Strategy Was Based On Winning Delegates, Not Battlegrounds

By Jonathan Weisman, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Almost from the beginning, Hillary Rodham Clinton's superior name recognition and her sway with state party organizations convinced Barack Obama's brain trust that a junior senator from Illinois was not going to be able to challenge the Clinton political machine head-on.

The insurgent strategy the group devised instead was to virtually cede the most important battlegrounds of the Democratic nomination fight to Clinton, using precision targeting to minimize her delegate hauls, while going all out to crush her in states where Democratic candidates rarely ventured.

The result may have lacked the glamour of a sweep, but last night, with the delegates he picked up in Montana and South Dakota and a flood of superdelegate endorsements, Obama sealed one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history and became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to wrest his party's nomination from the candidate of the party establishment. The surprise was how well his strategy held up -- and how little resistance it met.

"We kept waiting for the Clinton people to send people into the caucus states," marveled Jon Carson, one of Obama's top ground-game strategists.

"It's the big mystery of the campaign," said campaign manager David Plouffe, "because every delegate counts."

The Obama strategy had its limits. Like a basketball team entering halftime with a 30-point lead, the campaign played a less-than-inspired second half. Obama managed only a split yesterday, losing South Dakota and winning Montana, meaning that he lost nine of the last 14 primaries. Before last night, that erratic finish translated into losing 458 of the 867 pledged delegates available since Wisconsin voted on Feb. 19, and 53.2 percent of the popular vote.

His inability to capture battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania may be a portent of what could await him in November against Sen. John McCain. But victory did come -- not in a rush of momentum but in what his own staff calls a "slog."

"Here's a person who nobody had heard of. The nomination was Hillary Clinton's. She was being coronated 16 months ago," said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer, who helped turn Indiana into a narrow defeat that worked to Obama's favor. "He's gone through a long, gut-wrenching, difficult process and emerged as a very talented, tough candidate."

When Obama began his campaign in early 2007, the road ahead was a fairly conventional one, not unlike the one followed by Gary Hart or Bill Bradley before him: Battle for the first three or four states and momentum steamrolls the opponent.

"We had to disrupt her early," Plouffe said of Clinton.

Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 loomed like a mountain. Obama's campaign had budgeted a mere $5 million for that day, and the Democrats had 22 states at stake, including prohibitively expensive prizes such as California and New York.

But by last summer, after Obama's wildly successful book tour led to an even more wildly successful fundraising blitz, members of his inner circle began thinking differently. They began building a new strategy based on message, money and, above all, organization.

The message -- of unity and hope -- did not come out of nowhere. David Axelrod, a Chicago campaign consultant, long ago hatched the idea that Democrats' campaigns should revolve more around personality than policy.

The money turned a seat-of-the-pants enterprise into a vast operation that occupied the 11th floor of a skyscraper on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, where 20-somethings tossed footballs, computer whizzes designed interactive Web sites and older volunteers filled an entire call center, not to place calls but to receive them from Democrats who were eager to help.

Then, while the public battle played out in Iowa's farm towns, cities and at its colleges, the senator's staff huddled in Chicago to map out a strategy that would counter Clinton's strength, by blunting her advantage in states such as California, Ohio and Pennsylvania, then beating her where she wasn't.

Senior advisers, including Plouffe and delegate specialist Jeffrey Berman, diced the country into 435 congressional districts, the basis for pledged-delegate allocations. They examined each district under different scenarios -- for instance, before and after former senator John Edwards left the race. And they identified quirks that Obama could exploit -- such as the fact that in districts that awarded an even number of delegates, the take was generally split evenly, if the winning margin was kept reasonable.

The campaign leadership had wanted no distractions before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, so the planning in Chicago was done in secret. But on the night of Jan. 4, as Obama's Iowa staff staggered into his Des Moines campaign headquarters, still ragged from celebrating the senator's improbable victory there, field director Paul Tewes took it public.

Everyone on the payroll in Iowa would be assigned to another state, he announced. Hotels had already been booked and rooms in the homes of volunteers arranged. Marygrace Galston, who had helped oversee the ground-game deployments, gave staff members until 6 p.m. to say whether they were accepting their new assignments.

Obama's team left Des Moines and fanned out -- to Idaho, to Alabama, to Alaska, places that had never seen a Democratic presidential primary campaign. The months ahead would have other key moments. The late-night standoff in Indiana last month deprived Clinton of a strong victory to offset her crushing defeat in North Carolina -- and ultimately left Obama's big delegate take intact. Edwards's endorsement of Obama on May 14 helped sap what momentum Clinton had from her landslide win in West Virginia the day before.

And Obama supporters in Michigan and Florida quietly helped scuttle proposed revotes in both states that were Clinton's best shot at changing the dynamics of the race.

But all those moments simply provided the bookends for an organizational feat that brought the expanding army of a little-known senator to virtually every hamlet in the country.

"It's the story that hasn't been written yet, how Obama did everything right, targeting caucuses, targeting small states, avoiding the showdowns in the big states where he could," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, who watched the strategy play out in microcosm in his own state, "and how in the end Clinton did so much so wrong."

Focusing on Small States

From May through the summer of last year, more than 750 volunteers learned the do's and don'ts of canvassing, working phone banks and recruiting others to help at what came to be known as "Camp Obama," led by Carson, a little-known strategist, at one of the campaign's offices in Chicago's Loop.

Meanwhile, Steve Hildebrand, a longtime caucus-state strategist, was learning the lay of the land in the first four states of the race: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

With Clinton's name recognition and traditional strengths obvious in big states, such as California, New York and New Jersey, Hildebrand, Carson and Berman decided it would be more effective to deploy one volunteer to Idaho or Delaware than to send that same volunteer to Los Angeles or Yonkers, N.Y.

In short, Team Obama would make a virtue of necessity.

"It's very hard to gain a big advantage in small states," a senior Clinton staffer asserted shortly before the Super Tuesday contests, which were supposed to seal Clinton's victory.

He was wrong. The small states did matter. Between Idaho, Nebraska, Vermont, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Alaska, Obama would amass 118 delegates to Clinton's 57.

Even early in the contest, the Obama delegate strategy was showing signs of success. But while Clinton's win in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 revived her candidacy, the victory was so narrow that she wound up with the same number of pledged delegates -- nine -- as Obama. In Nevada 11 days later, Clinton won the caucuses by a six-point spread, but Obama won more delegates, 13 to her 12, because his support was more evenly distributed around the state.

When the Obama campaign announced its delegate count within hours after the Nevada caucuses ended, the Clinton campaign, state party officials and local reporters quickly shot down the calculation as a loser's wishful thinking. Berman explained on a campaign conference call how the math added up: Obama had prevailed in districts with an odd number of delegates, so he was awarded the extra delegate, whereas Clinton's strongest regions were districts with even numbers of delegates, and Obama had kept the margin close enough to result in an even split.

"We don't view Nevada as a loss," Axelrod told skeptical reporters. "We'll keep letting them spin the victories and taking their delegates."

The big challenge was Feb. 5, when the 22 states would hold Democratic caucuses and primaries, with 1,681 pledged delegates at stake. The Obama campaign's worst-case scenario showed Clinton finishing with a net gain of about 100 delegates. The best-case scenario showed Obama fighting her to a draw.

The campaign stuck to its plan even as Obama started to creep up in the California polls. An upset in California would probably end the contest. But Plouffe, Hildebrand and others concluded that it was too big a gamble -- and that Obama could win as many delegates by campaigning in smaller states.

Among the states where Obama strategists worked virtually unchallenged by Clinton were Kansas, Idaho, Utah and Alaska, where Obama staffers used the Internet to reach voters in a district known as the Arctic Circle.

The campaign sent staffers to Kansas three months before Clinton organizers arrived. By Super Tuesday, Obama's staff outnumbered Clinton's 18 to 3. "They have a plan," Dan Watkins, a Lawrence lawyer, former Vista volunteer and Camp Obama graduate, marveled in late January. "They are empowering people to draw out what they can do."

Alan Jones, a real estate broker in Loveland, Colo., had created an Obama Meetup group in nearby Fort Collins a full year before. He was amazed when Obama campaign staffers reached out to him and other volunteers, instructing them to assign precinct captains in their communities and giving them lists of voters to call, along with a script to use. By early January, the campaign had opened offices statewide, including one in Fort Collins, outfitted with volunteers and computers from the Iowa operations.

"Democrats are typically not that way. Usually, it's like herding cats," Jones said. "The Obama campaign is different. . . . Obama doesn't lose anyone's number."

The strategy's flaws would later be obvious. But the math could not be challenged. On Feb. 5, Obama won more delegates in Kansas and Idaho than Clinton won in New Jersey.

An internal spreadsheet after Super Tuesday drew a road map for going after the 1,435 pledged delegates up for grabs from Feb. 9 through June 3. Clinton would win the three biggest states in the stretch: Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Obama would target a less conventional list: the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as the Texas caucuses, a separate contest held at the end of the March 4 primary that allocated a third of the 193 pledged delegates awarded by the Lone Star State.

Clinton won the Texas primary -- but Obama won the caucus, and wound up with 99 state delegates, compared with Clinton's 94.

Some pundits saw Pennsylvania as Obama's possible undoing. Plouffe and his team saw it merely as another puzzle to crack. Clinton was popular across the state -- but delegates were apportioned based on turnout strength in previous elections, meaning that heavily Democratic districts were disproportionately valuable. The biggest Philadelphia district -- an Obama stronghold -- was three times as big as the Altoona district.

"Maybe Hillary will do better in popular vote, but because of the way the delegates are apportioned, she won't get a big delegate lead out of it," Berman predicted two weeks before the Pennsylvania primary.

Clinton won the state by nine points, but of the 158 pledged delegates up for grabs, her net gain was just 12. Of the 1,435 delegates available after Super Tuesday, the leaked spreadsheet foresaw a net pledged-delegate gain of 43 for Obama. He received 85, even before the Montana and South Dakota results were in.

The 'Danger Zone'

As the pledged-delegate count moved inexorably toward the winning number, Obama advisers worried about what they called the "danger zone." The fear was that a loss in Pennsylvania would be followed by big losses in Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico, capped by revotes in Michigan and Florida that would push Clinton into an indisputable lead in the total popular vote, a clear lead in the polls and an avalanche of superdelegates pouring her way.

Officially, Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said that Obama did visit both West Virginia and Kentucky but that "there were over 50 contests, and you've got to make choices on where you spend your time." But Obama aides had no illusions about the outcomes in those states. The demographics telegraphed Clinton's landslides there long before West Virginians and Kentuckians went to the polls. Obama virtually sat out the states because contesting them and then losing badly would have been far worse. To avoid the danger zone, two things had to happen: Obama would have to win Indiana to augment an expected victory that day in North Carolina, and Michigan and Florida could not be allowed to vote in June.

He did not win Indiana, but he got the next-best thing. A resounding victory in North Carolina dominated the news all night while the media waited for delayed returns to roll in from Gary, Ind. Obama's victory speech was televised. Clinton waited, and waited. By the time her narrow Hoosier State win was declared, any momentum she gained had disappeared.

"There are hard wins, and there are moral victories. This was both," Roemer said. "A lot of people thought after Ohio and Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton would win by double digits. Indiana instead put a stop to the bleeding of the blue-collar problem."

Obama caught a break in Florida. When the Florida Democratic Party drafted a detailed plan for a revote, largely by mail, the entire Florida Democratic House delegation -- Clinton and Obama supporters alike -- recoiled, their memories of the 2000 election debacle still too fresh to risk it. Obama's Florida backers did not have to lift a finger.

Michigan was different. A revote was backed by the state's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, and by the state's senior senator, Carl M. Levin. The campaign by Obama's supporters there was subtle. Legislative leaders said they needed Obama to sign off on the plan, but he demurred. Obama campaign lawyer Robert F. Bauer drafted a lengthy memo on March 19, raising a series of questions about the revote but stopping short of opposing it. Campaign aides then said they wanted to see what the legislature would do.

Meanwhile, two key Obama supporters, state Sens. Samuel Buzz Thomas III and Tupac A. Hunter, were finding every reason possible not to send Michiganders back to the polls, said Ballenger, of Inside Michigan Politics.

"The Obama camp never wanted a vote in Michigan," said a Michigan Democratic insider involved in the revote effort. "Let us be very real."

In short, Obama ran out the clock. When Michigan state senators adjourned March 21, they left Granholm's revote plan on the table. By the time the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee decided on Florida and Michigan, they hardly mattered. Without revotes, Clinton could not indisputably claim their tallies for her national vote total. The torrent of superdelegates that some Obama advisers had feared would never come.

Staff writer Alec MacGillis and staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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