Dan Pfeiffer, communications director for Barack Obama, has been with the Obama campaign since before it began—on Day Negative One. Since then, the organization has grown from four to many thousands. On the eve of it shrinking back to zero, we caught up with him by phone in Chicago.
Q: Let’s start from the top. I’m sure you say you have lots of people on the ground, looking from problems with the polls I assume. And then you personally, how did you prepare?
Well, I didn’t prepare by sleeping, because I was, like many people here, in the office by 4:30 this morning. I’m basically in it for the long haul and I am drinking Diet Coke by the gallon.
Our first day of this campaign, February 10th, 2007, there were 500 reporters credentialed for an announcement and we’ve been under tremendous scrutiny every day since.
Q: About how many cases of Diet Coke are you guys going to go through tonight? Not to be product placement, but you know, just curious.
I personally will go through more than one. There will be tons of it in the Chicago headquarters today.
Q: Not personal level, but on a personnel level, what are the preparations going into today? Do you talk amongst yourselves, trying to keep the right mindset going into today?
I think that those of us who went through the primaries, we’ve now been through every possible situation in any sort of election. We’re ready for surprise wins, surprise losses, things that are closer than they should be and landslides where you never expect them. I think this is true of the McCain campaign as well, we’ve all been doing this for so long, we have sort of this steady mentality to get through the night.
Q: About how long have you been doing this?
I started on this campaign on what we call Day Negative One, which was January 15th, 2007, the day before Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee.
Q: How many people were on staff at that point?
I was in an office with four people and no Internet at the time.
Q: And how many people are on staff today, approximately?
We’re—we’re in the thousands.
Q: Wow. What’s the hardest thing that’s happened over this past year and a half? Campaign-wise. Although if you want to talk to me, you know, open up, that’s fine too.
[Laughs] My personal life? I think the hardest thing’s been, the fact that every day of this campaign has been on Broadway. There’s never a point where we got to, um, sort of—
Q: You didn’t open in Hartford?
Every day of the campaign’s been on Broadway. Our first day of this campaign, February 10th, 2007, there were 500 reporters credentialed for an announcement and we’ve been under tremendous scrutiny every day since. And that’s not typical for a presidential candidate, a lot of times you start out, you’re in a minivan with your candidate, you’re lucky if there’s one reporter from the local paper following you. We’ve had to do this under the Klieg lights every day for a very long time.
Q: That is unusual for a campaign to start out like that, so you had no real models to go on, it seems like, heading into that kind of coverage. Were there some things you learned along the way?
We are, I think, rightfully seen as one of the best-planned, most-organized campaigns in history. There’s no question, there was no model to follow, we had to make it up as we went along. And we had a strategy to get from that office with four people in Washington D.C. to today. But it required quite a lot of improvisation and I think what we’ve learned more than anything else was to always focus on the long game and not get caught up in the short term news cycles and the ups and downs in the moment. It’s true of our campaign, of Senator Clinton’s campaign, of John McCain’s campaign, in any given moment, someone is telling you your campaign is about to collapse, it’s over, it’s the biggest thing in the world, and turns out you wake up the next day and it really wasn’t the biggest thing in the world. You just got to stay focused and not panic.
Q: Well today the long game is the short game.
That’s right. We have—today, finally we are at a day where what happens actually will decide the election.
Q: And you know the only poll that matters, that happens today.
That’s right, though I try to avoid clichés like that.
Q: Thanks, editor. How many press are credentialed for your event tonight?
I think, it is more than 2,000. I could be wrong. I know there are more press who want to come than there are credentials for them to come.
Q: I understand that’s been a problem for a while now.
I guess it’s a high class problem.
Q: Is there anything you’ll miss about this campaign?
Um, the people. We’ve been—we have been through the highest of highs and lowest of lows together. This has been a singular experience we’ve shared and I will be incredibly happy to leave Chicago and go home to my family in my house in Washington D.C. I will miss the people and the experiences we had together.
Q: In theory, of course, because we’re not going to talk about what will happen in an Obama administration, but in theory, do you think he’ll have the same kind of relationship with the press as you’ve have? Is the model you’ve had in the campaign, in the election, the same kind of one you would expect in an administration?
I think that there are differences between campaigning and governing and that applies to everything, how you’re organized, who you hire and your interviews with the press. If we were to win, I think it would be somewhat different. I think that an Obama White House would have the same camaraderie and discipline and organization that an Obama campaign has because that comes directly from the candidate.
Q: I heard you say that you very rightly consider yours one of the most organized and disciplined campaigns in a long time, if not ever. In one of those areas where that discipline has been has been with the press.
[Laughs] Do you mean that in a positive way or a negative way?
Q: I mean that in both ways. I mean, from the point of view of a press person. I mean, I think that in a positive way, obviously well-organized, well-staffed, well-run, none of the kind of rookie mistakes you often see, especially if you’re, as you are, on Broadway from Day One. But then again, as someone looking for something to write about, you often get stuff to write about from people being more open than they should be, or at least being open.
I think that everything we’ve done in this campaign, including our press strategy, has gone through one filter, and that’s persuading voters to support Barack Obama. Sometimes our goals and the press’ goals run into each other and—but, I think we’ve attempted to, to the best of our ability, to have a good relationship with the press, even if it has been a disciplined one. We’ve been a campaign who takes tremendous pride in not leaking.
Q: Damn you. [Laughs.]
I think that would continue in whatever comes next for Barack Obama.
Q: Yeah, I expect so. What’s been the most annoying thing about this election to you?
Q: Oh, surely you have some things.
Oh, it wasn’t a question of finding what than picking what. I think that the uh—how, one of the most annoying things has been how much of the punditry has been so wrong so often.
Q: Yeah. Anything in particular? I mean, there’s a whole host of things that you could name but—
Because the punditry largely lives near Washington D.C. and New York City and rarely leaves those two places, they never had a sense of what was actually happening on the ground for Barack Obama, either in the primary or the general, and this is an election that takes place in states and is decided by voters and what voters were doing and thinking in a given moment was rarely factored in by the punditry. And I actually had one other one. The abundance of polling, public polling, and the over analysis of it was a tremendous annoyance, I’m sure, to both campaigns.
Q: Who would you say is your opposite on the McCain team?
Q: The person you correspond to. I did an interview with Nicole Wallace and she’s always kind of paired up with Gibbs.
I don’t know enough of their organization to know who the exact opposite is. It’s my understanding, I believe, that Jill Hazelbaker has the same title I do, but I don’t know if we do the same job.
Q: They are very different organizations, that’s for sure.
I think that’s probably the case.
Q: Again, speaking entirely hypothetically, because we’re not gonna jinx anyone or anything—
I’m knocking on wood as we speak.
Q: What are the chances of Rahm Emmanuel [pugnacious Congressman from Illinois] coming to the White House in some capacity for Barack Obama?
You’re going to have to ask him.
Q: Oh, I have.
And I would never contradict him, he’s my wife’s boss.
Q: That’s one of the reasons I asked.
I will stand by whatever the Congressman said about this.
Q: What’s the first non-political thing you have planned? For tomorrow?
The first non-political thing I have planned…oh, my younger brother gets married on Saturday.
Q: Well, congratulations to him.
He picked the date when it seemed less than likely when Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee and I would have to go the wedding four days after the election.
Q: And what best prepared you for this experience, do you think, either professionally or personally, what made it able for you to get through this?
Having been through three elections in my life, all decided by less than one percent of the vote.
Q: Right. That’s true of as a country, sort of...
I worked on two Senate races in South Dakota that were decided by 525 votes and another 4,000 and having worked on the Gore campaign.
Q: In what way did that prepare you exactly?
It gives you a sense of patience for the ups and downs of the high pressure moments of the campaign.
Q: What didn’t you expect going into this? And what happened—what surprised you?
I was surprised the primaries took as long as it did. It was our great hope they would not last six months, and I’m surprised, I mean, I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight, but I’m pleasantly surprised that we are in as good a situation as we are in tonight heading into the election. We’ve done everything we thought we could do, we’ve left, as far as I can tell, no stone unturned, and feel very calm about what comes next.
Q: Is there a sort of moment that summed up the election for you? An iconic moment?
An iconic moment.
Q: That’s usually the writer’s job to figure out but I thought I’d ask you.
This has been—filled with highs and, I could say any number, but I think, seeing Barack Obama last night in Virginia, the capital of the Old South, in front of nearly 100,000 people in one of his final campaign rallies, was sort of the great conclusion to everything we’ve done. One of the goals was to go where Democrats hadn’t gone before, to reach out to people that Democrats hadn’t reached out to before, and there we were actually having accomplished that fact, regardless of what the outcome is.