Forget the 50-State Plan. Clinton’s Building for a Battleground Strategy.

The Democrat’s team is talking about a national network, but its biggest impact will be building the volunteer skills needed elsewhere.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at Rancho High School on May 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
May 14, 2015, 4 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton has a paid staffer in every state in Amer­ica. But she won’t for much longer.

Her cam­paign’s much-dis­cussed 50-state grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing pro­gram is more a means to an end than the end it­self.

In the short term, it helps her team bol­ster the im­age of the front-run­ner tak­ing ser­i­ously the pos­sib­il­ity of a com­pet­it­ive primary (even if no one else is) while also ad­dress­ing the post-2008 cri­ti­cism that Clin­ton fo­cused too nar­rowly on big primary states, al­low­ing Barack Obama to sweep up del­eg­ates she hadn’t even fought for.

But it yields its great­er be­ne­fit six to 12 months from now, when vo­lun­teers trained in solidly Clin­ton ter­rit­ory, where their ef­forts are un­ne­ces­sary, shift their fo­cus to neigh­bor­ing states where Demo­crats will be fight­ing the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee to cap­ture every middle-of-the-road, un­de­cided voter.

In­deed, though the cam­paign is stress­ing its work to­ward a ro­bust na­tion­wide grass­roots net­work—far more ex­tens­ive than her out­reach ef­forts in 2008—that 50-state net­work will ul­ti­mately be­ne­fit Clin­ton in the same small play­ing field of swing states that pro­pelled Obama to vic­tory in 2008 and 2012.

And not for noth­ing. With an in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized elect­or­ate, the num­ber of states that will prove de­cis­ive to Clin­ton on Elec­tion Night 2016 could total as few as sev­en and cer­tainly no more than 12.

While the team might not talk about a battle­ground ap­proach now, its tac­tics will soon re­flect that strategy. The paid staffers who have been de­ployed to every state around the coun­try are work­ing for the cam­paign on a tem­por­ary basis; at the end of May, the cam­paign ex­pects vo­lun­teers to take over loc­al op­er­a­tions.

Ul­ti­mately, the vo­lun­teer struc­tures they leave in place be­hind them will be to sup­ple­ment ef­forts of vo­lun­teers in con­tested ter­rit­ory—both in key primary states and gen­er­al-elec­tion battle­grounds.

“Staffers in those [blue] states provide a tre­mend­ous amount of vo­lun­teer out­put in­to neigh­bor­ing battle­ground states that can have a huge im­pact,” said Mitch Stew­art, a found­ing part­ner at 270 Strategies who served as the battle­ground-states dir­ect­or for Pres­id­ent Obama’s reelec­tion cam­paign. Stew­art ad­vised the pro-Clin­ton su­per PAC Ready for Hil­lary in the lead-up to Clin­ton’s 2016 an­nounce­ment.

“States like Nevada and Col­or­ado—we had a lot of vo­lun­teers call­ing in­to those two states,” Stew­art said, cit­ing New York (help­ing out with Pennsylvania) and Mas­sachu­setts (help­ing with New Hamp­shire) as oth­er less-com­pet­it­ive states that proved help­ful for vo­lun­teer man­power.

In 2012, Obama’s reelec­tion cam­paign had just 10 “battle­ground” states with a full-fledged staff: Wis­con­sin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Ohio, Vir­gin­ia, North Car­o­lina, Flor­ida, Nevada, and Col­or­ado. There were an ad­di­tion­al three that were con­sidered “watch” states: Min­nesota, Michigan, and Wash­ing­ton state. That didn’t mean that oth­er states went un­noticed, es­pe­cially with or­gan­izers for Or­gan­iz­ing for Amer­ica sta­tioned across the coun­try—but they didn’t have the same kind of fully staffed op­er­a­tions that the swing states did.

Already, some polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als see an even more tar­geted map for 2016. (Larry Sabato and his team as­ser­ted last week that there are just sev­en toss-up states this cycle: Nevada, Col­or­ado, Iowa, Ohio, Vir­gin­ia, Flor­ida, and New Hamp­shire.)

Cer­tainly, the 50-state net­work would be use­ful if Clin­ton gets a real chal­lenge in the primary sea­son—from former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, for ex­ample. And when states start to be­gin al­low­ing cam­paigns to col­lect sig­na­tures to get on the bal­lot, the vo­lun­teer op­er­a­tions in place will en­sure that Clin­ton’s cam­paign is pre­pared for bal­lot ac­cess across the map—an is­sue that haunted some less-or­gan­ized Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates in 2012.

It’s also a way for Clin­ton’s cam­paign to make good on its prom­ise to help build up loc­al and state parties, many of which are strug­gling in the post-Cit­izens United cam­paign world. Clin­ton’s team is already put­ting in sig­ni­fic­ant work in Iowa, for ex­ample, where 2014 losses have Demo­crats wor­ried about the fu­ture of the state party; her vo­lun­teer struc­tures, even in non­swing states, will be a boost to loc­al party op­er­a­tions.

Plus, some Demo­crats ar­gue, even states that aren’t com­pet­it­ive now could be more so down the line, so hav­ing pres­id­en­tial-level op­er­at­ives con­nect with and train vo­lun­teers across the coun­try could help pre­pare Demo­crats for fu­ture con­tests. That’s es­pe­cially true of states with grow­ing Latino pop­u­la­tions, such as Geor­gia, Texas, and Ari­zona, which could someday shift away from Re­pub­lic­ans.

“[Clin­ton] is run­ning not just for 2016, but for 2020 and to set up 2024,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Celinda Lake. “Those are states that could be in play by 2020 or 2024.”

In­deed, if the 50-state or­gan­iz­ing ef­fort is meant to ac­com­plish any­thing, it’s cer­tainly not in se­cur­ing Clin­ton’s win in Con­necti­c­ut.

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