Obama campaign manager talks strategy

David Plouffe, on tour for his book The Audacity to Win, looked back on what has been called one of the best-run presidential bids in American history.

By Asher Klein

David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, revisited his election strategies and some risky moments at I–House Friday night.

Plouffe, who is on tour to support his new book about the campaign, The Audacity to Win, has been credited with running one of the best presidential bids in America’s history, managing to win the 2008 election with a grassroots campaign in support of a relatively unknown and untested politician.

“One of the reasons we were successful was we did not begin with a stale playbook for how to run an election,” Plouffe said.

He pointed to Iowa, the first election in the primaries, as the “laboratory” in which strategies were developed. “Everything you saw in the election was something we learned in Iowa,” Plouffe said.

He also said that, traditionally, the elderly came out to vote in the Iowa caucuses in much larger numbers than young people. And, while those over 65 came out in record numbers, just as many under 30 voted as well, helping Obama to victory.

“What we were focused on was, in the state of Iowa, were we getting enough young people caucus, enough African-Americans coming to caucus?” Plouffe asked. “Were we changing the complexion of the electorate?”

This was one of the keys to Obama’s victory in the general election. While Obama won 50 percent of the people who had voted in 2004, he took 71 percent of first-time votes. According to Plouffe, “that will never happen again.”

Obama played an important role in keeping the campaign’s momentum going after he lost the next primary in New Hampshire, which Plouffe said was “devastating.”

Obama thought it was a humbling moment that kept the campaign from taking too meteoric a rise, and from falling just as fast. “‘You are in serious denial, dude,” Plouffe remembered thinking. “But as time went on, whether it was true or not, [that attitude] was going to be helpful.”

Another key to the campaign’s success was the vast network of volunteers Plouffe had built since 2007, and the technology that helped keep them organized.

“We could, with a keystroke, have our entire volunteer army on point, on message,” Plouffe said. He said regular people listened more when they heard the campaign’s message from regular people “armed with talking points,” rather than from talking heads on TV. He said this was why Republican smear campaigns involving Bill Ayers and “Joe the Plumber” fizzled out. Plouffe also said similar structures in place today are the reason that talk about death panels has dropped out of the discussion on health care reform.

Plouffe said much of the general election was spent playing offense, and although that led to a few risky moments—like Obama’s trip abroad—it made voters confident in Obama. Obama’s speeches on race were “thoughtful speeches like that [run] counter to everything you learn” running an election, he said.

While pundits focused on the pretension Obama showed by accepting the nomination in front of Greek columns, Obama worried more about the risk of rain. After Plouffe told him a meteorological union said that, under similar conditions, it had rained only once in the prior 100 years, Obama agreed to the stadium, on one condition: “‘If it rains that night, you [Plouffe] and David Axelrod are going to be holding goddamn umbrellas over my head,” Plouffe remembered Obama saying.

During the question–and–answer session, Obama campaigners thanked Plouffe for his leadership during the campaign and for trusting such a young group. Plouffe responded that his campaign had been informed by his own experiences as a low-level volunteer, which were then called “field scum.”

“The quality of the people coming into the campaign was remarkable,” Plouffe said, because “no one came into the campaign thinking it was the quickest pathway to a high-paying job.”

Plouffe mentioned that Sarah Palin had just appeared on Oprah ahead of the release of her own book, Going Rogue, which he thought would do well. “Don’t let me get beat too bad,” he said.