David Plouffe advising White House on 2010 midterm elections

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; A02

Ask David Plouffe how Democrats can recover from their electoral setbacks over the past few months and he has a simple answer: Republicans.

"Politics is a comparative exercise," Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama's presidential campaign, told the Fix in his first extended interview since he took on a broadened political role for the White House in advance of the midterm elections. "This isn't just a referendum on Democrats or our party. It's a choice."

That choice was made explicit far too late in last month's special Senate election in Massachusetts between then-state Sen. Scott Brown (R) and state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), Plouffe noted. "Everyone would agree that the definition of Brown should have happened a lot sooner and a lot more clearly," he said.

The Democratic defeat, which meant the loss of a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority, served as something of a wake-up call for the White House -- making clear the need to step up its efforts (and ability) to effectively monitor what is expected to be a large playing field this fall.

Plouffe had remained an adviser to Obama after the campaign, although not in any formal capacity. Now his job will be to help ensure that the White House and the Democratic National Committee do everything possible to get Democrats elected this fall.

While the White House announcement about Plouffe drew lots of media attention, especially in light of the devastating loss in Massachusetts, he said his new role has been "completely overstated." He said the "notion that any individual or the White House has become the czar of all campaigns is not grounded in reality."

What is clear, however, is that Plouffe has been assigned to apply his meticulous, detail-oriented approach to competitive races across the country, ensuring that the White House and the DNC do everything they can to sniff out problems and offer solutions -- and not be surprised by another Scott Brown.

Plouffe, citing his experience as a campaign manager, was quick to note that the "campaigns themselves are going to be the major actors in whether they win or lose." He said he hopes the White House and DNC can help "on the margins."

"My guess is, you are going to have a lot of races decided on the margins," he added.

Though Plouffe insisted that each campaign will be unique, it is clear he feels strongly that Democrats have done a poor job in drawing contrasts with Republicans, and in making sure that voters know what a GOP majority in the House or Senate would mean for the direction of the country.

"Republicans right now are just sitting back and slinging arrows," Plouffe said. "We need to infiltrate their camp and shine some light over their side of the fence."

How does Plouffe frame the argument to voters? He says that Democrats have spent the past two years trying to fix problems while Republicans are asking voters for the chance to wheel a "Trojan horse" into Washington -- out of which will spill bankers and health insurance executives.

Of course, with Democrats in charge of every lever of power in official Washington, the burden of proof falls far more heavily on Obama and his party than on the GOP. And, with most Americans yet to feel a significant uptick in the economy, the attempt to reform health care bogged down and national security rising as an issue, even the rosiest-eyed Democrats acknowledge that the November elections are likely to be tough for their party.

Plouffe, aware of the challenges for Democrats, said that if people know both the "positive" Democratic story and the "comparative" message against Republicans, the predictions of political Armageddon will be far short of the reality this fall.

"The wisest thing to do is prepare for a very tough election," Plouffe advised members of his party. "But in this kind of turbulent electoral environment, I don't think any of us should presume an electoral outcome."

Bayh weak?

Some troubling news for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)? Maybe. A poll conducted for the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows that the two-term senator may be vulnerable to a challenge -- presumably from former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) -- largely because of voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic health-care legislation and the flight of independents from the Democratic Party.

The survey, which was conducted by GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, showed that six in 10 Indiana voters oppose the health-care plan and 32 percent support it. And the opposition to the legislation is passionate -- 48 percent said they strongly opposed the measure passed by the Senate.

Independents, who voted heavily for Obama and helped him shock the political world by carrying the Hoosier State in 2008, have swung in the opposite direction in the Conway poll; 40 percent said they would vote for an unnamed Republican candidate for office and 19 percent chose an unnamed Democrat.

Like all polls commissioned by a political party, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. And not all the numbers in it are bad for Bayh. Fifty-two percent of Indiana voters feel favorably toward him and 32 percent feel unfavorably -- solid numbers for any incumbent in a year like this one.

Perhaps most important, elections are not conducted between two generic candidates. While Conway concludes that "a credible candidate willing to run against Washington" is the right profile to beat Bayh, it's not clear that Coats, who is a lobbyist, fits that bill.

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