Former Obama Strategist David Plouffe Weighs in on Election 2016

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

President Barack Obama talks with then-senior White House adviser David Plouffe as they leave the Kingsmill Resort, Tuesday, October 16, 2012, in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

Today David Plouffe jets around the country as the chief advisor for the ride-sharing service Uber, but eight years ago he was campaign manager for Barack Obama, the little-known Illinois senator who came out of nowhere to wrest the presidency away from Hillary Clinton. He went onto serve as one of President Obama’s senior advisors. Callie Crossley of WGBH Boston interviewed Plouffe at the recent National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Washington where he shared his thoughts on the state of play in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the Crossley-Plouffe interview.

Callie Crossley: What do you see happening in the Trump and Clinton campaigns?

David Plouffe: This is one of the more interesting elections that we’ve gone through day to day. This is just my observation: Hillary Clinton is going to win. The question is: Is it by three points or seven points or is ten or 11 points?

For Donald Trump, or any Republican, to win the White House, they would have to do a few things. They would have to have almost historically high Republican turnout, a really poor Democratic turnout, and win the moderate vote, including a bunch of people who voted for Barack Obama twice. That’s just a fact.

Trump is probably not going to do any of those things. Hillary Clinton was vulnerable to the right Republican. But if you are in Brooklyn at the Clinton headquarters, you couldn’t have imagined a better person to run against than Donald Trump. I think that she will outperform President Obama in a few places: In Northern Virginia where Barack Obama did really well twice. He was the first Democrat to to win the state since LBJ. I think that she can do better in the Denver suburbs and the southern part of New Hampshire.

She’ll have a hard time replicating the Obama coalition in terms of turnout among younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. But Donald Trump has never moved to the center. We’ve never seen anything like this: We’ve never seen anybody who seems disinterested in winning the election, disinterested in broadening out their coalition.

That’s why I have a lot of sympathy for Republicans who a) saw this as a winnable race, and b) OK, they’re stuck with Trump but, maybe, at least he’ll run a credible campaign. We all need to do therapy sessions for our Republican friends; they’re in mourning.

Donald Trump raised $82 million in July, which is pretty equal to what Clinton has raised. He’s turning out people. They cannot even fit in all the people who want to get into his rallies. Is this race going to be as easy for Clinton as you say?

Can Donald Trump get to a win number in Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa? I do not believe he can. The best he can probably do is get the states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, which would be 206 electoral votes. But states like Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and Missouri are now open for Hillary Clinton.

In a presidential campaign, you want to be on offense. She is going to be on offense just like President Obama was. Remember, we went through 2000 and 2004 when the Democrats were waiting on one state Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. We should never do that again.

You are on the phone all the time with the Clinton campaign: What are you telling them?

More than anything, I just try to provide support when they are going through some tough times. My advice is basically here’s what they need: There’s a whole bunch of people out there, mostly suburban women voters, but even some college-educated younger men who voted for McCain and Romney. Hillary Clinton can secure their votes. She needs to do that.

She needs to make sure that the Obama coalition turn out as much as possible. That’s probably the biggest challenge in the campaign because the one thing I’d want is people to be as excited about her being president as they are about Donald Trump not being president.

The person who wins the moderate vote wins the presidency. Hillary Clinton right now is on a path to win the moderate vote. But I think that she can shore up her economic appeal. That’s an interesting place where she can, not differ with President Obama, but say, listen, the economy has come back. We’ve created six years straight of jobs, our businesses are doing well, the market has come back. But there is no doubt that wages have been too stagnant and that prosperity is not broad enough. So that is a place for her to really clearly say this is what I am going to build on.

There is criticism out there that with less than 100 days to go that Clinton’s campaign operations are not what they should be in black communities, part of the coalition she needs to win. Can you speak to that?

One of the lessons that Hillary Clinton took out of 2008 was that the grassroots really, really matter. One of the reasons why she is the nominee is that she had very strong ground organizations in places like Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. I hope that they’re not falling behind. You need time to organize you need time to register voters.

We measured this very carefully in the Obama campaign: What was the most effective way to get somebody to register to vote; or get someone who is not sure they are going to vote, to vote; or to get a swing voter to vote for you? It wasn’t a TV ad. It wasn’t watching the news. It was a human being that that person knew, talking to them.

Barack Obama had this unique relationship [with the people who volunteered to work on his campaign]. Hillary needs that. They believe in organization. But what you need is people. That spark really has to ignite, so that someone who is really busy says, you know what? I am going to give Hillary Clinton two or three hours this week. I am going to spend Saturday afternoon or a Sunday because I believe so strongly in this. I think that she has a lot more of those people than Donald Trump does.

But let’s be honest. It is easier to turn out Republican voters than it is Democratic voters. The Obama coalition is not a gift that will be passed down to Democratic candidates. It has to be earned. It is not how much you spend; it is not how great your digital strategy is; it’s whether people care about you. It’s whether people care enough about you to go out and give their time, which is the most precious thing that they have. I think that she is building that, but we need to see more of it.

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