Annotating The Latest Plouffe Memo

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TO: Interested Parties

FROM: David Plouffe

RE: Obama Gains Strength at Critical Time

DATE: November 13, 2007

In recent weeks, we have seen an important shift in the campaign, and fifty-one days before the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama is strengthening his position in the Democratic presidential nominating race, while other candidates are stagnating or weakening. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are beginning to focus on the race more intently and are increasingly making decisions. And as they do, Senator Obama is profiting at Senator Clinton’s expense.

No hard evidence of this yet in Iowa; some evidence for it in New Hampshire.

Even in Nevada and South Carolina, where the electorates are not as broadly engaged, the race is moving in a positive direction for Barack Obama’s campaign.

Let's see the polling.

Obama received an important boost at the Iowa Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner on Saturday night where his organization outperformed all of the other candidates, and his speech was the best received by the audience and important caucus observers like the Des Moines Register’s David Yepsen.

True, though many in the audience had left by the time Obama began to speak.

The decisive factor for the majority of voters in the 2008 primary season will be determining which candidate can really deliver change they can believe in.

That is the claim of the Obama team,yes, but we really won't know until Iowa whether it's true or not.

Barack Obama believes that to bring about fundamental change three things have to be accomplished. First, the next President must have the ability to unify the country, bringing Republicans and Independents together with Democrats to solve the nation’s most pressing problems. Obama has a track record and approach suited to this challenge while Senator Clinton is likely to unite the GOP against her candidacy as well as her Presidency. And Senator Edwards does not show an inclination toward unity, suggesting compromise is a dirty word.

The Edwards swipe aside, this is what Obama believes.

Second, the influence of lobbyists and special interests, who control too much of the agenda in Washington, must be reduced and the voices of the American people must be heard again. Barack Obama has a history of taking on the special interests and winning. He has a track record of leading the way on reform and disclosure. Barack Obama will be beholden to no one but the American people when he wins. Senator Clinton embraces the current system in Washington and is the anointed candidate of Washington, raising more money from PACs and Washington lobbyists than any candidate in either party. Hillary Clinton continually chooses secrecy over disclosure, refusing to expedite the release of documents detailing her record as First Lady, refusing to release tax returns and refusing to release her earmarks request from this year.

A poke in Obama's direction vis-a-vis his Senate records here might be appropriate, but then his campaign would accuse me of practicing the politics of cynicism.

While Senator Edwards does not accept PAC or Washington lobbyist money either, his record on reform issues while in the United States Senate demonstrated it was not one of his priorities. Opening up and reforming government has been a primary cause in Obama’s life, not just a convenient set of issues in a political campaign.

If and when Edwards and Obama engage, you'll see a lot of charges along these lines.

Third, to bring about real change we need a president who will tell the American people not just what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. People may not always agree with Obama’s views, but they will be clear where he stands and why.

Senator Clinton has been ducking and dodging tough questions at rapid pace lately, evading clear answers on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, Social Security’s future and diplomacy with Iran. And according to reports out of Iowa, her staff has planted favorable questions to ensure that she is not asked and does not have to answer the tough questions from people in Iowa.

CF: Meet the Press, where Sen. Obama did not give terribly clear answers to some of these same questions. But Obama hasn't planted questions.

Perhaps, this kind of political calculation works in textbook Washington politics, but it is why the American people are not optimistic that there can be a fundamental shift in our politics that will have a positive impact on their lives.

Perhaps.

John Edwards’ positions are not changing as rapidly, but on many core issues the Edwards of today is different than the Edwards of 1998, or even 2004. It’s admirable to admit mistakes but John Edwards has apologized for most of his record while in the Senate, saying he got it wrong on trade with China, Right to Work, Packer Ban, No Child Left Behind, Bankruptcy reform and of course, the Iraq War.

The Edwards connundrum: has he repudiated everything he stood for? If Edwards begins to rise in Iowa, will he receive scrutiny along the lines Plouffe is suggesting here?

We believe voters will base much of their ultimate decision on who is best equipped and has the best track record with those three pillars of change – Unity, Changing Washington and Trust. And we are seeing signs in the early states that suggest voters believe Obama is not only the best candidate to lead our Party but is the best candidate to lead the nation.

Maybe, but Obama, as his campaign knows, still has an experience perception problem.


I. Iowa

Iowa right now is an extremely competitive three way contest. Our first Iowa poll showed Obama trailing Edwards by 20 and Clinton by 14 so we have made great progress. Two recent public polls show Clinton and Obama within the margin of error, with Edwards down a few points. Edwards led for much of the year in public polling, but no public poll in the last three months has shown him leading. In fact, a leading Edwards strategist said this weekend that Edwards is now in third place in Iowa

Edwards has clearly lost support over the course of the year. While he retains a solid base of the vote and a strong organization, gaining back what you lost is always more difficult in politics than adding to what you have. Edwards received 32% in 2004 and is polling consistently about 10 points below that now. So even in the unlikely event he could get back to his 32% base of 2004 attendees, turnout is almost unquestionably going to be higher this time, meaning Edwards has to not just get back what he has lost but grow appreciably on top of that. We see no signs of Edwards growing outside of his core base from 2004.

I don't think Edwards has declined by as much as this memo says, but he really is down to his core group of supporters and needs to rebuild support among some of his softer supporters.

We find it amusing that the Clinton campaign is attempting to lower expectations in Iowa, despite leading in most Iowa polls. Their argument seems to suggest there is a one state exception for inevitability, that somehow Iowa is the one place in the country immune to her appeals.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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