Barack Obama’s improbable run for the White House succeeded in large part because the candidate was inspiring, had a consistent positive message, was a great communicator and ran on the heels of one of the most exclusionary and divisive administrations in decades. But one man who had a big hand in the Democratic win does not get the credit he deserves: Howard Dean.
The former Vermont governor, physician and early Democratic front-runner in 2004 led the national party’s efforts to regain control of the White House and Congress. His now-famous 50-state strategy has become a template Republicans hope to appropriate in 2010 congressional elections and in the 2012 presidential contest.
The strategy bucked conventional wisdom. Instead of concentrating resources — advertising, volunteers and paid staff — in the key electoral states Mr. Obama was likely to win or at least be competitive in, the Democrats planted their flag everywhere. Maine, which had voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the 2004, 2000, 1996 and 1992 elections, could have been considered a safe state for 2008. But instead of giving it token attention, the Obama campaign opened an unprecedented 11 campaign offices here.
Gov. Dean’s approach to the 2008 election is more important than mere strategy, effective though it was. Consider his remark in 2003: “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Although controversial, what Gov. Dean was alluding to was that Democrats needed to — and should have been able to — win over rural, lower-middle class white men. Though these are the people who tune in Rush Limbaugh, it is generally Democratic economic policies that favor them. Yet Republicans consistently had been able to persuade them to vote against their own economic interests by ramping up their hatred of the usual suspects — Muslims, gays and academics.
Gov. Dean’s 50-state strategy did more than convince millions to vote for Mr. Obama; it laid the foundation for the candidate to network with them by e-mail and cell phone alerts. The army of Obama supporters then could be mobilized to plan get-togethers with other like-minded people, volunteer to knock on doors and make phone calls and, most critically, donate money.
Is this clever manipulation of the process, or an appeal to the very heart of democracy? Voters will disagree. But one unequivocally positive outcome is that more Americans are invested in this presidency than any other in decades. And the president is indebted to them, rather than to a select group of big-bucks donors. The Dean-Obama approach penetrated far deeper and wider into the American electorate, and this can be seen only as good.