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.

It _is_ amusing, actually.

It’s lunacy. Iowa is close because voters there are developing a depth of knowledge about Obama’s message and are paying close attention to the race and beginning to go through the decision making process.

Iowa is close because Clinton, Obama and Edwards spend all their time there and the plurality of their money there.

Newsweek recently stated that if Clinton does not win Iowa, her candidacy could “implode.” That may be too strong a term but not that far off the mark. You live by inevitability and die by inevitability and there are growing signs in the last 10 days that Clinton’s support in the early states, as well as nationally, is fairly thin and eroding.

The Clinton campaign believes that they can lose Iowa to John Edwards and still win the nomination. But if they lose to Obama....

The Clinton campaign clearly understands how important winning Iowa is to her candidacy, adding 100 new staffers in the past days and doubling their TV buy last week, all while AFSCME and Emily’s List prepare unprecedented Independent Expenditures on her behalf.



So watch what they do, not what they spin. Iowa is make or break for them and they know it. Which is why they will likely start planting signs, instead of questions, in Iowa.

While this race should remain very close for the remaining 50 days, a few positive internal measures are worth noting. Even though Obama has spent a great amount of time in Iowa and advertised on TV and radio, there are still over 30% of the electorate that say they know little about Obama. We trail badly among these voters. Among voters who say they know a good or great deal about the three major candidates, we enjoy a lead. So as these remaining voters get educated about Obama and tune in more closely to the race, we see potential for gain among a not insignificant portion of the electorate.

This has been the pattern: the more voters know about Obama, the more they like him.

We also believe for the first time, we now have the most firmly committed supporters, a testament in part to our strong precinct organization on the ground, which once again proved its mettle at the JJ Dinner this past Saturday in Des Moines.




II. New Hampshire

It is evident from three recent public polls that the race in New Hampshire has tightened significantly in the last couple of weeks. Clinton’s lead, which was over 20 points, has now been cut roughly in half in these polls. We believe the race to be even closer still, if the percentage of undeclared we believe will make up the ultimate Democratic primary electorate is properly accounted for.

Obama did not start advertising on television in New Hampshire until late September, the last major candidate to do so, and we have seen movement in the race more quickly than even we thought likely. We have a solid foundation in the mid 20s, while Clinton has fallen into the low to mid 30s. Winning New Hampshire will most likely require at least 40-42% of the vote, and we see a cleaner path to those type of numbers than Clinton.


Amongst voters who say they know both Obama and Clinton equally well, we actually take a lead outside the margin for error, and in our internal polling as well as public polling, among those following the race closely, Obama and Clinton are in a dead heat.


This is not really in dispute at this point.

Even more so than in Iowa, we see no path for Edwards to grow his base from the low teens to what would be required to win or even come in second in the New Hampshire primary. Edwards has been unable to grow his base from the low teens throughout the campaign.

Similar to our operation in Iowa, we believe we have the strongest field organization in New Hampshire, which can have a significant impact in a close primary contest. Just this past weekend, we had over 800 people knocking on doors throughout the state, joined by Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.



III. Nevada



We believe the Nevada caucuses will be deeply impacted by what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is the first time Nevada is an early state in the nominating process and the first time they are holding precinct-based caucuses. Therefore, what the turnout is and the pace of decision making is not fully known.


Our focus in Nevada has been almost exclusively on building a precinct by precinct organization, which is essential in a caucus, particularly where you will have some precincts with very low turnout. We currently have over 1500 precinct captains identified, covering the vast majority of the precincts in Nevada.



Polling in the Nevada contest is even more difficult than even the notoriously tough Iowa caucus, because there is no turnout history. It is worth noting that the latest Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal had Clinton dropping 12 points and Obama gaining 10. We believe that is because voters are beginning to engage at a more serious level.



John Edwards, who planned to make Nevada central to his nominating strategy, has pulled out his State Director and redeployed him to Iowa and seen his Field Director leave as well.



IV. South Carolina



South Carolina is the gateway to February 5th, giving the contest even greater importance than it traditionally held.



Without running a single television ad, and with voters facing a deficit of knowledge about Obama, we have been able to establish a solid foundation in the high 20s.



We believe Clinton is a few points above that, in the low to mid 30s.



Edwards, who won South Carolina in 2004, is polling a very poor third and organizationally does not appear to be investing serious resources.



When we began this campaign, Obama was garnering 7% of the African-American vote. We now are leading amongst African-American voters in the last two public polls and internally we believe our lead is solidly in the double digits.



We also believe that Edwards’ support in South Carolina, if he is no longer in the race or is a weakened candidate, is much more inclined to be supportive of Obama.



We see a clear path to victory in South Carolina, in what is a critical contest for anyone hoping to enter February 5th with the requisite momentum.



V. February 5



We are aggressively building organizations in many of the February 5th states, with a particular focus on caucus states where local precinct and county organizations need to be in place to succeed as well as primary states with large delegate yields. We currently have staff and vibrant grassroots organizations in:

Alabama
Arizona
California
Colorado
Georgia
Idaho
Kansas
Minnesota
Missouri
New Jersey
New York


As best we can tell, Clinton only has a meaningful presence in California and New Jersey. Edwards has no formal presence in the February 5th states. The bottom line is this: At a time when we are rounding the corner to the final stretch before the voting begins, Barack Obama is well-positioned and on the move. We are, as Barack would say, “Fired up, and ready to go
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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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