2008 campaign books: part one

This is the first part of review of the '08 election via the reading of David Plouffe's book and then Sarah Palin's book (and maybe some others if I have the time).

I'll begin with Plouffe's book, from the beginning up till about December 2007.

There's three main points that I want to talk about from the book up to this point. And together they show the genius, and the political ineptitude, that delivered a win to Obama, and a loss to Clinton and Edwards.

First, the value of having had top strategists that worked the 2004 cycle & its relevance for the caucus strategy. This isn't always the case, in fact its far from being a good precedent to follow, but it was critical for '08. Plouffe writes:

The fact that all of the initial inner circle-- Gibbs, Ax, and me-- had done presidential politics in 2004 (for three different candidates) was incredibly important for how we viewed the conventional wisdom about 2008-- -- and was another huge advantage over the Clinton campaign. Few of her inner circle had been involved in the 2004 Democratic primaries...
Plouffe doesn't go into it, but he worked for Gephardt in 2004, focusing on Iowa. Gibbs had worked with Kerry for a part of the campaign as his comm. director, before directing ads to takedown Dean. Axlerod did the media and message for Edwards. They all three got to see how the Dean campaign managed to use tech to go from longshot to frontrunner. No doubt, it wasn't a fun experience for them, but they saw firsthand how Dean's campaign melded the grassroots with the campaign via the internet.

Axlerod, in particular, pivoted Edwards message in late 2003 to what was later adopted by Obama. I remember being there at an Edwards event in Jan '04, and reading their lit saying "change for America" and thinking 'they ripped off our message' from the Dean campaign. It was a deft and nearly successful move by Axlerod for Edwards in Iowa. People forget how crazy that Dean drove the Democratic consultant establishment in 2003, but I'm sure these guys remember that hellish experience from their vantage point. Wolfson, Solis Doyle, and Penn had no such experience in 2003-4. They watched as outsiders. Now, Clinton did hire expertise from '04, like Karen Hicks & Jay Carson from Dean's campaign, and Peter Dauo from Kerry's GE campaign, but their voices were not in the inner circle-- I don't even think that Harold Ickes had much of a voice in the strategy that was used by Clinton early on and in particular with the caucus states.

All four of us [Ploufee, Axlerod, Gibbs & Obama] were in the right spots to see a new potential out there to match the changing mood of the electorate and the new technological advances that could help us build a campaign to tap into the winds of change. Many of these lessons ran counter to CW about how to run for president... and... not try to rerun the campaigns of the past.
The number one change that ran counter was to be the importance of delegates.

Penn thought along the old lines of believing that the big states would decide who would win. Plouffe understood that this was going to be about the numbers if the first four states were not swept. The primary in fact became only about the delegate numbers (I wouldn't be surprised if the Republicans have their own sort of intra-party battle around the same issue in '12).

With the completion of the NV caucus, it was plain to see that Obama's campaign understand the new playing field: Clinton won the most votes but Obama won the most delegates. Fair or not, those are the rules, and it was political incompetence to run a strategy counter to a delegate-based one.

Second, the behind-the scenes coordination of getting Clinton to take Michigan & Florida off the table. The MI strategy in particular was amazing, and I'm glad that Plouffe laid it out. I posted a lot about this back in 2007 and early 2008. There were plenty of Obama runners that denied it here, but I knew it was the case because I'd talked with the Edwards people that executed the Obama-led strategy. It was dumbfounding to me at the time, that Clinton's team let Michigan be taken off the table. To this day, I don't know what they were thinking. In fact, oh nevermind, its just mind-boggling... and then there's Florida:

Had the rules committee decided to not sanction these states 100 percent, we thought we could come close in Michigan or even win narrowly. But Florida was a bridge to far, and losing it would have sapped whatever momentum we had built up in the early states. We assumed the Clinton campaign would share that view and would do whatever it took to have Florida, not South Carolina, serve as the gateway to the Fed 5 contests
That's such a "duh" point, but it was lost on the Clinton inner circle. Part of why I thought Clinton would win, looking at this race in 2007, was because I assumed assumed a a competent Clinton strategy. I think Plouffe nails it though, as to why Clinton let Penn & Solis Doyle gave away MI & FL:
... it further underscored how unconcerned they were by our candidacy.


The Clintons have proven through the years to be politically savvy and relentlessly tough. If they fretted about these calendar issues as much as we did, there is no way they would hav allowed their supporters on the rules committee to go along with having the Florida primary eliminated from the equation.


Third, the emphasis on Iowa & beating Edwards there. "We thought Iowa could be potential quicksand for Hillary." Right they were. This was always the most important state for Obama. I never saw the path to victory for Obama in New Hampshire, but did in Iowa. The Mike Henry document that Clinton should have written off Iowa was, looking back on it, the right strategy to have taken for Clinton. The Obama folks knew they had to get an early win to get to SC, and if Clinton had dropped out of Iowa, I have no doubt that her Iowa caucus supporters that showed up would have wound up in Edwards camp.

When the haircut issue broke, I recall blogging that that Edwards had been hamstrung by the HHH curse. First the flamboyant Home, then working for a Hedge fund, and then the Haircut. Plouffe reveals that the Obama research team was behind the Haircut leak. Now, Edwards was who I backed in the primaries before he dropped out, but what a disaster it would have been with him in the GE given his lie (Elizabeth Edwards might call it the Harlot curse). I'm sure the Haircut did big damage to Edwards in Iowa, perhaps arguably just enough that he got second instead of first too.

The winning coalition that Obama put together in Iowa was amazing in its uniqueness of new voters. With overriding demographic characteristics of being 17-29, but the biggest swath of 30-44 too; super majorities of anyone other than white voters; singles; Republicans & Independents; union families; $100,000 or more earners; Urban/Rural voters. Its as if they combed the entire state, and picked up individuals here and there who had only one real thing in common-- they wanted Obama. To go from a 125K turnout to a 239K turnout from '04 to '08. I don't think that will be topped for a long long time. I wound up getting a front-row spot for that remarkable victory speech by Obama in Iowa. The Obama win in Iowa deserves a post of its own, so that will come in the next part.

Tags: 2008 campaign, David Plouffe (all tags)

Comments

21 Comments

taking MI and FL off the table

I think the Clinton people were looking at the state-level polls in the fall of 2007, which showed Hillary ahead of Obama by 20 points or more almost everywhere. I think they felt they could afford to take MI and FL off the table, because they would stomp all over the competition on February 5.

From talking with people involved with all the campaigns in Iowa, I know they were all focused on winning delegates at the precinct level, but the Obama campaign had better focus on the key precincts. I believe that about one-third of the Iowa precincts contribute about two-thirds of the delegates on the Democratic side.

by desmoinesdem 2009-11-30 05:38AM | 0 recs
Re: taking MI and FL off the table

Your diaries regarding Iowa were very revealing.  I remember the anecdotes about how the Clinton campaign was buying little snow shovels for all the precinct captains just in case of bad weather.  You had the sense of a campaign that wasn't very cost-conscious and seemed almost proud of that fact, and also a campaign that had no expectation of a 50-state long haul.  Of course the long haul that we actually did have was pretty much unprecedented so that's understandable.

I remember thinking that the Obama campaign had done a really good job of organizing Iowa all the way down to the local level but that there was no way they'd be able to replicate that strategy in later states where you don't have 6 months of lead time to knock on every single door.  In reality we know they ended up doing just fine.  Ever since the Democrats went to the primary system, there seems to be this longstanding tradition of surprise winners who simply understand the rules and the delegate math better than everyone else.

by Steve M 2009-11-30 09:02AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

So much of our system has become PR marketing about personality rather than policy questions that impact our lives. In this context, it is not surprise we are seeing what we are seeing from President Obama. It was always about the PR imagery rather than anything more transformative. Discussed here:

http://www.openleft.com/diary/16231/naom i-klein-nails-brand-obama

I simply think we are going to move from one image based presidency to the next to the next.

by bruh3 2009-11-30 05:39AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

That's an interesting read (Klein's work is excellent).  But... how does it fit here, in this discussion of '08 campaign strategy?  Can you do more to connect the dots (or are you just ranting)?

by dvk 2009-11-30 06:17AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

The connection is that branding was the key strategy last year. It defined the campaigns more than any other tactical or strategic consideration did.

A practical example- Obama positions himself as the anti-Clinton candidate although in substance there was little difference between he and Clinton was extremely significant. Another example was the quasi-religious tones and civil rights tone of the language that President Obama used to tap into liberal pscyhology.

More so than any ground game in individual states was the emotional appeal coming from the PR aspects of the campaign.  To me, these discussions of this or that state are the tree level view of what was happening. The truth zeitgeist can be found in the branding.

by bruh3 2009-11-30 06:33AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

By the way, the lesson that I am trying to make here for progressives is that to win they must learn how to aggressively use PR and branding since that's what was really happening last year.

by bruh3 2009-11-30 06:37AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Very good point. The book doesn't go into that, but yea, its def a big factor, and one of the top reasons why they pulled in new voters.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-11-30 08:10AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

I forgot to add an example "Medicare for all because we care about  Americans."

by bruh3 2009-11-30 06:38AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Bruh needs somewhere to bash the pres. His day isn't complete otherwise...

by vecky 2009-11-30 10:02AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

I would characterize this as "damning with faint praise"  It's a significant step up!

by lojasmo 2009-11-30 01:46PM | 0 recs
I suspect you are right

about the turnout for the 2008 Iowa caucuses not being topped for some time. Even if only Clinton and Edwards supporters had shown up, turnout would have broken the previous record--then add the 90,000 or so Obama supporters to that. It's unbelievable.

by desmoinesdem 2009-11-30 05:39AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Without a doubt the Clinton campaign had never taken a course in game theory.

I wasn't aware that Plouffe had worked for Gephardt. Interesting.

I'm with you on Michigan and Florida. Just mind boggling.

I stil think we need a rotating primary calendar. Keep Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina at the start of the cycle preferably on the same day and then divide the rest of the states into groups that rotate in sequence so that every state gets a chance to go early once every few cycles.

by Charles Lemos 2009-11-30 06:43AM | 0 recs
they were just overconfident

They did not think her huge lead in so many states could evaporate so quickly.

by desmoinesdem 2009-11-30 07:02AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

It's futile to talk about reordering the primary process given that there was just such a deal struck this cycle, and then New Hampshire got to break the rules and jump ahead in the negotiated sequence without any penalty whatsoever.

by Steve M 2009-11-30 08:56AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

I'd be satisfied with just getting rid of a bunch of super delegates.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-11-30 09:01AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Isn't there some talk of doing just that? Who makes that call, and when does it happen?

by vecky 2009-11-30 10:05AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Probably next year, via the DNC. Obama supports it.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-11-30 10:29AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

If Huckabee is the nominee in 2010 the Dems should do a Dukakis on this guy

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091130/ap_o n_re_us/us_officers_shot

Huckabee let this guy out without serving the full term and he murdered four police officers!

by Boilermaker 2009-11-30 06:49AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

he won't get the nomination. The conservative blogs today are crucifying him.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-11-30 08:11AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

There is always hope though...

by vecky 2009-11-30 09:59AM | 0 recs
Re: 2008 campaign books: part one

Man, I had completely forgotten about the MI and FL debacle - the cries of disenfranchisement, the protests, the signs... it feels like a decade ago.

by vecky 2009-11-30 10:00AM | 0 recs

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