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A Brief Comment on the 50-State Strategy

I’m not sure that the discussion surrounding the Democrats’ 50-state strategy couldn’t stand to be a bit more sophisticated. A party’s resources are finite, and those resources are always going to be allocated unequally between different states and different congressional districts depending on the probability of the party winning office there and other factors. Under Howard Dean, that allocation was significantly flatter than it had been under previous DNC administrations. That turned out to work out very well for the Democrats, as they won office in numerous states and districts that were once assumed not to be competitive.

It sounds like, under Tim Kaine, the Democrats will be moving to a somewhat more top-heavy resource allocation. The allocation is still likely to be broader than it had been in the pre-Dean years, however, and the Democrats are still likely to field viable candidates in a higher proportion of states and districts than the Republicans do. The key intraparty battles will not be those to determine if, say, a congressional candidate in Arizona gets more resources than one in New Jersey. Those sorts of things can be settled “scientifically” on a return-on-investment basis: how much does a marginal dollar spent in AZ-6 go toward strengthening the Democratic majority in Congress than one spent in NJ-11?

Rather, the real battle will be the one that Chris Bowers highlights:

In short, the DNC will be moving away from the long-term, decentralized, fifty-state strategy of Howard Dean’s tenure, and toward serving as a short-term, centralized re-election effort for President Obama in 2012.

Emphasis added. One can imagine a lot of scenarios in which there is a potential trade-off between enhancing Barack Obama’s election chances (and/or his political capital) and those of a downballot candidate for Congress or some other office. In the special election in Georgia, for instance, Barack Obama did not want to visit the state because he evidently felt that stumping for Jim Martin would be a poor use of his political capital. That might or might not have been the “correct” decision (in retrospect, since Martin got beaten badly, it looks wise). But the point is, there is a trade-off there: Obama’s interests versus those of a congressional Democrat. And with Obama largely taking over the DNC, such trade-offs are liable to be resolved more often than not in Obama’s favor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.