Inside Obama's 50-State Fight

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Utah is hardly the place that jumps into most Democrats' minds when brainstorming about which red states they have a chance to make headway with this November. The Beehive State was one of just three states in which President George W. Bush swept every county in 2004—all of them except for two with more than 55% of the vote. In the state's 2008 primaries on Super Tuesday, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats by a margin of 2.5 to 1.

None of that, however, has discouraged Nikki Norton and her band of 40 volunteers from organizing for Barack Obama ahead of the general election. And surprisingly, it hasn't deterred the Obama campaign from formally helping Norton by investing in the state; Norton, co-chair of Utah for Obama's grassroots campaign, got a call a couple of days ago telling her to expect paid staffers to arrive within the next month. "Even if we don't win Utah, we definitely want to create a downstream effect for local candidates," Norton said. "It could also force [Republican presumptive nominee John] McCain to defend Utah; he might have to split his resources for a state like ours, where he probably wouldn't have needed to before. And our volunteers had a big effect on border swing states, particularly in rural areas in Nevada, and that was a big benefit for Obama [who won Nevada's delegate count over Hillary Clinton by dint of his rural victories]."

From the earliest days of his upstart campaign, Obama pledged to run a 50-state effort, vowing to move past the traditional partisan divide and expand the electoral map by appealing to independents and even Republicans. But few people, even among his own staff, thought he'd actually invest in every single state. As it turns out, Obama's phenomenal fund raising has allowed him to deliver on his bold promise and place staff in every one of the 50 states, as his campaign announced it would Monday. The strategy could force McCain to defend Republican strongholds, help those lonely Democratic candidates in so-called red states and further expand Obama's already massive volunteer and donor bases (indeed, the move was announced in a fund-raising e-mail plea to donors).

Obama is able to do this in part because of the grueling, drawn-out delegate fight with Clinton that only just ended. The long primary season forced the campaign to build bases of support for the Illinois Senator in every state. The dividends of the high-profile Democratic presence are already being felt. Earlier this year, Democrats picked up three long-held G.O.P. congressional seats in special elections in Mississippi, Louisiana and Illinois. The party is also mounting House challenges in 14 states that Bush won in 2004, including Wyoming, Alabama and Arizona. And Democratic candidates are contesting at least five G.O.P.-stronghold seats in the Senate: Alaska, Kentucky (Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's seat), Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. "Senator Barack Obama's plan to compete in all 50 states is a reflection of the overwhelming desire for change that is transcending state boundaries and has energized voters in every corner of the country," said Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democratic candidates.

No one contends that the 50-state strategy is Obama's brainchild; it comes from Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who not so long ago took a lot of heat from Democrats who were angry that he was squandering their limited resources on perceived long shots in the South and West. But after his gamble paid off in 2006, when Dems won both chambers of Congress, his expansive notion suddenly seemed a lot more viable. "The 50-state strategy has been historic—just the enthusiasm that our volunteers have, that our candidates have, that our party is visible and active even before the campaign—it pays off on so many levels for a state like Kansas," said Mike Gaughan, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. In a state where only two out of 105 counties voted for John Kerry in 2004, Democrats took a House seat, six seats in the Kansas legislature and the attorney general's office from the G.O.P. in 2006. "We saw Obama's staff at work here during the primary season. They had organized on the ground back from October for the Feb. 5 caucuses," Gaughan said. "The way that they activated their supporters is going to pay dividends" for all Kansas Democratic candidates as the party seeks to expand its presence there, he says.