In a race about contrasts, there may be none greater than that between the Obama and Clinton campaigns when it comes to political strategy and campaign philosophy. Mark Penn and other Clinton senior advisers have treated the campaign like a boxing match, throwing jabs and combinations without anticipation of their impact in later rounds. David Axelrod and his team of operatives have done quite the opposite. Every tactical decision has been made within a long-term strategic framework, designed with a focus, three, four, sometimes five moves ahead. While Mark Penn was boxing, David Axelrod was playing chess.
The fingerprints of these dueling strategies can be seen in every memo, every sound bite, every speech of this race:
From the very beginning, Mark Penn's default position has been to react to political realities in the short term, with little note given to the unforeseen complications that might arise. He based the initial campaign strategy around inevitability, responding to the short term national polling that showed Clinton leading, without asking what impact an Iowa loss could have on such an argument. Without looking many moves ahead, Penn steered the Clinton campaign far off course.
Having found a policy difference between Clinton and Obama on health care -- Clinton's plan, but not Obama's, has a mandate -- he attacked, failing to contemplate the possibility that a mandate that enforces penalties could easily be seen as the more unpopular position. He argued that Hillary was more experienced than Obama without confronting the possibility that, even so, people could see Obama's experience as sufficient. A strategist's best tool is the ability to predict outcomes, an ability that requires analyzing all scenarios, not just the best case.
More recently, the Clinton campaign recognized the need to attack Obama on his credibility, but again responded without a clear view of the consequences: The Clinton campaign hit Obama on using Deval Patrick's words in a speech, but went too far, calling the act "plagiarism." In doing so, the issue was framed in the one way that could let Obama off the hook, with the media asking, "Does that really count as plagiarism?" The consensus, almost universally, was that it did not; in the face of a sure-fire winner -- Obama had copied Patrick's words, after all -- the Clinton campaign failed again, throwing punches without weighing consequences.
Seeing the chance for another jab on trust, Clinton misfired again, joining John McCain to attack Obama on public financing. In doing so, she began actively describing a scenario that had her losing the nomination. And with the Democratic primary electorate eager to have a fundraising advantage for the general, the attack on Obama was unlikely to shake loose the votes for which she was aiming.
Time and again, long-term strategic thinking could have put the Clinton campaign on a far different path. But instead of a chess game, her strategists were boxing.
For the first eight months of the election cycle, it was Clinton's campaign that was regarded as flawless, a political masterpiece of sorts, built to compete, likely to prevail. Perhaps the media sees politics as a boxing match too. Yet during that play-by-play, which focused unwisely on national polls and inexplicably ignored the closeness of Iowa, it was the Obama campaign that would emerge mistake-free. Sure there had been some subpar debate performances, an occasional misstep on the trail, but from the perspective of a long-term strategy, David Axelrod proved to be a grandmaster.
Axelrod recognized that defeating Hillary Clinton would require not just enormous sums of money, but the ability to sustain a fundraising operation well into the spring of 2008. As early as February 2007, the campaign was already laying the groundwork for an online fundraising juggernaut, fueled almost entirely by small donations. By the time the first quarter of fundraising was reported, Obama had outraised Clinton for the primary. Today, he's nearing one million donors.
Axelrod's plan was fully-funded and based on sound strategy. Applying the lessons of the Kerry campaign four years earlier, the Obama campaign focused all of their attention on the early states, especially Iowa, recognizing that a win there would send Obama skyrocketing in the polls. Applying the lessons of the Dean campaign, Obama strategists recognized that a strong and capable organization was the only way to mobilize voters to a caucus. They hired Paul Tewes, one of only a handful of strategists who has mastered Iowa.
The campaign crafted a message that could withstand the length of the campaign and could showcase their candidate's strength while exploiting Clinton's weaknesses. From the beginning, they were envisioning the end. With each tactical decision, they proved adept at looking many moves ahead, at recognizing points of attack and applying appropriate pressure.
When attacked, Obama's responses have always been couched in the larger rationale for his candidacy. By branding Clinton as the status-quo, he has been able to draw a line between each of her attacks, stamping them out together, with a single, stinging line: "She will do anything to win this election."
In recognition that chess can be a game of attrition, the Obama campaign did significant planning for the post-February 5th contests. Axelrod joked that "apparently [the Clinton campaign has] an 11-month calendar over there that's missing the month of February," an allusion to the Clinton campaign's dismal planning. The Obama team recognized that in a mad-dash for delegates, losses had to be well-contested, and wins had to be inflated. While the Clinton campaign flailed, the Obama campaign was replicating their Iowa template all across the country.
All told, the Obama campaign will be remembered as an extraordinary operation, innovative and compelling, easily the first of its kind. And as voters make their final decisions about whom to support as the nominee, one cannot imagine choosing Mark Penn over David Axelrod as head coach.
After all, this is chess. Not boxing.