Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory'

'The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory'
Note: This excerpt contains language that may offend some readers.

On Friday, January 4, we landed in New Hampshire after 4:00 a.m. As we got to the hotel, it was nearly time for the day's first conference call, so I skipped sleep altogether. Instead I checked our online fund-raising numbers; they were through the roof, with over $6 million raised in the hours since we were declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses. It was like a lit match had been dropped in gasoline. New donors and fund-raisers were showing up everywhere, wanting to help a potential winner, and our previous donors and fund-raisers were digging deeper as their initial investment was rewarded in Iowa.

Obama made it clear from the beginning that he did not want to be left shouldering a big debt. I had always managed campaigns that way, so we had prepared for the worst and had hoped for the best, budgeting conservatively post-Iowa and projecting only $10 million raised for all of January. We assumed that even with a loss we could cobble together enough money through our diehard supporters to execute our game plan in the remaining early states. Now, we almost certainly would raise over $10 million in the first eight days of January alone and might raise over $30 million in January, giving us what we believed would be a huge financial advantage for Super Tuesday. In the space of a few hours, we had not just won Iowa but also considerably strengthened our ability to compete against Clinton in a drawn-out slugfest.

Friday morning, sleep deprived but showered, Gibbs, Axelrod, and I climbed into the motorcade idling outside our hotel and thumbed through the morning's stories on our BlackBerrys while we waited for Obama to emerge. We were working our way through the standard road show campaign breakfast — coffee and Dunkin' Donuts to go. I was tired but enjoying the moment of peace when Ax erupted from the backseat.

"Shit!" he yelled out. "I don't believe it."

Well, I thought, I guess the good times can't last forever.

I turned around to face him in the backseat. "What is it?" I asked. "A shitty story? Is it bad?"

He looked up at me with a mixture of despair and incredulity. "I got glazed doughnut in the track wheel of my BlackBerry and it's stuck," he replied. "I can't get the thing to work."

I stared at him for a second before bursting into laughter. In another second the whole van had joined in. Ax looked beleaguered but then finally cracked a smile. For all his brilliance as a communicator and strategist, Ax was legendary within the campaign for spilling food and mishaps with electronic gadgets. But this was the piece de resistance. It had to be a first in the history of smart phones — death by glazed doughnut. If we had lost Iowa, it would have been just another pain in the ass. But we were on cloud nine, so it was part of the adventure. Glazegate.

I was happy to see Ax bask in the post-Iowa glow. This was Obama's campaign, of course. But after him, the DNA of the organization was mostly David Axelrod's. Over the years he and Obama had become more friends than business associates, and Ax had been instrumental to Obama throughout his career. Without David, I'm not sure Obama would have won his 2004 Senate race and made it to the national stage. Many of us who were working on the campaign at senior levels were there because of an Axelrod connection. David's career was very successful by any measure, but I always got the sense that he was yearning for one last ride. Though Ax was a street fighter when he needed to be, at heart he was an idealist. This campaign, fueled by average people and appealing to their best aspirations rather than their darkest fears, was in many ways his ideal. He had come full circle, having started in politics as a young boy handing out leaflets for Bobby Kennedy in Stuyvesant Town, a housing development on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Whatever happened from here on out, I felt that Ax would feel satisfied that he had experienced the campaign he had long yearned for.

Historically, the period between New Hampshire and Iowa was often the most turbulent seven days of campaigning in American politics — and the longest. Working a New Hampshire campaign, you could pack a couple of lifetimes into that short period. For us, New Hampshire came only five days after Iowa — four campaigning days. It could be a ferocious beast, but we thought we could use it to our advantage. The fallout from Iowa would dominate the first couple of days of press coverage. Most observers, if they had to bet their mortgage, would have put their money on Clinton to win the caucuses.

Our Iowa victory in itself was not an earthquake, but when you threw in the eight-point margin, Clinton's third-place finish, and the demographic successes we had, it was seismic.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe. Copyright 2009 by David Plouffe.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

David Plouffe