David Plouffe was Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, White House senior advisor and is now president of policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy captured the White House by brilliantly executing a bold, outsider’s strategy. Ever since his razor-thin victory, Democratic operatives — and more than a few Republican ones — have studied his tactics in detail, turning his campaign into a nearly sacred text.
As a former presidential campaign manager, I thought I knew everything about the Kennedy magic on the campaign trail. But to my great surprise, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie’s new book, “The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign,” brings much new insight to an important playbook that has echoed through the campaigns of presidential aspirants as disparate as Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
The authors take us step by step on the road to the Kennedy victory, leaving us with an appreciation for the maniacal attention to detail of both the candidate and his brother Robert, the best campaign manager in American political history.
The Kennedy presidential campaign kicked off unofficially years in advance, with a focus on defying traditional party politics, building a strong grass-roots organization and bringing new voters into the process. As Kennedy once told his speechwriter Ted Sorensen: “In every campaign I’ve ever been in, they’ve said I was starting too early — that I would peak too soon or get too much exposure or run out of gas or be too easy a target. I would never have won any race following that advice.” In the years leading up to 1960, the Kennedy operation retained the names of everyone who came into its orbit. Working outside established party channels, it set up local Kennedy “clubs” in all key states for the primaries and the general election. A half-century later, this model was reflected in Obama’s creation of a community organization from the bottom up.
Through his grass-roots operation, Kennedy was able to collect delegates without bowing to the party’s power structure. As Oliphant and Wilkie put it, Kennedy “harvested delegates . . . by making person-to-person connections rather than pandering to party bosses.” He projected an image of an anti-establishment candidate. In one of his campaign ads, for instance, a narrator asked: “Are you going to let yourself be used by the party bosses, who in their smoke-filled rooms in Los Angeles [site of the 1960 convention] expect to hand-pick the next president of the United States?”
Kennedy’s approach to speaking out against the party establishment served as a kind of precursor to the outsider campaigns of Obama and Trump. Both candidates had to battle the efforts of entrenched party stalwarts to bolster the prospects of insider rivals. At key moments, the Obama and Trump teams warned party bosses that any shenanigans that subverted the will of the people as expressed in the results of primaries and caucuses posed catastrophic, long-term consequences.
Kennedy’s chief presidential rival, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, was happy to play the insider’s role during the campaign, ceding the insurgency to Kennedy. In Oliphant and Wilkie’s telling, Larry O’Brien, a Kennedy political strategist, was amazed that the senator from Massachusetts was left unchallenged at the grass-roots level. “Kennedy was able to work unopposed toward the nomination for months, at least as far as grass-roots American politics was concerned,” O’Brien said. “The Washington columnists kept writing about what a political genius Lyndon Johnson was, and we kept locking up delegates.” O’Brien’s sentiments no doubt rang in the back of the minds of Obama operatives as we fought rivals supported by the Democratic Party machinery.
While uncertain of victory, the Kennedy team was sure of the strategy and principles it had laid out to guide its outsider quest. Any long-shot campaign must have a theory behind its case for victory and must make every decision through that prism. The campaign also must stick to its theory, no matter how improbable it seems and how much ridicule it encounters from the political establishment. That lesson was absorbed by both Obama and Trump. Obama’s gambit to base his primary strategy in large part on turnout among young voters and to contest states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia in the general election met with great skepticism and even ridicule. Likewise, Trump’s goal of breaking the great Midwestern blue wall was given next to no chance of succeeding. Whether or not his campaign firmly believed it could accomplish that objective, Trump operatives chased it relentlessly, knowing that it was his one, narrow path to victory.
Oliphant and Wilkie are strongest in shining a new and relevant light on the lead-up to the 1960 campaign and on the primary process. The general election, pitting Kennedy against Richard Nixon, has been covered much more intensively and in great detail over the years, so readers familiar with that epic battle will relive it in these pages rather than learn much new.
But the authors deliver some colorful moments that bring to life the enmity between Robert Kennedy and Johnson, even as Johnson was selected for the vice-presidential slot. In the testy negotiations over Johnson joining the ticket, the senator from Texas is quoted as describing Robert Kennedy as “a little sh-- ass.” Of course, Robert Kennedy had some fine language to express his feelings about Johnson, too, calling him “mean, bitter and vicious . . . an animal in many ways.”
By Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie
Simon & Schuster. 433 pp. $28