Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to win an election

I got use to receiving emails from David Plouffe last year. He was Obama's campaign director and I put myself on the campaign distribution list. It wasn't until I read this piece in Esquire that I realised what a key part of Obama's victory Plouffe was. He's an election managerial dynamo. The Esquire article is a must for anyone who wants to understand how Obama won. Take this little example of Plouffe's modus operandi:

It was Plouffe (rhymes with bluff) who gathered the president's unprecedented thirteen-million-name contact list, which has grown into a fulsome pulsing beast, and it is Plouffe who now owns it and keeps it under lock and key. Plouffe sent those thirteen million people an e-mail in mid-November and they replied, Yes, I still want to be involved, and yes, David Plouffe, I'll have house parties when you tell me to. Here is who I am socioeconomically and socially. I am boxers; my next-door neighbor is briefs. Now the president has instructed him to make that list a new lever of government.
No president has ever entered office with this much information. The closest thing to it, Begala says, were direct-mail lists like Ronald Reagan's back in 1980. But, he says, "it's a different thing than Reagan writing, 'Send me thirty-five bucks if you want to fight the Commies.' " This list is granular. And it is flexible and transferable to myriad media outlets — even those not yet invented. Begala believes it could potentially "revolutionize progressive politics."

....as campaign manager of Obama for America in early 2007, Plouffe was charged with building an underdog campaign for president from virtually nothing — no money, one office, five staff members, and a few dreams from one's father. The main thing he knew was that there were no shortcuts. His focus was on 270, and every decision had to flow from there. You had to get the job done. He told Obama the same thing he told everyone who worked for him: You have to be all in. The president asked the manager, Are there shortcuts? And the manager said, No. You get to work, and you stay there.

...To get the numbers right, Plouffe broke down the country into sixteen separate campaigns — a different strategy for each battleground state — and gave each its own ground crew and press office. His desk back in Chicago was the control center. On the walls there were electoral maps in reds, blues, deeper blues. But the helm and the center was the desk, a wood-laminate piece, neat and lap-topped and bolted to the floor. Every morning he sat at that desk with a large to-do list that he parsed out to the to-doers. He watched the scroll of e-mails — he says it was like a volcano, exploding in bold at the top.

"We'd get the clips overnight, and I'd read them all. Hundreds of them. That's basically what it was like. Wake up, reach for your BlackBerry, the way guys used to reach for their packs of cigarettes." He read everything and got on a call, then another, and another and another. A rolling two-year conference call. He looks tired when he tells you.

Because he came from a place where hard workers could barely afford the twenty-five-dollar donations they pushed across the hay bale, he immediately acquired the reputation of budget miser. There was an Axelrodism that claimed that if you went to the bathroom, pulled out a paper towel, then went to pull out a second one, it would actually be a note that said, "See Plouffe."

To find the voters and build a swarm of volunteers to help, he hired twenty-seven-year-old Joe Rospars and the rest of the former Howard Dean Web guys — now Blue State Digital — and made the most confident investment that a political campaign has ever made in the Internet. He brought them up from the basements and into top-line meetings. He told them, We have to beat Clinton. She has the establishment support, she has this huge system of money-raisers, so we must create an alternative network.

Beside the gray walls and atop the gray pattern carpets, they enacted Plouffe's vision. These were futuristic people building small revolutions in a humdrum place. They took the now-comparatively primitive Web-roots platform that Dean — along with his manager, Joe Trippi, and Web guru, Nicco Mele — first unearthed in 2003 and extended it. There were more tools now. YouTube. Twitter. More potential inputs. They used them all and invented new ones.
Obama owned the Web because Plouffe believed in a few smart kids and let them go a little nuts. But the meticulous managerial thing, according to the Blue State Digital guys, is that Plouffe still held those nuts in the palm of his careful hand.

...You talk to anyone who heard of David Plouffe before Election Day, and mostly it was because they got a few hundred e-mails from him, and they liked to see it as a personal thing. On e-mail, he was chatty. Conversationally, he asked for money. The college kid who wired ten bucks of twelve-pack cash to Plouffe felt like he was saving the country with a few fast keystrokes and Dad's AmEx.

And yet Plouffe insists that to focus too much on the netroots is to overlook the pure fieldwork, which was essential to winning. "You can't be too reliant on just technology in politics . . . knocking and phone calls is still the bread and butter." He smiles. He likes the notion. It's how he started. "It'll be a long time before those new apps replace the old ones."

The old application was a line of staffers and volunteers stretching down the fluorescent hall of Obama headquarters, past the great and daily newspaper wall in communications and out across America — each eager college kid, grandmother, and housewife, standing in their campaign T-shirt waiting for a "love note from David Plouffe," in their words, so they might deploy their democratic energy. He drew the most passionate, thousands of them, into two- or three-day Camp Obama training sessions. Each team leader had his own job: You are responsible for finding twenty volunteers. You: fifty, a hundred, two hundred voters. Call them. Write the plan and then we're going to track you.

Teams would report back with stats and the field directors would chart the cumulative info and they would know whether their "supervolunteers" were hitting their targets. Plouffe, back at his desk, sat at the top of the pyramid, checking the checkers, glancing at the North Star on his wall, believing deeply in the prize, in the red, white, and blue of mostly blue.
"Do you realize that more than half those volunteers had never been involved in politics before?" David Plouffe is wide-eyed now, and leaning in. "More than half." He emphasizes the final word to let the incredulity settle. And then there is a moment — it's almost imperceptible, and you almost wish you hadn't noticed, because there is something agonizing about a private man showing public emotion. But it happens. His eyes tear up. The soft-spoken, indefatigable general is talking about his troops and his eyes glisten. Iowa, the grassroots effort, he says, rivaled election night. Then quickly he shakes the chaff from his hair and recomposes. Safely, he returns to his numbers.

This is the passion Plouffe rarely shows. But from top-floor, eventful offices, people will gush about it. The pep talks, for example. "They would, at the end, make you wanna go run off a cliff with the guy. He mixed a very hard edge with a sort of, I'm imagining Barack Obama on Capitol Hill as the next leader . . . a sort of inspirational rhetoric," says twenty-seven-year-old speechwriter Jon Favreau. It was a centaur blend, the gruff, focused mug of the football coach and the graceful neck and confident purr of the golden orator. The night they lost New Hampshire, Plouffe said to get everyone across the country on the phone. In his uneventful and sure voice, he promised that he'd never been more confident and proud of everyone, and he ended it by saying: "Let's go win this fucking thing."

As much as he likes to inspire, he loves to win. When Plouffe plays baseball, he is always the pitcher. Like Roger Clemens, he is turned on by the hectic pulse of unmanageable jurisdiction, the notion of controlling a field with runners on every base. The calm during the storm. But the calm is only on the outside. There is a deeper sense of competition and passion, and Plouffe takes it and he uses it, but he doesn't show it, not even after the win.

Obama saw this in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus. It's when he realized he could trust Plouffe fully, and in the muck: "Plouffe was getting calls and e-mails all across the country, the newspaper reports saying that the campaign was over, and he was able to just keep us on a steady course and instill calm, and it showed me the kind of leader he could be in difficult times. It's always easy to be a campaign manager when things are going well, but when things aren't, that's the real test. He was, in his quiet way, able to maintain focus and confidence."

"I'm a competitive person," Plouffe says, without pride but forcefully. His eyes and chin rise. "Elections are nothing about doing well. You win or lose, and I love to win, and it feels absolutely terrible when you lose. We built something from scratch," he continues, "and we beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain. That's like, uh, beating the L. A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics to win the championship." If he had lost, "I'd have felt like I let the country down."
To win the country, the manager took the risks. "We always seemed to be better when we were up in the high water," says Plouffe. "Whenever we got safe, we stagnated. We liked rolling the dice." This meant bleeding $25 million in North Carolina, $10 million in Indiana, $15 million in Virginia, just to keep McCain off balance. It meant convincing Obama to move his convention speech outdoors, though Obama worried it might rain. It meant convincing Obama to do a thirty-minute advertorial, even though Obama thought it was too risky so close to Election Day.

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