This is an excellent article in today's New York Times, by Daniel Galvin, a doctoral candidate in political science, who will become an assistant professor at Northwestern University. His basic point is that Howard Dean's plan to build the party by putting funds into statewide party building efforts is a sound one.
As Galvin points out, Emmanuel Rahm disagrees. He argues that funds should go to key congressional races that are competitive so that we can take back the House or Senate this year.
It's tempting to go for the short term gain. But as Galvin argues, Republicans have built up their enduring success by putting money, training, and recruitment efforts precisely into areas that the pundits of the day thought they'd never win.
It's hard to remember now but places like South Carolina were solidly Democratic when the Republicans began their party building efforts back in the 50s. But they put money and effort into creating organizations that could train activists and candidates. They worked hard to recruit good candidates and encouraged people to run by delivering solid support.
Democrats largely abandoned those efforts. They depended on allies in labor to provide the foot soldiers and organization for elections. They also let incumbents fend for themselves, using the power of their own incumbency to win races. And it worked for a long time. But, ultimately, with no real organization, the party lost clout.
The irony is the Democrats were unparalleled at one time in party organizaton. They invented much of the grassroots techniques for get out the vote efforts that even Republicans still use. But Democrats got complacent. They placed their faith in overpaid consultants, expensive television ads, and professional mailers to send out literature. Republicans beat them on the new technology of setting up databases, doing direct mailings, and establishing small donor networks. Democrats, of all people, relied on wealthy donors and professionals rather than volunteers.
Old school Democrats, veterans of the successful machines, would tell anybody who would listen that they'd rather have the dollar of the small donor than the large corporate donation because the little guy who gave the dollar to a campaign would get out through hell and high water to vote. But the large corporation was just covering all bases and their executives were going to vote Republican regardless of what they gave. Also a volunteer who works for the candidate will be more likely to vote and get his family and neighbors to vote too.
Political scientists have also documented that the candidate who has had personal contact with the voter, whether through knocking on doors (shown to be the most effective method) or phone banking, is more often successful than the guy with slickest ads.
We have a chance to turn things around this time, not just with one election, but to reclaim lasting majority status. Galvin argues that Dean is right. We've got to build the party state by state to make lasting change not quick, temporary gains.