Inside Obama's election win: David Plouffe, campaign manager, tells how he did it

David Plouffe
David Plouffe (David Plouffe)
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David Plouffe
Former Obama campaign manager
Thursday, November 5, 2009; 1:00 PM

David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama for the 2008 presidential election, was online Thursday, Nov. 5, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his book, The Audacity To Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, explaining how his team, through social networking and a grassroots movement strategy, was able to beat Republican challenger John McCain.

____________________ David Plouffe will begin the discussion at 1:05. Thank you.


David Plouffe: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me to discuss my book The Audacity To Win, the 2008 Preisdential election and anything else on your mind (except the Yankees WS win)


Richmond, Va.: Is public financing of U.S. presidential campaigns pretty much dead now?

David Plouffe: I suspect there will be efforts at modifying the public financing system in Congress, that will need to look at how to incentivize candidates to raise money at lower contribution levels, raising some of the limits and bringing the system in line with the 21st century.


Lansing, Mich.: What kind of hours did you log on the campaign trail? What did the average day look like?

David Plouffe: There are no shortcuts in campaigns, especially Presidential campaign. you have to give yourselves over to them and be completely consumed. The hours were long for two years and you are really never off the clock except between 1-5 am - unless there was a 3 am moment that needed to be attended to.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Plouffe,

Thank you for all of your efforts during the campagin. It was exhausting to us on the outside, so I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for you.....

Anyway, I am wondering if there was a moment in which you really knew, deep down, that this was a winning campaign, and that Obama would be in the White House. I ask because I always believed he 'could' win, but there were days I was not sure he 'would'....these were mostly during the primary.

David Plouffe: The first moment I thought, as I write in the book, I thought all things being equal we would win is early in the morning of Feb. 6, after we won more states and delegates than Clinton, on a day we had feared could cause us real troubles. then we won 11 in a row.


Manchester, N.H.: Why do you think President Obama lost the New Hampshire primary? Was it his ground game or Hillary's long history with Granite Staters?

David Plouffe: For a longer explanation - and there are many - refer to my book. Some atmospheric, some mistakes on our part, some having to do with Clinton's last minute moment of emotion.

It may be the biggest surprise to me of the whole campaign - we were able to win despite that devastating setback in NH.


San Francisco, Calif.: You ran an incredible campaign, energizing voters like never before. Why didn't these voters go to the polls in Virginia and New Jersey? What's happened to the fantastic list of Obama volunteers and all that amazing energy? I fear that people feel a little deflated.

David Plouffe: first, turnout in off year and even Congressional election is always down. I think it points to how hard it is to do what we did in 2008 - getting younger, lapsed and first time voters out. It starts with the candidate - they have to provide motivation to vote and build a campaign, on the ground, to support those efforts. and I think we need to give these voters a reason to turn out next year - leading on health care, economy and energy, real accomplishments would be a great start.


Middleton, Wisc. : Mr. Plouffe:

I look forward to reading your book. I am one of many people whom you encouraged to do something we had never done before: get involved in a political campaign, and knock on doors and make phone calls. The president inspired me to get involved in the first place, but your organization here in the Madison area (spec. Middleton) was first-rate. Thanks for that -- my whole family was involved, and it was fun to show our young kids what political involvement can look like.

David Plouffe: Thank you for your help. My book - and our victory - is really a tribute to people just like you and your family.

Thanks for helping us win WI.


Midwestern voter: At what point (if any) during the campaign, did you feel genuine certainty that you would prevail on Election Day?

David Plouffe: We learned in the primary not to get too far ahead of ourselves. So we did not get giddy. But when we started seeing how early vote was unfolding in states like NC, FL, CO, NV we thought we should be headed to a good night. we don't have election day anymore in Presidential campaigns. we have election month due to early vote and you can see for real how you are doing - not based on what polls and pundits have to say.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Why do you believe the Obama Internet Web site and appeal did so much better than the Clinton Internet campaign, or the Internet campaigns of any of the other candidates?

David Plouffe: I think we had technology at the heart of our campaign, twinned with the grassroots. we built a web site that became a "home" for millions of Americans. and due to great staff work and suggestions from our volunteers who were using the site and MyBO, our social networking site, it improved in functionality, speed and content over the two years.

we set out to have a site that would rival people's other digital experiences every day -, espn. com etc


Laurel, Md.: Since the 2000 and 2004 state results were virtually identical (three states, none large, switched sides) was your original general election strategy "Kerry's states and three more=270," or were you envisioning a broad re-drawing of the electoral map?

David Plouffe: This is a big part of my book. Because all of our decision flowed thru the strategy of the best way to get to 270. we wanted to hole the Kerry states (252), win the two Bush states most likely to flip, Iowa and New Mexico (gets you to 264), then target a huge number of other Bush states so we could theoretically lose most of the remaining targets but still win simply by winning a Colorado or Virginia.


New York, N.Y.: I know it is early, but who do you see as possible leading presidential candidates in 2016?

David Plouffe: four years ago, no one thought someone named Barack Obama was even a remote possibility. so I hesitate to predict. But I will enjoy all of them running the Palin/Beck/Limbaugh obstacle course to get nominated.


Philadelphia, Pa.: If you could remember back to the days when the Obama campaign was only a phone number with an Iowa area code, what did you feel your chances were in winning the 2008 elections? I know political scientists could see the rise of the millennial voters and the greater use of the Internet, as seen in the Dean campaign, yet even they were seeing this as something in the future, perhaps 2012. I wonder what the sense was in the very first stages of the campaigns as to how much you thought you could win in 2008?

David Plouffe: A very important part of my book - explaining how clearly we understood what big underdogs we were. Our path to victory was exceedingly narrow and one most political observers did not believe in. But we were disciplined about sticking to a win Iowa or else strategy, out organzie our opponents in the later states and focus on a delegate acquisition strategy that made Idaho as important as California.

so we thought we had a chance - a very slim one.


Helena, Mont.: The conventional wisdom of the day is that the Democrats are in trouble with the electorate (losses in Va. and N.J.) and they will lose BIG in 2010 (maybe turn the House over to Republicans and lose several seats in the Senate). This is because the Democrats have not stopped the gridlock in Washington and voters are upset about it or about the deficit or about the lack of jobs or something else. How do you view the midterms in 2010?

David Plouffe: They are many lifetimes away. so everyone should settle down in my view, stop gasbagging and predicting and see where things stand in about ten months. But if we deliver for the American people on health care, energy and financial reform, and continue to do the tough things to rebuild the economy we will have a case to make vs the Washington OGOP who offers nothing or warmed over Bush policies.


Burke, Va.: What advice would you give to someone who is contemplating a career in campaign politics?

David Plouffe: Volunteer on a campaign, or work as staff on one, and see if you like it. If you do, keep working on them, which may require you to move around the country, and you will quickly gain more experience and responsibility. Elections matter in this country - if you have a point of view about the direction of your two, state or country, try and help elect people who share that view.

so get involved and hopefully, you'll stay involved


Philadelphia, Pa.: Let's say it is August 2008 and the chess borad has been turned. You suddenly find yourself managing John McCain's election. How do you advise John McCain so he can win the election?

David Plouffe: Well, I guess I would have started by advising against picking Sarah Palin and running the type of negative ads voters thought McCain was above.

But they had a tough hand in some respects, and we certainly made some mistakes.


Richmond, Va.: What should the future role of superdelegates be? The number of them in the Democratic Party nominating process seemed to be the primary reason the whole contest stretched out as long as it did.

I remember a quote from the documentary on Tuesday: "Our nightmare scenario is this thing goes to Pennsylvania".

David Plouffe: I would hope we never again in our party have the election in many ways come down to party leaders and insiders. the voters need to have all or most of the say. The DNC will have some ideas on reform of the process by the end of the year.


Washington, D.C.: Is President Obama a policy wonk or a politician?

David Plouffe: He is passionate about policy and substance. He is not someone to spend much time worried about polls or pundits - even during the election itself.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Barack Obama insists he was telling the truth back around 2005 when he was insisting he was not going to run for President in 2008. Do you believe this assessment, and if so, what do you think caused Barack Obama to change his mind?

David Plouffe: Definitely. No plans - I can attest to that since we had to scramble and build a campaign when he decided at end of 2006 to do so. I think he thought we were at such an important crossroads, needed such big change, and that if particularly on health care and energy we were going to make the progress we needed after decades of inaction, things really needed to be shaken up. and he saw in the fall of 2006 the stirrings of what would become the powerful winds of 2008.


Alaska: Why did the campaign ignore the multiple gaffes and obvious weaknesses of Palin? Or did I just answer my own question, whereby you let the media do it for you, each and every interview she done, she went further in the hole.

David Plouffe: Sometimes, it's best to stay out of someone's way.


Camp Springs, Md.: As a middle aged African American, prior to the Iowa caucus in 2008, I thought that a black man could not become president in my lifetime. However, my much younger nieces and nephews thought Obama had a good chance of becoming president. Did any of Obama's closest advisors --- both black and white--- have reservations that a black man could become president in the U.S.?

David Plouffe: No, we believed that voters would make decisions not based on race - or even length of DC experience, but on vision, judgment and leadership qualities.I hope one legacy of our election is that we stop saying an African-American, a Latino or a woman cannot win certain races. voters deserve more credit than that.


Claverack, N.Y.: Considering how delegate-centric your strategy was, did it surprise you how badly the Clinton campaign seemed to misunderstand the process? I think Carville said he heard one of the higher-ups thought California was a winner- take-all state.

Will all future presidential campaigns hire a sabermetrician?

David Plouffe: I'm not sure exactly how that happened. I think they must have thought they would score a convincing enough win on Feb 5, a politcal victory of such wallop, that the delegate situation would be moot.


Southern Maryland: Suppose the GOP splits in 2012 with the religious right and Tea Party faction backing one candidate and the rest of the party backing another. As a Democratic campaigner, would you see that scenario be a dream or a nightmare? A challenge or an opportunity?

David Plouffe: It will be fascinating to watch their race play out. right now, the Palin/Beck/Limbaugh wing of the party seems to have the energy - and will force their candidates to run that gauntlet on the right.


Washington, D.C.: How many miles did you accumulate in two years of campaigning?

David Plouffe: Much less than our candidate and the traveling road show, Reggie, Marvin and Robert. They spent two years on planes and in hotel rooms. In the beginning, not all of them very nice.


Career path: How did you end up as the manager of a major political campaign? What path would you recommend to someone who thinks they would like (!) to do this someday?

David Plouffe: I started knocking on doors and doing organizing work. That's how I think most people should start.

If you stick with it, do a good job, before you know it you can be managing races, or other senior roles.

The more aspects of a campaign you understand and have experience in, the better manager you can be.


Cache Valley, Utah: Given the long (very long) list of issues left behind by Bush and company, why on earth would anyone actually want to be elected president (or actively help one get elected)?

David Plouffe: Ha. It is daunting. But the President has the metabolism and leadership skills to resolutely, but calmly, work thru this mountain of both short term challenges and long term opportunities are country is confronted with.


Claverack, N.Y.: Was there any veep pick for McCain that you -- let's not say feared -- dreaded?

David Plouffe: No, we thought historically VP choices had little impact on the race. This was of course, an exception, because of Palin.


Florissant Valley, Mo.: Good noon-day Mr. Plouffe. An honor to be within shouting distance of you! Unless Barack, like James K. Polk, is determined to be a one-term president with a specific agenda (health care and energy, which would be a splendid and truly historic achievemnt) do you plan to sign on for his reelection? How might your and his approach to that campaign differ from '08, if you can foresee that this early? Thanks and good luck.

David Plouffe: 2012 is a long way off and we are not concerned with it. But all I know is that when the time comes. I'm sure there will eb dome similarities and differences with 2008.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for chatting.

David -- You helped create a mass movement, energized, activated, and ready to move mountains. However, due to Obama's leadership style (making no assessment of its validity), he was not able to ultilize these resources immediately because he preferred to provide space for Congress to legislate.

My question: Has the opportunity now been lost? With millenials, you only get one chance. They will quickly move to the next thing once something seems out of date or no longer popular (MySpace, Facebook) (BlackBerry, iPhone). Do you believe that you will be able to reactivate this base of support if necessary and without proving that all of their time and effort was not returned in kind through transformative legislation?

David Plouffe: Two million people have taken an important action to help on health care - knocked on doors, made calls, visited Congress etc. Engagement is happening, more quietly and effectively I would argue than what the tea bag crowd is up to.

I think if we can deliver on health, it will be a huge motivator for those first time voters who were cynical taht anything could change in DC.


Juneau, Alaska: Hi David -- If you could wave a magic wand an fix one thing in our elections systems, what would you do?

How about if you could wave your wand twice?

David Plouffe: Eliminate barriers making it harder for people to register and vote and find a way to decrease the amount of time candidates and elected officials have to spend raising money.


Seattle, Wash.: I was surprised that you did not end up with a position in the White House -- did you consider it?

David Plouffe: I mention in the book that I needed to take a couple years to rebalance and spend time with my family, knowing that perhaps in the future my life will need to get unbalanced again.


Campaign cohesion: Could you ever be a "hired gun" political campaign manager, or do you feel that it is a requirement to be philosophically in synch with the candidate whom you are advising?

David Plouffe: Ideally, you work for someone who inspires you and shares many of your views on key issues and most importantly, know why they are running, and it's not about ambition, but about using the office they seek to improve people's lives.


Boston, Mass.: Don't know if you'd entertain this question but could McCain have won if he had run a better campaign? Whether or not you believe that, what three McCain decisions were the most detrimental to his chances? I vote for (1) his positive comments on the economy making him appear out of touch on that key issue, (2) his over-reaction to suspend his campaign to work on the stimulus which made him look impetuous (unstable may be too unkind) and (3) his choice of Palin which made him look too willing to sacrifice the responsibilities of the office just to get elected (and undermined his "experience" pushback on Obama. Net net, could he have won by changing campaign decisions within his control?

David Plouffe: Those were meaningful moments, no doubt, and all are given significant analysis in my book.


David Plouffe: Thanks everybody. Terrific questions.


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