As the 2012 Presidential campaign gets rolling, it’s striking how hard it is to recall the intensity and enthusiasm of 2008. At the time, though, there were a lot of good reasons for our Obamamania, and David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win, despite the rather crappy title, serves as a welcome if bittersweet reminder. The book is a memoir of the campaign by Obama’s campaign manager and chief electoral strategist, and what comes across most strongly is the purposeful, adult, reasoned intelligence that the candidate and his team embodied.
Obama was the smartest candidate in my memory, and the best writer–this made quite a contrast with the incumbent, but not only with him (go check out any clip of Michele Bachmann, or watch Rick Perry try to answer a question about Lawrence v. Texas if you want a reminder of how stupid you can be and still run for President). But he also came across, and comes across in Plouffe’s book, as a grownup, a man who didn’t throw temper tantrums like most candidates, and who habitually began the assessment of a defeat with a list of his own shortcomings. When they started hiring top staff, the campaign had a “no assholes” policy; if the Clinton campaign had done likewise, we might be discussing Hillary’s re-election chances right now.
But those of us who followed the campaign from internet-nerd-land had a quite particular and familiar feeling about the difference between the Obama campaign and everyone else, in particular Camp Clinton. It was oddly reminiscent of being a baseball stathead in the 1980s and early ’90s, that feeling that people like Bill James and Craig Wright and Pete Palmer and the participants on the rec.sport.baseball discussion board were trying to understand things from a fact-based perspective, using the techniques that rational people use to evalutate and analyze phenomena, and though we might disagree, we could have an intelligent argument. On the other side was the rest of the world, where people had a basically medieval attitude: a player’s peak was at ages 28-32 because Stan Musial said so, and he was a great player. Joe Carter was a great hitter because he had a lot of RBIs, and RBIs are the most important thing because that’s what we were always told. And so on. Eventually, the edifice of medievalism began to erode, and rational people like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein got a chance to show that using your brain could be an effective approach.
So the 2008 primaries were like deva vu all over again. When the Obama campaign decided to try to win caucuses by attracting young people and sporadic voters instead of the retirees who traditionally dominate them, most outsiders thought this was stupid because that’s not how it had worked in the past, and when Iowa demonstrated the power of the new approach, some Clinton insiders just got peeved and started their long program of disparagement and denial (Mark Penn was particularly notorious, putting down Obama supporters as too young, too well-educated, and generally not the sort of people whose votes should count).
In the runup to and aftermath of Super Tuesday, I repeatedly had the experience of reading detailed, reasoned explanations on the Daily Kos (and later 538.com) of why Obama was winning the battle for delegates and why Clinton was in ddep trouble–basically, his team had put monster efforts into states where they could rack up big margins, while letting Clinton enjoy glamorous big-state wins. For example, Obama got a bigger delegate edge from Idaho than Clinton did from New Jersey (it was something like 76-66 in NJ, 15-3 in ID). The Clinton campaign had clearly been schooled, either because they thought they should be able to win without really trying or because (this seems absurd but later recriminations indicate that it was true in some cases) they lacked the interest or intelligence to do the delegate math.
Even after those of us in the election-geek community could tell that Obama had a commanding delegate lead, both the Clinton campaign and the mainstream press continued to treat the race as a dead heat. When Clinton won Ohio and ‘won’ Texas, she got big headlines but made up a grand total of 4 net delegates, at a time when they trailed by about 150. Eventually the press did catch on, though even very late the Clinton campaign seemed convinced that it wasn’t fair, that they were entitled to victory and should get it even if it meant changning the rules after the fact (they started talking about the ‘popular vote’ and wanting to count the fake Michigan and Florida prmaries).
In this environment of Moneyball-like cognitive dissonance, it was amusing to learn that perhaps the most prolific political stathead, who posted under the pseudonym Poblano, was actually Nate Silver, a well-known analyst and model designer for Baseball Prospectus, among the geekiest of baseball websites.
Plouffe notes how hard it was to get the press to understand the math, and to convince them that his analysis wasn’t just spin. I don’t know if he was aware of people like Nate Silver and his many readers–if so, he doesn’t mention it. But it would be wise for him to notice the phenomenon, for after all, who the hell else is going to read a book by a campaign manager? Too much of what he presents is already old hat to readers of 538.com, and in order to appeal to what I suspect is an imaginery wider audience, he dumbs his presentation down to the point where some of the things he says aren’t even true (e.g., that Washington was very close in 2000 and 2004 while Nevada was “not particularly close”). I would have welcomed something meatier.
There also isn’t very much juicy gossip, a few amusing stories but overall not very titillating…but then that was one of the virtues of his operation: no purges, no backbiting, just professionalism. Both the Clinton and the McCain outfits made for better copy, and both lost.
Anyway, all this is more fun to think about than what went wrong, and why so few of us can muster much passion about 2012.