David Plouffe Isn’t Worried

The manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign on why he’s not afraid of Trump—and why he’s confident in Clinton.

David Plouffe
David Plouffe shares a laugh with David Axelrod during a rally in Springfield, Ohio, in 2012.

Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images

David Plouffe may be most famous for his role in managing Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, but in the 2016 campaign he has taken on a visible role as a highly optimistic surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Despite considerable liberal fretting over the possibility of a Trump presidency—and polls that are much too close for even a smidgen of comfort—Plouffe has repeatedly expressed his absolute faith in Clinton’s candidacy, even going so far as to put her odds of winning at 100 percent.

I spoke by phone with Plouffe, who is now a board member and chief adviser at Uber. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Obama’s limits on the campaign trail, the most competitive states, and his disagreements with Elizabeth Warren over whether Uber is good for workers.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think we will look back at the first debate as an inflection point, or was it just a good night for Hillary that won’t change anything fundamentally?

David Plouffe: You have to view presidential campaigns in their entirety, right? So a presidential debate is one of the bigger moments, but it is just part of the entire puzzle. I think what it probably did was help accelerate the movement of undecided and some [Gary] Johnson voters to the Clinton column. And I think it definitely helped with enthusiasm. In 2012, Romney was going to eventually get the votes he ended up getting. We just accelerated that consolidation because of our poor first debate performance, and his strong one.

Generous of you to take responsibility for the debate.

Well, it was a failure on prep and performance. Now listen, if Trump has three really bad debate performances, Clinton could end up winning by a couple more points than she would have. But the truth is that there is less volatility in these elections than [the coverage suggests].

There has been a liberal elite freakout over Trump, but that hasn’t necessarily trickled down to regular Democratic voters if you look at things like voter enthusiasm. Why is that?

Well, first of all, it’s still September. We were concerned about enthusiasm and turnout in both 2012 and 2008. You say: How could that be in 2008? Well because, you know, getting people to vote is a very hard thing. The thing that really does need to happen over the next few weeks is that we need more people to get excited about Hillary Clinton, not just [anti-]Trump. You need both antipathy and fear of the opponent, but you also need enthusiasm for the candidate. We had both, fortunately, by the end of the campaign. People opposed McCain’s and Romney’s positions—maybe they didn’t fear them, although there was a little fear of McCain because of the Palin thing—but right now there is, I think, more fear of Trump than passion for Clinton. I think the debate helps there, I really do.

I am going to name four states: Please rank them from bluest to reddest this election. Clinton needs Pennsylvania and two of the three others, most likely. They are: Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Colorado.

I think she will win all four. In terms of margin, I think it could go Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, although I think the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania margin could be close to each other. Here’s the thing: She’s not going to win Pennsylvania by 8 or 10, but Trump can’t win it. New Hampshire could open up for her. I think Nevada will be the closest.

Nevada seems more in the Florida and North Carolina range now, but I guess it is hard to poll.

It is. We had difficulty polling it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up winning it by 3 to 5 percent. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was 1.5 to 2 percent. The states that I think are most competitive are Ohio and Iowa. I still think she is going to win them both. But they are competitive.

Obama has been more active in this campaign than his recent predecessors. But if this election is close with a week or two to go, how involved will he get? Would he make an Oval Office address?

Well, I think within reason he will do what the Clinton campaign thinks would be helpful. Ultimately the most important person is Hillary Clinton. Barack and Michelle Obama can help, but people need to be inspired by the candidate. He has very strong favorability numbers, particularly amongst the voters she needs to persuade and to motivate. I think he will do all he can do. Of course not an Oval Office address; that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Would it not be appropriate if he thinks the fate of the country is on the line?

No, of course not, you can’t give an Oval Office address about the election—anymore anyway. But I think people are getting the message. It’s not just the events he does. He did interviews.

When you talk to him, do you sense that he knows his legacy—symbolic and practical—is on the line if Trump wins?

You know what: I know people won’t believe it, but he doesn’t talk about his legacy! He just talks about his fear of Trump not being fit for the office he currently occupies. [Laughs.] That’s what motivates him. And a belief that Hillary would be a great president. As you can see, a lot of people who worked in the Bush administration and other administrations feel the same way. Trump’s temperament scares the daylights out of people who have worked in the White House.

Here’s a hypothetical, which I am sure you will hate. If Trump wins or gets very, very close, what effect do you think that will have on two things: the idea that advertising really matters and the idea that a candidate needs to be surrounded by smart professionals and have an amazing ground game?

Well, that’s not going to happen so it’s purely hypothetical. I won’t answer it from that standpoint. I will just say: There are probably a lot of people now who are thinking about running for various offices—and not just president—who think they can tweet their way to the White House. This campaign only works for Donald Trump. People may overlearn that lesson. Advertising is less important in presidential campaigns than other campaigns where people aren’t paying as much attention. But I do think that Clinton will look back, particularly in suburban areas where they will be able to really drive good margins with women, that the ads helped. That ad where they show Trump’s words and children listening? That stuff works!

OK let me rephrase the question: Is there anything about our politics that you think Trump will actually change?

I don’t think so. I think he is a black swan event. I do think what he has helped uncover, along with Bernie Sanders, is that rising populism that is both right and left, and a rising nationalism in the Republican Party. Those things are going to be with us for a while, and it is incredibly important to understand that and not just move on after Election Day. But in terms of the way campaigns are run? I think what he is doing is unique to him, and I think ultimately not successful. Can you win a primary by not preparing for debates and without a good organization? You know, it was a unique moment in the Republican Party.

Do you worry that the divide we see in many places between elites and nonelites is likely to worsen if the Democratic Party becomes more elite-focused? Working at a company like Uber, do you worry the party is losing touch with working-class people?

No. First of all, at a company like Uber, so many of our customers on both sides of our marketplace—rider and driver—are working class, are serving underserved transportation areas, [are] people looking for a little more money. So I have a good, interesting viewpoint into the economy. But no, and it’s fascinating to me, all these questions about why Barack Obama is not doing better with working-class voters: We won two elections by dominating margins. The Republican Party is the party that has got grave problems in presidential years. No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Here’s the interesting thing: Right now, the Democratic Party—when you talk to the base, you can also speak to the middle of the electorate. The fundamental problem with the Republican Party is that they are living in a Roger Ailes alternate universe. If you speak to the Republican base the way they want to be spoken to, it turns off the middle of the electorate. The question for the Democratic Party is how long that will be the case. If 10 or 12 years from now we have moved further left, and it is harder to capture the middle, the truth is that if you don’t capture the moderate vote you don’t win the presidency.

OK, but the Democratic Party is one of the last things, at least in its platform and leadership, that is offering a safety net to people. Unions have been weakened, people are shifting to part-time work with fewer benefits.

The discussion about how much the nature of work is going to change 20 or 25 years from now with machine learning and A.I. and augmented reality—there are a lot of questions. But there is no question that the No. 1 economic statistic in America is that almost half our population would have trouble dealing with an unanticipated $400 bill. I do think control of schedule is a big, big advancement. So many people say they would like additional part-time work, and the real barrier to doing that is that you can’t take a part-time job with a set schedule. We have to understand what’s most important to people.

Several months ago, Elizabeth Warren gave a speech where she said, “Companies like Lyft and Uber have often resisted the efforts of those same workers to access a greater share of the wealth generated from their work. Their business model is, in part, dependent on extremely low wages for drivers.” Is that something you worry about?

No, because we obviously do a lot of consumer research. We talk to our drivers. This has been an enormously important contribution. Here in the United States, the vast majority of our drivers and Lyft drivers have what we would consider a traditional income, but obviously they are dissatisfied with that, so they use platforms like us a few hours a week to basically dial up income. Listen to the people who are engaged in the work, OK? It’s working for them in a way that is family-friendly and education-friendly because they can fit that in among everything else. I think folks ought to spend a little time less in the Ivory Tower than on the street. You get a better sense.

If Trump brings up Bill Clinton’s behavior with women, how should Hillary respond?

She knows how to do it. He is not going to do it. It would be a disaster. I think we are going to spend a lot of time wondering about that. So in a town hall meeting, with Americans sitting there in the audience, he is going to bring that up? It would be a colossal feat of political malpractice, so it’s not going to happen.

Well, the past 12 months have been a colossal feat of malpractice, so I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Keep ’em crossed. To my confidence in the race: Some of it is predicated on the fact that the Clinton campaign is going to do a very good job and execute well. Trump has a lower ceiling, and the debate hardened that ceiling. He is going to get 43 to 44 percent of the vote. But can he get 48, 49, 50, or whatever the win number he needs in each state is? I think that’s a bridge too far.

Do you see yourself as the anti–bed wetter, telling Democrats to not get too depressed?

I am not anti–bed wetter. I am just pro-fact and pro-data. [Laughs.] And pro-history. I’m just calling it like I see it.

Thank you for talking to me.

All right man. Get through the next five weeks.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.