At Obama headquarters in Chicago, hundreds of miles removed from the Beltway bubble, advisers held steadfast in their adherence to The Plan, a blueprint devised 15 months ago by the same inner circle that runs the campaign today, supported by the candidate and carried out by a tight-knit staff.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s operation could not be more dissimilar. Her campaign, ensconced in a Washington suburb, has experienced two major staff shakeups fueled by high-level staff rivalries, shifting strategies and an unusual degree of finger-pointing.
The contrast raises the question: How has the Obama campaign managed to maintain an island of comparative calm?
A winning record undoubtedly aids the cohesion, Obama advisers and unaffiliated Democratic strategists said, but so do other key dynamics: A candidate intolerant of infighting, a clear line of authority and a healthy distance from the city they want to take over.
The Obama campaign reminds some observers of George W. Bush, circa 2000, who presided over a loyal, linear and leakless operation in Austin, while Al Gore stumbled through multiple makeovers first in Washington D.C. and later in Nashville.
“In a parallel universe kind of sense, there are real similarities” between Obama and Bush, said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant who left the top post in Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign amid a shakeup.
“Intense loyalty to and belief in the candidate,” Jordan said, citing the similarities. “Simple, clear lines of authority with real discipline among the staff and consultants. Deep, talented teams. Maybe most importantly, candidates who trust their campaign, who understand what they’re doing, who deliver as well as demand loyalty, who intuitively relate to and handle their campaigns with just the right touch.”
There are certainly disagreements and strains – Obama advisers acknowledge as much, without admitting the details—but rule No. 1 is no fratricidal behavior, which includes unauthorized disclosures to the media. Obama himself on Friday acknowledged the need for the campaign to continually “fine tune itself.”
But on the whole, the rival Democratic campaigns are a study in contrasts.
Clinton tapped the ranks of Sen. Charles Schumer, a hard-driving New York Democrat, for a press shop that can be as aggressive and unforgiving as the one favored by their former boss. Obama drew from the slightly more sedate worlds of Kerry, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Strategist Mark Penn, a veteran of the toughest White House battles of the 1990s, was deeply unpopular and a divisive presence within the Clinton campaign. Obama strategist David Axelrod is the anti-Penn. In the midst of Penn’s demotion earlier this month, one Obama aide in Chicago remarked to his colleagues about the low-key and well-liked Axelrod: “Do you know how lucky we are that he is our Mark Penn?”
Unlike Clinton’s team, the Obama campaign did not start with preexisting rivalries. Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe were business partners while Plouffe and Robert Gibbs, the communications director, share season tickets to the Washington Nationals. The staff, many of whom left family and lives behind to work in Chicago, only have each other to rely on in a place far from home.
“We would go to a basketball or baseball game together if we weren’t doing this right now,” Gibbs said. “We are all both friends and colleagues, and I think that is important. We feel we are a cohesive type of unit, not a group of individuals.”
Jim Margolis, Obma’s media consultant, said he had planned to pass on the presidential race in 2008. His first candidate, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, dropped out, and he had a rocky experience on Kerry’s 2004 campaign. But he ended up on the same plane one day with Axelrod, and began to reconsider.
“You gotta come spend a little more time with Barack,” Axelrod told him.
“You know what these things are like,” Margolis said.
“There are no assholes,” Axelrod responded. “There are going to be no assholes on this campaign.”
While the Clinton campaign toggled between strategies and messages, Obama aides crafted an approach months ago that remains their guiding document to this day: Run on change, win Iowa, and then embark on a national campaign aimed at maximizing their delegate count.
That disciplined adherence to plan flows from Plouffe, the publicity-averse campaign manager who, with a demeanor like Obama’s, tends to avoid highs or lows. A signature trait is his ability to block out the din and the whims of the 24-hour cable news culture.
Bad stories annoy Plouffe, but they don’t affect strategy or goals, aides said.
In Plouffe’s world, there should be only intentional leaks, and disputes must be dealt with in-house. Aides say that, from the beginning, the campaign declined to confirm even routine stories by Washington standards, such as personnel moves, because they wanted to release information on their terms – and have prided themselves on following the edict ever since.
Plouffe barely hid his disdain for the individual who stepped out of line when he disputed a Washington Post report last week quoting a Democratic strategist “familiar with the Obama campaign” who said “aides are likely to turn to the controversies” of the Clinton years to hasten an end to the nomination fight.
“That was I think an unnamed strategist claiming to have some relationship with us,” Plouffe said on a conference call with reporters. “I can assure whoever was, in an act of puffery, suggesting they had some knowledge of what we're doing is incorrect.”
Acts of “puffery” have been minimized because of one of their earliest – and in retrospect, according to aides, smartest – decisions: They did not base the campaign in Washington, D.C.
Obama chose Chicago largely because of family considerations, but he was well aware of the side benefits: less opportunity for distraction. Campaign aides won’t run into journalists at the Washington Sports Club or at Café Milano and divulge secrets. And they are removed from the scorekeeping and constant second-guessing that marks Washington’s political culture.
“There isn’t a day where I don’t think I’m glad to not be doing this in an atmosphere where every 30 minutes somebody decides or a group of somebodies decide, who honestly have no basis of knowledge other than the fact that they make an appearance on cable TV, to tell you who is winning and who is losing,” Gibbs said.
Steve Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for Kerry in 2004 and a Clinton supporter, said the role of geography should not be underestimated.
“If you look at the history of successful presidential campaigns, the ones that have done the best are not in Washington,” he said. “By headquartering your campaign in a place that makes it harder for people to sort of casually get involved, you get a tighter, more disciplined team. I know there are people who have indicated (that Clinton) should have been in Westchester or up somewhere in New York.”
Less than 24 hours after Pennsylvania voters dealt Obama a sound defeat, Gibbs dismissed any suggestion that a fresh wave of critical analysis would take a toll on the campaign.
“I don’t think so,” Gibbs said, eating mashed potatoes in the lobby of anIndiana University Southeast building, where his candidate just held an event. “I’m sure it is easier to sit elsewhere and say ‘I would do this differently.’ But we feel confident in the plan and we are still ahead, so it is hard to quibble.”