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.
After the event, Plouffe walked over, leaned against a rail and spoke loudly enough to be heard over the campaign music. As the president waved and returned to Air Force One, Plouffe dismissed the Post poll as garbage.
“It’s insane. We’re suddenly down 19 points with independents?” he said. An Obama second term depends on Plouffe’s ability to activate the Latino, African American and young voters who have a more erratic track record of showing up at the polls and thus are often are not counted as “likely voters.” That Plouffe long took that base for granted, pushing Obama towards a moderate, independent-voter-geared position in the White House, is an irony not lost on his critics within the party.
The media’s seizing on the Romney surge nationwide may have an impact on the swing states. And that story line is something Plouffe and the entire Obama campaign refuse to entertain. “No!” he said. “We know the national vote is going to be close. But our visibility is here in Ohio. The election is like a series of governors races on steroids.”
Like his boss, Plouffe carefully avoided any sign of worry. He said he felt “great” after two days of constant campaigning, and that the late night events and “not sleeping” reminded him of the good old days of 2008, when his electoral calculus made him a political superstar. “We know what a campaign coming together again feels like,” he concluded. “And it feels like this.”
Worry worry worry
It also feels like this.
“I’m a little worried about it . . .” Robin Fairbanks, an Obama supporter seated in the back of a chilly rally in Denver started saying when her friend, Vicky Jacobs, 50, interrupted with a shout of “Confident girl!”
“I think Colorado will reelect Obama,” Fairbanks amended.
Under palm trees in Tampa, Jennifer Bosson, a 42-year-old psychology professor wore a 2008-vintage Hope shirt as she waited for Obama to arrive. “I’m very worried,” she said. “I lived through eight years of Bush and the idea of a similar administration fills me with dread.”
Donna Fernander, 54, in the front row of another rally in Delray Beach, Fla., confided, “I’m cautiously worried. It’s too close for comfort.”
That Wednesday morning event at the Delray Beach Tennis Club was the first warm-up for the “America Forward!” whirlwind tour. It had a 2008 vibe. A multiracial and multilingual crowd packed the sun-bathed bleachers, the leaves of towering palm trees shimmered like tinsel, the speakers blared Maxine Nightingale singing “Right Back Where We Started From.”
Former Republican governor of Florida Charlie Crist pumped up the crowd in an orange shirt that looked pale under his copper face. (Hours earlier, he was pool-side, shmoozing the Romney press corps in a T-shirt, cap and flip flops. His wife, noting a reporter’s attire, said, “You have a red-and-blue shirt — that’s so bipartisan. You’re talking to the right guy! He’s a hybrid.”) Crist introduced the president, who roared into the microphone, “This is about trust.” What he really meant was that Romney was untrustworthy.
After spending the campaign effectively casting Romney as a right wing Gordon Gekko, Obama allowed him to appear warm and moderate in that cataclysmic first debate in Denver. Since then, Romney had surged. To protect his advantage in the battlegrounds, Obama reverted back to something closer to his original plan, famously articulated by Plouffe in October of 2011, when the adviser said Romney had “no core.”
This would be Obama’s closing argument. He window-dressed it with a glossy, blue 20-page pamphlet — “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan For Jobs & Middle-Class Security” — that he brandished from the podium and later provided to reporters. One reporter asked a colleague leafing through it, “Are you actually reading that?”
“I want to make sure there are no actual plans in it,” the colleague quipped.
The real plan was spinning reporters away from any polls or from pushing story lines that could damage their battleground positions. On the bus to the airport to Ohio, the tinny chorus of an Obama campaign conference call emitted from reporter’s speakerphones: “We are tied or we are ahead in every battleground state!”
Both campaigns are spinning hard. The Romney camp insists the national polls show Obama is shedding voters while the Republican is gaining new ones and that this momentum will sway the battlegrounds.
Plouffe and the Obama campaign refuse even to acknowledge the national surge.
After an event at Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohio, Plouffe stood alone in the field, smiling broadly as Obama accused Romney of being afflicted with “Romnesia.” Obama later flew home and the press went to Iowa, where Obama would begin his “America Forward!” tour the following morning. A bus deposited the press at the IsleOne Casino Hotel, a prison/hacienda/Disney castle aesthetic where a few Obama staffers shared a late night drink at the casino under a sign that read: “Get Winning.”
An ‘all-nighter,’ all night
“This will be the Plouffe bus,” Katie Hogan, a press official for the campaign, declared as an Ocean Pacific-pink sun rose over the woods beyond the casino parking lot in Ohio. The president’s schedule on the first day of the trip would be such a whirlwind that the press plane would be unable to keep up with Air Force One. The reporters had voted to skip the legs to Los Angeles, where Obama would crack wise with “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, and to Las Vegas, where he would appear with Katy Perry and pump up the crucial Culinary Workers Union. (A pool reporter flew with the president and supplied news of his activities out west.) Hogan announced that Plouffe would ride the bus later in the day so that the press would not feel “alienated.” For a campaign with a reputation for smugness and lack of engagement, this seemed like a tell.
At the Mississippi Valley Fair Grounds, in Davenport, the president bound up a stage to U2 music and waved under a yellowing oak tree.
“This is the first stop on our 48-hour fly-around campaign marathon extravaganza. We’re going to pull an all-nighter, no sleep,” Obama told the crowd of about 3,500.
The Obama brain trust was in attendance. Pfeiffer wore sunglasses and checked his BlackBerry. Press secretary Jay Carney trudged over with coffee in a white Styrofoam cup and hooted “Woo!” when Obama delivered his Romnesia punch line.
After the event, Hogan reminded reporters, “If you don’t want to miss anything, go on Plouffe’s bus.” She led Plouffe, in jacket and jeans to an aisle seat. “I’m going to plant you right in the middle,” she said.
At first Plouffe looked uncomfortable, but as he started talking, he made a point to punctuate his sentences with smiles. This, too, was out of character. “We have many combinations to get to 270 — that’s been our strategy all along as it was in 2008,” he said.
He responded to a reporter’s assertion that “Governor Romney had the momentum going into this week,” by saying, “We don’t really see it that way” and “I understand that you guys have been assigning that to him.”
He added, “In every battleground state — every one — there are more non-frequent Democratic voters participating than Republicans. That is a knowable thing.”
Obama then flew to Meadow at City Park in Denver, not far from where he bombed in the first debate. The rain held off long enough for Obama to tell the crowd, “This is the second stop on our 48-hour marathon, extravaganza, fly-around. We are pulling an all-nighter. No sleep.”
Obama and his advisers then flew to Los Angeles, where he cracked a Donald Trump joke on Leno, and flew to Las Vegas, where, per a transcript provided by the White House, he said, “This is the third stop on our 24-hour campaign extravaganza fly-around of America. We are pulling an all-nighter. No sleep. And if you’re not going to sleep, you might as well be in Vegas, right?”
While Obama fortified his Nevada bulwark, the press flew to Tampa and assembled the next morning at Millennium Park in the Ybor City section of the city. Under palm trees and amid yellow trollies, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn warmed up a crowd with “As the I-4 goes, so does the nation.” Crist appeared again, no less tan, no more impassioned, and two women in Floridians for Obama shirts went wild upon catching sight of Brian Williams, who was shooting a day in the life piece with the president. “Briaaan! Briaaan!” one woman shouted. “Aren’t you Jon Stewart’s friend?” called the other.
When Obama finally took the stage, he looked a lot less fresh than he did in Delray Beach 24 hours earlier. “We are right in the middle of our 48-hour fly-around campaign extravaganza,” he said. “We pulled an all-nighter last night.”
He did his Romnesia bit and pivoted to his brochure, which the wind blew off the lectern. “Where’s my plan. Oh, it dropped. I couldn’t find my pla — here it is.”
On the plane to the next stop, in Richmond, Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, described a “nostalgic” vibe among the Obama 2008 veterans. “It’s beginning to get a little wistful because it’s the last time we will do this,” he said. He also carved time out on the flight to urge reporters not to pay attention to another negative survey, calling an AP poll “obviously wrong.”
Asked why the campaign had reverted to Plouffe’s “no core” attack so late in the game, Pfeiffer said “That is actually incorrect” and explained, “It’s not that [Romney] is changing his positions, it’s that he’s hiding his positions and that gets to the core issue of trust that we are discussing.”
That distinction was lost on some of the Obama supporters at the next stop in Richmond, where a crowd of 15,000 stretched back from the stage to a bell tower. Obama looked worse for wear: “Now, you may have noticed that my voice sounds hoarse. We are right in the middle of our 48-hour fly-around campaign extravaganza. We pulled an all-nighter last night.” He also did his Romnesia routine. Joel Westbrook, 50, didn’t get the president’s nuance. “No B.S.,” he shouted. “No flip-flopping!”
‘He still had energy’
The president flew to Chicago to cast his early ballot and the press flew to Cleveland, where they waited for hours in the waning daylight on an empty tarmac. By the time the president arrived, rolling up to a rally site in Air Force One, an illuminated skyline hung over a massive crowd.
“That’s not the picture!” Hogan yelled from a press riser, where reporters and photographers pointed their cameras at the plane rolling to the stage. “That’s the [expletive] picture!” she said. She was pointing at the klieg-lighted throng, 12,000 strong, with camera-pointing arms raised towards the plane and the thin president in starched white shirt jogging out of it.
“This is the final stop on our 48-our fly-around all across America. We’ve been going for two days straight,” he said, adding. “So, Ohio, I’ve got to tell you, even though I’ve been going for about 38 hours straight, even though my voice is getting kind of hoarse, I’ve still got a spring in my step.”
But he had little spring left. Plouffe tensely watched, balancing himself with a foot on two plastic chairs in the VIP area. The president stumbled over his words and compensated by shouting, “Ohio, I believe in you.”
Plouffe and the other longtime aides climbed down from their chairs and the crowd began to disperse. Among them was Rashad Bell, a 28-year-old early voter wearing an Obama button on his cardigan. “Other than being tired he still had energy,” Bell said of the president. “He made a good effort.”