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Alumnus describes Obama’s ‘nearly flawless’ campaign

Published: February 12, 2009, 1:10 am ET
Collegian Staff

An alumnus who was a field director in Iowa for Barack Obama’s campaign told a political science class Wednesday about a nearly flawlessly executed campaign that targeted only 250,000 voters in 3 million — a strategy the campaign used nationwide to win.

The alumnus, Tripp Wellde, fell in love with politics during an internship in Washington when he was an undergraduate. He began working on campaigns after graduation in 2006. He worked for Mark Warner when Warner was exploring a presidential bid, but when he decided not to run, Wellde was unemployed.

“I sent my résume to everyone I could think of with Obama, offering to clean bathrooms if it would advance the campaign,” he said.

The campaign offered Wellde a bottom-level organizer position in the pivotal state of Iowa. The Iowa caucus votes are the first cast during presidential elections.

“It’s hard to imagine now that he’s president, but in those days we were very much the underdogs,” he said. “We were 20 to 25 points behind in the national polls and we had the candidate with the funny name who nobody had heard of.

“I was one of 200 people in Iowa telling people I’d never met how important it was for them to get out and vote in a primary that was 10 months away.”

Wellde worked long hours for little money as an organizer in Iowa. During his time there he met Obama multiple times. At one point during his first weeks in Iowa, the future U.S. president played a practical joke on Wellde.

It was Wellde’s 23rd birthday, and he was at an event with Obama that had included a luncheon. After the event, a staffer called Wellde and told him that Obama had left his bag in the room where the lunch had been. When Wellde returned to the room he found it had been locked.

“I was scared,” he said. “Here I was, brand new to the campaign, Barack was waiting on me to get his bag and I wasn’t going to be able to come through.”

Wellde thought he had seen another door to the room around the other side of the building. He got to the door, barged in and saw Obama and the whole upper echelon of the staff gathered around a cupcake with a candle in it. They sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

“I have first-hand knowledge that the president of the United States is a good guy,” Wellde said.

After Obama’s upset win in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Hillary Clinton scored a landslide victory in New Hampshire and the mood among Obama campaign members shifted drastically.

“We came down off our perch quickly,” Wellde said. “We realized that Hillary would be a tough competitor.”

Kate Sullivan, a friend of Wellde, was a Clinton worker and spoke to the class as well.

“I really admired her for being so tough,” she said of Clinton. “I’ve always supported her because she was a strong woman and she was strong on women’s issues.”

With the New Hampshire loss, the Obama campaign took to the trail and Wellde left Iowa to campaign in a seemingly never-ending state-by-state dog fight with Clinton. Wellde traveled to Las Vegas for the Nevada Caucus, where he lived in a trailer and drove an old Chevy Impala.

“I had spent 10 months in Iowa, so I had established a routine and had comfortable living arrangements. Now I was living in a trailer in Las Vegas. It was quite an adjustment.”

Obama lost the Nevada Caucus narrowly and Wellde was back on the road again. In February, he traveled to frigid Minnesota, a state that Obama won by a large margin.

“It was so cold,” he said. “Every day I would have to wake up 30 minutes earlier to defrost my car. Sometimes it wouldn’t even start.”

Wellde traveled to fight a losing effort in Ohio against Clinton, who consistently fared well in states with large numbers of “blue collar” voters.

Then, Wellde went to North Carolina where he and the campaign hit a wall that threatened to end Obama’s hopes for presidency.

“What was it like when the Jeremiah Wright video surfaced?” one student in the class asked.

“Awful,” Wellde said. “Everything for that whole month was just bad. You could almost feel the ground shifting underneath our feet. People changed the way they felt about the campaign and our candidate, especially in North Carolina.”

In late March 2008, videos began appearing on YouTube of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivering fiery sermons decrying America and saying inflammatory things such as “God damn America.”

The scandal upended popular opinion about Obama, who up until that time had been leading in the national polls. Clinton began pulling ahead, forcing Obama to address the issue in a now-famous address on race and politics in America, in which he didn’t defend his pastor but explained that the underlying anger sprung from the country’s long history of racial injustice. Obama also said Wright had been wrong for failing to recognize that progress had been made.

Obama managed to win a crucial victory in North Carolina in May that essentially sealed his nomination, though Clinton would wage a tough battle all the way through June, splitting the remaining eight state primaries with Obama.

With Obama’s nomination in hand, Wellde was sent back to Iowa for the general election campaign. Iowa was a state George W. Bush had won by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2004, and Al Gore had won the state by less than 1 percent in 2000.

“Iowa is as close a toss-up state as you are going to find, but we knew we had a good chance.”

Wellde outlined an astoundingly complex and organized campaign based on data that would have been unprecedented just 10 years ago. Using a Web site named votebuilder.com, the Obama campaign had access to voter registration records with details including whether a person voted regularly or just in presidential elections. People who vote every time were called “strong voters” and sporadic voters were called “weak voters.”

Iowa broke down into one million registered Republicans, one million Independents and one million Democrats, Wellde said. Of the one million Democrats, about 600,000 were listed as strong voters, he said.

The campaign estimated that “the win number” — the number of votes needed to win Iowa — was 850,000, he said. Wellde, who was promoted to field director, said that the campaign had $25 million to use in the campaign.

There were 600,000 strong voting Democrats that could be counted on to support Obama, so the campaign spent no money retrieving those votes. Spending money on strong voting Democrats was a mistake that Wellde said had been made by Sen. John Kerry in 2004. To win, the campaign needed to focus on getting 125,000 weak voting Democrats to vote and winning 125,000 Independent votes, he said.

“We were running two campaigns,” Wellde said. “One campaign was to convince 125,000 independents to vote for Barack, the second was to convince weak Democrats to get out on Nov. 4. If you need a ride on Election Day, we’ll take you. If you need an absentee ballot, we’ll give you one.”

Instead of spreading $25 million on 3 million voters, the Obama campaign focused all the money on 4 percent of that, guessing that $25 per vote would be enough to turn the state blue.

“By the last five days of the campaign, we had whittled the number down to about 14,000,” he said.

Wellde said during the last five days of the campaign, his volunteers knocked on more than 600,000 doors.

“We got a lot of doors slammed in our faces,” he said, “but even that is helpful because then we know not to waste any more time or money on reaching that person. It all went down in our spreadsheet.”

Obama won Iowa, and the election, by a substantial margin, in part because of a poor turnout among weak Republican voters, Wellde said.

Even the hardcore Clinton supporters from the primary battle came back to the fold for the Democrats on Election Day, an accomplishment Sullivan credited to Clinton.

“She did more campaign events for Obama than Joe Biden,” Sullivan said. “She deserves a lot of credit for that.”

Wellde said he was happy to be back to a normal schedule again.

“We worked almost 16 hours a day, six days a week. It’s good to be back to regular working hours,” he said. “But I would say that if you are interested in campaigning, you have to do a presidential at some point. You are on the cutting edge of history.”

Dan Palazzolo, the political science professor whose class Wellde spoke to, jokingly takes full credit for the Obama victory. Palazzolo said when Wellde was his student, Wellde had mistaken the day of his American Government final exam and was missing when it was handed out.

“So I called his room,” he said. “He had thought that the exam was the next day. If I hadn’t called, he would have failed American Government. If he had failed American Government, Tripp might never have gotten into politics. Then he would have never worked on Obama’s campaign and Obama wouldn’t have won.”

Palazzolo joked that as compulsive as his students might think he was, sometimes his actions influenced world history.

Contact staff writer David Larter at david.larter@richmond.edu

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