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The '08 race in retrospect

Old war stories and new assessments

Six weeks after a national election, most normal Americans have successfully weaned themselves from presidential politics, preferring instead to do normal types of things, such as ingesting great heaps of saturated fats, or watching six hours of high-definition Sunday football, or cruising the malls for going-out-of-business sales.

But there remains a supspecies of human that still can't get enough of the '08 campaign - I'm talking, of course, about you - and this is why Harvard's Kennedy Institute of Politics lured four of the top campaign strategists up to Cambridge the other night, for the purpose of trading war stories and assessing the history that they all helped make.

The Dec. 11 session - featuring Obama strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe, and McCain insiders Rick Davis and Bill McInturff - didn't inspire any news headlines, and some of the remarks were predictable (such as the McCain strategists' defense of the Sarah Palin pick). But, as evidenced by the forum video, there were numerous worthy info-nuggets along the way. So let's mine a few of them:

The Florida factor. On such fragile matters, history turns. Plouffe basically suggested that, if the Democratic National Committee had allowed Florida to conduct a meaningful primary on Jan. 29, Hillary Clinton may well have beaten Obama for the Democratic nomination. (And then Plouffe would not be viewed as the genius that he is considered today.)

The back story is simple. In 2007, Florida announced that it intended to stage its primary on Jan. 29, in violation of Democratic rules barring the state from scheduling the contest ahead of the Super Tuesday marathon on Feb. 5. The national party's Rules Committee could easily have ignored the violation; indeed, as Plouffe pointed out, Clinton had a lot of friends on the committee, and Florida was rightly viewed as good Clinton territory (due to her name recognition and her husband's residual popularity, among other things).

Plouffe said that, back in 2007 when Obama was still trying to get traction, "We were terribly frightened of Feb. 5. Hillary was ahead in all those (Super Tuesday) states...The only way we could survive Feb. 5 was to go into that with maximum velocity, and South Carolina (on Jan. 26) gave us the opportunity for a big win" - but only if it was the last real contest before Super Tuesday.

Yet that's what happened, because the Democratic party's Rules Committee sanctioned Florida for trying to stage its primary on Jan. 29. The committee stripped Florida of its delegates, and the candidates pledged not to campaign there. The contest was still held on Jan. 29, and Clinton won it handily - but the results were rendered meaningless.

Plouffe said that if Clinton had won a meaningful Florida primary on the eve of Super Tuesday, "it might have mitigated all the momentum we had out of (winning) South Carolina. In fact, we might not have been the nominee. It's things like that that haven't gotten that much attention." Without the party knocking Florida out of the picture, "I don't know how we could have survived Feb. 5."

The Wright factor. McInturff, who handled McCain's internal polling, said that McCain adamantly refused to raise Jeremiah Wright as a campaign issue, despite "enormous pressure" from Republican partisans. McInturff said he concurred in that decision.

McInturff said he told his campaign associates that McCain's "happy scenario" looked like this: a squeaker victory with 273 electoral votes, coupled with losing the popular vote by three million. He recalled telling people, "If your candidate used that (Wright) issue aggressively, and won the presidency that way, you'd already be delegitimized as president, you couldn't function or govern."

Besides, he said, McCain in the polls was losing young voters and Hispanic voters by as much as 30 percentage points - which prompted him to tell his associates, "Please tell me how using this (Wright) issue would improve those margins."

Plouffe, for his part, said that the issue would not have worked anyway, because "people had digested Rev. Wright" back in the spring - although that had been "a moment of great peril" for the Obama camp, in part because "we failed as a campaign to do the proper research, to have a full understanding" of Wright's potential downside.

The Bush factor. Axelrod said the Obama camp had always calculated that President Bush would be a major Democratic asset in 2008, especially for Obama.

Axelrod said that "every race is defined by the incumbent," especially when the incumbent is leaving. "Almost never do people look for the replica of what they have. They look for a remedy," the greatest contrast. And the Obama camp decided that Obama would embody "the starkest change from George W. Bush, in style and substance."

McInturff acknowledged that McCain was never able to embody change, simply because it was impossible for him to distance himself sufficiently from Bush. For a while back in 2006, he said, McCain was nicely positioned as a Bush critic on Iraq - McCain was arguing for a troop "surge," and Bush was not - but when Bush embraced the surge in January 2007, McCain had no choice but to march in step. As McCain's Senate chief of staff told McInturff at the time, "Bill, we're negotiating with the White House (on) how many troops. We cannot be on the air being that distant from the president on the same weekend that we're negotiating over the number of troops."

In essence, McInturff told the Harvard audience, "John McCain essentially became the Bush spokesperson, the administration spokesperson, on Iraq" - and that helped to alienate the crucial independent voters.

And, at the same, McCain was tied to Bush because of their mutual support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform - and that damaged McCain among conservative base voters. All told, McInturff lamented, "In typical John McCain fashion, he managed to alienate every side."

The brainpower factor. Axelrod said that Obama wrote his milestone speech on race relations (delivered in Philadelphia on March 18) by himself, in only two late-night sessions. Obama started it on the night of March 16 at 10 p.m., after he put his kids to bed, and worked until 3 a.m. He then returned to it at 10 p.m. after a full day of campaigning in Pennsylvania. By early the next morning, March 18, "there was the speech on my Blackberry."

No excuses offered. At one point, McInturff was asked whether he believed that McCain would have won the election if only he'd had a few more days or weeks on the stump. (Defeated campaigns typically answer this question in the affirmative.) But McInturff said:

"No. We lost...I don't think anyone in our campaign felt, 'oh my gosh, we're just a few days short.' I think we were happy it was over."