John Heilemann and Joe Trippi Discuss the Democratic Primary Race Over Instant Messenger

Trippi
Joe Trippi at the United Nations on February 4. Photo: Getty Images

Last night, Democratic strategist Joe Trippi sat down to discuss the Democratic primary with New York's John Heilemann from his home on the eastern shore of Maryland. The architect of Howard Dean's 2004 primary insurgency, most recently a senior adviser to John Edwards's campaign and a leading advocate for the "bottom-up" style of campaigning, which eschews big donors in favor of grassroots organizing and small donations fueled by the Internet, shared his thoughts on the current Clinton-Obama deadlock. Read on to find out why this won't be resolved before the convention, a Clinton-Obama ticket is likely, and the end of the writers' strike was a key moment in the race.

JH: Let's start at 30,000 feet. As of right now, what's the probability (out of 100) that Obama will be the Democratic nominee?

JT: I would give Obama a probability of 70 out of 100 that he will be the nominee, but Clinton could still pull this out.

JH: Do you think there's any chance, however remote, of Gore or someone else becoming the nominee in a brokered convention scenario?

JT: No, not really. I think there is a much bigger chance that the two of them will be running together, like it or not. But there is a remote chance of a third candidate if this gets really ugly and Clinton takes a meat ax to Obama.

JH: What is the likelihood that the Dems will have a nominee before the convention starts?

JT: As of right now the odds are nil, but there are two or three states that would obviously change that. If Obama won Pennsylvania it would be pretty much over. If Clinton, on the other hand, can win Pennsylvania and then carry North Carolina (a state that I think is becoming increasingly important), then her case would get much stronger.

JH: Wow. "Nil" is a pretty low number — and a pretty grim view of the future. So what's your position in the debate over whether a drawn-out Democratic race (i.e., one that, by your reckoning, is without resolution until late August) is good, neutral, bad, or disastrous for the party's prospects in the general?

JT: Well, I don't see the Clintons walking off the field if Hillary has the popular-vote lead, which is a realistic possibility. And I don't see Obama walking away from a lead among pledged delegates. That is why I think it is likely that, however this is resolved, the two of them run on a ticket together, and here is why: In 1976 and 1980 we had fights that went to the convention. In 1976 it was Ford and Reagan fighting it out and Jimmy Carter became president. In 1980 it was Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and Reagan became president. History says you don't want to campaign into the convention, even if McCain will be carrying George Bush's baggage. So I think there will be tremendous pressure on the eventual nominee to pull the party together by picking the other.

JH: Okay, switching gears slightly: Would you agree that the past week has been Obama's worst since he announced? And if you were his chief strategist, what would you be advising him to do — go after her or stay above the fray?

JT: I would absolutely agree that Obama has had his worst week of the campaign, and if this keeps up, it is the one opening Clinton has to getting past him. I think it is a mistake to match Clinton attack for attack. It demeans his overall message and destroys his reason for being as a candidate of a different kind of politics. If I were in the Obama campaign I would have him give a major speech this week and tell Pennsylvania and the nation that they now have a clear choice. That if they want attack-and-run politics as usual, then they should vote for Hillary Clinton. If they want to turn the page, the people of Pennsylvania can say no to the status quo and yes to real change. He has to frame the choice, and he hasn't done that over the last thirteen states or so.

JH: It's interesting, because some Democrats really want him to hit back at her (thus proving he is tough enough to take on McCain) while others think it's a huge mistake for him to get down in the mud with the pigs (because it makes him just another politician, and because the Clintons people live in, love, and thrive in the mud).

JT: Yeah. I think he should avoid the mud — and say mud is the past. And by the way — you will have that same choice in November. If the Republicans get in the mud, I won't go there with them. You will decide if we go back or we move forward.

JH: The Clinton strategy is premised on trying to make Obama look like just another politician. From what you've observed, how different do you think he really is?

JT: Well, the Clinton campaign is the last top-down campaign on our side — and it is the best top-down campaign of all time. The Obama campaign is only the second bottom-up campaign in history — and it is stronger than the Clinton campaign both in money and organization. It is the reason Obama destroys Clinton in caucus states. The Dean campaign, when I think of it now, it seems to me we were the Wright brothers proving you could design something no one had seen before and that you could actually fly in politics coming from the bottom up and using new ways to communicate. Four years later, win or lose, the Obama campaign is landing a man on the moon.

JH: So bottom-up campaigning, done right, wins caucuses. But top-down seems to be holding its own in big-state primaries. What lessons can we draw from that?

JT: Top-down still is king in TV dependent, massive states like California, New Jersey, etc. But bottom-up raises Obama the money to compete in that medium as well. So it's not bottom-up that is failing in those states, it is that Clinton’s message works better across those demographics. In the end your message works or it doesn't. Obama has been hit-and-miss when it comes to connecting with blue-collar Democrats. No matter what the medium, this seems to be a problem for him.

JH: If you were advising Clinton, what would you be telling her now?

JT: Clinton has to win Pennsylvania, but then she has a small chance of defeating Obama in North Carolina — and that might shock the superdelegates into rethinking Obama further. The red-phone ad worked, so they need to keep doing that to raise doubts in people's heads. But the problem she has is very real. They won't be defeating just Obama anymore; they are going to have to crush all those young people, African-Americans, and progressives in the party that have embraced Obama's candidacy. That is one of the reasons that she keeps mentioning what a great vice-president Obama would be, even as she makes the case that he isn't ready to be president. In the end, Clinton may need a self-inflicted mistake by Obama to get the nomination

JH: Which of them do you think would be a stronger candidate in the general? Do you buy the notion that he would put a bunch of states in play that she cannot?

JT: No, I don't really buy that argument. Most of Obama's wins in states like Idaho and Colorado and Kansas were caucus victories among the most energized party faithful. They say nothing about his ability to win those states in a general election. And if there was one state we needed to win in 2004, it was Ohio, and Clinton just won that state. I think Obama has a strong chance of winning the general with any number of possible vice-presidential nominees — Mark Warner, John Edwards, or Hillary Clinton and a host of others. I think Clinton, if she somehow gets by Obama, has almost no chance of winning the general now unless she picks Obama. She seems to get this already. If Obama has more pledged delegates going into the convention, it will be very hard for his supporters to accept Hillary Clinton somehow winning the nomination.

JH: Speaking of Edwards, do you think he will endorse before the primaries are over? If not, do you think he's aiming to play some sort of honest-broker/party-elder role down the line?

JT: I really don't expect him to endorse, but he has surprised me before. But yes, I think he may well be one of the few in the party who can help the party come together at the convention if this isn't resolved by then. That in the end may be more important in November for the country than his endorsement might be today.

JH: As HRC has gone more sharply negative in the past couple of weeks, do you think she has crossed the line in terms of giving Republicans attack lines to use against Obama in the fall? Or do you think she has self-consciously held back in order to avoid that?

JT: I think she has tried to walk the line, and done so with the party's best interests in mind. But she has crossed it on occasion. The 3 a.m. ad could easily be an ad for McCain, for example. The real question with that ad is what took her so long to do it.

JH: Explain?

JT: Anyone who lived through the 1984 election knows that ad was what stopped Gary Hart under very similar circumstances. I saw Pat Caddell (Gary Hart's pollster) on the air for weeks screaming that Clinton should put the red-phone ad up against Obama. I thought the same thing. So it’s amazing to me that it took them so long to get to a spot like that.

JH: Last question. Do you think the media dynamic has flipped completely now? As we head to Pennsylvania, do Clinton and Obama get equally tough treatment, or is Obama now the main target of scrutiny?

JT: No, I think the main dynamic that really changed things was the ending of the writers' strike. Saturday Night Live hit the nerve — the press has been in love with the Obama story. Edwards had really, really tough weeks with the press; Clinton has as well, but it all does come around. The press never lets you go forever. Sooner or later they will get around to you. And now it looks like Obama is in for some tougher treatment. That is a good thing. He is going to have to go through it now or in the general. Get it out of the way now.

JH: But they don't seem to be coping all that well?

JT: That is the whole point. If the Obama camp can't cope with this, then better we all find out now. It is in the end what Clinton is hoping for — her campaign will try to force as many errors as possible and keep the pressure on Obama now. If he passes this final test, he is the nominee. If he falters, the party may turn to Clinton.

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For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.