When I spoke to David Plouffe, the semi-legendary architect of Barack Obama's victorious presidential campaign in 2008, it was the afternoon of March 3, Super Tuesday. So neither of us exactly knew that Joe Biden's coast-to-coast wipeout was coming — although, re-reading this transcript, I'm forced to conclude Plouffe had a clearer idea than I did. In that context, we avoided predictions and talked around various hypothetical possibilities. (I've edited out most of our discussion about a brokered Democratic convention, for instance, since that's now an extremely unlikely outcome.) It's amazing to reflect that less than two weeks ago we also didn't know how disastrous Trump's handling of the coronavirus epidemic would be, or how much that event would affect everyday life. Of course, we still don't know how that epidemic will play out in the medium term, or what kind of X-factor it will be in the general-election campaign.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I could have asked Plouffe about what the Super Tuesday data tells us — about voter turnout, about the way African-American voters broke for Biden, and about what strikes me as a dangerous generational split among Democratic primary voters.
The initial hot takes based on Biden's victories were in fact largely wrong: Turnout was actually up among young people, and in key states like Virginia and Texas Bernie Sanders increased his vote totals significantly, relative to 2016. But that was swamped by extraordinarily high turnout among voters over 45, who broke for Biden even more strongly than younger voters broke for Sanders. While black voters unquestionably turned the tide for Biden in the South Carolina primary, his Super Tuesday victories were largely driven by a massive surge among older, more affluent suburban white voters across the country.
Plouffe would probably tell us that's a great sign for Biden's chances against Donald Trump in November, and maybe he'd be right. What that means for the long term is quite another matter — but Plouffe is not the kind of political operative who thinks much about the long term. (He completely ducked my question about why Democrats lost so many seats nationwide during the Obama years. I do not think that saying "well, these things go in cycles" is anywhere close to an adequate answer.) His new book, "A Citizen's Guide to Beating Donald Trump," is a user's guide to the kind of retail, person-to-person politics he perfected in 2008, aimed to help ordinary people figure out how they can plug into the fall campaign against Trump's vicious political juggernaut, no matter who the Democratic nominee may be.
You may notice that Plouffe goes out of his way to praise the Sanders campaign and offer judicious criticism of Biden's. In retrospect, I think that's partly about reading the perceived Salon audience and also tipping his hand a little. I think Plouffe believed Biden was likely to win and also that he posed a problem: Democrats now appear certain to nominate a candidate who has run a piecemeal, poorly funded campaign and is surrounded by question marks about his record, his mental capacity and his erratic interactions with voters. As Plouffe repeatedly makes clear, none of that was the case with the previously unknown candidate he ran 12 years ago, the one who ultimately chose Biden as his running mate.
As I said above, this transcript has been judiciously edited to remove extraneous material or discussion that no longer seems relevant. It's still a pretty long read — but whether you view Plouffe as a cynical dark wizard or a political genius, it's worth hearing him expound on the dire challenge that faces Democrats in the fall and the lessons he draws from the past. You can watch our entire conversation below.
So, David, this book is meant to be a practical manual for people in the general public, not for political insiders, right? It's for normal people who want to figure out what they can do to get that guy out of the White House.
That's exactly right. I really thought about writing this as we got through 2018. You saw the amazing activism around the '18 election for the Democratic Party. I kept hearing from everybody in my life, family, political people, not political people: What can we do versus Trump? And I really think it's going to require an outsized effort by an outsized number of people.
My hope is people who have been deeply involved in politics will get an idea or two out of the book. But the main audience is people who — maybe they donated but they haven't volunteered or have never been involved in politics, to try and explain what a presidential campaign is, how the average person can fit into it, the types of activities folks can engage in, and why that'll make a difference.
One of the big things is just people understandably think, well, if I go knock on doors and talk to two voters, what does that matter? Or if I post something on social media and I don't think it persuaded anybody, what does that matter? I'm trying to make sure folks understand that their individual effort, if you look it through the lens of aggregate effort, that's how you get to scale. We lost the presidency [in 2016] by 70,000 votes in three states. We better assume it could be that close again.
You've certainly taken your share of heat for having assured people confidently that Hillary Clinton would win four years ago. Many of us thought that, in fairness. It wasn't just you. But you write very passionately toward the beginning of this book about what that election night experience was like for you, watching that infamous New York Times needle tip over into the red. What do you think the experience of that night did to liberals, progressives, Democrats, whatever? People who were against Trump, and never thought he would be president.
Well, we're going through — we're talking on Super Tuesday. We're going through a tough primary in our party. Not as tough as some of the other ones we've had.
Not by a long shot.
But that's what I hope people keep in mind: Do you want, on the night of Nov. 3, or early on the morning of the 4th, do you want to watch him and his grifter family walk across the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago and say, "Thank you, America, I've won a second term." Keep that in mind, how horrible that would be. For me, it would be 20 times worse than election night '16 was, because in a way it ratifies his approach to politics.
That to me is what I think we have to keep front and foremost: Have I done what I can do? And you know, if that means you can go to a battleground state for a couple of weekends in the fall, you should do that.
If that means you got rid of your Facebook account, but you need to sign back up again to move content, do that. Use your phone to create content. If you live in a battleground state, think about becoming a volunteer leader. But, boy, if he wins a second term and it's close and you feel that you could've done more, I think that's a lifetime regret that people will have a hard time shaking.
Because we barely are going to survive four years of this guy. Eight years of this guy? We need to talk about climate. We talk about health care, all these issues. I'm also concerned there will be a generation of Republican politicians, mostly male, who think this is the way to get ahead. I'm not sure we recover from that.
That's a danger anyway, isn't it? Can you imagine a scenario in which the Republicans go back to nominating someone more or less normal in 2024? I mean, there is no John McCain wing of that party anymore anyway. But some hypothetical nominee from a more moderate or reasonable conservative tradition — does that sound plausible to you?
Well, I would consider the Trump stand-in to be the frontrunner. Part of what I try to capture in the book for people is to break down the different cohorts of voters that make up a winning presidential coalition. I still think that we should win more presidential elections than we lose if we do a good job of turnout and registration.
But we also have to do the kind of persuasion we have to do. So they may nominate —maybe it'll be a Trump kid. Maybe it'll be Josh Hawley from Missouri, if we're lucky enough to beat Trump. But I still think I'd rather be us than them. One of the things I capture in the book is battleground states. I'd be super-confident right now that we're going to win the national popular vote again. But in battleground states there are more conservatives than liberals, and Republicans do get a more reliable turnout. So we've got to work really hard to win the presidential race in an Electoral College system that's not going to change anytime soon. So they may nominate that person. I just think you see where the country's going. Younger people of every background seem more tolerant of immigrants. I think [Republicans] are playing a dying game, but that's where all the energy is on their side. There's no question about that.
If we beat Trump, I don't think we will have extinguished Trumpism. I think we'll continue to see it. But again, if you think about how you get to 270 electoral votes, the majority in this country, I think you want a good Democratic candidate. Listen, I desperately want Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden to be president. But we need our farm system to be rejuvenated. One of the things that excited me about the 2018 election is all those remarkable, relatively young candidates, particularly women.
I feel like we did have a depleted farm system. I'll never forget Barack Obama, at one point during the '08 election. We were in Iowa in the fall of '07, and we're sitting down on a curb before an event. He's like, "You know what's really weird, Plouffe?" He's like, "I'm Hillary Clinton's main opponent. What does that say about the farm system of the party?" The good news, I think, is that help is on the way and we desperately need that.
Does it surprise you to see in this situation where the Democratic nominee, if elected, will become the oldest president in history on the day he is inaugurated? Isn't that a bit strange?
It is a bit strange, but it's where we find ourselves. We did have some younger candidates run. Pete [Buttigieg], of course. But folks in their 50s too. So it is strange. I saw something recently online where someone said if Bill Clinton was in this race, he'd be young. He's 73, right? If Pete Buttigieg runs in 2060, he'll be younger than Sanders or Biden are now. So yeah, I hope the next time we do this in 2028 we've got a younger field. But that's just where the chips fell.
So you've been very judicious, and I'm aware you don't want to play favorites because you want your book to appeal to all possible Democratic voters. Is it your perception that both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders can galvanize the set of coalitions and cohorts that you write about in the book?
Yeah, and I'm not doing this as a dodge. I think, and I certainly learned this lesson in 2016, that what's "electable" changes every election. That's what a campaign is for. Sanders has a very compelling economic message. It's been consistent for decades. So you could see him appeal to some of the blue-collar and exurban voters we need to win back in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. We don't know yet if he can turn out a lot of young people, but he motivates them. And that's important. You know, polling suggests he may be a little weaker in some of the suburban areas. Biden may be stronger there, but may struggle a little bit more with young voters.
Whoever comes out of this is not going to necessarily be a five-tool player. That's where we come in. We're going to have to help them reach out to those cohorts. Other members of the party are going to have to reach out to those people. That's where I think citizen activism and volunteer work is going to be even more important this election, because it's pretty clear we don't have somebody who is so strong with every cohort that we can sort of sit back and watch them do their magic. I think it's going to come down a lot of gritty conversations, quite frankly, both online and off.
I know you've also thought about the bigger questions because you're that sort of person. With the needle tipping over to red in that disastrous election night that we all lived through, there are different ways of interpreting that. To a large extent, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden represent different ways of understanding that. Biden has consistently indicated that he wants to recreate a sort of bipartisan Washington culture, that he wants to return to the normalcy and decency of earlier days. Sanders represent the idea that what produced Trump was a set of fundamental social, political and cultural problems, and we have to address those. Without taking sides, what kind of a conflict does that represent for the Democratic Party?
Well, I think we're a divided party on that question. Having worked in Washington both on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, I have the view, sadly, that neither approach is likely to produce a lot of historical legislation. So the one thing we have to do is we have to beat Trump. If our next president doesn't do anything amazing, and I hope they do, they will have provided a historic service by getting the menace out of the White House. They have to make sure our House majority stays intact, and hopefully we get back the Senate. And hopefully we consider getting rid of the filibuster so we can actually do things on climate and health care. That last part's important.
I don't think what Biden's suggesting is that all of a sudden peace will break out and we'll start passing legislation in a bipartisan way. But I think one of the most compelling things he said recently is we don't have to become them. That doesn't mean we should be naive. And this is why getting 50 senators is so important. It's hard to imagine anything we care about passing if we even need five or six Republicans.
We all thought after 2012 and Romney losing a race they thought they would win, in part because of such Latino strength with Obama, that we would do immigration reform. That was the Republican "autopsy," as you remember. They've walked completely away from that. So this is where when people ask me, young people in particular, "Why should I be optimistic about Washington working?" I don't want to lie to them. I mean, there's not a lot of great answers, but I know this: The next president controls a lot of destiny around foreign policy.
So it's important that we have that. Also regulations, executive action, the type of people they put in these agencies. I have confidence either one of them would do a good job of that. And then you work your heart out to try and pass legislation. I do think it's hard to see anything that either of these candidates are talking about passing with 60 votes, unfortunately. It's tragic in a way. But listen, we literally were this close to a Great Depression. And what was Mitch McConnell's No. 1 priority?
Getting rid of your boss, right?
Before he even put his hand on the Bible. So do we expect that to change? I don't expect that to change. But I think if we're telling the American people we're giving the Republicans every opportunity to be part of this, but they've chosen not to, I think it gives you a stronger foundation. But the thing that's most concerning to me is on climate, on health care, on making our tax system fair again, rolling back a lot of what Trump did. So much of that does require legislation.
Now there's a lot the president's going to be able to do. Rolling back some of the horrible things Trump did, getting us back in the Paris climate accords, a lot we can do. Hopefully we elect more Democrats at the statewide level so we expand Medicaid in even more places. But Washington is not going to work automatically, whether it's Bernie or Joe Biden.
Right. That's a fair point. They're not going to pass a Medicare for All bill, and they're also not going to pass a more modest bill that expands the ACA, that offers a public option.
Not if we're relying on Republican senators. No, because the way this will work, if we win back the White House and have a decent election down-ballot, their view will be, "How do we maximize 2022?" There's a rhythm to these things. When we tend to have good elections — we had a really good election in '18, and I hope we have a good election in '20. I don't think it's going to be like '18, we've won a bunch of territory in tough places. Then we try and do a bunch of things, even things that are popular, but there tends to be a pushback on that. Look at 2010. Even if we didn't have the Great Recession, as good as '06 and '08 were for Democrats, we were going to give some of that territory back.
The Tea Party wave. Well, OK, but you weren't expecting it to be as bad as it was, right? Because that election was pretty catastrophic for your boss and his agenda, and locked in a gerrymandered House majority for 10 years.
Well, right. But we — the economy was brutal and yet we still did health care. I remember some Democrats in Washington giving us advice that was the wrong thing to do. What are we here for? To occupy the office and meekly try and retain it, or to try and deliver on something we've tried to do for 100 years? Now, 2022 from a Senate standpoint is actually a pretty good map for us. We've got Pennsylvania, we've got Wisconsin, some of the places we thought we were going to win in 2016.
You've got to look at these Senate cycles almost in a four-year standpoint. So let's hope we can win places like Arizona and North Carolina this year. And add to them so that ... I don't know, in today's politics, what the ceiling for Democrats is. It's not 59 or 60 seats anymore. It's probably more like 54 or 55, which means we cannot waste a single opportunity to win a Senate seat.
You've heard the criticism that during the Obama years, during the 2010s, Democrats lost an awful lot of seats in a lot of places around the country. Whether it was 800 or 900 or 1,000, it was a lot. How do you explain that? What went wrong for the Democratic Party in those years?
Well, there's always things you could have done better or different, but — again, we won everything there was to win in '06 and '08. We still live in a pretty closely divided country. So when you have outsized, lopsided, almost historic gains, when elections revert, you're going to give some of that back because you were winning in not just purple areas but pretty red areas. That's No. 1.
No. 2, the economy was in absolute free fall. So when you are — this is interesting. If we do go into a recession this year, Trump will say he had nothing to do with it. It's the virus. I've learned when you are the leader of an executive branch, whether it's governor or mayor or president, you own it. So Obama came in and was trying to fix it, but people were still losing jobs, losing 401k's, losing their homes. And I think, for some voters, it was like, "Wait. In the middle of all that, you're passing health care reform? As much as we want health care reform, we're worried what's going to happen to us." That was one of the most courageous and important things he did.
So I think you put all that together and we were destined to have a pretty brutal 2010. And in 2012 he won re-election with the highest unemployment rate any president's ever had and won. But I think you put all that together, we were at a super high mark. We were winning seats we had no business winning in '06 and '08, and we gave some of that back. Brutal economy. We did health care, did Wall Street reform, all things we needed to do.
By the way, for all the criticism of "was Obama too timid?", he tried to get everything he could done in those two years while we had that many Democrats. A lot of Democrats paid for that with their seats. And you talk to them today and they say, as tough as that was, so many people run for office in our party to provide health care to people. This was the opportunity to do it, so they cast a courageous vote that they didn't know they'd have the opportunity to cast again in their career.
There was an interesting argument put forward recently by the historian Michael Kazin, who's writing a book about the history of the Democratic Party. He suggested that one possibility for Bernie Sanders is that he becomes one of those figures like William Jennings Bryan or Barry Goldwater or Jesse Jackson, someone who changes a party and maybe the political temperature of the country without necessarily ever becoming president. I find that a compelling argument. Because Bernie's 2016 campaign and this year's campaign have clearly pushed the Democratic Party into issues terrain and ideological terrain that it was reluctant to visit for many years. Do you think that's fair?
Oh, I think he's going to have impact even if he's unsuccessful, which he may be. I mean, I didn't pay as close attention to our primary in '15 and '16 as I am now. I'm paying more attention now, and what strikes me is what a strong candidate Bernie Sanders is. He's consistent. Even though he's a longtime Washington figure, when he's in debates or interviews, he doesn't fall into the trap of seeming like he's running for re-election of his current office. He's making a very aggressive case. He's motivated people. So I think that not only in terms of the positions he holds, but the way he's run his campaign, the way he's utilized technology, the way he's inspired young people, I think will stay with our politics for some time.
I think back in '16 there was a view that, well, it was almost all anti-Hillary. And there's no doubt a chunk of his vote was anti-Hillary. But right now, he's run the strongest race in the field. I think Elizabeth Warren ran a really strong race. I think there will be a lot of examination and study of why she didn't do better. It's puzzling to me. I think it's got to be gender to some extent.
Biden has not run as good a campaign from a performance standpoint, from a fundraising standpoint. But we see a lot of the base of the Democratic Party coming home to him when just on one night [in South Carolina] he showed the ability to capture the potential he had. But Sanders has run a really, really strong race. And it's fueled a lot, obviously, by the issues he takes. But I am struck by his consistency. He doesn't get ruffled. It's been pretty remarkable to watch. You learn over and over again that authentic candidates are successful candidates.
Well, yeah. But what does that say about Donald Trump? I mean, I guess he's authentically who he is ...
Well, see, that's the question. I mean, there's all these things we've learned about politics. You need to be authentic. You need to have a consistent, harmonious campaign team. He had like three different sets of them! I mean, he lost the Iowa caucuses [in 2016] because he just didn't run a good campaign. Yet he goes on to win both the rest of the primary and the general.
I ask myself this, have things changed so fundamentally? The one thing Trump does, and I think Bernie does this the best in our field, he understands how you communicate in today's age. The way I think about it is, in politics or government, you'd say, well, I'm going to roll out a new policy. Even today, in 2020, a lot of officials will think, who am I going to give the first interview to, and where am I going to give this speech? All important. But if you're not thinking Facebook, Instagram first, in terms of how you communicate, you're not communicating. Trump tends to utilize Twitter, but then it cascades. And really understanding the power of the visual. I mean, after the Soleimani incident, he just tweeted out an American flag with no words. Super effective, I think, right?
Bernie will give long speeches and he's got lots of policy, but I think he communicates in a very emotional, effective, simplistic way that really captures people. And I think that'll be one of the challenges if Biden's our nominee. The way people get information now is a little bit different than he's used to communicating.
There's been a certain amount of talk this cycle about the possibility of a contested convention. [Which now looks even less likely.] No convention has actually gone to a second ballot since 1952. My evaluation is that even as upended and crazy as the rules have become, the chances of that are very low.
Yeah, but they're not zero. Actually, I write about this in the book. Most people, whether they supported Bernie or Biden or Warren, will decide, "OK, this is the way to beat Trump. I'm going to support whoever won even if my favorite doesn't win." The likelihood is somebody gets a lead significant enough that it's pretty clear they're going to be the nominee. Everybody else says, they're our nominee, and they get nominated by acclamation.
My view is if somebody has a lead, even if it's 100, 150, 200 pledged delegates, what is the rationale to deny them the nomination? If all the polling says the person who's got the most delegates would lose by 10 points and everyone else would win, then OK. I don't think we're headed in that direction.
You made the point earlier that lots of Democratic primaries have actually been more heated than this one, and have gone on longer. My belief is that if you look at this historical record there's very little relationship between how heated the primary campaign is and what happens in the general election. Consider 2008, the campaign you worked on. That got pretty heated, right? It didn't quite go to the convention, but pretty close. And your guy wound up winning the general election pretty easily. There was also 1992, a very heated campaign when, to my recollection, Jerry Brown never endorsed Bill Clinton at all, did not appear with him at the convention or campaign for him or anything. That didn't stop Clinton.
I think it does depend on the circumstances. First of all, the reason I'd like our nominee to be known sooner rather than later, meaning I'd rather this be settled in the spring than in July, is we have an incumbent president with unprecedented resources who's spending money and time and building an organization in battleground states. We only won re-election in 2012 because we had the time to prepare for the race and define the race versus Romney. Same thing with Reagan. Same thing with George W. Bush.
So you mentioned Clinton. George H.W. Bush did not take that re-election as seriously as the other incumbent presidents. He had a worsening economy and he had Ross Perot. So I think in '08 we were worried about it, that it went so long. Less so that it was hard because honestly Obama was strengthened by going up against Hillary Clinton. That is, against the Hillary Clinton of '08, who was much stronger than in 2016. I mean, she was a behemoth, right? Honestly, I remember getting into the general, just the day-to-day back and forth with John McCain, and it was like, this is easy compared to Hillary. But McCain basically became the nominee in March and he didn't fully take advantage of that time. Trump is going to take advantage of that time.
So I wouldn't worry about it getting heated. I wouldn't worry about it being an absolute brawl. Wouldn't worry about that. I think it toughens you up because ultimately you're facing one of the nastiest political performers of all time in Donald Trump. It's really the time. Does our nominee have the time to put together the campaigns in the battleground states, to introduce themselves and their policies? I always remind people that the folks who will decide the general election, the true swing voters and people who are turnout and registration targets, are really not paying attention right now. When we won the nomination in '08, we basically had to run biography ads the entire rest of the campaign. We had run them in the primary, but the general election targets hadn't seen them.
It's a different race to a different set of voters, and you want to give our nominee enough time to do that. My hope is, if it does become clear that one of these candidates is not going to lose the delegate lead, then we've got to get on with this. But I worry less about the ferocity of it than the unnecessary length. I think you're very much right there. The '92 race was really tough. Our race was really tough. Hell, Kennedy and LBJ, even though it was a lot of back-room stuff back then, was really tough. I think Trump's race in '16 was pretty tough.
I think there is something to really being tested. I'll just say that in this race, a lot of people are putting their stock in Joe Biden right now. But he's got to perform consistently. So I want Biden to be tested. I hope he does a lot more interviews. I hope he gets a one-on-one debate with Bernie and Bernie is really tough on him. If Biden's the nominee, we want to go through as many exercises as we can, because what's waiting on the other side should scare us all.
We've never had a president this obsessed, maniacally so, with one thing — winning re-election. He sits in the most powerful office the world's ever known. He's got foreign capitals pretty much at his disposal. And he will say anything and do anything to win re-election. I know that sounds trite, but it's true.
We tend to play by more gentle rules. He is not going to play by gentle rules.
Right. Because all the worst things that Bernie or Biden could conceivably say about each other, whether it's about the Iraq war, whether it's about Social Security, whether it's about Biden's history of false statements, whether it's about Bernie praising Fidel Castro, whether it's about his gun policy, whatever it is. Trump's going to do all that and more.
That's all in bounds. And we're going to see what they didn't do in '16, which is large-scale disinformation about early voting locations and polling time. People thought what they did with Clinton on the "super-predator" stuff was out of bounds. I consider that to be in bounds. I didn't like seeing it, but that was something she said. Campaigns are tough. But I think we're going to see the Trump campaign either directly or indirectly, with all their assets around the world, really cause a lot of problems and do a lot of advertising to Latinos, just lying, saying Joe Biden isn't going to do immigration reform. Or doesn't believe in criminal justice reform. Or they're not going to do anything about climate change. Stuff that you and I are like, who would believe that?
I've seen focus groups recently where voters are starting to say, "One thing that concerns me, I'm not sure who I'm going to vote for, but if the Democrats win I might not be able to eat steak anymore. Or get on a plane." We laugh at these things. But remember Pizzagate? And again, that was — Trump had a ramshackle campaign. This time they have a machine and all the money and time anyone would ever want. I think we need to be super worried about that. When you look at his approval rating, you think, well how could a guy like that win? He couldn't win a popular vote probably, but the Electoral College works to his advantage.
He wins by poisoning the water and depressing turnout.
And driving people to a third party. I talk about this in the book. Some of the most important conversations we're all going to have in the closing weeks of the campaign are with voters who say, "I'm probably not going to do Trump or the Democrat, I'm going to vote third party." We all have to understand that someone who holds their nose and votes for our candidate counts the same as someone who's got a bumper sticker on their car. We've got to be OK with that and not convince them that our candidate is going to be on Mount Rushmore. This is the way to get rid of Trump. It's the only way. We've got to get down to brass tacks and meet people where they are. And a lot of people are going to be conflicted about whether to vote, and about whether to vote third party. And that's the election in the balance.