Nation & World

Strategist behind Obama campaign talks tactics at HKS

3 min read

The architect behind Barack Obama’s successful presidential run shared his insights at Harvard Kennedy School on the strategies that propelled a first-term senator to the White House.

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on April 15, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe praised the work of grassroots organizers and volunteers who helped bring new voters to the polls in new and innovative ways. He also spoke frankly of the Clinton campaign’s miscalculations — including underestimating the effect that Obama’s victory in Iowa would have on the rest of the campaign, and overestimating the impact that the larger states would have in the primary race.

“I think that there was a belief in their campaign that the race would be over on Feb. 5, which was the day of 22 primaries,” said Plouffe, referring to Super Tuesday. “But they really didn’t organize in all 22 states. They organized in big states like Massachusetts and Illinois and New Jersey and California, with the belief that it would be more of a political victory than a delegate battle. We treated it differently.

“We treated it as an aggregation of 1,681 delegates in 22 states and if we could come close to even half, we survived. … [And] we did better than that — we won the day, we won the states and delegates. And that morning of Feb. 6 was the first time I thought we were going to be the Democratic nominee,” Plouffe continued.

Although Clinton won 11 delegates from New Jersey, the Obama campaign won smaller states like Idaho — where Obama gained 15 delegates to Clinton’s three — which made up for losses in the larger states. Plouffe said the Clinton campaign eventually learned its lesson and became much more effective campaigners in places like Wyoming.

“They campaigned in [Wyoming]. They organized in it. Hillary went there. Bill went there,” Plouffe said. “We still won 58-42, but if we had gotten 62.5 percent of the vote, we would have got an extra delegate. … The whole tale of the primary is one of margins. We won a lot of landslides; she won less. Landslides are how you aggregate delegates.”

Plouffe referred frequently to the critical role that grassroots efforts played in the Obama campaign in engaging an entire new sector of the electorate.

“The point about the caucus states is that if the same people that turned out to caucuses every year turned out, we were going to lose. We had to change the electorate. And I think that’s one of the great triumphs of the campaign — we didn’t accept things as they were,” said Plouffe.

“Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri, Alabama — they were not organized by our staff. They were organized by volunteers, online, organizing their communities. And so when we sent staff into Minnesota, for instance, in September of 2007, the state was already half organized. A remarkable thing. And that happened time and time again.”

On whether or not such grassroots efforts can be replicated in future campaigns, Plouffe said it all depends on the candidate and his or her ability to inspire the volunteers.

“I think many of our supporters in the end believed if they spent one less hour helping out, Obama may not win,” he said. “This campaign was built on the backs of people who wanted change. … If people did not think that Obama was authentically interested in their role in his campaign, that our success hinged on their performance, it wouldn’t have been the engine that drove our campaign.”