Plouffe discusses "greatest campaign ever"

Obama's campaign manager gives interview to former brother-in-law Lloyd Grove.

Published December 16, 2008 6:01PM (EST)

It was impossible to get anything out of the Obama campaign about their field operation during the campaign, and they have not been much more forthcoming even now that the votes are in.

But Lloyd Grove recently scored a big interview with his former brother-in-law, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. The full Q&A is really worth a read, but two choice excerpts here are worth mention:

D.P. ...The most important thing for me as a manager was the senior staff. If you don't have strong senior staff, you're going to struggle, and I was blessed to have a strong senior staff. And we were an organization about accountability. Down to the entry-level staffer, we measured their job performance based on metrics.

L.G.: And what were those metrics?

D.P.: It depended on the job. If you were a fundraiser it was how much money you raised. If you were a field organizer, it was did you recruit enough volunteers? If you were in the operations part of the campaign, were you processing things quickly enough? We were kind of a service organization in some respects to the states. We had a whole team in Chicago there to serve the states, who were out there in the battleground and war zones. And so we can't afford to have any delays in what they need. People who are cutting lists, data people—it all has to be both accurate and quick. I think we were a very agile organization, even as we got big we kind of maintained that insurgent feel and that's very important. I think we were much more nimble than Clinton or McCain.

Then, moments later:

L.G.: How much money is allocated to the various units of the campaign? One always hears that paid advertising takes significantly more than 50 percent—putting commercials on the air, radio, and television. Can you break down the percentages?

D.P.: Well, we spent obviously a lot of money on TV, but as a ratio of our spending, it was much lower than historically is done, and that's because we spent a lot of money in the field and on the ground. And, in fact, when we did our baseline budget, the field was fully funded because we thought it was very, very important. If we were to raise excess funds, we bolstered the field a little bit, but it went in advertising. Our first priority was the ground operation because we thought that was essential to us winning. It's very much, I think, a unique approach. In a lot of campaigns, the media gets funded first, then if you have extra money that comes in, you bolster the field and things of that sort. And we kind of did it in reverse.

L.G.: Can you give me a rough breakdown of percentages?

D.P.: Well, no. I would say that it's lower.

L.G.: One always hears historically it's almost 70 percent that goes to media.

D.P.: Right, the playbook is 70 to 75 percent, and we did much less than that. Under 50 percent.

A few observations: First, it was obviously easier, thanks to the huge sums Obama raised, to run a huge media campaign, more than John McCain could dream of, and still not spend more than half of all monies on television and radio. Second, the emphasis on field, no matters the spending splits, was critical, both in the primary (especially) and the general election. Third, the insistence on metrics echoes the approach used four years ago by another detailed-oriented field general, Bush 2004 campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

Money matters, but organization and discipline matter too.

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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