November reign

Democrats will lose this fall. And there will be blood. But a blood bath? Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe helps SN&R sort out the 2010 midterm-election mess.

Kick back and relax? David Plouffe (right) and Barack Obama share a moment before the second presidential debate.

Kick back and relax? David Plouffe (right) and Barack Obama share a moment before the second presidential debate.


Catch David Plouffe’s talk, part of the California Lectures series, this Monday, September 13, at Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street; 7:30 p.m.; $15-$30;

Over a decade ago, comedian Chris Rock joked that no one had led more black men to the promised land than seven-time NBA champion and white guy Pat Riley. Years later, Rock may need to update his punch line: A Delaware political consultant named David Plouffe, who led President Barack Obama’s landmark 2008 presidential campaign all the way to the White House, is giving the basketball mastermind a run for his money.

Plouffe knows his reds and blues. As in U.S. states. Two years ago, he vaulted the Democrats to their biggest electoral triumph in half a century, smartly jump-starting social-networking strategies and grassroots-fundraising efforts that left Republicans with palms planted firmly on foreheads.

But just as basketball dynasties come and go, political landscapes too change.

“Obviously, the Republicans are going to have a good November,” conceded Plouffe, who spoke with SN&R last week in advance of his September 13 lecture at the Crest Theatre. “But it’s not because suddenly people think Republicans have great ideas or they’re being politically courageous. No. People are just frustrated.

Barbara Boxer.

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“And when people are frustrated, parties out of power tend to do well.”

This most recent political tipping point arrived earlier this year, when former beefcake turned Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown rode the country’s anti-incumbent wave—and a pathetic Democrat rival—all the way to the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, the economy sputtered. Prospects were bleak for Dems in the fall election. Disgruntled and alarmed, President Obama dialed Plouffe and tapped him to channel some old magic to salvage the Dems’ hopes in the November midterm.

Now, mere weeks until voting begins, is there any way Democrats can avoid a full-on GOP stampede?

Plouffe isn’t about to write off 2010 yet. And he shouldn’t; the anti-incumbent fever is so contagious, it could lead not just to defeat, it also threatens a Republican majority in Congress.

“It was clear to me the day after we won the presidency that ’10 was going to be a really tough year for us,” Plouffe said. “We won so much in ’08, and if you add that to what we won in ’06, which was a lot, we were just occupying a lot of hostile turf.”

Carly Fiorina.

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So Dems will fight. But with hands tied: Polls indicate that nearly half the country disapproves of President Obama’s job performance. Websites such as RealClearPolitics forecast the GOP could pick up as many as 11 Senate seats, which would give them majority. And the Dems’ gubernatorial hopes nationwide are dismal; Reeps could theoretically earn another 11 governors’ mansions, a possible 35 to 15 advantage.

Here in California, incumbents are on the run. Three-term U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is currently trailing opponent Carly Fiorina—though she boasts a heartier war chest. House of Representative incumbents Jerry McNerney and Dennis Cardoza, from nearby districts of Lodi and Stockton, respectively, trail Republican challengers in polls.

Even this state’s gubernatorial contest is an anomaly. Jerry Brown should have coasted on Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dirt-poor approval ratings. But Republican Meg Whitman has established herself as the “change” candidate.

Even Plouffe praised Whitman, including her “innovative” Internet strategy—“The Whitman campaign is doing a lot of interesting things,” he said—while indirectly lamenting Brown’s digital inertia. “[Internet] is no longer an area that is a luxury or is sort of secondary to television advertising,” Plouffe explained. “It’s got to be core to your campaign. Any good campaign spends as much time on their digital strategy as they do on other parts.”

That said, Plouffe reminds that Whitman and Brown are still neck-and-neck—polls indicate that Whitman holds a slight 3 percent lead through September 1—and that Brown currently has the advantage of being a new voice going into the race’s final eight weeks.

Jerry Brown.

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“[Brown] can begin to make his case in a strong fashion to voters,” Plouffe argued. “Brown has a fresh message.”

Specifically, Brown embraces the idea of California being at the forefront of the green movement, including support for Assembly Bill 32 and a plan for new “green jobs”—something Plouffe said should not be underestimated. “I think the American people rightly believe America should lead the world in this new green-energy economy,” he said.

Plus, the idea of America as leader fuels what Plouffe calls “human conversations,” or discussion rooted in simple, focused goals and messages. “There are a lot of people who don’t necessarily read an original [news] story,” Plouffe explained. “But someone will post one on Facebook, or they’ll Twitter about it, and then they’ll have a conversation about it later at a barbecue.

“You’ve got to really have those human-being conversations.”

But the water-cooler and backyard-barbecue gossip nowadays has but one face: the economy.

Meg Whitman.

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“Obviously, we’re going to be facing a fairly stiff head wind,” Plouffe said of unemployment and sluggish job growth. “But Republicans don’t have a tail wind. This isn’t some huge outpouring of affection for the national Republican Party.

“The American people are not looking to have a love affair with John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.”

And Plouffe likes the Dems chances down the road. “Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh ultimately are going to be a problem for the long term,” he said, “because I don’t think—and in particular with presidential elections, when you have a bigger turnout—that the majority of our younger voters and independent voters identify with these people.”

But will they identify with Obama come 2012? And, for that matter, when will Obama announce his re-election bid (presidents Clinton and Bush announced theirs in March and April, respectively, after first-term midterms)?

“We’re just simply not having any of those discussions,” Plouffe said (reporting by Politico and The New York Times suggests otherwise—and that Plouffe will be a principal adviser to Obama’s 2012 team).

Still, despite what happens on November 2, there always will be another political-campaign—and NBA—season. “The Republican primary [for 2012] has essentially already begun. I assume it will begin in earnest on November 3,” Plouffe observed. “There’ll be plenty of politics on the other side to keep everybody engaged.

“I mean, Sarah Palin’s going to Iowa in September! So, um, the games begin.”