The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory, by David Plouffe, Viking, 390 pages, reviewed by Gregory Hilton
President Obama’s popularity has plummeted, and Democrats are now headed for a significant setback in the 2010 midterm election. Survey data already has the President losing a hypothetical 2012 re-election campaign to former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).
It was not long ago that Obama appeared to be invincible. On the week of his inauguration in January of 2009, according to a CNN poll, Obama had an 84% approval rating and only 14% disapproved. The success of his campaign shocked many experts on both the left and right. In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) faced long odds when he first began to speak of a presidential campaign.
Obama critics should give him credit for hiring a team of political all stars, and conducting a spectacularly successful campaign. The national mood obviously helped him, and the Obama victory was assured when Wall Street collapsed and the global recession began in mid-September of 2008.
The Success of the O Team
A 2008 Newsweek cover story called the Obama campaign staff “The O Team,” and they proved the conventional wisdom was wrong. Then Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) had a huge lead in public opinion, delegates and fundraising when she entered the race.
In the President’s words, the O team succeeded in electing “This skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name.” Political professionals will long be discussing their successful 21 month strategy which is outlined in campaign manager David Plouffe’s book, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory.
Liberal activist Arianna Huffington calls it “The most important political book of the year.” After reading the book, my major observations are listed below, and I would recommend The Audacity to Win to both Republicans and Democrats.
The author has excellent advice for anyone planning a national campaign, and the book concentrates on “nuts and bolts” aspects of the campaign rather than Obama’s “hope and change” message.
Unlike Jimmy Carter, Obama Did Not Try to Run His Campaign
Plouffe praises Obama for his willingness to give up control to the staff. Unlike other candidates, Obama did not try to micromanage the campaign and trusted the judgment of political professionals. He let the staff plan and execute the campaign, while the candidate focused on speeches, personal appearances and fundraising calls.
Obama left the staff alone, and they soon learned it was best to leave him alone. He did not react well to criticism of his speaking style or debate performances. They asked him to participate in debate preparations but he instead wanted to watch the ESPN sports network. He got his way.
In addition to Plouffe, key members of the Obama inner circle were David Alexrod (strategy), Valerie Jarrett (coalition groups), Robert Gibbs (media), Jeff Berman (delegate selection), Joel Benenson (polling), Julianna Smoot (fundraising) and then Congressman Rahm Emanuel (Congressional relations and staying on message).
They Raised $750 Million and Ran The First Truly On-Line Campaign
The O team deserves credit for revolutionizing the campaign role of the internet, which forever changed presidential politics. Their online presence was at the forefront.
They used the web to recruit volunteers, share information which would inform and motivate their allies, and most important of all, to raise money. In September of 2008, the Obama campaign raised $150 million, and 70% of it came from the web.
Obama raised a total of $750 million, and no other campaign has ever come close to matching those numbers. The campaign e-mail list had over 13 million names, and the O team said this better than having its own TV network. They could constantly post action items and videos but they were never distracted by negative comments.
Obama Understood The New Rules, While Clinton’s Campaign Was Stuck in 1996
All campaigns work hard, but the O team had the vision other candidates lacked. They truly saw what no one else did. Their primary triumph was similar to Sen. George McGovern’s (D-SD) in 1972. His insurgents realized the new delegate selection rules totally changed the party, and they secured the nomination before the old guard could react.
The same thing happened in 1976 when former Gov. Jimmy Carter (D-GA) was the only candidate to realize a victory in the Iowa presidential precinct caucuses would give him tremendous national exposure and momentum going into the New Hampshire primary.
Iowa Was The Key to Every Victory
The O team put together a spectacular organization in Iowa. They viewed the state as their only chance, and they did not know how a black candidate would be perceived. The black population in Iowa is only 2.7%, and a victory would demonstrate that race would not hold Obama back.
The situation was similar to the crucial 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary between Senators John F. Kennedy (MA), a catholic, and Hubert Humphrey (MN), a protestant. Kennedy proved a catholic candidate could defeat a protestant in an overwhelmingly protestant state.
According to the O team, an Iowa loss would have meant Obama was not a viable candidate. Plouffe said if Clinton had won Iowa, Obama would have pulled out of the race.
Obama easily won the state and received an avalanche of publicity. He left Iowa with a campaign plan that worked. “Everything you saw in the election was something we learned in Iowa,” Plouffe said.
The Youth Vote: 2008 Was The First Time it Had a Substantial Impact
Another major reason for their caucus victory is because they “changed the complexion of the electorate.” Since 1976, the Iowa caucuses has been dominated by elderly voters.
The O team’s focus on the youth vote was a wise investment of their resources. Many candidates had tried and failed with that strategy in the past. It did not work for Howard Dean in 2004 nor did it work for Bill Bradley in 2000.
It worked for Obama and the difference was that he was primarily reaching young people over the internet. Obama won 50 percent of the people who voted in 2004, but he received a staggering 71% from first-time votes. The youth vote would stay with Obama throughout 2008.
In 2007, Obama Advanced Because Clinton Ignored Him
Another major reason for Obama’s success was because the Clinton camp ignored him. They did not realize Obama was a serious threat until it was far too late.
For a considerable part of 2007, Hillary Clinton assumed her major challenger would be former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC). The Clinton team accepted the conventional wisdom that it would not be possible for Obama to win, and they planned to stop the Illinois Senator by making inroads among African American leaders.
Clinton had endorsements from many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. As Obama started to win primaries, these endorsements were retracted.
Obama Realized The Importance of Caucus States
Concentrating on Iowa is not unusual for a presidential campaign, but the O team strategy was surprising. They decided to repeat their Iowa formula in every caucus state. Hillary Clinton was ignoring these states because they would vote Republican in the general election.
The O team went into states that were long neglected by Democrats, such as Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Colorado and North Dakota. Obama was not vigorously challenged in any of these caucuses, and the Clinton campaign was surprised he made the effort. Clinton was instead concentrating on a TV ad campaign in California and New York, and she was already thinking of the general election.
The Democratic delegates from caucus states prevented Clinton from winning the nomination on Super Tuesday, and they eventually gave the then Illinois Senator his margin of victory. Clinton would have done well in all of the caucus states if she had mounted a serious campaign.
Obama Focused on Delegates, Not Primaries
The Obama strategy focused on maximizing the number of pledged delegates in all 50 states, while the Clinton team was concentrating on states with primaries. The campaign began when Obama won an impressive victory in Iowa and Clinton came in third place.
The New York Senator then defeated Obama in the January 8th New Hampshire primary, but her 20% lead was gone. The author describes the loss as “devastating,” but it was not portrayed that way in the news media.
Under the old system, Obama’s loss in New Hampshire would have been a serious setback. The new rules got rid of the winner take all formula in every state. The result was that both Obama and Clinton each received 9 delegates from the Granite State.
Clinton’s staff included many of the campaign professionals who guided her husband to his 1996 re-election victory. If the 1996 rules had applied in 2008, Obama would have been easily defeated.
The Democrats on Super Tuesday
Hillary Clinton was the leader going in to Super Tuesday, February 5th. She expected the campaign to end that day when 24 states and American Samoa held either caucuses or primary elections.
Clinton defeated Barack Obama in the popular vote by a 46% to 45% margin, and she also won the New York and California primaries. Nevertheless, Clinton did not score the big victory she was seeking because of Obama’s focus on caucus states.
She thought Super Tuesday would be portrayed as a major victory for her, but the opposite happened.
Obama carried 13 states to Clinton’s 10 and he had the advantage in the delegate count that day, 847 to 834.
Clinton still had the overall delegate lead but that collapsed after Obama’s strong showing on Super Tuesday. Clinton lost the next 12 caucuses and primaries to Obama, as well as the overall delegate lead. She was later able to win in big states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, but she never overcame the delegate lead Obama compiled in small GOP leaning states which she did not contest. She never expected a battle that would last throughout the primary season.
Playing by the New Rules
Clinton did not seriously challenge Obama in his home state of Illinois, and that would have made sense under the old winner take all rules. Obama, on the other hand, made a major effort in her home state of New York. He knew Clinton would win, but New York had 232 delegates, and by contesting Clinton in every congressional district he was able to hold her to a net margin of only 46.
Advice for Republicans
Plouffe was asked by the New Yorker if he had any advice for Republicans and said the GOP had some obvious candidates such as former Governors Romney, Huckabee and Palin, but the GOP: “ought to learn from the Obama experience that someone can come out, not someone you’ve never heard of but someone who you just didn’t think would run for President. We sure hope Republicans will nominate a polarizing candidate like Palin who will not be able to go beyond the GOP base. They would be doing us a big favor.”