You say Ploof, I say Pluff

November 19, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Posted in politics, read this, the media, wine | 1 Comment
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David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, spoke last night at the First Parish Church in Cambridge as part of his book tour for The Audacity to Win.  I was told that the church was not quite as packed as it had been for John McCain’s (pre-election) talk or even Harold Bloom’s, at which people were packed into the rafters, but there was a solid and obviously sympathetic crowd.  I finally put a face to the man who has sent me dozens and dozens of emails over the past two years. I also learned how to pronounce his name. Not “Ploof,” but “Pluff.”

See? There he is!

He spoke broadly of the several threads in the book.  First, he emphasized that throughout the election, the campaign refused to judge itself by the news coverage of the moment.  Instead of focusing on the split-second media, it tackled small, daily demographic goals — for example, how many undecided females in Terra Haute should be contacted and registered to vote.  Plouffe pointed out (helpfully!) that this is still Obama’s tactic.  Plouffe explained that the president knows that coming to the right decision on Afghanistan is more important than whatever beating he is taking in the press that day; he ignores the “winds of Washington” (as Plouffe put it) and focuses instead on what his goal was for that day. To talk to a certain general? Read a certain report? Likewise the beating he took just yesterday in the Times over his trip to China. Plouffe assured us that Obama does indeed have the big picture in mind.

Another thread Plouffe elaborated on was the power and the novelty of the grass roots campaign. I didn’t realize that before Obama made the decision to run, he had absolutely no infrastructure. No pollsters, no advance fundraisers. Plouffe pointed out that Obama had been to New Hampshire for a book signing, but otherwise, not to either Iowa or South Carolina (states in which potential candidates tend to find themselves often, for whatever reasons, in the months before declaring their candidacies). And the decision to go “grass roots” was entirely Obama’s. People thought the campaign was crazy to be holding rallies in, say, Michigan in the month before the South Carolina primary, when Michigan’s was months away. But as Plouffe explained, these rallies got people talking far ahead of time. People who would invite their friends to another rally, or to a call center, or to knock on doors in the coming months. Or, of course, to donate money. The Obama campaign had 4 million individual donors, giving an average of $85.

“Why are you giving away all your secrets?!” I kept wanting to jump up and ask him. But towards the end of the talk, the man who regularly sends me emails that begin “Dear K –” finally read my mind. This election obviously will be studied for years to come as a turning point in the use of technology, data, and strategy in a grass-roots setting. Still, by 2012, technology will have rendered many of the 2008 campaign’s tactics obsolete or slow — how many more people will have iPhones? Plouffe wanted to memorialize the election in his own words before others could spin it. Don’t worry, he assured the crowd, I didn’t give away all my tricks.

Once again, my dear friend Erin was my ambassador to culture.  Somehow, she knows when interesting authors are popping up on book tours (she has brought me to hear Ann Patchett read at the Athenaeum and has invited me to countless other readings).  I have long been fascinated by David Plouffe (and am of course now going to buy his book…) — probably lingering idealism from my lost dream of working on a campaign, something I never managed to do,  maybe because I always thought of myself more as a journalist than an real activist.

I love, too, these outings with Erin, often bookended by dinner and a glass of wine somewhere fun (last night: Upstairs at the Square. White Rioja for Erin, envy for me!) Our conversations range from contemporary fiction to comments such as “You know how Puplicious isn’t as good as Pinkalicious, and Goldilicious is even worse?” to our toddlers’ verbal skills to creative writing classes.  I got home late (for me), long after both Tim and Little Bug were asleep, but invigorated by a crisp cold night in Cambridge.  This city of intellectualism, liberalism, culture, and craziness was my first home in Boston — and for all these things I’ll always love it.

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