The endgame of Obama’s final campaign, win or lose, is The Great Grind of 2012, through the critical swing states that will determine this election. It is a trail of anxiety, stump speeches, crowd counts, spin, polls, catered planes, motorcades and nostalgia.
Above all, the last days have revealed an epistemological debate about the nature or even existence of national momentum in politics. The two campaigns are fervently preaching their poll-wrapped faith to the mass-media masses, arguing Nate Silver (Obama will win) vs. Gallup (Romney has the edge), “possible voters” vs. “likely voters,” GOTV vs. Big MO. And whether Obama wins or not depends in large part on whether David Plouffe is right or wrong.
More than Obama’s message maven David Axelrod, or his operation campaign manager Jim Messina, Plouffe is the data-driven guru of Obama’s 2008 victory, the great skeptic of the magical realism of national momentum and the keeper of Obama’s battleground orthodoxy. Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sought to make the race a referendum on Obama, but it is also by extension a referendum on Plouffe, just as George W. Bush’s reelection solidified Karl Rove’s status as a political legend.
Somewhere in the air over the flat clouds of Middle America, Plouffe was asked to ponder what it would mean for his reputation as his party’s great electoral engineer if the apparent momentum from national polls prevailed over his battleground mechanics and carried Romney to victory.
“Oh, I can only go by what I see, so I have confidence, as does Axelrod, as does Messina, in our data and what we are seeing and our sense of the race.”
“So data to the end?”
“Data to the end,” he said, smiling.
About 30 sleepless hours later Plouffe appeared on a tarmac under the Cleveland skyline at the final event of the campaign’s nonstop “America Forward!” push. Air Force One was parked behind the stage, lending the spectacle the feel of an open-air opera.
Plouffe and other Obama lifers, including communications director Dan Pfeiffer, speechwriter Jon Favreau and longtime Obama scheduler Alyssa Mastromonaco stood on white plastic chairs in a VIP area to better view the candidate, his screaming voice Hulk Hogan hoarse, his face drained. Early into the speech, Plouffe and the others bowed their heads, turning their eyes and thumbs to their smartphones, their jaws tightening as they typed. A Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll had just come out showing the president down a full three points nationally.