Salena Zito

The joke among Republicans when Howard Dean became chairman of the Democratic National Committee was that Howard Dean had become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

They saw the brash, unorthodox, failed presidential candidate from the tiny state of Vermont as a gift that would keep on giving. What they got instead was a low-key party-builder with a bold idea to place money and people on the ground in ruby-red states that Democrats typically wrote off.

That Republican “joke” greatly facilitated President Barack H. Obama's victory Tuesday night.

Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman says Dean’s “50-state strategy” – compete in every state, regardless of whether it’s Republican-red or Democrat-blue – was very controversial in Democratic circles, but it was strategically right.

Rockman stresses that Dean’s strategy would not have worked with a different kind of candidate, such as John Kerry or Hillary Clinton, because “Obama was able to mobilize hugely African-Americans, young people and other minorities.” That worked especially well for him in the South and in Indiana.

Another major factor in making this work was Obama's ground and Internet campaigns; both were textbook lessons on how to apply new technology and old-style Chicago retail politics to a presidential campaign.

But the ground game and Internet network would not have existed if Howard Dean had not pioneered them. The whole model for Obama's campaign was Dean’s; Obama even brought the 2004 Dean campaign’s Internet team to Chicago to build his own network.

When Dean burst onto the scene in 2003, he was the candidate of change who believed the best way to win was to win everywhere. His was a campaign infrastructure that believed it could stand up to the political establishment on the single most difficult issue of that time, the war in Iraq. And it was a campaign predicated on the belief that someone from outside Washington without a long D.C. resume could effectively compete with the resumes that come from Washington because people want change.

Right message, right infrastructure – but, ultimately, wrong candidate.

So, Dean took that philosophy, and the people-power he had built, and elbowed his way past establishment Democrats to become the DNC chairman.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.