As we barrel into the first debate, the presidential race is clearly tightening in the polls to something resembling a dead heat. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll puts Hillary Clinton up by only two points among likely voters nationwide. Meanwhile, new state surveys are showing very tight races in Pennsylvania and Colorado. The major forecasts also show a real tightening, and it’s obvious Trump really can win.
But David Plouffe, a key architect of Barack Obama’s two winning presidential campaigns, doesn’t seem fazed in the least. In an interview with me, he argued that we shouldn’t take the polling too seriously at this point, and said he believes that the race just isn’t actually a dead heat. He declared her advantage in the electoral college to be “decisive.”
However, Plouffe also said a great deal is riding on Clinton’s performance in tonight’s debate. While many have suggested that Clinton needs to bait Trump into being his usual unhinged self, Plouffe argued that the more important question is whether Clinton will seize this opportunity to create excitement and passion around her own candidacy, via unfiltered communication with voters. This, he said, could impact the composition of the electorate in ways that allow her to eke out close wins in heavily contested battleground states.
A transcript of our conversation — edited for length and clarity — is below.
THE PLUM LINE: You have said that public polls are garbage — Jim Messina said the same in a recent Political Wire podcast — and that everything is about the composition of the electorate at this point. Can you expand on that?
DAVID PLOUFFE: Some polls closely capture where the race stands. But they’re very incomplete. The Clinton campaign is doing large samples for modeling surveys of everybody on the voter file. So you have a very good understanding of how you believe 100 percent of the electorate will be allocated on election day.
When you look at how 100 percent of the vote is likely to be allocated in Florida, I get very optimistic….I can get Donald Trump to within two or three in Pennsylvania, but I can’t get him to a win number. The same is true in Virginia and Colorado. I know everybody goes crazy about the latest Cheetos poll, but I feel very confident about both New Hampshire and Florida. So that puts her over 300 [in the electoral college]. Trump has to pull off a miracle in the electoral college.
PLUM LINE: Who do you think the undecided voters are?
PLOUFFE: My sense is that Trump has got more of his vote in the bank than Clinton does. There are still a decent number of Latinos who are undecided. She’ll win a vast majority of those. Almost every African American undecided voter will side with her. There’s a good chance that college educated voters — and this is where the debates are important — will break decisively in her favor.
The debates are a stage that should suit her more than the day-to-day campaigning. She has an opportunity to convince some of those undecided voters, but more important, to give people who might not be sure they’re going to vote — but who would support her — a little more passion. She’s got the opportunity to talk directly to people. Even millennial voters.
PLUM LINE: You mentioned college educated voters would break for her. But is the tightening race driven by increasing discomfort with her among college educated whites who are alienated by Trump but aren’t sure about Clinton?
PLOUFFE: After Romney’s “47 percent” comment, we opened up large leads that were not sustainable. What came back to him were Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who had drifted into the undecided column. After the conventions, she opened up an unnaturally large lead. And I think what’s drifted back to Trump….are voters he was likely to get anyway.
This race is being covered in a way that suggests it’s a dead heat. And it’s not. She’s got a small national poll lead. But more importantly, she’s got a decisive electoral college lead. The debates are a chance for voters to see her in a more unfiltered way.
PLUM LINE: Why do you say you can’t get him there numerically in Pennsylvania?
PLOUFFE: In Pennsylvania, she’s going to come out of the southeastern part of the state — Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs — with a margin of probably 500,000. Could be more. There just aren’t enough votes in the rest of the state to make that up. This simple fact is why most smart Republicans will tell you: they can get Pennsylvania close, but in the electoral college, close doesn’t mean anything.
PLUM LINE: Colorado?
PLOUFFE: It’s a state where the Hispanic vote is of great importance. She’s probably going to win it by more than we did. There are a lot of college educated suburban swing voters who have swung between the parties through the years. The Denver suburbs, I think she’ll win them probably by more than we won them in 2012. The Latino margins she’ll rack up — and her over-performance with swing suburban women and even men — that’s why Colorado and Virginia are so tough for him.
PLUM LINE: Florida?
PLOUFFE: I think she’ll do well in the suburban I-4 corridor. I think she’ll do better with Cuban voters than we did. She’ll do very well with the Puerto Rican and Colombian vote. She might even over-perform us a little bit in the panhandle. My understanding is the campaign feels very confident about their own numbers.
PLUM LINE: The debates have to do with two things: getting college educated whites to break for her, and making sure they’re converting registered voters — i.e., Latinos, African Americans, and young voters — into likely or certain voters. What has to happen at the debates?
PLOUFFE: People have to feel more passionate about her — not just scared of Trump. That will work with younger voters, African Americans, Latinos. And I think that works with swing voters too — they want to see why she’s doing this.
She has to create more excitement around her candidacy. And there has to be clear divide on the question of who is fit to be president. If you can come out of that with more people saying — “You know what? I really liked what I saw. I have a better sense of her and what motivates her. And she’s clearly head and shoulders above Trump in terms of both her ideas and her fitness for office” — then that will be a victory. Monday night is, to me, 75 percent of the rest of the campaign. It’s a remarkable opportunity.
PLUM LINE: What does she have to avoid at all costs? What’s the nightmare scenario?
PLOUFFE: When the other person is talking, your facial expressions and mannerisms — we can say it’s silly, but it matters. Trump will be lying with almost every word that comes out of his mouth. So it’ll be difficult not to express frustration with that. Look what happened in 2012. When Romney was talking, Barack Obama became very annoyed. It was the last place he wanted to be, and it came across.
PLUM LINE: Obama got overly frustrated with some of Romney’s rhetorical tricks. But this is Trump. She can’t get overly exasperated by him. That seems like a major challenge.
PLOUFFE: It will be a major challenge. But there’s also a challenge for Trump. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for detailed policy discussions. I agree his bar is low. But for him to be presidential, patient, polite, and seem interested — he has not gone through anything like this before. With all due respect to his primary opponents, they’re not Hillary Clinton.
Voters take the election of their president very seriously. And they take the debates very seriously. If he just tries to talk over the moderator and Hillary, and not engage when he’s pressed, that will hurt him. That shtick has gotten him to about 42 or 43 percent. But he needs a lot more than that to win. He’ll be graded by the figure skating judges on a lower bar. But the American people have a higher bar.