David Plouffe, the campaign’s manager in both the primary and the general elections, whom Obama has largely credited for the win, has already written the detailed story of that campaign. “The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory,” published in 2009, revealed campaign anecdotes and tactics and provided behind-the-scenes color.
“A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump” is a very different book. The title pretty much says it all. This is a guidebook with step-by-step instructions for people who want to get involved in the Democratic campaign. To defeat Trump, Plouffe has devised a strategy hugely reliant on many thousands of volunteers. He exhorts anyone who wants to see the Democrats prevail to get off the couch and put in some sweat equity to make it happen, and he explains that Obama considered his volunteers and grass-roots organization to be the heart of his campaign and the key to his victories.
The book, simply written in relatively few words, is a call to arms and a manual for campaign volunteers. Plouffe argues that these volunteers will be on the front lines persuading voters to cast their ballots for the Democratic nominee (looking ever more likely to be Joe Biden) because the fate of the nation is at stake. This is not really a detailed argument for why Trump should be defeated — that is a given to Plouffe and probably anyone who buys this book. Plouffe is preaching to the faithful here, and frequently sounding somewhat overwrought while doing it.
On the first page he addresses the readers who were horrified when a “racist, misogynist, accused sexual predator; business fraud; and obstructer of justice” was elected to the presidency. Throughout the book he uses words like “idiot” and “Orange Menace” to describe Trump and labels his media supporters the “Fox News/Sinclair/Breitbart media-entertainment vortex from hell.”
He’s not really wrong about any of that, but one can almost picture Plouffe on the verge of hyperventilating as he writes that his horror at Trump’s election had a greater impact on him than the elation he felt at Obama’s 2008 victory. “The year 2016 will scar us for as long as we breathe the same air that Trump befouls with his every word. . . . I’m fairly certain we won’t survive eight years of him or be happy with what we’ve become as a society if we do.”
To beat Trump, Plouffe warns, Democrats must not only draw on the lessons of the successful 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns but also learn from the mistakes of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, when she won the popular vote by 3 million ballots but lost the electoral college because “the election was decided by less than 70,000 votes in three states.” He warns people to ignore the polls and assume that the odds are 50-50 right up until Election Day.
Plouffe predicts that at least 65 million people will be committed to voting against Trump, but Democrats need to raise that number by 5 million to 10 million to ensure victory. It can be done by significantly increasing turnout, by “persuading the Obama voters who voted for Trump to come back to the light” and by “persuading younger voters in particular to stick with the Democratic nominee and not throw their critical votes to third-party candidates as symbolic gestures of rebellion and blanket denunciation.”
The 2020 election will be won in the purple battleground states, and Plouffe argues that this should be a long rather than short list for Democrats. In 2008 Obama targeted 14 battleground states and won all but Montana and Missouri. In 2012, when the election was closer, the list of swing states was reduced to nine, and Obama won all of them except North Carolina. Anyone who follows politics knows that Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be battlegrounds this year, but Plouffe argues that Democrats should also focus heavily on Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire — to protect states they won last time and snatch others from the GOP column.
Victory in these states will hinge on voter participation, lots of it, according to Plouffe, as well as the skillful use of social media. He asserts that every falsehood about the Democratic nominee must be addressed quickly and aggressively. The website Fight the Smears was created in 2008 to address lies, myths and political viruses spread on social media about Obama. It listed every attack and then provided truthful rebuttals, which Plouffe declares “gave our millions of volunteers and supporters confidence to jump into the digital muck with their hazmat gear and suffocate the slimy lies bubbling up from the ooze.”
Plouffe also urges people, especially younger voters, to use their own Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok accounts on behalf of Democrats, to create original content, launch voter registration drives, and remind people about early-voting and absentee-ballot deadlines. He describes this as a decentralized, 50-state, rapid-response persuasion and content-creation army. And he urges celebrities — “Angelina, Brad, LeBron, George, Jennifer, and all you other A-listers who may be perusing this volume” — to use their social media accounts for advocacy.
Plouffe offers coaching for how to talk to undecided voters, how to create simple video content using a smartphone, and how to knock on doors in battleground states and what to say.
The difficulty of writing a book on contemporary politics is that it can be superseded by events. This book was written in the late summer of 2019, almost six months before the coronavirus pandemic became a reality. At this moment it is almost impossible to predict what will happen over the next six months and whether the conventions, campaign and election will be significantly altered by the outbreak. Some of Plouffe’s face-to-face campaign strategies will be made more difficult, or even impossible, if that happens. But his game plan could provide essential guidance for an army of Democratic social media warriors who can still post online and work the phones from home.
A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump
By David Plouffe
228 pp. $25