Changes in people’s ideas are nearly always brokered by relationships, and unless we have a permanent local presence in most communities, we are bound to lose.
    I think somewhere in here there’s doubts about how the MoveOn/Kos crowd plays outside the college-educated cosmopolis world they inhabit. And certainly the propensity of activists of any stripe to holler about everything can be a liability sometimes. That’s a reasonable thing to worry about, but the national party is in such bad shape that it’s very hard to imagine them being worse than nothing.
    I think they key thing that the blogosphere and its denizens bring is the ability to make Democratic politics engaging. Having people who want to talk progressive politics with anyone and everyone is an enormous asset. A rapproachment would put us all ahead.

  7. kaleidescope on

    John: You write that Kos MoveOn “internet insiders” are trying to “purge the party of moderates who might have a prayer of actually winning in red states.” By this do you mean people like Harry Reid, Paul Hackett, Mark Warner and Jim Webb? Or do you mean Jon Tester, Brian Schweitzer, Ben Chandler or Stephanie Herseth? Because each of these people have either actually won in red states or have a prayer of doing so.
    What are Kos and MoveOn doing to purge these people? Last I heard they were supporting them.
    The only person I see Kos and MoveOn trying to “purge”, if by “purge” you mean “defeat in a primary” is Joe Lieberman. Last I looked, Connecticut wasn’t a red state. I’m also skeptical that Joe would “have a prayer of actually winning in a red state.”
    So what exactly is it you’re saying?

  8. kaleidescope on

    William Galston’s response is interesting in that when arguing against Jerome’s advocacy of contesting everywhere, Galston says that the opportunity costs make it infeasible to contest areas dominated by white evangelical fundamentalists.
    Then, when arguing against maintaining strict separation of church and state, Galston argues that we should be catering to many of these same voters. But Galston makes no mention of the opportunity costs of doing so.
    Raising the issue of opportunity costs works fine when arguing that the only course possible is more of the same.
    This theme pervades Galston’s response. The form: a bow to the notion that workers should be able to organize, then the caution that unions can’t be the answer. So why incur the opportunity cost of trying to repeal Taft Hartley. A bow to the need for healthcare reform, then the caution that GM will never put up with that, so opportunity costs rule that one out, too.
    Hispanics? Same deal. Trying hard to capture their votes might incur the “oppurtunity costs” of alienating white evangelical fundamentalists.
    This becomes an extended, almost passive aggressive, wet blanket. Things are the way they are because thats how they are. Don’t try to do anything because opportunity costs will doom whatever you try to failure.
    But one opportunity cost Galston doesn’t address is the cost of continuing to cater to pro-business, culturally conservative Democrats who take disguised bribes to sabotage workers’ rights and let industry destroy the environment. A strategy that has been in place since Jimmy Carter started to deregulate industry and Walter Mondale was the great white hope against Gary Hart.
    What are the opportunity costs of that strategery?

  9. Len Lubinsky on

    The 50 state strategy also changes us — for the good. We care about the people in every constituency, we are unembarassed by our beliefs, and we clarify our beliefs so that they are persuasive in the face of decades of right wing propaganda.

  10. Ron Alley on

    The real need is not to select the venue, but to find a Democratic voice that voters in every state can understand and support.
    Too often the Democratic message is delivered as devine commandment from a secular high priest. Many find the tone of the message so grating that they never get to its substance. When polled, they will agree with the substance of the Democratic message but they still reject the messenger.
    We need to tailor a message that emphasizes equlity rather than superiority. Let me suggest following format,
    “Together we can … .”
    “Together we will … .”

  11. Benjamin Daniel on

    One of the “unintended consequences” of the so-called “battleground mentality” is a fractured, intra-party nonmessage, almost like crabs in a barrel but with one crab with multiple arms frantically pulling itself in myriad directions simultaneously. Democrats seem beaten, children accustomed to abuse and reacting rather than developing coherent strategies (any of you pollsters heard of developing and deploying a message based on quantifiable, measurable goals). We can synthesize a party-wide message of inclusion using the same moxie that got us into the White House in the early 90’s. Besides, who’s next in line on the Republican side, anyway? McCain?

  12. Janice Roosevelt Gerard, Ph.D. on

    Until the way in which the elections are financed is addressed and changed, from incessant fundraising to public financing, it will be very hard to undo the entrenched Democratic establishment and its misguided ideas about running successful elections.

  13. John on

    I’m tired of anyone who disagrees with Markos or Jerome being branded a “DC insider”. It’s insulting. In fact, this whole “netroots vs. DC” trope is getting really annoying. In really, its more like Berkeley vs. the rest of America. And, what’s more infuriating is that these Kos/MoveOn internet insiders insist on running a “50 state strategy” while simultaneously attempting to purge the party of moderates who might have a prayer of actually winning in red states. What wrong with this strategy? Jermome mentioned that it wastes Republican resources. Sure, maybe. But doesn’t it also eat into Democratic resources? An more so, since the GOP are not dumb enough to be suckered into throwing money at safe races? Do we really think that in 2000, more money should have been spent by the Gore campaign in Nebraska instead of Florida, or in 2004 in Utah instead of Ohio just to make a point. That’s nuts. What’s more, I always took Dean’s “50 state strategy” as pure rhetoric. good political rhetoric, yes, but pablum nonetheless. Would Dean have actually put as much money into Idaho as Oregon, or Wisconsin? If so, it explains a lot about why he lost. Maybe we question taking lessons for success from consultants whose claims to fame are opinion blogging and working on failed campaigns.

  14. Paul Thompson on

    A commenter said “there’s only so much money to go around,” but that’s false. I’m contributing the legal maximum to our Congressional and state Democratic candidates here in a so-called “Republican stronghold,” but there’s no way I would do that for candidates in some other district. Having candidates in one’s own district motivates people to give more. A 50-state strategy makes the pie bigger.

  15. Susan Hagius on

    I, like most of the rest of you, received a message from James Carville today. I appreciate the man — if the party had followed his advice, they might even have won the last election. But give money to the DCCC? They’ve already proved that they have no idea how to win an election. The idea they put forward is today is that the coming election will be a dirty one. (Now there’s a big surprise.) So they need lots of money to run their own ads answering the dirty ads, like they did in the swiftboat campaign. I say, when you’re in the bottom of a hole, stop digging. Try something different. I know that there are many people in so-called red states (and regions) who believe in progressive values. As Bernie Horn says, in The Nation, “Where govenment has no proper role, the progressive value we should speak of is “freedom.” … “Where government acts as a referee, the progressive value is “opportunity.” “Where government acts as a protector, the progressive value is “security.” Conservatives whant to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans undersatnd that protection of our health and well-being is also security.” If we use language like this, it will appeal to a broad audience. Voting Republican really only benefits a small number of people at the very top of the income ladder, along with that minority of “Christians” who maintain the narrowest possible interpretation of the tenets of that religion. The Democrats ought to include everybody else.

  16. Bill Lang on

    I also think the article is correct in that leaving districts uncontested is wrong and allows R money to be redirected to other battles.
    However, it is also senseless to waste resources on a battle you cannot win.
    Making a D alternative available will help, but only so much. What is the ROI of doing any more than simply making that D alternative available in a heavily R district? There is only so much money to go around.
    In my experience, most voters will have one or two issues that are near and dear and always control the way they vote. Most of these are stereotypical views that have gone for years without refute. The only way to change these voters’ minds is to at least place a serious doubt into the way the R’s are handling their issues and then follow that up with an alternative that sounds reasonable.
    You see the conflict in the polls all the time. The majority R district still wants abortion to be legal. But most of their other views are R, so what choice do they have?
    These issues are national and should always be addressed nationally, not in individual districts.
    I think that D’s need to go international with their voice and reasonable solutions to the problems facing America and the world. Imagine the purses that an international D party would open.
    Imagine other D controlled countries bringing pressure to bear on R controlled US.

  17. Miki Hawkins on

    This article is spot on.
    I live in Tarrant County Texas (Fort Worth), a heavily Republican area. Texas was written off by the Democratic Party over a decade ago, which allowed the Rs to take total control of the State Legislature in Austin, leading to the (second-in-a-decade and, probably, illegal) redistricting in Texas, which targeted Democratic Congressional seats, leading to an increase in Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
    Not contesting races in “red states” allows Republicans in those states to pour money into “blue state” races, thereby enabling Rs to outspend Ds in those races and WIN. HELLLLLOOOOO, up there! There are Democrats in every state – Don’t abandon us just because you don’t think we’re worth the effort. Fight in every state and, more importantly, force the Rs to fight in every state.

  18. Ron Anderson on

    I agree completely. In South Carolina, the party is on life support. I know lots of moderate folks who are only Republicans because there is no structure or credibility in the party at the precinct level in large areas of the state. We need to run candidates and put forward Democratic ideas throughout the state on a consistent basis. If we do that, we can rebuild in the areas where the party is non existent, pick off some selected wins and bring some of the moderates in the GOP over. Frankly, the GOP here is controlled by the Chritain Coalition and lots of moderates are tired of it but have no credible alternative in a party.

  19. Galvin on

    A terrific article. I am finishing a dissertation on this very subject — and have been confirming precisely those trends Armstrong refers to.

    But it is important to add that presidents, too, have been culprits in creating the divergent paths of organizational development in the two parties. Democratic presidents have refused, time and again, to strengthen their party’s organizational capacities while Republican presidents have made party building a central component of their political activities. There are many reasons for this difference in behavior, but the result is what matters: persistent, cumulative, and constructive party building for over 50 years on the GOP side — while Dems start from scratch every new election cycle.
    My recent op/ed published in the New York Times tells the same story, but in relation to Dean’s 50-State Strategy. The article is archived here:

  20. DenverDem on

    The battleground strategy also impacts the party’s biggest problem: compelling national ideas. The more the party leaders retrench into safe, blue portions of the map, the less they listen to Dems from red and purple areas. But Democrats from the these areas who are exactly the people who know how to speak to the voters that so baffle the national party leaders. It would be useful to listen to a few Democrats who have guns, who work a ranch, who have been to a pig pickin’. You can’t take national positions that appeal to a majority if your leadership shows disdain for the majority.
    The best chance for a Democractic president is still probably a Southerner or Westerner. We don’t need national leaders who look like they want to roll their eyes at people from those regions.

  21. MadCasey on

    The DC Insiders would say “We’ve had a rough couple of decades, but we’re right where we need to be now.”
    They’ve been saying it for the past couple of decades. But where are they without Bill Clinton’s Charisma? His appeal to southern voters? They’re losers for going on thirty years, that’s what. The congressional races tell the story best.
    That said, the argument is against the idea that we only need to concentrate on a few “competitive” races (defined as such by bludgeoning over-analysis from Washington) to gain majorities. Remember Tom Daschle? How did putting all our eggs in his basket work out?
    The argument is against the idea that Democrats are powerless in the face of the aging “Southern Republican with exclusively Christian Values” stereotype, so we might as well not even try.
    The argument is against the idea that we should let GOP recruiting and platform-spreading among churches in every state go unchecked, and unchallenged by our own messages–in each and every state.
    But most of all, the argument is for Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy, and all the effects and though processes that go along with it.
    And in 10 years, the dastardly “DC Insiders” will be saying… “It’s time for us to retire.”

  22. Daniel Oppenheimer on

    I hate to say it, but I agree completely. My question is — what’s the argument against? What would one of those dastardly DC insiders say in response to Jerome’s argument that they’ve been failing us for many years with their battleground strategy?


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