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Some Backstory On Obama And Street Money

Two of the guests on "Hardball" just now--Philadelphia-based commentators Michael Smerconish and E. Steven Collins--were pretty critical of the Obama campaign for not paying local ward heelers the "street money" they wanted to help turn out the black vote. (See this L.A. Times piece for more.) Smerconish and Collins agreed that Obama's Philadelphia turnout was good but not great, and Collins said Obama could have added tens of thousands--possibly more than 100,000--votes to his Pennsylvania total had he held his nose and doled out the cash.

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it's worth pointing out that the Obama official who most likely made the call here was campaign manager David Plouffe, whom I profiled in our latest issue. I didn't get into this in my piece, but the "street money" situation in Philly was reminiscent of one that arose in the first state-wide race Plouffe ever managed--Bob Torricelli's 1996 Senate race in New Jersey.

That summer, the DNC worried about whether enough black voters would turn out and support Torricelli and Bill Clinton, who was running for re-election of course. (The state's then-governor, Republican Christie Todd Whitman, had done pretty well among black voters en route to winning in 1993, so there were some grounds for concern.) The response was to dispatch an operative named Regena Thomas to New Jersey to help with that part of the campaign. 

When Thomas showed up, she pleaded with Plouffe to fund an extensive turnout operation, which would have included paying an army of canvassers to knock on doors and drag voters to the polls--basically the same thing the local bosses wanted money for in Philly. Plouffe refused to give Thomas the money she petitioned for, saying he had to stick with his original game plan, which was to devote most of the campaign's resources to paid media. (This wasn't an unreasonable approach--the state doesn't really have its own television programming, so the only way to get on TV is to buy super-expensive ads on New York and Philadelphia stations.)

Judging from Torricelli's ten-point margin of victory, you'd have to say Plouffe made the right call back then. But it's tough to conclude that definitively, since Thomas ended up getting her money through a campaign back-channel. Whatever the case, I suspect the experience partially informed Plouffe's thinking on this stuff. As, I'm sure, did the experience of South Carolina, where Obama also basically refused to dole out street money.

(As a sidenote, it's worth noting that Plouffe's historically been pretty adamant about sticking to his original game plan even under intense pressure to change it. He did that back in 1996, and he's obviously done it over and over in this cycle. You can't really argue with the results, Pennsylvania notwithstanding.) 

--Noam Scheiber