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Week of 2.29.08

Transcript: Rewriting Campaign Rules

BRANCACCIO: There are big primaries this week in Texas and Ohio—the states the Clinton campaign has been calling its firewall. To understand what is going on behind the scenes at the campaigns, we turned to a fellow who has spent a lot of time there.

Joe Trippi was a senior advisor to John Edwards' campaign this year, and four years ago, he headed up Howard Dean's bid for the White House using a grassroots internet oriented strategy that he likes to call, not top down, but bottom up.

BRANCACCIO: Joe Trippi, good to see you.

TRIPPI: Good to be here.

BRANCACCIO: You're the man who wrote the book on the internet and modern, American, political campaigning. Question. Did the internet put Hillary Clinton in the position that she is now, this week?

TRIPPI: It had a lot to do with it. I mean—you know, the Obama campaign really is like the sort of second campaign to sort of bottom-up use the internet and decentralize—with all those thousands of people out there; have that decentralized organization and all that money. And—she's running her campaign the traditional, top-down way. And he's raising more money. He's got more people on the street. And it's all because they can connect. You know? I wish we—woulda' had the tools that they have—that this campaign has. But they're doing a great job.

BRANCACCIO: But explain the bottom-up strategy. Typically, you think about it in terms of fundraising. And we know that Obama has been extraordinarily successful in bringing in donations of $100 or less via the internet, just sorta' sits there and rings up the—cash register.

TRIPPI: Right. It looks like he's gonna raise $60 million this month. To give—put that in perspective, the Dean campaign, we raised $59 million in the entire fourteen months the campaign was in existence. He's gonna raise 60 million in the shortest month of this year.

BRANCACCIO: In the month of February?

TRIPPI: In Feb—February. So, he's you know, that's pretty—amazing feat in its own—own right. But the other thing they were able to do is something we weren't able to do—these 100,000, now I think a million people, a couple million people out there that are signed up with him throughout the country. They're in those precincts out there, particularly in caucus states. And they're signed up in their precinct. They can tap right in to a paid organizer, who really knows what they're doing. Match those citizens up with a—with a—a paid organizer on the ground and blitz through those and get huge turn-outs. And have those people knocking and talking to their neighbors.

The Clinton campaign is resorting to having, you know, calling the state senator and saying, "Can you get your organization to do something for me?" That's the old way. And just getting clobbered. That—that's why they've won all these caucus states. It's really a brilliant strategy. They've done amazing things with the tools that are out there today.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, surely—the Hillary Clinton campaign, I mean, they do take online donations. They have groovy, new media offerings on their website, as Obama does. Cool, little videos if you're interested in the campaign. But you're touching on the key issue here. If you're gonna turn someone from just a vague admirer of the candidate into essentially an unpaid worker, that's what the bottom-up strategy is about.

TRIPPI: Right. And it's the top down is, I mean, the videos the Clinton people make are made by the campaign and scripted. And the Black-Eyed Peas or some other—other people out there making videos that go up on YouTube that are inspired by the Obama campaign.

[VIDEO CLIP]

TRIPPI: And then—and then passed around by the followers.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think they're more effective because of that?

TRIPPI: Yeah. They're much more effective. Because I mean, people know we're—this is gonna be, I really believe this, the Clinton campaign's running the last top down campaign that's ever gonna—ever gonna happen on the Democratic side. It's changed forever. It started in 2003. But the Obama campaign's proving that the old way's not gonna work. It's—it's this new way of empowering people. And you know, who would think that just four years, I mean, for me, four years after the Dean campaign that—on the second attempt, somebody would be taking out the top—top-down style campaign?

BRANCACCIO: But let's be clear. Next week has not happened yet.

TRIPPI: Right.

BRANCACCIO: And there easily could be headlines that Hillary Clinton—kicks butt in Ohio, does well in Texas and this thing does turn around again.

TRIPPI: Sure.

BRANCACCIO: Top-down could work for her.

TRIPPI: Well, that's—that's what I'm saying. I'm—I'm not saying she's out. But if it works for her, it'll be the last time it works for anybody. And that's—and that's more—more a tribute to the strength of the Clintons and her strength. They are the—the best top-down campaign in history. I mean, she's raised more money the old-fashioned way, $2300 check, maxed-out checks than anybody in history, too. So, you've got literally the strongest top down campaign—and the strongest ca—top-down campaigners that we've ever seen—in either party. The Clintons—being—if they're defeated, it's gonna be defeated because of this bottom-up campaign style of Obama.

Certainly the candidate matters. And Obama can—is attracting all these people. But I don't—I think if they hadn't done this bottom-up style and really empowered people to make a difference for them, they would have lost a lot of these caucus states. Nebraska—I mean, Idaho, these are states that they just out-hustled her.

BRANCACCIO: Could there not be the argument made that she was undone by some bets that just went wrong? That it would all—be all over by Super Tuesday, for instance? That was—an apparent bet. And it has not worked out at all.

TRIPPI: Right.

BRANCACCIO: Some people believed it left her campaign somewhat flat footed after Super Tuesday. But that's not really a top down, bottom up issue. It's—it's just sort of thinking about how this campaign is gonna unfurl.

TRIPPI: Well, that's clearly a strategic mistake that they made. But then you—you—it's compounded. Because if you've built your campaign on—maxed out $2300 contributors, those people can never give again. Once they've given you the maximum, they can't give. If you've got another campaign that thought this was gonna be a long haul, and has a million people who gave 70—$70, next month they can push the button and another $60 million is gonna come in.

BRANCACCIO: Joe, what happened to your guy? You were working for John Edwards. And presumably, proselytizing about do it—bottom-up. And—

TRIPPI: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—and it didn't work out in the end.

TRIPPI: Well—we did do it bottom-up. And that was the only reason we lasted as long as we did. Our problem was we couldn't get any oxygen. I mean, the—these two giants, I mean, the Clinton campaign and Obama campaign, no matter how hard we fought to sorta get coverage or to—or to say things that made a difference, that kept us relevant—it would just keep moving back to the Obama-Clinton race. We got to the point, frankly where you know, John Edwards turned to me one day and said, you know, "What do we have to do to get attention, set ourselves on fire?" And you know, that's—that may get you attention. But it's not gonna get you—you—get the presidency. And we—and we knew that.

BRANCACCIO: But it—it did resonate with the people.

TRIPPI: Yeah. No. I—we were everybody's second choice. I mean, every—we—we—looked at polls and focus groups. And everybody was saying, "Well, I really like John—you—you know, we really like John Edwards. But I'm gonna vote for Obama." And, you know? Or, "I really like John Edwards. But I'm voting for Hillary Clinton."

And we just could not—could not break out.

BRANCACCIO: Now what did I read that you think that there's no way the Democrats will take this fight? Obama-Clinton all the way to the convention?

TRIPPI: I—I don't think that's gonna happen.

BRANCACCIO: No?

TRIPPI: What I actually think is gonna happen is the super delegates who support Hillary Clinton or the super delegates who support Barack Obama, one of those group of superdelegates is gonna go to their candidate and say, "We're not gonna let you take this to the convention. Either you do the right thing tomorrow morning or we'll do it for you." A—a—sort of, "Look, you—you've got five days to—to decide you're not gonna do this anymore. 'Cause we're not gonna let you go to the convention. We're gonna let you—we're not gonna let your personal ambition tear this party apart." And—and frankly, I'm not sure either one of them will let it go that far. I mean, at some point, one of them is gonna drop. And—I don't know. It may be after March 4th. It may take some more time.

BRANCACCIO: You know, we sit here talking about all these nice contributions, small ones from real people to the candidates, people becoming involved in democracy. But you get later in the year, closer to the November election. And is that gonna be these independent, monied groups fighting on behalf of the candidates but not working for the candidates directly that are gonna determine this thing? I was talking to a political consultant exactly like you a couple weeks ago on this very program, with one difference. He was a Republican. And he says once the 527s gear up to eviscerate whoever the Democrats put up, this thing is gonna change, was his implication. He's talking about swift-boating.

TRIPPI: Well—I mean, that's the—the thing. You know, people gotta understand that, that the—that it—it doesn't take a multi-million-dollar—you know, 5.7, just zillions-a dollars—to change an election. Swift Boat—Committee I think did it with $1.2 million. I mean, that—that committee and what they did with John Kerry cost Kerry the campaign. And that $1.2 million is much more effective than the $300 million or so that the—the Bush campaign spent against—

BRANCACCIO: So, it's a little bit-a money. It's perhaps an independent committee, a 527. But it's also bein' clever?

TRIPPI: It's being clever. It's being—it's coming at the candidate, at their weakness. So, yeah. I'm not gonna—I'd agree that the—you could all—we could vote a whole way, have all this bottom up, thousands, millions of people out there organizing, and have—some—you know, rather small-ish 527 with the right attack, change the course of the election. That's not somethin' I wanna see. But it's—it's the way politics works. It's—we in the Dean campaign, we have 527s just nailing us in Iowa. That's—that's what—in the end, what cost in Iowa wasn't the scream. That happened afterwards. What happened to make that moment happen was us just getting annihilated by three or four 527s. So, they are very powerful forces.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's not quite the swift-boat level at the moment in the primary. But you do have the 5-27's hard at work. Senator Obama has indicated that he's uncomfortable with these 527s, that form of financing. Yet, he's clearly benefiting from some of the efforts of these very groups. You have the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Ohio running ads like this on his behalf.

POLITICAL AD: For once can we put American jobs and workers first? Can we have a recovery that reaches Main Street? Can we stop spending money in Iraq and start spending it here? Can we have affordable health care for everyone? For everyone. For everyone. Can we really elect a president we can believe in?

OBAMA: Yes we can.

BRANCACCIO: But—I think the Clinton campaign has been known to also benefit from such organizations. In Texas right now—there's a group that would like Hillary elected—

TRIPPI: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—showing this.

POLITICAL AD / VIDEO ANNOUNCER: If speeches could create jobs, we wouldn't be facing a recession, but it takes more. As senator, Hilary Clinton passed legislation to bring investment and jobs to struggling communities and worked to end tax breaks for corporations sending jobs overseas. Her economic blueprint...

TRIPPI: Yeah. I mean, it's kinda like you—you know, the problem with this from a Obama and—Edwards—there was a 527 that went out and supported Edwards in—in Iowa. We really did—not have any control. We really did not talk to them. We—really didn't know they were gonna do what they did. You know? So—part of it is the problem of it's just the way it is. This is the system. As messed up as the system is, it's messed up. And this is how it works.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, John McCain's got an issue here. Because he has championed campaign finance reform. Yet there's this irony that—he also benefits from these loopholes.

TRIPPI: Well, yeah. And he's got a problem. Because—we don't know whether he's in public financing or not. And there's no FEC to tell us whether he's in public financing or not. He's trying to withdraw from that system to—so, he can raise more money and be more competitive in the general election, or actually in the—spring, through summer through the convention. So, it's—I—I don't know how he's gonna—how he's gonna—whether he's gonna get away with that or not. It's a very—it's—I—I'll tell you. It's really an important question. Because if the FEC rules that he has to stay within public financing because of the—the loan he took, if they rule that, he's—he's literally cannot move. I mean, a $99 Southwest airlines ticket to anywhere in the country is a violation of the cap. So, he literally will have to do press conferences from his front yard for—through the entire spring and summer. So, it's, I mean, I know there's been—we've all been laughing about people been trying—you know—you know, make hay about it. But it's more important than making hay about. This is really could sabotage—I mean, could really—be a big setback for his campaign. And the penalties are criminal now. If you knowingly blow the cap, the federal cap—

BRANCACCIO: You mean somebody could go to jail?

TRIPPI: Yeah. I mean—this is—it—it is—this is a very—it's—it's bizarre, but may impact—who the next president is. Because this is—this is really dicey where he's at right now.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of the media coverage now naturally focused on the dynamics of the campaign. But there is a general election to fight. And how do you see, on the Democratic side first, how do you see this shaping up?

TRIPPI: First of all, I think, assuming we're a unified party and it—this hasn't gone, you know, into a bloody fight into the convention, it—if we're going in—with either of these people—Clinton or Obama, you've got two things that are—that are central: on Iraq, he's with George Bush and says that we need to be there for 100 years.

BRANCACCIO: McCain?

TRIPPI: McCain. Yes. I mean, there—that put—that's his strong suit. And on his strong suit, he's saying he wants to leave our troops there for 100 years. On his weak suit, he says he doesn't know enough about the economy. It's not his strong suit; that the economy is not my—my thing. So, whoever the Democratic nominee is, given our—the strength of our party right now, there's huge turn-outs that we're seeing in energy and excitement, if they can't take this, those two facts alone and run against McCain—and—and—and make him carry George Bush's baggage, which is pretty substantial right now, whether you know, fair or not, it is. And so, I think, no. I think—I think McCain's got a really, really big problem. And then particularly, he's probably gonna be out-spent hugely, the first time in history that a Demo—because of this bottom-up—thing that we've been talking about, he's probably gonna be out-spent for the fir—Republican will be creamed financially for the first time in history against the Democrats. We've got a long way to go yet. But—

BRANCACCIO: Well, we do. Because you, of all people know that in politics, suddenly things can change. In the time it takes to let out his zestful, gleeful grunt—as happened to Howard Dean. Things could change. But you know, we do live in 2008. And you know what could change is something on the international horizon. There could be some sort of event overseas that change—that focuses the country's attention on national security issues. And McCain looks a little stronger to some—

TRIPPI: No. That—that could—I mean—you know, as the—as we see things today, I think McCain's got a very tough—tough situation. There's a p—couple things that can happen. You're—you're right. Something could happen in the international scene. Maybe—Obama will make a mistake. I mean, I think right now, McCain has gotta be sitting in the same turf that Clinton's sitting on. Can—will—will Obama make a mistake? That, I mean, when that's your hope, I mean, you know? When your hope is that hey, I—I need the other—other candidate to make a mistake or—or I don't have a sh—real shot at this. And that's a tough place to be in. A—or, geez, I—I—I—I got a good shot if something terrible happens—is not a good place to be in. We—the Democrats used to be in this position all the time during the Reagan years. Gosh, if—we'll be—we'll—be in really good shape if the economy falls apart. That kind of wishy—

BRANCACCIO: One could only hope—

TRIPPI:—party in exile, sort of waiting for the—waiting for the economy to fall apart so that—so that things could go—go their way. So, you know, I—yeah, that could happen. But right now, I think—we're doing really well.

BRANCACCIO: But is Barack Obama almost charmed in this regard? I mean—Michael Dukakis got in deep trouble for just looking awkward in a tank with a funny helmet. And they got pictures floating around the internet now of Barack Obama in traditional Somali dress on a visit to East Africa. It seems to sort of bounce off.

TRIPPI: Well, I mean, one of—the other, I think the thing the Clinton campaign missed—miscalculated—was the real urge, I mean, just amazing urge this country has for change. And I'm talking Republicans, Independents and Democrats. There's a real strong—feeling. You saw it in 2006. Start to happen, just this real feeling around the country, just let's change things.

BRANCACCIO: But it's the Joe Trippi analysis—

TRIPPI: The old way's not working.

BRANCACCIO:—this year that this is not just posturing on the part of the candidates; that you're—that this is a—

TRIPPI: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—feeling that's actually in the electorate.

TRIPPI: Yeah. The electorate, I think believes that we've messed it all up; that the people in Washington, that the people who run the country have messed it all up. And so, look at what happens. He says he'll talk to foreign leaders that are our enemies. The establishment says, "Oh, my gosh. That's a—that's a gaffe. You know? You have to have pre-conditions before you'll talk to an enemy."

BRANCACCIO: Any grown-up knows this—

TRIPPI: Ask any grown—any grown-up knows this. John McCain knows this. Hillary Clinton knows this. And he says, "That's how you guys have been doing it forever. And look how screwed up everything is. I don't think there's a problem with us talking to—to foreign leaders when they're our enemies. How else are we gonna like, stave this stuff off and not make these same mistakes?" There's a bunch of Americans out there who go, "Well, that makes some sense." Barack Obama, coming at it with that fresh perspective is beating the old way. And I think people are tired of the old way. And that's one of the reasons the Clinton—campaign has been in so much trouble. It may be the reason—if Obama's the nominee, the reason McCain's in trouble in the general election, aside from the other things.

BRANCACCIO: Although Hillary Clinton does well in the larger states. We'll see what happens next week, right?

TRIPPI: Well, no. Yeah. We'll see. I think next week's gonna be really tough. I don't think—I—I think Obama's gonna take Texas. I mean, that's what I would assume is gonna happen. I don't think there's a way she can win it right now. Texas is a caucus state. People don't understand. It's a very complicated system.

BRANCACCIO: I know. They have——the primary during the day. And at night, like this caucus—

TRIPPI: Right—

BRANCACCIO:—and then complicated rules for both.

TRIPPI: Right. And guess who has that caucus organization bottom up thing that worked so well? He's won every single caucus—except, I think Nevada. Maybe New Ham—New Mexico. But he's won every single caucus, and by huge margins. So—you know? I think he's gonna win the—the caucus side of this and hold close enough on the primary side in Texas that he ends up winning it. And s—and wins—more delegates than her. The odds are stacked against her right now. And I wouldn't—there's one group of people, no matter how much the odds are stacked against 'em, I would never say never. And that's the Clinton campaign. So, I'm—I'm—I'm saying they—they—they still got a shot at this. But—but they're running out of time. And the window is starting to close.

BRANCACCIO: This has been the longest primary season that most people can remember, at least since people my age were in grade school, I think. Loads of democracy floating around. People in Texas, who never thought they'd ever been relevant in a presidential primary season, suddenly they're the stars. How has this changed the country, the fact that it has gone on this long, at least on the Democratic side?

TRIPPI: I—I think it's great. I mean, this is like a great thing, in terms of how many people are getting involved in their democracy. So, what you're seeing I think one of the good things about all—people said, "Well, why are they having all these caucuses, all the caucuses Obama was winning?" It's because it builds a stronger party—

BRANCACCIO: People show up at a caucus are the people who are gonna keep workin' for ya—

TRIPPI: Keep workin' for ya. And Obama and Clinton, when they—when those people showed up in Nevada, when they showed up in Colorado, those are people that now can be activated in general elections.

BRANCACCIO: It's breeding political activism, as opposed to just voters? Is that what you're saying?

TRIPPI: Yeah. I also think, look, what I really think is going on here was we had a big shift before. Radio to television in 1960. People who listened to the radio thought Nixon was winning that thing. People watched television thought John F. Kennedy was—was winning it. He won. He—he went out. Became the first president who could go out there in an inauguration, talk to a camera, talk to TV and turn an entire—move an entire country. I think we're doing the same. We're seeing the same shift. Barack Obama could be the first interactive president, the first network president, a president whose network of people out there, when he says, "We're gonna pass health care this week, and these are the congressmen I need you to talk to and convince that we need to pass this thing," and it's all—it's all this bottom up way to get his agenda passed. You're gonna see the move to an interactive, connected—politics where the people, in connection with their president are actually moving the agenda forward.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Joe Trippi, political consultant, thank you very much.

TRIPPI: Thanks for having me.

BRANCACCIO: Let us leave you this week with a gentle reminder.

If you like what you see here. And want to see more programs like it, this is the time to cast your vote by giving generously to support your local public television station. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.