How Obama Wins: Energy and Enthusiasm

Charlie Burr

The following memo sent out by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe this weekend gives an interesting perspective on the state of the race and lays out Obama's path to the nomination. Even if you're not a supporter, it's a must-read for those closely following the Presidential contest in the early states.

Memo after the jump.

To: Interested Parties From: David Plouffe, Campaign Manager

RE: Enthusiasm and Organization: A Path to the Nomination

Date: September 22, 2007

It has been about a month since our last memo updating you on the progress of the campaign. In that time, the campaign has entered the critical post-Labor Day phase where the pace will pick up and the public will become more engaged in the campaign.

Framing the Race

Barack kicked off this new phase of the campaign with an important speech at a Labor Day rally where he framed the critical choice that voters face in this election. This speech had two key elements: First, he took the issue of experience head on, making the point that he “may not have the experience that Washington likes, but he has the experience that America needs” to bring change. Second, Barack talked about how it is not going to be enough to change parties; we have to change our politics. Our problems and our failures on big issues like health care, energy, and education pre-date the Bush Administration and real change requires a President who is capable of truly transforming our politics. As someone who has spent 20 years in public service, standing up to the special interests and bringing people together to enact change, Barack is the only candidate with the right kind of experience in this race.

Barack and the campaign will take this case to voters in the four early states and the February 5th states in the coming weeks and months. Earlier this week, the campaign launched two new powerful ads in Iowa that further this case. You can see the ads by clicking here: “Believe” and “Mother”.

A Clear Path to the Nomination

It is important to take a moment every once in a while to reflect on all the progress we have made together in this campaign. When we got into this race as a largely unknown candidate new to the national political stage, we never expected that nine months later at this stage of the race, we would be in a tight three way race in Iowa; leading in the money race; have the largest grassroots organization in modern political history; and have an organizational advantage in the early states and February 5 over a quasi-incumbent from the most powerful political machine in modern political history.

While the press remains focused on the simplistic and erroneous view of national polls as predictors, the Obama campaign has several structural advantages:

• Barack is the candidate with the message and biography that is most in synch with the electorate – according to a Gallup poll in September Democratic voters prefer change to experience by a margin of 73 percent to 26 percent;

• The largest organizations with the most experienced staff and enthusiastic volunteers in the 4 early states;

• An unexpected financial advantage that allows the campaign to compete in multiple contests at the same time;

• The most donors by far in the race, who as the election draws nearer will get even more active on our behalf, giving us financial sustainability;

• A significant organizational advantage in February 5th states.

Well-Positioned in Iowa

Iowa is fundamentally a close three-way race with Obama, Clinton and Edwards all within the same range in most public polling. In the last month, public polls have shown each of the three candidates leading. But the truth is, caucuses are very difficult to poll, particularly in a year where turnout will likely explode with many new attendees. So instead of focusing on the polls, we are much more focused on the growth of our hard count (number of committed supporters) statewide and we remain ahead of schedule in that regard. And there are other positive trends that have emerged that are worth noting. Because we will likely enter the caucus with thousands of potential first-time caucus attendees committed to Obama, organization is paramount.

Last weekend’s Harkin Steak Fry – Senator Tom Harkin’s annual event, where six of the Presidential candidates attended – showcased the strength of the Obama Iowa operation in the first head-to-head battle of organization. It is estimated that 5-6,000 people attended who were committed to candidates. Of that number, approximately 3,000 Obama Iowa supporters attended. It was described by many press accounts as akin to an Obama rally. That shows not just our organizational strength, but a real commitment from our county and precinct leaders, as well as our committed supporters.

Our dominating presence at the Steak Fry is an example of the enthusiasm gap that we enjoy over our fellow candidates. Our supporters will drive for hours and walk for miles to help elect Barack to the White House. “Organization plus Enthusiasm” is a time-tested formula for success in the caucuses and that is the path we are on.

Obama’s Entrance to The Harkin Steak Fry

As Ben Smith of the Politico put it: “Iowa field operatives make a big deal of "visibility' -- making sure their campaigns have high profiles at high-profile events. On that note, you could mistake Tom Harkin's steak fry for an Obama rally. It was in fact preceded by an Obama rally, and the train of Obama supporters behind a marching band stretched for at least a hundred yards. His campaign said he'd given out 2,000 T-shirts, a number that seemed plausible.” Read the full piece here.

On a related point, polls consistently under-represent in Iowa, and elsewhere, the strength of Barack’s support among younger voters for at least three reasons. In more than one survey, Barack’s support among Iowa young voters exceeded the support of all the other candidates combined. First, young voters are dramatically less likely to have caucused or voted regularly in primaries in the past, so pollsters heavily under-represent them. Second, young voters are more mobile and are much less likely to be at home in the early evening and thus less likely to be interviewed in any survey. Third, young voters are much less likely to have a landline phone and much more likely to rely exclusively upon cell phones, which are automatically excluded from phone surveys.

So all of these state and national surveys have and will continue to under-represent Barack’s core support – in effect, his hidden vote in each of these pivotal early states. Of course, there are organizational challenges associated with maximizing this support, but we are heavily focused on that task.

Prepared to Capture Momentum in New Hampshire

It is also clear that the importance of Iowa has only grown over the course of this year. The Democratic story coming out of Iowa is likely to be a much bigger story than the GOP contest, ensuring maximum velocity for a strong showing. Clinton will pay a severe price for not winning Iowa - national front runners always do.

The average New Hampshire bounce on the Democratic side has historically been just under 20 points. Our internal data and most of the public polls show Obama with a solid foundation, despite having done no TV advertising or even direct mail. Those activities will begin in the near future. The demographics of the state would suggest that we will be able to build on our foundation as we begin to devote significant resources there, turning New Hampshire into a tight race over the coming months and almost ensuring that a positive Iowa result will result in a New Hampshire primary win.

Organization and Enthusiasm in Nevada and South Carolina

Nevada is less formed than the other early states, but since it is a caucus, our focus has been on building precinct organizations. We already have 2,000 volunteers in the Nevada, which is far and away the deepest volunteer organization in the state. There was one recent poll in South Carolina that showed Clinton with a sizable lead, but we believe that was an outlier. It had her with a healthy lead in the African-American vote, which is not what we believe to be the case. In fact, a public poll of just African-American voters was released last week that showed Obama with an eight point lead, which would result in a much closer contest in the entire primary electorate.

We believe South Carolina is now a very competitive two-way race, with Edwards, who won this contest in 2004, in a very distant third. Momentum will likely be king in South Carolina, but we are building an unprecedented grassroots organization to maximize our vote and to help provide the margin in a close contest.

We have begun to deploy staff and build organizations in some of the February 5th states. We currently have staff in California, Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota and will have staff in over a dozen other states by the end of October. While momentum will likely be the dominant factor in deciding votes on February 5th, we plan to marry that momentum with the strongest organization and most financial resources in these February 5th states to emerge from that day with the most delegates and states won.

Below are some recent news articles about the Obama Campaign’s activities:

The State (Aaron Gould Sheinin) “Obama taking grass-roots approach in S.C.”: Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is using cyberspace, the U.S. Mail and the equivalent of political Tupperware parties to build a more extensive grass-roots campaign than S.C. Democrats ever have seen before, observers say… “The Obama campaign is doing a more extensive grass-roots effort than has ever been done in South Carolina before,” said Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Khare Fowler, who is not supporting any candidate in the Jan. 29 primary. Read the full article here.

Denver Post (Karen Crummy) “Obama beefs up Colorado support”: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the only candidate with ground troops in Colorado, is organizing a significant grassroots campaign in the state, according to his campaign manager. "This will be a delegate by delegate battle," said David Plouffe in Denver on Thursday. "Because we have had success financially and enthusiastic grassroots supporters we can starting getting things in place for February 5th states." Read the full article here.

Santa Barbara Independent (Chris Meagher) “Barack Obama Rocks Santa Barbara”: Presidential candidate Barack Obama rolled into Santa Barbara on Saturday with the message that’s become the backbone of his campaign: Hope. More than 3,000 people were in attendance at Santa Barbara City College to hear the popular democrat share his plans for the future, touching on such issues as health care, education, and the war in Iraq. Read the full article here.

New York Times (Michael M. Grynbaum) “Obama Urges Wall Street to Protect the Middle Class”: Senator Barack Obama chastised Wall Street executives yesterday as failing to protect middle-class interests and called for increased federal oversight of credit rating agencies, including a government investigation. In an appearance at Nasdaq offices in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, praised America’s free-market impulse but lamented what he characterized as its recent toll on the middle class. Read the full article here.

Portsmouth Herald (Michael McCord) “Obama unveils tax cuts for middle class”: Presidential hopeful Barack Obama became the first Democratic candidate to unveil a detailed middle class tax-cut proposal, one that he believes will restore "fiscal responsibility and a sense of fairness." In a speech titled "Tax Fairness for the Middle Class," delivered Tuesday in Washington, Obama said his five-part $85 billion plan would cut taxes for more than 150 million Americans (including as many as 800,000 in New Hampshire), cut all taxes for seniors making less than $50,000, institute a mortgage tax credit, simplify the tax code and crack down on tax havens, and close corporate loopholes. Read the full article here.

The Atlantic (Marc Ambinder) ”At SEIU, Obama: Rocked The House": …SEIU's members are temperamentally suited to Obama; he is a longtime friend of Chicago's SEIU Local 880 and worked closely with the union as an organizer and later as a state legislator. Obama entered the ballroom to cheers, but he left to a sustained chorus of chants: “Obama!, Obama!” The SEIU president, Andy Stern, had to calm his members: ““Everybody take your seats, please. We have other candidates.”


  • (Show?)

    Obama's not done yet. It's possible that if he can flip the "experience" issue against Hillary, he will get the bump he's needed after plateauing in the polls. Hillary is expected to announce larger fundraising totals than Obama soon, which signals that her sustained leads in the national polls is affecting donors (Obama is still expected to boast more doners in Q3). If she stumbles on the experience issue, that might stop her from consolidating Dem support.

    Iowa remains THE critical test for the Obama campaign. If he finishes a strong second or wins, he's set to move forward. If he's a distant second or worse, look out.

    One thing that is worth noting is that the Obama internet strategy has been extremely well-done. Rather than spamming supporters with propagandistic email, Obama has been far more restrained and puts out directed, content-rich emails that actually communicate with supporters. It's counterintuitive, but sending fewer emails means supporters read more.

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    It's possible that if he can flip the "experience" issue against Hillary, he will get the bump he's needed after plateauing in the polls.


    Obama needs to more effectively address the "experience" canard. If I were advising him I would suggest that he contrast his absolutely on-the-numbers prediction about what was likely to happen in Iraq (and subsequently HAS happened) with Hillary's unrepentant vote to abdicate her Constitutional authority to Bush, visa-vis waging war on Iraq, and then openly ask folks exactly how Hillary's experience was in any way, shape or form an asset to her constituents or the nation.

    A secondary meme I would suggest to him would be that "experience" too often equals "beholden to special interests." He should openly ask Americans if they really want a President who is highly experienced at wheeling and dealing with special interests.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    It is difficult to image a worse choice being offered to voters than Hillary and Rudy for president. I can see many people sitting this one out or voting for a protest candidate.

    I have reservations about Obama, Edwards and Richardson, but I could see some hope for them if they agreed not to split the anti-Hillary vote on the Democratic side. Obama must have a machine behind him, most likely the Daley machine and/or others in Chicago and Illinois so he would have a chance of surviving as president with the DLC and the Republicans working to undermine him. Edwards is more of an outsider than Carter was, so he would be shot down by the DLC and the Republicans in Congress more mercilessly than Carter was; however, he could make a good vice-president and get the experience and support he would need to eventually be president. Richardson is probably aligned with the DLC to soak up some of the anti-Hillary vote, but if he isn't he might step aside if he were offered the secretary of state or some other prestigious slot.

    The ideal scenario, but one that would take a miracle to evolve, would be for the American people to come to their senses and elect Kucinich and let their local representatives and senators know in no uncertain terms they wanted them to support Kucinich, but that would be reaching into a world of fantasy.

  • Charlie Burr (unverified)

    Four years ago at this point in the race, Lieberman was just starting to come down in the polls and Dean just starting to take off. Lieberman's numbers were artificially high because of being the vp choice in 2000; this year, you've got one candidate who was the vp pick four years ago (and never stopped campaigning) and another who voters intimately know form eight years as First Lady. Obama's fundamentals are remarkably strong given where the other top two started.

    The fact that Iowa demands a more retail-focused type of politcs also bodes well for Obama. His campaign is doing the type of concentric circle organizing that builds intense support, but takes time to register in snapshot polling.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    There are really two campaigns going on.

    One is the campaign for the "anybody but Hillary" mantle. Someone will eventually emerge to claim the position of the opposition. Obama is leading that contest right now and Edwards is obviously his major competition.

    The second campaign is Hillary against herself. If Hillary can answer enough people's reservations about her, there is nothing any of the other candidates can do. Right now, Hillary has the advantage in that the other candidates can't really take her on directly without damaging their own chances. The fact is they are better off hoping Hillary stumbles on her own rather than being the one who appears to be trying to trip her.

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Great post Charlie, though it doesn't appear that anyone is reading it from these comments.

    It makes clear one thing. Hillary may be winning the national media spin game, but Barack is winning on the ground with real voters.

    Keep an eye out this week to see how many people turn out for Barack in Hillary's home state of New York. He has a big event scheduled in Washington Square NYC on the 27th.

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    Well, this memo tries to spin being behind as "a solid foundation," question polls that put them behind but not those that put him in front, and soforth. It's a rally the troops effort (and a well-written one!) Sounds like they've made progress where they've spent money and effort, and other places they've made less progress.

    But the bottom line is this: polls this early help raise money and media coverage, but they're not too dependable, as all hell breaks loose later.

    Polls post-media-and-volunteer onslaught, a week out from the caucuses or elections, are going to be more telling. It's anyone's game. And Obama's doing an impressive field-plus-money game (thought I prefer Edwards' policies and work, I'll readily admit he's behind).

    As far as the poll I'm watching, it's the Iowa Electronic Market, where people are putting their money where their mouths are. Clinton's at 67 cents to pay a dollar, Obama at 20 cents, Edwards at 8 (Obama was once ahead in this market). The Republican race is much tighter: Giuliani at 30 cents, Thompson at 26.5, and Romney at 26.

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    One thing about Hillary's support: I think a lot of it -- though not all, to be sure -- is driven by the perception that she's the most electable one. First, there's a pretty good argument to be made that a polarized field in the general election is one of the few things that could tilt the election to the Republicans. Second, the support for Clinton based on electability doesn't really represent very deep support; these folks will likely continue shopping around in the next few months. Third, the caucuses are set up to reward deeper support, and organizational strength that doesn't always show up in polls.

    I don't believe that Hillary's unelectable in a general election, btw, but I do think she's the weakest of our top three candidates. And I think that a Hillary general election candidacy would represent the greatest opening for a third party candidate to add uncertainty to the race.

    Obama's in a much stronger position now than could have been predicted. Yes, he's got more work to do, but I think the campaign's decision to address the "experience" canard head on is absolutely right. Dean never effectively dealt with reservations about himself in the primary; Kerry only responded to swift boat attacks after the damage was done. Taking on the issue directly -- talking about his twenty years of public service, his record of reform and standing up to special interests -- will help address a threshold issue for folks.

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Here's another must read about the ground war for all of you Obama skeptics out there.

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    John Electable Kerry got the nomination in 2004 because he was considered (note passive voice) most electable because "everyone knew" he was most electable, a condition similar to being famous for being famous.

    Many, many D primary voters supported him hoping that "everyone" knew what they were talking about, despite their own doubts. But "everyone" didn't, just as a probably similarly composed "everyone" "knew" that Hussein had Ws of MD in Iraq when he didn't. And people who voted for Kerry in the primaries on electability did not go forward with a high level of excitement or commitment.

    People should vote for Senator Clinton if they like her positions, or her leadership qualities. I won't because I don't. But PLEASE, PLEASE don't buy "electability" as a reason to vote for anyone. If 2000 and 2004 should have taught us anything, it is that electability is not an inherent characteristic of a candidate, but depends on how someone runs plus random media factors (like the mass repetitive distortion of Howard Dean's "scream").

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    I don't believe that Hillary's unelectable in a general election, btw, but I do think she's the weakest of our top three candidates.

    Yeah, I agree that she can win, but I'm particularly worried about her negative coattails. If Hillary is the nominee, can rookie Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC) get re-elected? I don't think so.

    Either Edwards or Obama would be much preferable. Heck, Richardson and Biden would be too.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    People should vote for Senator Clinton if they like her positions, or her leadership qualities ... But PLEASE, PLEASE don't buy "electability" as a reason to vote for anyone

    I think that is right. The primaries are a testing ground for candidates and their campaigns. Plenty of them that have looked good on paper have failed that test.

    If none of the other candidates can beat Hillary in a Democratic primary contest, they probably aren't going to make the strongest candidate against the Republicans either. And, likewise, if Hillary wins the nomination going away it will be because she is the most electable of the bunch. She will have overcome the combined efforts of the media and all her opponents to make an interesting race of it.

  • paul (unverified)

    But PLEASE, PLEASE don't buy "electability" as a reason to vote for anyone. If 2000 and 2004 should have taught us anything, it is that electability is not an inherent characteristic of a candidate, but depends on how someone runs plus random media factors (like the mass repetitive distortion of Howard Dean's "scream").

    Chris I don't know why the second comment follows from the first.

    Of course, electability depends on the opposition and on unpredictable (i would not way 'random') factors.

    But I don't agree that "viability" is a candidate feature that should be ignored. Any of the Democratic contenders is far preferable to me than any of the Republicans (in that respect, I can think of far worse choice sets than Clinton/Guiliani, Bill).

    If my preferred candidate is defeated, for me, this is all about electability, and I don't see anything unreasonable about considering this in the primaries.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    (in that respect, I can think of far worse choice sets than Clinton/Guiliani, Bill)

    What choice sets do you have in mind? The Clintons and Giuliana all strike me as moral bankrupts prepared to do whatever they can get away with in pursuit of their own interests. There are real problems with the other top-tier Republican candidates, but I would like to believe that they might draw the line on moral and ethical issues sooner than Giuliani; although, most likely not soon enough to please those of us with more progressive and humane philosophies. On moral and ethical issues I'm thinking of waging more wars and resolving the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than other issues such a choice and abortion and law and order. Of course, on war McCain would be a disaster since that seems to be his court of first resort for solving international conflicts, but at least he believes that crap, unlike the Clintons who have gone along with wars and Giuliani who would do the same for political expediency.

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    I honestly believe Obama is the real thing, he is someone who can lead us out of the mess we are in now. I hope the polls showing Clinton up by 20%+ points turn out to be false.

    I've gotten lambasted before, but I'm going to say it again. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, I wouldn't vote for her in a million years.

    Edwards, Richardson or one of the other D candidates, I'd happily back (in fact before I decided to back Obama I sent some money to Edwards).

  • (Show?)

    Also worth noting is the foreign policy/Iraq speech that Obama gave in early September.

    The RightWing/NeoCon/AIPAC crowd are forever braying that the Dems "don't have a plan".

    The MSM/Cable Talk crowd faithfully regurgitates the meme.

    Obama comes out with a plan. It goes virtually unreported.

    one exception: Zbigniew Brzezinski went on The News Hour opposite a charter member of the NeoconDeathCult and laid out a withdawal plan. He then said, "It's not my plan, It's Barak Obama's.

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