What Democrats Should Learn From 2014? Howard Dean Was Right!

Since it is the end of one year and beginning of a new one, there is nothing I am more certain of than that Democrats want to close the book on 2014. An election cycle which offered little in the way of hope and far more change then anyone anticipated. It is precisely these moments that it's necessary to question conventional wisdom and think through what went wrong in order to improve the next time around. The good and bad of politics is that there's always another campaign cycle to do better -- or worse. The best lesson I think that Democrats can take away from 2014 is that Howard Dean was right.

Interestingly, my own history with Governor Dean goes back to his campaign for president, when very early on I heard him speak on CSPAN. I was impressed with his speech and starting telling my friends and family in Iowa to watch out for him, because he was going to do much better than the conventional wisdom of the day thought. I think he was polling around 2 or 3% at the time. Telling people about Gov. Dean brought me into contact with a close friend of his, who has since become a close friend of mine. This friend had a crazy idea: if the Democrats reached out and registered eligible voters, we would expand the overall voter pool such that a few newly registered voters could change the outcome in a big way. Since I was in grad school and had access to all sorts of data, he asked me to prove or disprove his theory so that we could present it to Gov. Dean.

Well, the rest is sort of history. I found proof of the theory and he presented it to Gov. Dean, who loved it. Then the Iowa Caucus followed by the Scream Heard Around the World, and the Dean for America campaign was done. Kaput. But then something amazing happened: Gov. Dean became the DNC Chairman and used our ideas to form the basis of his 50 State Strategy, which was well-documented in my friend Ari Berman's book, Herding Donkeys.

When the Obama Team came to power in 2008, I'd hoped that something similar to the Dean campaign's grassroots efforts would infuse itself within the party, re-energize it, and turn a great foundation into an unbeatable coalition. As the past few cycles have shown, I was a little off in my hopes. OFA 2008 became Organizing for America, which became OFA 2012, ending in Organizing for Action. Much to the detriment of the Democratic Party, the Obama Team kept its organizing dynamic separate from the party, even when it controlled the party. While there was a major victory in 2012, I would argue that it was more due to Mitt Romney and the GOP losing the election rather than the Democrats and President Obama winning it.

So where does this leave us? Surprisingly, in very good shape. Given the cast of characters getting ready to be involved in the 2016 cycle, I am hoping that all the folks who have done amazing things on past campaigns can build on their successes. We must remember that we as a Democratic party are at our best when we stand together, for the values that reward hard-working Americans. We need to express this idea, not in the cynicism of Washington politics, but in the politics of the grassroots. The politics of going door to door, talking with our friends and neighbors, reminding them that we are all in this American experiment together, and that the greatness we can achieve together is far better than we can do on our own. That was the lesson from Howard Dean, and one the current Democratic Party would do well to embrace.