Plouffe Piece

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MAY 7, 2008

Plouffe Piece

By October of 2007, we in the press had decided that, if Barack Obama was going to make a move, he had better do it soon. Unfortunately for Obama, so had some of his most influential donors. As they gathered at a Des Moines art gallery for a quarterly meeting, these moneymen were visibly anxious. Why wasn't Obama closing the gap in Iowa? Shouldn't he go negative on Hillary?

It fell to campaign manager David Plouffe to quell the panic. He ticked off the number of offices Obama had in Iowa and the dates they'd opened. He listed the precincts where Obama would do well among backers of non-viable candidates. The following day, Plouffe's team played a video of Senator Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, which the campaign had flooded with supporters. He even put the moneymen through a simulated caucus, in which they chose among breakfast foods rather than candidates.

It was a spectacular display of intimate Iowa knowledge. "At the end of that people felt, 'Okay, ... you're right, we are going to win Iowa,'" recalls Kirk Wagar, a member of Obama's national finance committee. And it was quintessential Plouffe. Beginning with Harkin's 1992 campaign for president, Plouffe has served multiple tours in Iowa and become the de facto president of a small fraternity of operatives who pride themselves on mastery of the state's demographics, geography, and procedural rules. If political strategy tends to attract nerds--think Karl Rove's obsession with the election of 1896--Iowa attracts the nerdiest of the bunch.

It's often assumed that the limits of such political nerd-dom roughly coincide with the borders of Iowa and New Hampshire--that presidential campaigns become momentum-driven, television-saturated affairs once they leave the early states. There's no doubt something to this--the Obama campaign has been running on a mix of soaring rhetoric and media buzz since January. But, under Plouffe, the tedious work of crunching numbers and scouring precinct maps has remained a central campaign obsession. Plouffe has run the entire Obama campaign as though it were the Iowa caucus writ large. And it's brought Obama to the brink of the nomination.

 

Plouffe has spent much of his career toiling for Dick Gephardt, more or less the stylistic antithesis of Obama. But his work for the former House Democratic leader, especially orchestrating Gephardt's effort to reclaim Congress in 2000, raised Plouffe's profile and propelled him to a partnership with a Chicago message guru named David Axelrod. Beginning in 2003, Axelrod and Plouffe lent their services to the long-shot senatorial bid of an ambitious Illinois state legislator.

Axelrod is widely credited for crafting Obama's image, and that was certainly the case in 2004. But the campaign that made Obama famous wouldn't have happened without Plouffe's mechanical wizardry. He devised a plan that would get Obama one-third of the vote in the seven-candidate Democratic field-- enough to give him a shot at winning the primary. Obama invested so much trust in his strategic judgment that "What does Plouffe think about this?" became a constant refrain of internal discussions, according to campaign manager Jim Cauley.

It's not surprising that Obama and Plouffe would feel comfortable with one another. The rail-thin, flinty-eyed Plouffe is militantly averse to publicity, a trait the senator values. A search of articles with eight or more mentions of "Plouffe" generated exactly one more hit for the Obama campaign manager (five) than University of Washington basketball standout Andrea Plouffe (four). When I petitioned for an interview, an aide said Plouffe "pointedly refuses." John Lapp, a former Gephardt colleague, told me he recently arranged for Plouffe to appear in Details magazine's list of the 50 most influential people under 45. Plouffe instructed an aide to get him out of it.

 

Plouffe is a fanatical baseball fan who played in an organized league into his thirties. Friends compare his pitching style to Greg Maddux, who battles late into games on the strength of his wits rather than a blazing fastball. That's been his campaign strategy, too: Where most underdog campaigns bet everything on a quick upset in Iowa or New Hampshire, Plouffe constructed a meticulous plan to turn the race into a long, drawn-out delegate slog.

As the primary calendar fell into place, it became clear that February 5 wouldn't much resemble the Super Tuesdays of old. Instead, it would be a de facto national primary that sprawled across two dozen states. The conventional wisdom was that mechanical strength would get you nowhere in such a contest, since you couldn't organize half the country. What would be decisive was local establishment support and name recognition, which Hillary Clinton had in droves.

Plouffe disagreed. Back in April 2007, he'd hired a former Gephardt strategist named Jeff Berman, probably the party's most respected authority on the dark art of delegate math. When Plouffe and Berman sized up the states in play on February 5, they realized they could at least secure a draw, sending the race into a two-week period that strongly favored Obama. The idea was to build a sturdy base by targeting key primaries and relentlessly organizing the caucus states. By fall, Plouffe and his field staff, led by a lieutenant named Jon Carson, were already setting up ground operations in places like Idaho, Kansas, and Colorado. Carson's teams had cased these states for months when the Clintonites finally arrived. In effect, Plouffe wanted to turn the entire campaign into Iowa.

One of Plouffe's most underappreciated accomplishments began, fittingly enough, with a spreadsheet. After New Hampshire, Plouffe realized that, if the campaign was going to become a battle of attrition, he needed to convince onlookers that the pledged-delegate total was sacrosanct. "His thought was that we need to cement that into the conventional wisdom," recalls an Obama aide. "That we couldn't rely on media outlets, because different folks have different standards." To this end, Plouffe had Berman set up a sophisticated counting operation that would compile votes and generate delegate allocations. The product of all this hairy math would be an intricately constructed, color-coded Excel file showing a state-by-state breakdown, along with projections going forward. One of the first such spreadsheets trickled into the press shortly after February 5, showing Obama with a pledged-delegate lead of 24 and projecting a tight race through June. It had all the look and feel of a leaked internal document, and its immaculate birth in a Bloomberg article only reinforced the impression. The pundits commenced buzzing over this rare glimpse inside the thoughts of the Obama campaign.

Over the course of the next two weeks, Obama piled up eleven straight victories and an ever-widening delegate-lead. (Plouffe had shrewdly conserved money for a mid-February blitzkrieg, while the Clinton campaign blew its cash coming up short on Super Tuesday.) The Obama campaign was dropping spreadsheets like a nightclub drops fliers, and--whether or not the early Bloomberg leak was intentional--they were now a sophisticated form of spin. Before long, the press had essentially accepted pledged delegates as their yardstick. On the day when Obama had achieved what the campaign deemed an insurmountable lead, Plouffe let it be known he thought the race had reached a turning point, according to one colleague.

Plouffe's penchant for understatement makes colleagues' ears perk up any time he ventures such an opinion. Pretty much the only time anyone in Obamaland can recall Plouffe betraying real emotion was on a late-night conference call after the crushing loss in New Hampshire. Plouffe methodically laid out the plan for the upcoming states. Then, at a fraction of a decibel louder than his usual gravelly whisper, proclaimed, "Now let's go win this fucking thing." It would have been unremarkable coming from any other operative. For Plouffe, it was tantamount to a dramatic reciting of Mel Gibson's battlefield monologue in Braveheart. Onward, nerd soldiers.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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