Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: 'The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory' by David Plouffe

Review by Susan Gardner
The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory 
By David Plouffe 
Hardback, 387 pages, $27.95 
Viking: New York 
November 2009



"Let me get this straight," summed up one of our colleagues. "We should work for the candidate with no chance, no money, and the funny name?"
"As I keep telling you guys," [David Axelrod] wryly replied, "I am a terrible businessman."
And thus history was made.
David Plouffe, campaign manager for one of the most unlikely presidential successes in history, has written a gripping blockbuster of a book, manna for political aficionados and newcomers to elections alike, full of scrappy details, minute explanations of strategy, tales from the trail and candid assessments of mistakes made and lessons learned.
In Plouffe's telling, what made the campaign that elected Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States was the ability to ignore conventional wisdom, tap into overlooked potential voters and, most importantly, to throw out the old rule book. Being the underdog against the greatly favored Hillary Clinton juggernaut was, in retrospect, the first blessing bestowed upon the Obama camp.
The way I saw it, we were able to run such a disciplined campaign because most party leaders did not jump on the Obama bandwagon in the early going, and those that did were open to change. We were able to make decisions without a lot of guff from our leading political supporters because they were not in the driver's seat. We had a clear message and strategy to push forward, and volunteers were our engine. Groups and political leaders who supported us were the caboose.
Because the Democratic Party machinery was dominated by Clinton supporters, because Hillary's name recognition was so prominent, because she'd locked up most of the consultants considered "must haves" for a Democratic presidential campaign, the Obama group was forced to fall back on the grassroots and old-fashioned one-on-one retail politicking, painstakingly building up ground forces that recruited friends, neighbors and co-workers outside of the traditional party network, with non-traditional methods. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the campaign's early decision to focus on delegates instead of popular vote and to go all in for Iowa. Iowa was the Holy Grail of intense focus, and with the victory that came there, the strategy and tactics became the template for all the later states.
Before we even knew the contours of the final calendar, we pounded Obama with the mantra that the first contest held undue influence. If you stumbled as an insurgent candidate, you were done. "If you run," we told him, "you are going to spend all your time doing two things: raising money and campaigning in one of these four states, most often Iowa." Though this strategy would be tested vigorously at times, in hindsight having it pinned down and clear at the outset could not have been more important.
Most of this book is a return to examining the details of this winning template in different climates and different places, including the general election. Applying the Iowa lessons -- focus, delegates, grassroots ground game -- became amplified as the campaign built its phenomenal online presence and outreach. And while the web element was crucial, Plouffe makes clear it was merely a tool in the service of the change and empowerment message that was critical to the expanded voter base the campaign went to such great lengths to build and nurture.
Much was made in the media last month when The Audacity to Win hit the market of pieces of insider gossip that hadn't been known -- that the Edwards campaign approached both the Obama camp and the Hillary camp offering endorsement in exchange for the vice presidential slot, that the Obama team leaked the John Edwards haircut tidbit. For me (and perhaps I missed this evaluation in the heat of the primary campaign), the most startling factoid I hadn't known was that Plouffe and crew absolutely, unequivocally attributed Hillary's primary win in Indiana to the interference of a certain mischief-making conservative radio host:
If Rush Limbaugh had not encouraged Republicans to vote in the Indiana primary for Hillary as a way of extending our race. we would have won outright.... Over 12 percent of the Indiana primary vote was Republican and Hillary carried it, despite her through-the-roof unfavorable numbers with these voters, Limbaugh's project worked in Indiana--it cost us that victory--but it didn't matter. The die was cast.
While as a reader, I would usually welcome such candor, as a well-wisher for the Obama administration, I'm (probably naively) wondering if attributing such power to a vowed enemy of this administration--who hopes it fails, mind you--is a wise political decision.
Clearly, for those of us who lived and breathed the presidential campaign, such gossipy confirmations of suspicions and unguessed maneuvers as the Edwards endorsement bargain are juicy reads. But to get hold of this book for the small insider stuff really would do The Audacity to Win a disservice. It's a dense book. Fairly easy to read, but still ... dense. And for those of us who really, really followed the ins and outs of the primaries and the general campaign, the book is far more valuable in terms of explaining the minutiae of tactics and strategy, of explaining the campaign's internal reasoning about choices made and allocation of attention and resources.
Even internal second-guessing and admission of mistakes made--and how and why--is absolutely fascinating. Consider, for example, this rumination on the Texas primary outcome:
As I reflected on this and thought harder about our March 4 losses, I tried to go beyond the surface explanation that these were tough states for us and we had closed poorly. I bolted upright in my seat when it finally dawned on me: for the first time in the campaign our strategy had been off. We should have put aside our delegate chase for these contests and gone in for the kill in Texas, trying to win the popular vote. We should have focused at least two-thirds of our effort there instead of splitting our resources with Ohio. Thinking back through our efforts, I realized we hadn't even campaigned vigorously in the Hispanic areas of Texas or in many of the rural and small-town areas, where Clinton annihilated us. We focused our time and attention only on the areas where we could net more delegates.
If we had gone all-in, we would have had more time to campaign all over the state. If our schedule and other activities had been based on a statewide vote goal, we just might have pulled out a win in Texas. We lost by one 4 percent statewide; more time and focus might easily have changed 2 percent of the electorate.
Or for analysis about voting patterns, there's a wealth of material like this:
Some in political circles argue that the early vote doesn't matter--that the people who go to the effort to vote early are committed voters who will almost certainly show up on Election Day. We fervently believed that if a hurdle presented itself on Election Day--a family issue; a work emergency; transportation problems--nonhabitual voters are the most likely people to throw in the towel on making it to the polls. These are the folks we relentlessly encouraged to vote early and the yardstick to which we paid closest attention--not how many votes we were getting, but whose. Were enough first-time voters voting early? How about African American sporadic voters? In addition to allowing us to make sure we were voting large numbers of our most questionable turnout targets, it also gave us a window into overall changes in turnout from previous elections, which helped us determine whether we were really changing the electorate.
By far the biggest strength of Plouffe's campaign memoir are these kind of politically nerdy ruminations. They're spot on, candid and nuanced, and they not only are terrifically presented, they're frequent, making up the bulk of the book.
There is, however, still very little sense of Barack Obama, the man, in these pages. Don't expect to learn anymore than you already think you know about what makes him tick. You get glimpses of his self-confidence, of his high-mindedness when he scolds staff for ads or tactics he perceives to be dirty, of his competitiveness. Perhaps the most revealing passage in the book dealing even indirectly with "what makes this guy run" is Plouffe's discussion of how the Iowa staff was concerned with his lackluster performance and seeming lack of interest at the outset:
He hadn't embraced campaign life, and it was beginning to cause concern. The early-state staff in particular thought he was not locked in on the trail, either in his remarks or in his solicitations of political support. We weren't sure if Obama would turn out to be Secretariat, but we suspected he had some thoroughbred political talent; it just wasn't on daily display. ... But the reports from Iowa were that he was mostly going through the motions. After one event, Tewes called me and laid it on the line. "Unless he gets better, we might as well just not have him meet with people," he said. "They tell us afterward, 'He really never put the squeeze on me. It was a nice enough conversation but he doesn't seem like he really wants it.'"
That's about as good as it gets in terms of understanding Obama, and even then, we never learn exactly why he wasn't really putting himself out there, or why he was able to up his game so quickly and dramatically. We know he did, obviously, and Plouffe dutifully recounts the candidate promising to do better, but there is no real sense of why he was semi-off in the first place or what mental pumping up he did to turn it around. Perhaps we'll have to wait the President's own memoir when he leaves office to really find out. Or maybe he'll continue to loom over American politics as something of a high-minded, fascinating enigma.
So come to The Audacity to Win with your political geek hat on, and you'll do just fine. It's a "must have" for anyone building a political library or wanting to delve deep into campaign strategy. Then again, if you really do need a teaser tidbit to push you over the edge into reading it, consider this: Without reading The Audacity to Win, you will never, ever know how very, very close we came to ... Vice President Evan Bayh.
One final minor point/gripe about Plouffe's book: There's no index. He tries to pass this off as an intential ploy to foil the Washington Beltway crowd who turn immediately to the index to find the pages about themselves (and thus refuse to read a whole book), but this is too cute by half and wholly silly. This is an account of a historic, groundbreaking campaign--worthy to be read by political historians and strategists forever. Game playing with the index for whatever reason or point to be made is not audacious. It's irritating. And it can be corrected, one can have the audacity to hope, in a second edition.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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