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Q&A: David Plouffe

National Journal's Linda Douglass sat down with David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, for the April 25 edition of "National Journal On Air." This is a transcript of their conversation.
Obama 2008
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a rally in New Albany, Ind., Wednesday, April 23, 2008.Darron Cummings / AP
/ Source: National Journal

National Journal's Linda Douglass sat down with David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, for the April 25 edition of "National Journal On Air." This is a transcript of their conversation.

Linda Douglass: I'd like to welcome David Plouffe. He is the campaign manager for Barack Obama. Welcome.

David Plouffe: Thanks, Linda. Thank you for having me.

Douglass: Thank you for joining us. Let's talk a little bit about what seems to be "Topic A" among Democrats, and that is Barack Obama's electability. It is the thing that many Democrats are talking about -- journalists as well. Obviously, concerns have been raised, strong concerns, because for the second time in a row in a big state, he's lost with whites, blue-collar voters, Catholics and, of course, those older voters as well. But with respect to the base of the party -- the white blue-collar Catholic in a certain sense -- why shouldn't the Democrats be worried about this?

Plouffe: Well, we're happy to have a conversation about electability. I'd start with this, which is, if you look, we've had 46 contests now and Barack Obama has shown real appeal in all segments of the electorate. And I do think if you look at some of the voters that are voting for Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton, you know our favorable/unfavorable, our internal traits are very strong, and it would be like suggesting somehow all the Democrats voting for us wouldn't vote for her if she were the nominee. The lion's share of Democrats are going to be supporting the Democratic nominee.

The real question is, who can appeal to independents against a candidate like John McCain whose got unique appeal for a Republican candidate against independents. Who can bring out younger voters? Who can create a favorable turnout dynamic? This doesn't have to be a radical exercise. Let's look at where the general election matchups stand now. In Oregon, in Washington, in New Mexico, in Nevada, in Wisconsin, in Iowa, in Minnesota, in New Hampshire, in Maine, in any number of states that we either have to win or we have to put in play -- Virginia, North Carolina -- we are performing more strongly than Senator Clinton. So I think that there is a lot of navel-gazing about this going on. I think if you look at what the election is likely to be with only a Democratic nominee, a Republican nominee -- McCain adopting all of the Bush policies -- the Democratic Party voters are going to vote in huge numbers for the Democratic nominee. The question is, who can turn out more of them, and who can do best amongst independents and moderate Republicans, and we think undeniably that's Senator Obama.

Douglass: Well, you've talked here about why he is electable. Obviously, the Clinton campaign and Clinton herself are making strong arguments about why he is not electable, pointing to this base question that I just asked you, pointing to the fact that she's done better in the big states. What kinds of arguments are you going to be making to superdelegates about her electability?

Plouffe: Well, let me just on the big state question -- you know, they point to California, New York, Massachusetts. We are going to carry those states comfortably. Yes, she did win Ohio and Pennsylvania in the primary. If you look at polling matchups of McCain versus Obama and Clinton in Pennsylvania, we perform roughly equal. We've won a lot of big battleground states -- Colorado, Wisconsin, Washington state, Iowa, Virginia. North Carolina, by the way, is going to be a big battleground state in 12 days, so I guess by their definition they need to win there. So this is kind of a ridiculous argument that, you know, they are trying to latch on to.

I mean, I think her electability issues are the following: she's got a high unfavorable rating. It would be the highest unfavorable rating for any presidential nominee in recent history. Fairly or not, the majority of voters don't trust Senator Clinton. Those two points are related, obviously: her unfavorable rating, and the sense that voters do not find her honest or trustworthy. And I do think she has limited appeal with independent voters. A Democratic nominee has to be competitive with independent voters. Ideally you'd win them. John McCain has unique appeal with independent voters. Senator Clinton has difficulty matching up with him with independent voters. She's got less appeal to Republicans, and I also think she's not going to create the kind of turnout that we will in the African-American community and with all voters under 40.

So I think she's got real limited range here, and we think that we will be just as strong as she will be in the core battleground states like Pennsylvania, like Ohio. But the question is, in Iowa, in Wisconsin, in New Mexico, in Nevada -- these are states that have always been very close, that a Democratic nominee has to carry. And we're doing much better than she is against John McCain.

Douglass: Well, one of the things to which some Democrats point -- the Clinton campaign has not said this publicly at least, but one certainly hears it in talking to supporters in more of a background way. Look at the racial polarization in the last several contests -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Mississippi -- is that going to be a problem? Is race going to be a problem for Barack Obama in the general election?

Plouffe: We really don't think so. I mean the vast, vast majority of voters who would not vote for Barack Obama in November based on race are probably firmly in John McCain's camp already. And I think if you look at the Democratic voters who are voting for Senator Clinton in some of these states, when you sort of look beneath it and you project how this is going to happen, Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee. He is going to be articulating policies and ideas that they believe in. They won't agree with John McCain on issues like the economy and health care. And so I think that we are going to get the vast, vast majority of Democratic voters.

And, you know, I think if you look at -- we have won white voters, particularly white voters under 60, in a lot of states. We've won white men voters in most of the states we've competed in, and, you know, again, if you look at our favorable/unfavorable ratings and the characteristics and the traits with some of these voters that have voted for Senator Clinton in recent primaries, you know they are strong and they are going to be supportive of us in the fall.

Now, listen, this is a heated contest. So our supporters, the Clinton supporters -- this question of will you vote for the other person in the election in the fall -- you know, there's hard feelings. So a lot of people are saying no, but we seem to forget history. There's always hard feelings, and then the party comes together. And I think everyone ought to take a deep breath here and understand that the Democratic nominee is going to get the majority of Democratic voters. The question is, who can do best with independents and moderate Republicans, and who can create the best dynamic for turnout. If Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, I think turnout amongst African-Americans, turnout amongst all voters under 40, and our ability to register new voters is going to be a very important piece of the puzzle.

Douglass: You've heard Hillary Clinton's advisers say that if she loses Indiana, it may well be over for her. If Barack Obama should somehow lose North Carolina, would he then have a problem?

Plouffe: Well, first of all, we assume this contest will go through June 3. We're already campaigning actively in all the contests through Montana and South Dakota. So, you know, we have no control over what Senator Clinton does or does not do. We're just going to campaign as hard as we can and get as many votes and delegates as we can. And we look at these as a body of contests. You know, I said this after March 4. There's 10 remaining contests. Some of them she'll do well in, some of them we'll do well in, but we look at it at the end of the day on June 3, where does the race stand?

Our record right now is 30 to 16 -- it's a pretty good record. Won a lot more delegates, which is the measure. That is the strategy. We built our strategy around the acquisition of delegates because that's our rules. So did Senator Clinton. This popular vote is kind of a red herring. I mean, if this was about popular vote, we would've campaigned harder in Illinois to drive up our numbers. We would have campaigned the entire 10 days before February 5 in California and New York to drive up our numbers. But what we did was campaign in a lot of states and a lot of congressional districts to try and get delegates, because that is what this is about. So, you know, they are very creative about establishing new metrics.

So we're just going to fight as hard as we can, and see where we are the morning of May 7. We'll see where we are the morning of June 4, but we don't think the fundamental structure of the campaign is changed, and we think, on electability, we have a terrific story to tell and a case to make, and we're going to make it as aggressively as we can. Because we think that Senator Obama gives the party the best chance to win the presidency and also the best chance to have good downballot atmospherics for the rest of the candidates.

Douglass: OK, well, thank you so much, David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama. I really appreciate your joining us, and I hope you'll come back on the program again one of these days.

Plouffe: Thanks, Linda. Have a good afternoon.