Hillary Clinton wants to turn red states blue. The Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee plans to station paid staff in every state as part of her general election fight for the White House, whether the territory is friendly or hostile. If the strategy survives the election, it could strengthen the power and influence of the Democratic Party across the country.
Democrats have had a monopoly on the White House under President Obama, but the party has seen devastating losses in state legislatures across the country during his time in office. Will Clinton reverse the trend? The extent to which she invests in her party could matter a great deal. Presidents can do a lot to either hurt or help their party, according to Daniel Galvin, a professor at Northwestern University who has written extensively on presidential party-building. “The campaign becomes the main vortex into which resources get pulled,” Galvin said. “Presidential candidates get to decide whether to use that major event to help the party develop over the long-term, or keep the focus strictly on their campaigns and let the gains evaporate once the election is over.”
To start, investing in a 50-state strategy could put Democrats in a better position to take advantage of the electoral uncertainty created by Donald Trump. There are certainly indications that Trump may be a weak general-election candidate. As my colleague David Graham points out: “For most intents and purposes, there appears to be no Trump campaign.” For now, “the Trump campaign is leaning on the RNC [Republican National Committee] for help to an unusual degree,” according to MSNBC, “but it can only provide so much support.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping that states like Arizona and Utah, which have reliably voted Republican in recent presidential elections, might flip in the upcoming election as a result of anti-Trump sentiment. Those hopes might be far-fetched, and there is no guarantee that Democrats will win in red states during the general election. But if they do, the party will more easily be able to capitalize on anti-Trump pushback if the campaign has invested in campaign infrastructure in every state. “If Clinton is able to win in red states because Trump turns out to be a disaster, and the campaign is willing to commit resources to those states to build up party infrastructure, that could accelerate party-building,” Galvin said.
Howard Dean, a Clinton supporter who advocated a 50-state strategy when he served as chair of the Democratic National Committee, expressed optimism in a CNN op-ed praising the plan of attack. “Clinton is aiming to rewrite the electoral map entirely,” he wrote. “She recognizes that you can’t win if you don’t play—and that, in a year when Donald Trump is on the ticket, anything is possible.”
Even if Clinton wins the White House, it will be difficult for Democrats to pass anything in Congress if Republicans control both the U.S. House and Senate. Investing in the Democratic Party in every state across the country could lay the groundwork for Democratic candidates to rise up the ranks starting at the state level and eventually making their way into Congress. Building up party infrastructure across the country could also help to advance a Democratic agenda at the state level, even if the strategy takes years to payoff.
Then there’s Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is technically still in the presidential race, despite the fact that he is no longer seriously contesting the nomination. He is, however, fighting for concessions from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, and he explicitly called for a 50-state strategy in a speech outlining what he wants to see next. The sooner the Clinton campaign appeases Sanders, the sooner he is likely to endorse the presumptive nominee. Clinton’s plan to invest in a 50-state strategy, which was first reported by The Huffington Post over the weekend, is a way to show she is taking his concerns seriously.
The question of whether political parties should invest in all 50 states has long been a source of debate. One argument against pursing such a strategy is that in doing so the Democratic Party could spread itself too thin, and end up losing in battleground states and competitive races it might otherwise be able to win. It boils down to a debate over how best to use of limited resources. Should partisans spend all their time and money attempting to sway tight elections? Or should they invest in places where they have little chance of winning in the hope of creating a foundation upon which they can build?
Democrats could certainly use help at the state level. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained the problems facing the party last year: “The presidency is extremely important, of course. But there are also thousands of critically important offices all the way down the ballot. And the vast majority—70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state—are in Republicans hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress.” He warned that “Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot.”
Even if Clinton pursues a 50-state strategy, there’s still reason to be skeptical that she will act as a savior for the Democratic Party. The campaign is making a commitment to investing in every state, but only time will tell how significant, or not, that actually turns out to be. The campaign could decide to reverse course and pull staff out of red states during the general election if it seems like resources are desperately needed in battleground swing states. Then there’s the question of whether, and how, the campaign will channel resources to states after the election ends.
The success of any 50-state strategy may hinge on the details of implementation. The Clinton campaign has already faced criticism from state party officials, and the Sanders campaign, over the way it has operated a joint-fundraising venture set up with the DNC and state parties. A Politico investigation from May found that the fundraising effort had so far mostly benefited the campaign and the DNC, leaving little money left over for state parties. Afterward, the Sanders campaign suggested the report contradicted “Clinton’s pledges to rebuild state parties.” The Clinton campaign has defended the fundraising, but that kind of publicity could be a motivating factor behind its announcement of a 50-state strategy. It is also a reminder that promises from the campaign to help out state parties might ultimately come up short.