GLG Signature Series: David Plouffe, Campaign Manager for Barack Obama
Recently, David Plouffe, the former campaign manager for Barack Obama and current board member of the liberal nonprofit ACRONYM, sat down for a 60-minute virtual session with select GLG clients.
As Obama assumed office, Plouffe was initially an outside senior advisor to the President. After David Axelrod’s resignation, he was appointed as a Senior Advisor to the President in 2011. Prior to joining Obama’s team, Plouffe was partner at AKPD Message and Media, a campaign consulting firm.
Before Plouffe’s session, we asked about his thoughts on the upcoming presidential election.
Most polls show Biden to be the clear favorite over Trump, but November is still a long way off. What are the most important things the Biden team can do to maintain and/or increase their lead going into November?
Biden is about at his ceiling with swing voters. They need to focus on maintaining as much of the current support he has built up, especially with seniors. Filling in the blanks for voters about what he will do concretely as president and how he will more effectively manage the COVID-19 crisis is key. Strong debate performances where he can show he is up to the job will also be essential. Enthusiasm for Biden among younger voters is strengthening but still below where you’d feel comfortable. The Biden campaign needs to make continual progress on that measure.
The persistence of COVID-19, a depressed economy, and the heightened awareness of systemic racism will doubtlessly be key factors in November. How do you expect the two camps to grapple with these issues?
COVID-19 and the economy are linked. The central question on all swing voters’ minds this fall will be which of these two men can manage the crisis in the near term, oversee the delivery and adoption of a vaccine, and take steps to heal a wounded economy. It is the campaign in many respects.
The protests over racism so far seem to be helping Biden politically to date. Trump sees this issue as his “trump card” so to speak, so we will witness every day whether his “law and order” thrust changes that dynamic.
How important is Biden’s choice of running mate? Where do you think he’ll land and what are the political considerations that might go into making that decision?
At least 90% of this decision will not be political, it will be based on governing. He went through this process once, was selected, and served in the role for two terms. He will make his selection based on who he thinks will be his most effective and trusted partner in the White House, not the campaign trail. Politically, the only mistake Biden could make is picking someone who voters do not think is ready to be president or picking someone who swing voters believe is out of the step with their views and values. In that case, Trump’s campaign would suggest you are really voting for “X”, not Biden.
How important is a well-run campaign (e.g., “ground game,” organizing, advertising, etc.) to winning a presidential election vs. the behavior/performance of a candidate? How much influence does a candidate have in running a presidential campaign, and how has that changed with COVID-19 and the evolution of social media in the past decade?
The candidate and the political and issue environment are the big things. Campaigns matter on the margins. But a close race is decided on the margins, so in those scenarios, a superior campaign can make the difference.
Some presidential candidates — like Reagan, both Bushes, and Obama — are fairly hands-off on most details in their campaigns. They focus on their speeches, debates, and key decisions but delegate most of the rest. Others — like Clinton and Trump — are intimately involved and essentially serve as their own de facto campaign manager.
Social media is the new public square, so a successful organization thinks, acts, and resources digital first. We will learn many things about how COVID-19 will affect and has affected this election. But one thing for sure will be that a historically high number of votes will be cast by mail. That creates challenges for the campaigns, to ensure not only as many of their supporters as possible vote by mail, but that they also do so correctly so their ballot gets counted. And it creates huge issues for elections officials, who concerningly right now are not ready for the tsunami of mail-in ballots to come, especially if record voter turnout occurs as some experts predict.
In general, how do campaigns make decisions as they move closer to November? How do strategies and/or tactics change as Election Day approaches? When and how should they be reactive to world events or their opposition?
Decisions are made almost exclusively in the battleground states based on the campaign’s internal data. Where to spend more money on advertising. Where to spend less or stop based on how they are doing with key voter cohorts in key geographic areas. What interviews the candidate, VP, and surrogates conduct. Where they travel (if that’s an option this fall).
A presidential campaign reviews data and modeling every day to assess where they are exceeding their vote goals, meeting them, and falling short. They try other research methods and intuition to understand why. Decisions large and small all flow from each campaign’s sense of where the race stands at that moment.