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Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe Speaks at Pomona on Campaign and the Power of the People

On Wednesday, March 25, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe kicked off Pomona College’s new distinguished speaker series with a forthright and entertaining behind-the-scenes look at one of the most intriguing presidential campaigns ever won.

Plouffe opened his speech with a reference to our own campus: “I understand there was a pretty nice celebration here about 8 p.m. Pacific time on November 4th.” He then outlined in detail the reasons the Obama campaign was so successful, and how it relates to the presidency thus far. Three of the “underappreciated reasons” Plouffe cited were the well-defined message and electoral strategy the campaign stuck to from the beginning; defying conventional wisdom and taking risks, such as concentrating on Iowa during the primaries and the 30-minute TV special aired last October; and the campaign’s powerful grassroots support.

Plouffe particularly focused on this last item, saying “We have not seen anything like this in politics on this scale, where people in communities really determined the outcome of this election.” Volunteers were critical in providing early organization in states even before the primary, giving the campaign a base to work with, and in expanding the electorate by targeting disaffected voters, young voters, Republicans and independents.

Communication was also vital: By providing campaign messages and facts to volunteers, there could be grassroots movement of messages from volunteers to their communities, ensuring people would hear messages from those they related to and trusted. Finally, grassroots support helped to fund the campaign. Out of the four million donations the campaign received, Plouffe noted that students were the second highest donators (by employment category) behind retirees, and the average donation overall was $85.

He also discussed the high pressure put on volunteer coordinators who could be “fired” if they weren’t working up to standards; how data from volunteer efforts was more important than polls; and how the self-motivated gathering of supporters online was a crucial component in winning the primaries. Also vital was the movement of messages online, which President Obama still does, as a way of helping people get around the “conflict-driven media” by sharing direct messages with one another.

After speaking on why 2008 was such a crucially perfect time for a candidate offering people change, Plouffe took four questions from the audience on topics like current partisanship in Congress, finance reform, and Hillary Clinton as a formidable opponent. In his final question, Plouffe answered the question of what would have happened had President Obama lost, and Plouffe returned to the power of the people:

“One of the great things about our country and our politics is the unexpected can happen and the people have a role in shaping it. And I think that’s one of the big lessons of 2008-- we had a wonderful candidate and we had a good campaign and we had smart strategy, but if it weren’t for the people, we wouldn’t have won. The people fueled this campaign…. In the general election, we got a lot of wonderful help from Democratic elected officials and interest groups. But they were the caboose, not the engine. The people were our engine.”

The new Pomona College distinguished lecture series, inaugurated by Plouffe, will bring to campus exciting, high profile speakers from public life, who have unique, informative perspectives on important issues. According to Pomona College President David Oxtoby, “[They will be the] men and women who have changed policies and institutions through their actions.”

In addition to the public lectures, the speakers will engage small groups of the College community in more informal settings. The series was established with a generous three-year commitment from the Broe family of Denver.