Steve Hildebrand, deputy national campaign director of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, spilled the juicy secrets yesterday at Cornell that led to the biggest non-incumbent victory in American history.
Approximately 70 students gathered in McGraw Hall to hear Hildebrand speak about everything from his personal background to his team’s intricate campaign strategies and inside stories of political bigwigs.
[img_assist|nid=35591|title=Strategy session|desc=President Obama’s Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Hildebrand speaks with students yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Before signing on to Obama’s team, Hildebrand said he was asked in 2006 to join former Sen. Hilary Clinton’s campaign. At that time, the Iraq war was wreaking significant casualties and Hildebrand had several policy differences with Clinton.
“A huge percent of members of Congress were so worried about their next election that they forgot to do what was best for the country,” Hildebrand said. “The Clintons were the biggest Democratic voice at the time, and I was very angry at their lack of voicing objection [to the war] as well as Hilary’s calculated treatment of the Iraq issue.”
He said the political climate in Washington left him disillusioned and willing to leave his political career behind.
“Should I really be giving my whole life to these chuckle-heads in Washington?” Hildebrand recounted.
Then, he met Obama, who was senator at the time.
“I’ve never seen such desire to touch a man,” Hildebrand said of the crowd’s reaction the first time he saw Obama speak.
“I saw something different in him, someone I truly believe in. He processes situations differently than any politician I’ve seen,” Hildebrand said. “I didn’t think he was calculating or afraid to push people’s buttons. There was something special in him.”
Soon after, Hildebrand and eight others, including Obama and his wife, met to talk about whether it made sense for Obama to run for president, especially considering his limited political experience.
“I [was] the one saying, ‘Run, run, run!’ But the others were much more cautious, including Barack and Michelle,” he said.
Three weeks later, Obama announced his candidacy.
Hildebrand asserted that the team’s campaign strategy was based on a few but powerful fundamental points.
The first was having a laser-like focus on the concept of change.
“We decided that the main theme of this election would be change vs. experience,” Hildebrand said.
Targeting the 55 million unregistered voters to get new and young voters to sign on with Obama was an important factor in the campaign’s success, he said, citing the 28-percent increase in new registrants this election.
“This made a huge difference for us. In every battle ground state, the margin of victory was slim. Those new voters saved us,” Hildebrand said.
The development of a face-to-face relationship with the public was also central to the Obama team strategy. At the Democratic National Convention last year, for instance, Obama recruited the 80,000 attendees — and to a lesser extent, the 35 million television viewers — as campaign foot soldiers.
“We put the trust of organization in the hands of volunteers. We were building a new generation of activists,” Hildebrand said.
Furthermore, Obama’s team hired Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to manage the social networking of the campaign.
“As we go into the future,” said Hildebrand, “we need to understand how young people are communicating, and utilize that understanding to reach them. That was genius on our part.”
Zach Newkirk ’12, who attended Hildebrand’s lecture yesterday, is proof of this strategy’s effectiveness.
“I’ve been getting e-mails since the beginning of the campaign from Steve Hildebrand himself. That’s why I’m here now, to hear what he has to say in person,” he said.
According to Cornell Democrats Public Relations Director Terry Moynihan ’11, the club tries to book one or two significant speakers each semester. As Hildebrand “was one of the top people on Obama’s campaign,” he was an obvious pick.
Aspiring Cornell politicians and campaign managers said they found Hildebrand’s appearance to be an exciting event.
“I want to have a career in political campaigning, so this is a unique opportunity to learn more about the behind-the-scenes strategies of one of the most important campaigns in history,” said Maria Smith grad.
“His perspective is different than what I’m used to. Unlike most commentators, he’s privy to the inner campaign circle,” Gordon Briggs ’09 said.
After Obama was elected, Hildebrand was offered a place in the White House, but declined.
“This Washington that you have seen has gotten us into this mess. It has become so consumed with special interests,” he said.
“I have a good life in South Dakota, a simple life, and I like it that way. I like the quiet times. You don’t get those in D.C.”
After his presentation, Hildebrand gave a question and answer session and then met with students individually.