What Barack Obama needs to do to close the deal

Three Democratic operatives offer advice for how the candidate should spend the final week.

Published October 28, 2008 10:56AM (EDT)

It's crunch time. There's only a week to go in this seemingly interminable 2008 presidential election. The consensus from the national polls is that Democrat Barack Obama enjoys a lead in the mid-to-high single digits and he looks to be strong in key battleground states as well. Obama's lead at this late stage contrasts starkly with the position in which Al Gore and John Kerry found themselves, respectively, during the closing week of the 2000 and 2004 elections. Though many superstitious Democrats around the country refuse to let the thought even enter their minds, much less pass from their lips, the truth is that the 2008 presidential election is, at this point, Barack Obama's to lose. That said, today we ask a very simple question: What should Obama and his campaign do now to close out his presidential bid?

Joining us to impart their advice and analysis are three Democrats who have advised presidents and presidential candidates. Kenneth Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, is the co-founder and co-editor of the progressive quarterly Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He is also the head of Baer Communications, a Democratic speechwriting and policy-consulting firm. Democratic strategist and media consultant Steve McMahon is a partner in the firm McMahon, Squier and Lapp. A former aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, McMahon has worked as a strategist and consultant on three presidential campaigns, most notably Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and, later, Dean's successful race for Democratic National Committee chairman. Laurie Moskowitz is founder and principal of Fieldworks, a firm that specializes in voter contact and ground mobilization. In 2000, she directed the Democratic National Committee's national field effort that helped produce Al Gore's national popular vote victory.

Tom Schaller: We are a week away from the election. Obama seems to have a lead of 5 to 7 points, depending on which polls you look at. I'd like to open the conversation by asking what the key priorities of the Obama campaign, or really any presidential campaign with that kind of lead and a few precious days to go, should be.

Kenneth Baer: I think right now it's not to become complacent. This campaign, more so than other campaigns, has generated a huge amount of excitement. Look at it like potential energy. The trick is to convert that potential energy to real energy on Election Day. You just can't get people saying, "My vote is not going to matter, Obama is up 10 points, I don't need to go out and vote. It's cold out, it's rainy." [You can't have] staff people who are like, "I don't need to work that hard, we're going to win this anyway." Just really keeping motivated, that's the big challenge.

Steve McMahon: Obama's got a great lead on paper. There are an enormous number of new voters, which were all pretty much signed up by the Obama campaign. So he has the opportunity to expand his lead even further. But if he gets complacent at all, it's dangerous. The best thing to do when you're winning is to keep doing what you're doing because that's the reason you're winning. He needs to be aggressive, he needs to continue to draw out the distinctions between himself and McCain. He needs to continue making people comfortable with the notion of Barack Obama as president of the United States and I think he's done a really good job doing that to this point. As the McCain campaign reaches into the toolbox and discovers they've got nothing left to throw but the kitchen sink, it's important for Obama to stay on his game and not be distracted.

Schaller: Laurie Moskowitz, I assume the one group in a campaign that's definitely not ramping things down at this point is the field crowd, the get-out-the-vote people. They're just going into high gear, right?

Laurie Moskowitz: Yeah, the field group is basically staying up all night, putting their organization together. And that's what it comes down to at this stretch, is having the organization that can turn all these new voters out, that can find these people on Election Day. To make sure all the people who have already voted are taken off the rolls so that we can marshal resources and make sure that we have targeted lists on Election Day and that it all comes together in one sort of final orchestration that makes it all work.

Schaller: There was a lot of criticism of John Kerry four years ago that he didn't tell us what the national message was until a week after the campaign. It was apparently something called JHOS -- jobs, healthcare, opportunities, security. But people criticized him for not articulating that properly during the campaign. And then of course there was the Osama bin Laden video. What kind of message do you want to deliver in the last week?

Baer: I think this is something where for a Democrat who has been involved in campaigns in 2000 and 2004, we're in a strange situation where we have a candidate who started his campaign with a message and has kept that message consistently for the entire length of this campaign. Everyone knows what Barack Obama's about, it's about the change we need. That message has been fleshed out a bit over time, but it's basically been the same thing. And it's working. It's a man and a message and a moment all coming together. The advice to the Obama campaign is continue what you're doing. One of the more important components to that is to make sure that the campaign continues to be on the offense. For the last two weeks, the Obama campaign needs to be setting the terms of the debate and not John McCain, and it has to be proactive, not reactive.

McMahon: To my way of thinking, the JHOS, or whatever it was, wasn't really a message at all. What it was was a series of issues and issue positions that didn't really ladder up to anything that was clear to voters. I think what the Obama campaign has done so well is what, frankly, Republicans usually do well, which is they've set a frame for Barack Obama's campaign and for what he represents and everything that they do ladders up to and reinforces that frame. And the frame, as Ken pointed out, is change we need. And it's very, very clear to people that Barack Obama wants to take the country in a new direction. And it's very clear that he wants to take it in a direction that is fundamentally different than the direction the president has taken us on. And it's also pretty clear because they've set a frame for John McCain early in this race that they've stuck to very, very religiously and that is he's John McSame. He's going to just give us four more years of George Bush.

If you look at the polling numbers, that frame has stuck on John McCain. That's really what he's struggling with and the fact that he's now trying to carry around Sarah Palin, who after initially looking like perhaps it might be an interesting choice that could change the dynamic of the race, turns out to have been a reckless and dangerous and erratic choice that people have figured out. They're now wondering what kind of judgment John McCain has.

Schaller: Let me rephrase this question for Laurie. Is it easier to do field work in a race like this where your candidate has been consistent?

Moskowitz: It definitely makes it easier because I think people know what they're voting for. They know what they're going out and casting their ballot for and that's a much easier choice for people to make. I think in some places where people are seeing polls and they're so overwhelmingly for Obama, people do start to think, "Oh well, it just won't matter if I get to the polls that day." You have to convince them that's not the case, that it actually does matter.

Schaller: We know that Obama, with all this money, has bought this huge chunk of time, I don't know if it's the night before or Sunday night, but he's going to have this 30-minute segment. We've seen this done in the past. How do you handle that, Steve? What would you do? It's usually this very glossy, biographical thing. Do you think he will do the traditional thing with that or will he do something different?

McMahon: I actually think it's the precursor to his State of the Union speech. What I mean by that, I think what he wants to do is frame the race and frame for people what it would look like and what it would feel like if Barack Obama became president of the United States. And so my suspicion is there will be less bio and it will be less like a commercial and more like a serious, thoughtful speech that talks about the challenges the country faces, that expresses the optimism and aspiration that we can address together as Americans in a bipartisan way and meet whatever challenges we face. It begins to set a frame for Sen. Obama becoming President Obama. It also gives him an opportunity, if there are any lingering issues out there that he needs to resolve or address -- which, by the way, I don't think there are at this point -- it gives him an opportunity to address those. It's a great luxury to have the ability and the financial resources to do a half-hour before the election. And it's something that's going to make this race even more difficult for John McCain to close. The financial resource advantage has been enormous. And that half-hour on every major network in prime time is going to make it even more difficult.

Moskowitz: Having him out there looking so presidential is just a huge factor in this. For the people who still are undecided, for them, it's feeling comfortable with him. I think putting him in that presidential state is just the way to go. I think it's a great tactic and a luxury we [Democrats] haven't seen.

Baer: It's interesting listening to you two guys because I've actually been puzzled by what he would do with the half-hour. It sounds like, Laurie and Steve, the Obama campaign is going to put him out there in an Oval Office sort of setting and speak directly into the camera. I thought they would just do the heavily glossy production laying out the case. Do you know things I don't?

Moskowitz: There won't be any Greek columns.

McMahon: No, I'm just guessing, but as we say in Texas, we're fixing to find out.

Schaller: This election for the most part has been a referendum on Obama and whether voters feel comfortable with him. I think we've seen in the last month, particularly since the bailout crisis, that voters have become comfortable. If you're Obama, do you talk about your opponent if you're ahead at this point or do you just talk about yourself?

McMahon: I think the race first was a referendum on George Bush and second it was a referendum on Barack Obama. And by that I mean, Sen. Obama became the nominee in the midst of a fairly vociferous desire for change. And I believe he leveraged that very, very effectively. And what the McCain campaign did, beginning with the celebrity ad up to about three or four weeks ago, was it made it a referendum on Barack Obama and I think he passed that test in the debates and by his behavior and by his steady response to the financial crisis. Obviously the financial crisis made it a challenge for both candidates, but Barack Obama rose to the challenge and John McCain didn't. I don't think he needs to or should address Sen. McCain. But I do think that it's smart for him to talk about a new direction and how the president, who's not very popular at all right now, took us down a road that it's going to require great determination and a willingness to work together to get back on track. I think that every time he does that, he benefits and hits Sen. McCain without ever having to mention Sen. McCain's name.

Baer: I think that you can't look too far past Nov. 4. The McCain campaign is really trying to land some punches and they're throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, and some of those are going to stick. I always believe, and maybe this is an early lesson I learned, that you always need to be on the offensive. Always, always, always. Attack, attack, attack. I don't mean personal attacks, but be on the offensive in terms of the debate. And if that means engaging John McCain directly, that means engaging John McCain directly. He is the nominee and everyone knows that. You just can't let up the pressure. The race is not an 8- or 10-point race right now. It's not going to end up being that way. This is going to tighten, this is going to be a close election or it's going to feel close or be close on Election Day. You really need to keep up the pressure.

Schaller: Laurie, I wonder if attacking or, inversely, being attacked is good for mobilization even if it's just at the volunteer level. Does it ratchet up the level of intensity of the people in the field?

Moskowitz: Well, I certainly think that attacks in general ratchet things up in the field. It would depend on what it is, how the campaign responds. There are so many what-ifs in that scenario. You know, can it help? It could. I think Kenny's right in the sense that the campaign can't let up. We don't want them to and we can't afford to. This isn't going to be a landslide. We'll take whatever we can to mobilize people. But I think all these attacks they're throwing at Obama just help us motivate people and make them even more eager to get out here and win this election.

Schaller: Speaking of the field stuff, we hear so much reported about this amazing apparatus that the Obama people have put together. Laurie, what exactly have they built and how is it going to perform? Given the early voting, I guess it's already performing.

Moskowitz: It's definitely real. It's phenomenal. And I think, whether it's a buzzword or not, it's organic. This is the sort of field operation that everybody always dreams of in the sense that this is really people from the ground up taking initiative, seizing opportunity and being allowed to have the tools and resources at their disposal to do what they need to do. The Obama campaign should be given great credit in sensing the momentum that was there on the ground and empowering people to do what they wanted to do, whether that's having a local office in every little town that people could go to and participate, to using different technology, to figuring out what works best in their neighborhoods and really allowing the staff on the ground a lot of leeway in developing the plan and not dictating from the top down. Of course there are goals, there are things they measure. They know how many voters they need to turn out, but how they get there and the way that they can motivate people and the types of tools they have at their disposal, it's definitely a new operation the likes of which we've not seen before.

Schaller: In the past Democrats were relying on union labor in the last week or they had to rely on 527s like Kerry did. Is it that it's more command control from David Plouffe this time around, is that one of the features that makes it better? Or is it that they have a lot more money and people are just excited about the candidate and that makes them work hard?

Moskowitz: No, it's not more command and control. Again, there's framework, there's structure, there's goals. But again, they've really let the people on the ground dictate how they reach those goals. They've provided them with a slate of tools to use. They've really amped up their technology in terms of what lists people can call off of. They've definitely given people sweet things like platforms for auto calls so a state director can literally connect to their voters directly and not go through a vendor; they contact voters off of their computers. The other half of it is they just have the energy and the enthusiasm of their volunteers and they let them run things locally. So you might have a true volunteer, not a staffer, who's running a county and reporting to a staffer, that person who could be a local teacher or a local lawyer running something. It just doesn't matter; as long they're willing to take the responsibility and contact voters, they're included in the operation.

Schaller: Steve and Kenny, is this the wave of the future? The campaign figures out the strategy but leaves the tactics to the locals? We sort of saw this with the Bush campaign's use of the evangelicals and the 72-hour program four years ago, so I gather that this is the new mobilization method, right?

Baer: Well, maybe. There's something very exhilarating about the Obama candidacy on many levels. One, obviously, is the historic nature of it. The barriers he's breaking. That makes it very exhilarating. But part of it that's exhilarating, is that you just don't know if it's going to work or not. This is the field program that you've dreamed of. The type of candidacy you dream of. It feels like "The West Wing." We have an incredibly inspirational candidate with a clear message who just does the right thing; people feel good about it and all that, but it's exhilarating partly because we don't know if it's going to work. It's a huge gamble.

We know the safe thing is to identify super primary voters, people who vote a lot, find them, identify them and drag them out to vote. That's how you win. Registering a million new voters like they've done nationwide, hundreds of thousands in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and then finding them again and getting them to vote when political science tells you that voting is a habit, that people who vote previously are the ones that will vote prospectively, that's a high-risk strategy, and it's exhilarating. Because if it works, we've just done something great. It's great for democracy. I hope it works. And there's every indication it will work. But it really is a huge step, it's a gamble. Then again, the Obama campaign hasn't been successful because it's done the tried and true. It's been successful because it has done things differently.

Moskowitz: I think what's also interesting about their volunteer base is the willingness of these people to contact other voters, other people in their community. Sometimes you can have candidates who inspire people, they make people feel good, but then that's not necessarily translated in the ability to actually turn people out to vote. I'm even seeing it in some of the races I work with around the country; you can turn out a ton of people for a rally but then when you ask them to go door to door, they don't necessarily want to do that. The Obama folks are doing that. They're going door to door, they're getting people to vote early, they're making phone calls from their homes, they're doing it all with enthusiasm and excitement and dragging people with them along the way.

Schaller: It's been reported that Obama is delegating some of his staff to help in certain down-ballot races. Is that a sign of confidence or is it a sign of overconfidence? Should you be conserving every last resource or is Obama really trying to build himself that governing majority he talked about back in January and February?

McMahon: I don't think it's a sign of overconfidence. I think he is trying to build the majority he is talking about. Remember, the people who are on Barack Obama's staff are not going to turn out the vote for a member of Congress or a congressional candidate without making sure that Barack Obama is covered. I think it's just a way to spread the field and make Republicans have to defend more than just John McCain, make them have to defend Republican incumbents and challengers all over the country. If you talked for a second about what the Dean vision of the DNC ought to be, an operation that empowers or enables the grass roots to occur in 50 states at the same time and not just in 18, the Obama campaign has actually taken that idea and blown it out as well. He's organized; even in places where he's not necessarily competitive, they've got campaigns. They're going to make a difference in getting him closer perhaps, getting him over the top and getting a lot of Democrats closer or over the top along the way.

Moskowitz: Steve's absolutely right. They're not going to go do this where it doesn't help them, but I think it will help build him some goodwill. There are going to be a lot of new people, if all these new people turn out; they're not necessarily schooled to vote down the ballot and I think for some of these congressional races especially, and certainly with the ballot initiatives, having people vote down the ballot is really, really important. I think for him it is a way to have it both ways. Build a governing majority, build goodwill for himself and also make sure that some of these House races and ballots that are on the line get pulled over the top because you can help. I think it makes complete sense for them to be doing it.

Schaller: Ken, you've written about realignments. Are these the type of things you need to do to have some sort of fundamental shift?

Baer: That's a good question. It's a question of is a realignment something that you can instigate on your own, something operationally that you can make, or is it something that just happens? Realignment, we know, happens not at the election that it started, but two or three elections after and you look back and say there was a significant partisan shift. Looking at the more reliable polling, at the demographics, you're not seeing the type of huge partisan shift that would show that this is realigning election. I think it's a repudiation of the past eight years and of the Republican Party and we've got to see what happens next. If states like Virginia or North Carolina or Colorado start behaving differently, then we will see 2008 as possibly a realignment or just the beginning of a new political era. One thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of Americans were not alive the last time a Northern Democrat won the White House. It could be the end of an era -- or it's an anomaly of some kind. It takes real skill to screw up the country like it's screwed up now. And George Bush had that skill. It could just be, listen, we need someone else. And then you go back to this normal partisan attachment, normal partisan behavior.

Schaller: We know that Obama raised $150 million last month, $66 million the month before. It was just reported today, he's already raised $36 million in October so far. That totals up to over $200 million, which is roughly equivalent to what Hillary Clinton raised, if you don't count the loans she gave herself, in all of 2007 and 2008 combined. It's definitely more than what McCain raised in all of 2007 and 2008 combined. You get a call a week before the election and the Obama campaign wants to know, they have so much money, they want to know what they should do with that money in the final week. What do you tell them?

McMahon: I tell them give it to Ken.

Baer: Hire Steve.

McMahon: I would encourage them, if they have that kind of resource available, to be generous with the party committees, because, again, you've got races all over the country that are unexpectedly close. And the DCCC could certainly use an infusion of hard money that they could then go give directly to a campaign or that they could spend on behalf of a candidate, and I'm sure Chuck Schumer over at the Democratic Senate Committee would feel the same way. And if they wanted to share a little with Howard Dean, who could then take it to some of the down-ballet races around the country, I'm sure he'd be very grateful. There are a lot of things they could do with it to generate goodwill and also to generate a bigger electoral victory for Democrats on Nov. 4. And that's what I'd encourage them to do with it, once their needs are taken care of.

Moskowitz: Well, that and of course more lawn signs. No, I completely agree. These operations, this is sort of the brass tacks. This is rubber meets the road for the party. We can win a lot more races with more resources. That's a great answer. I wholeheartedly agree.

Baer: I look at it differently. I'm sort of torn. Not really where the money is sent to or what avenues it goes through. But, to me, it seems like it's a fundamental question of do you keep expanding the map in order to make McCain stretch his own resources or do you absolutely lock down your 270? And that to me is a tough, tough question. It looks like now the Obama campaign is going into West Virginia. That's expanding the map. It's a cheap way to expand the map because West Virginia shares a media market with Pennsylvania and Ohio, but at what point do you say, let's just lock down our 270 or 300 electoral votes and let's not waste money going after Montana or Georgia or South Dakota, that's sort of really on the bubble but may actually be in play?

Schaller: We've reached the final question. We'll go in reverse alphabetical order so Laurie can go first this time. Give me one must do for Obama in the last week and one definitely do not do for Obama in the last week.

Moskowitz: One must do? Seal the deal now. Make sure you have people on the streets getting them out. They're already doing it. They know they need to do this. It is what closes the deal at the end of the day. One must not do? How do you say this? Do no harm. Get through, keep the strategy strong, keep on the offensive, do everything you need to do, cross your t's and dot your i's. Hold your breath for the last day.

McMahon: The must do is stay hopeful, stay optimistic and continue to inspire confidence in people all the way through to the end. You want to make sure all your GOTV stations are covered, and for the one must not do, don't go to church at Rev. Wright's church on Sunday before the election. Just stay away for another week.

Baer: Yeah, that's very good advice and I think there is an infinite universe of things that would be hard for us to guess that could happen. But I think the one thing that's a must do is stay on the offensive. Keep framing the election. The Obama campaign needs to be in charge of this narrative and what this campaign is going to be about. One thing not to do, don't talk to your transition team. Don't even think about Nov. 5 right now. I think there are people whose jobs are to do that, but just in the last days, especially, stay focused and get over the line. And then get ready to govern.

Schaller: That's some great advice all the way around. It will be a fascinating last week and a potentially momentous election.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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