Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

So back to the '08 election books for the second part (the first part is here) of the primary season: Iowa.

In ATW, page 106. Its mid-October '07 and Clinton has peaked too early, though few could tell at the time, and it seemed she "could do no wrong" but Plouffe points at two mis-steps that leveled the field in Iowa. Clinton's flip-flopping about whether illegal immigrants should have driver licenses which put her into the penalty box among the national press, and what he calls "Plantgate" which was about Clinton staffers putting questions into the Iowan crowds, which hurt her authenticity. This second one really got to the heart of the oppositional push by Obama's campaign. It was a very patient operation; one that waited for openings and then maximized them when they occurred. Edwards paying $300 for a haircut in Iowa & Clinton's staffers putting up softball questions both served to undermine the character of the opposition, with the particular angle that Obama was emphasizing in himself: authentic hope for change.

A whole book could be written on the Democratic caucus in Iowa in 2008. I've got some great books on Iowa that cover the '70's and '80's caucus events. And the '92 & '96 caucuses were non-events. Starting with Gore vs Bradley in '00, then the '04 race between Gephardt, Edwards, Kerry & Dean; and then the '08 contest, which I believe is one of the greatest nominating events of all-time, there's a historical book calling out to be written. The section on Iowa is the most revealing part of Plouffe's book (the second being the VP selection process), but it deserves even more than what Plouffe has laid out.

Back to our timeline. When the opening emerged in November, Obama, at the JJ dinner, found a message to differentiate himself from Clinton, Plouffe tells us Obama said:

This is not about issue differences, other than Iraq," he summarized. "Its about leadership qualities and vision. that's what we have to punch through at the J-J."
I think that pretty well sums up what Obama's appeal was to his unique coalition. Its very transformative-based, instead of issue-based. When I had been reading polling done in '05 and '06 in Iowa, I picked up on the same consistent thread of post-partisanship appeal (though it is, given the current nature of Republicans in DC, a pony ride express).

This distinction between the two candidates is driven home by Plouffe:

When at last Hillary took the stage... the main thrust of her speech was that she was tough enough to take on the republicans. She asked the crowd, "And when the republicans engage in fearmongering, and saber rattling, and talk about WW III, what do we do with them? And her supporters... shouted out... "Turn up the heat!" Plouffe, in Chicago watching it on TV with his wife, remarks:"That just seems awful," I said to her as Hillary riled up the crowd. "Even for a Democratic Party dinner it's awfully political and partisan."In contrast, Obama hit a "Fucking home run" in the words of Axlerod.

So it was with the distinct coalition of Iowan voters, new voters and not that partisan, that coalesced around Obama. When they brought Oprah into Iowa in Dec, it broadened their tent-- 30,000 people attended. That's amazing.

By December '07, when Clinton talks about her experience and ability "to take on the Republican machine" Plouffe says the campaign was "all over this as a prime example of that was wrong with Washington and the current state of politics."

This seemed at the time, nothing but a fairy tail, and readding what I wrote in mid-Feb, it drove home the only distinction I could find meaningful for the primary:


I happened to have noticed that the Clinton and Obama voting record are nearly identical... In that light, that they are the same as far as policy goes, or more or less, I happen to have made up my mind based on which of them is more likely to kick the Republicans in the balls, rather than give them a helping hand back to the table.It might be what's wrong, but its also the reality.

Obama's effective appeal to a slew of new caucus-goers for Iowa was that we'd hold hands in DC. Part if this is, to be sure, is how he could win through positioning. By the end, Plouffe says he had 60K 1's and 30K 2's heading into the caucus. The final DR poll was very accurate on the spread, showing Obama 32, Clinton 25, Edwards 24.

In a revealing passage, Plouffe goes into the John Kerry endorsement, which he tipped them off about a few days prior to the Iowa caucus. It was definitely a good call to hold off on it, because Kerry didn't reflect their message in Iowa as a closing argument. Not many candidates would recognize that as the right call.

By January 2008, in a cool scene, Plouffe describes the coalition of voters in the caucus outside Des Moines in a suburban high school in Ankeny at 6:15 pm, just before they closed the doors to caucus while Obama pounded for a few more votes:

Right there, in front of our eyes on caucus night, we were seeing the coalition of voeters we had set out to build: high school kids; republicans who said they were switching their registration to caucus for Barack; Iowa residents atteing MI and WI colleges who had stayed home a few extra days to caucus; an older couple who said they had not participated since '68; when they volunteered for Bobby Kennedy. And my favorite, a man dressed like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rights, holding a staff with an iPod attached at the top and a little speaker playing Obama's speeches on repeat.I have an image of the Obama campaign as I was driving through Iowa diring the waning days of the primary. Signs saying "Hope" in blue, on a white background, posted in snowy corners of the towns throughout Iowa. Even down to the meshing the campaign slogan-speak with the holiday spirit, the Obama Iowa campaign nailed it.

Tags: campaign 2008, David Plouffe (all tags)

Comments

24 Comments

Iraq was the focus

of many direct-mail pieces from the Obama campaign. Not all of them, but quite a few. I remember one contained the full text of his October 2002 speech against the war.

"Turn up the heat" was definitely a poor choice for Clinton's crowd line at the JJ dinner.

I still think that the critical errors of the Clinton and Edwards campaigns came long before then when they vastly underestimated the size of the potential caucus-goer universe. Obama could have messed things up if he had stumbled badly at the JJ dinner, but I think by then he was already on track to win.

by desmoinesdem 2009-12-13 08:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Iraq was the focus

Thanks for back linking to that amazing 7,000 word coverage of the primary.

Re-reading it was great.

OK, my only solution to "how could" would have been if Clinton pulled a murder-suicide with Obama in the closing weeks, granting the victory to Edwards. Given they thought they would win in IA, I don't think there was even much a thought within her camp of doing it, but that's the more feasible path than any other of a scenario in which Obama doesn't win Iowa.

One other point: Obama's appeal to progressives is what won him the nomination in caucus state after caucus state. They didn't recreate Iowa in too many other states. And I agree with you about that being a big piece in Iowa as well, with their anti-war focus aimed at left-wing progressives.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-12-13 09:47AM | 0 recs
what I heard from Clinton people

who admittedly weren't on the highest levels of her campaign, was that they were willing to concede Iowa to Edwards, but I don't think there was ever any thought of throwing it to Edwards. They were pretty mad about the way he went after her in the Philadelphia debate and following weeks.

Was that piece 7,000 words? I am too verbose. I remember I didn't finish it in time to post on the anniversary of the caucus, which was my intention. By the time I got it written, it was almost inauguration day, and then a bunch of commenters at DKos got mad at me for my supposedly inappropriate timing. Then on a private e-mail loop of former Edwards supporters, a few people got mad at me for writing that Obama legitimately won the caucuses. (They were still convinced he stole it by busing more than 20,000 people in from Illinois.)

by desmoinesdem 2009-12-13 11:17AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

Brilliant strategy to bring new people into the process. "Unity" sounds great after the partisan hell that was the Bush years post-9/11 with Republicans inciting treasonous undertones and the like among the population. So I have no doubt that the whole kumbaya message from the Obama camapaign was a good strategy especially for the young and naive who are getting involved in the process for the first time. Selling a transformational message as you say and not issue based.

But governing-wise...it has been a completely different story. I wonder if those same star struck young people who were awed by Obama and his message will feel the same way come 2012 if the same governing style continues that allows the Republicans and recalcitrant Democrats have so much power when they should be fought instead. To claim that there has been "transformative" change thus far is pretty much a joke, and unless things change by the time re-election comes around, there's going to be a lot of jaded people when he comes around again selling a hollow message of "keeping the change going." For the rest of us who have seen disillusioned by pols time and again, but who DO care about what's going on and for whom the alternative GOP universe is frightening no matter what...that message will still ring hollow but holding our noses when pushing the lever is now habitual behavior--for the millions of young people who believed in the man in 2008, I'm not sure how many will hold their noses instead of staying home.

by need some wood 2009-12-13 09:23AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

Was Obama promising "transformative" change?  I certainly didn't perceive that.  

by lojasmo 2009-12-13 09:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

Of course, as many here would attest, I am "naive" as I've only been voting for 23 years, and aware of politics for roughly thirty-two years.

by lojasmo 2009-12-13 09:32AM | 0 recs
transformative change

I doubt you were really watching the same movie the rest of us were. Lawrence Lessing:

"Just about a year before he would be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama set the bar for his presidency during a discussion in Nevada. Invoking Ronald Reagan and JFK before him, Obama distinguished between presidencies that had "put [America] on a fundamentally different path" (Reagan, JFK) and presidencies that had not (Nixon, Clinton). "I think we're in one of those times right now," he told a still-disbelieving editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. And he, Obama almost promised, would be one of America's transformational presidents."

Obama's words:

"The American people . . . understand the real gamble is having the same old folks doing the same old things over and over and over again and somehow expecting a different result."

"Abraham Lincoln is probably the President who I find most compelling because not only did he deal with probably the biggest crisis in American history, the Civil War, but he also did so in a way that was full of understanding of humanity. And his willingness to, I think, understand other people, from slaves to slave owners, and try to hold people together even when we were in the midst of war I think is extraordinary.""Internationally - Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi. I always am interested in leaders who are able to bring about transformative change without resort to violence, but rather changing people's minds and people's hearts." 

But as a President, it quickly shifted:

"The transformative part of his presidency is the president himself," said Douglas W. Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and supported Obama. "The most important voice for change is his. And change is accomplished in our system not by erasing all of the lines on paper but by having people who understand government's structure and so can reinforce lines that have been wrongfully distorted or broken in terms of separation of powers."

Obama adviser Anita Dunn made a similar case. "What you're seeing is the same kind of approach he took to his campaign -- some new people, some old people, like Goldilocks," she said. "What you see is someone who is not going to make some of the mistakes administrations have made in the past of not understanding how to get things done in Washington. People who say 'Where's the change?' need only look at the president of the United States . . . the person at the top who sets the tone and the priorities."

But even just a few months ago, Obama at the UN:

"As an African American, I will never forget that I would not be here today without the steady pursuit of a more perfect union in my country.  And that guides my belief that no matter how dark the day may seem, transformative change can be forged by those who choose to side with justice.  And I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights -- for the student who seeks to learn; the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; the oppressed who yearns to be equal."

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-12-13 10:03AM | 0 recs
Re: transformative change

One of the problems of getting elected on a message of of vast "change" and transformation...and really, that was THE central message, honed in day in and day out, is that when you don't deliver it people keep asking you what indeed has changed? Where is this transformation?

And it's pretty pathetic that their only response now is simply to say..."well look it's a black guy in the oval office! That's not enough change for you!!!??" Going down that path when they get criticized for not delivering on Hope-n-change is a recipe for ridicule, and disaster.

by need some wood 2009-12-13 10:27AM | 0 recs
Re: transformative change

Do you seriously think that those words (the ones Obama spoke) promised "transformative" change?  I don't.

The other bloviators you quote may have talked about it, but i don't think any of them were connected to the campaign.

by lojasmo 2009-12-13 11:24AM | 0 recs
Re: transformative change

Ha ha.  Missed the UN quote.

by lojasmo 2009-12-13 11:24AM | 0 recs
Re: transformative change

But I need to point out, that from an international perspecitve, our image HAS been transformed (vis a vis the UN quote)

by lojasmo 2009-12-13 11:27AM | 0 recs
Re: transformative change

Waity- first he didn't promise transformative change, but then he has.  

Your ostrich tendency is apparent in your surprise that Obama may have promised change.  All of those signs didn't register I guess.  

by orestes 2009-12-13 01:54PM | 0 recs
those dark blue HOPE signs

really stood out against the snow. The white Edwards '08 signs weren't nearly as visible. A lot of years we don't have much snow on the ground for the holidays, but that year we had a ton.

by desmoinesdem 2009-12-13 11:20AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

and aren't we all sooo lucky that Obama is still being post partisan...

by thelonius 2009-12-13 11:26AM | 0 recs
Clearly not a transformative President

FDR, Reagan, and to a lessor extent, LBJ, were transformative Presidents.  Obama is much like a Nixon or a Clinton.  He has generally kept things the same and has generally accepted that the country is conservative and will govern that way.  

by Kent 2009-12-13 01:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

You need to stop buying the GOP propaganda. What did Reagan do other than massively increase the deficit? Nothing. He made a couple of restrictive social policies (mexico city) and a some conservative judicial appointments (not all) and that was it.

Hell Clinton implemented more welfare reform than Reagan.

by vecky 2009-12-13 02:20PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

He created a movement that to this day dominates American thinking.

by bruh3 2009-12-13 02:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

Like what?

If your talking about the general move of the left towards "new left" policies, that has nothing to do with Reagan. It's global and was a natural evolution from the welfare state - leftists all over the world moved towards it during the 90s.

The rabid right fetishes Reagan. Even putting him in the same boat as FDR and JFK/LBJ is an insult to the latter too. Dems should not follow their example.

by vecky 2009-12-13 04:38PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

You missed the Judges, there's little doubt that Reagan transformed the Supreme Court, with Rehnquist & Scalia to the far right, and Kennedy & O'Connor to the center right.

Had Bush I not bungled it for the right with Souter, this would be a vastly different law in the land.

Reagan transformed the judiciary by going with Judges that have been there going on 30 years, because they were appointed so young:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/ judicial/2008-05-11-appeals-courts-side_ N.htm

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-12-13 02:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

I mentioned judges...

by vecky 2009-12-13 04:41PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

Well, the Obama campaign certainly was on stride in 2008. Let's hope that's the case in 2012.

I was struck that turnout in Iowa was 240,000 and the yet the Edwards campaign was banking on only 145,000. That's quite the whiff.

by Charles Lemos 2009-12-13 04:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Clearly not a transformative President

WTF... Reagan was President for 8 years, ofcourse he had an effect. Even Jimmy Carter & Bush I had an effect.

However he was not "transformative". In the greater scheme of things (things like Civil Rights, State Rights, Welfare, Social Safety Nets) his accomplishments were zero. he tinkered on the edges but there was nothing great or transformative about his tenure.

by vecky 2009-12-13 08:19PM | 0 recs
my perspective: Clinton's intensity was a good bet

This is really late to add, but I have a perspective to throw in on the JJ dinner and the Nov phase of the campaign. Because a week later was the Clark County (NV) JJ dinner at which all 8 candidates appeared and spoke, just after the nationally televised debate at which the pro-Clinton sections of the crowd shouted down Edwards and Obama when they went after her.

The Clinton campaign showed its organizational strength that night by packing first the debate auditorium and then the JJ dinner (benefitting in both cases from a sympathetic county party leadership.)

When Clinton took the stage at the JJ dinner, the room erupted with "turn up the heat" signs and chants. Although I agree that as a slogan, made no sense in the context of the national campaign, I think it was based upon a presumption which was the still-operative premise of the Clinton campaign -- inevitability. More precisely, regaining the appearance of inevitability, after the stumble in the Phila debate over immigration and then the "planted questions" frenzy. And I think that night here in NV, she seemed to be on her way back into the driver's seat.

After she spoke, 80% of the room emptied out, and Obama spoke to a cold and quiet hall.  In that context, speaking to a highly intense support base, "turn up the heat" made a lot of sense.

And I think what allowed her to hold on to her support in NH and NV in Jan after losing Iowa was the very strong bond her campaign forged with its supporters, and I think "turn up the heat" was really aimed at reaffirming that intense commitment when the campaign stumbled for the first time all year.

My sense of the campaign overall was that it couldn't forge that sense of commitment and intensity once it got out of the early states, so that paradoxically she turned what was supposed to be her strongest date -- Super Tuesday -- into her greatest challenge. Obama's campaign, for all the criticism of its supporters as true believers, seemed to be able to build a broad base of support rather than merely an intense but narrow one.

Ordinarily in a primary, having intense support of the core electorate is a winning formula, so I still think that Clinton didn't do so much wrong as Obama seemed to do everything right.

by desmoulins 2009-12-28 09:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama's campaign book: part Iowa

I've got no empirical basis for saying this but circumsantial evidence suggests to me that they may well have known but had no choice but to stick to a strategy of competing for traditional caucus-goers. Facing a severe deficit in resources and knowing they were relying on a risky "slingshot" strategy of parlaying Iowa into national momentum, there's no way Edwards could have really done what the Clinton campaign did in December, which was to realize the primary electorate in all the early states was going to be much larger and to revise its vote totals and voter contact strategy accordingly (at least thats what they did here in NV, with surprising success).

by desmoulins 2009-12-28 09:30PM | 0 recs

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