Baseball and politics are two of David Plouffe's passions. So it was natural that his love for one game reinforced something that proved crucial in the other: Singles can score runs.
As Sen. Barack Obama's campaign manager, Plouffe was the mastermind behind a winning strategy that looked well past Super Tuesday's contests on Feb. 5 and placed value on large and small states.
The campaign had the money to make such a potentially low-yield wager, and Plouffe had long understood that the Democratic Party's complex system for apportioning convention delegates meant winning even one congressional district in a state could help generate the total needed to reach the magic number.
From his 11th-floor Michigan Avenue office, he sent resources to such states as Nebraska, Idaho and North Dakota that Sen. Hillary Clinton virtually ignored, putting extra emphasis on those with lower-turnout caucuses instead of primaries.
The plan, which had been in his head at least as far back as late 2006, was partly out of necessity because Clinton's early name recognition and party ties gave her advantages in big states.
The strategy proved itself in the two weeks after Feb. 5, as Obama won 11 contests in a row and achieved a delegate lead he never would lose. In late February, Plouffe reportedly confided to a colleague that he believed a mathematical tipping point had been reached.
'A rare talent'
Marking one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history, Obama himself saluted his behind-the-scenes general at the start of his victory speech last week in St. Paul.
"Thank you to our campaign manager David Plouffe, who never gets any credit, but who has built the best political organization in the country," he said.
As Obama's campaign transitions to the general election, Plouffe (pronounced Pluff) will lead the way. Ironically, it will be against someone he listed in 2003, in a Washington political journal, as his favorite Republican, Sen. John McCain.
In a campaign filled with alums from the 2004 presidential efforts of Sen. John Kerry and former Rep. Richard Gephardt, Plouffe comes from the Gephardt branch.
In 2003 and early 2004, he served as a senior adviser to Gephardt's short-lived presidential bid, a dozen years after getting his first taste for presidential politics working on a campaign for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
That Iowa experience helped him understand the state's arcane presidential caucus system and just how important an early win there would be in knocking the air of inevitability out of Clinton.
Lean and about 5 feet 10 inches tall, Plouffe can seem almost shy compared to more gregarious campaign personalities. But he can swear like a sailor, and his near-broadcast-quality voice exudes confidence on the many conference calls he holds with reporters and donors.
"He's not a weirdo, and a lot of the people who you meet at the senior level of presidential campaigns are eccentric or difficult or egomaniacs," said friend and Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. "If you look at the high command of the Obama campaign, normalcy seems to weave through them."
Plouffe, 41, is a business partner with Chicago-based media strategist David Axelrod and worked with him on Obama's winning 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. But Plouffe, unlike Axelrod, rarely appears in front of television cameras.
"He's the most disciplined and focused person I have ever met in politics," said Elmendorf, who previously supported Clinton. "It is very easy to get distracted by the press and donors and activists. David just has a great filter and he doesn't let any of the noise bother him. In a presidential campaign, that's a rare talent."
Stealing bases, not show
Plouffe, who declined to be interviewed for this article, believes the airing of campaign disputes in public should be avoided at all costs and that the candidate should always be the focus. Even with a rapidly growing staff of about 800, unintentional leaks are rare.
"He is smart and scrappy and doesn't bring a huge amount of ego to the table," said JoDee Winterhof, a political strategist who has worked with and competed against Plouffe at several points of his career.
Like a baseball manager who knows it is a long season, Plouffe tends to avoid highs or lows, similar to his candidate. While his boss cheers for the White Sox, Plouffe prefers the Phillies (a reflection of a childhood in Delaware).
Plouffe's singular focus on running the campaign was displayed last week when he refused, despite encouragement, to fly with Obama to Minnesota for a victory rally. He stayed behind with the staff in Chicago, where he gave a pep talk about the historic moment.
"He was about as happy as we've seen him," a campaign aide said.
Guarding the coffers
Plouffe's campaign office door is always open, but his wallet isn't.
Although Obama's campaign has shattered fundraising records, Plouffe, the survivor of congressional campaigns that have run short on money, is well-known for his frugality.
Staff members are often paid less than their Clinton counterparts were, many double up in hotel rooms while on the road, and the "L" is the preferred form of transportation to and from Chicago's airports. At least early on, workers who wanted business cards were typically expected to pay for the printing themselves.
By guarding the campaign's coffers, Plouffe was able to ensure Obama had the money he needed after an expensive Super Tuesday advertising surge.
A specialist in tactics, Plouffe also understands the workings of the media and has offered lines for Obama speeches that were powerful enough to make the final cut, a skill he honed working on many other campaigns and with Axelrod.
'They will have a plan'
While there is no time for the sandlot this summer, those who have worked with him say he brings his same zeal for statistics to politics as he does when he is pitching in recreational leagues or following the batting averages of his favorite players.
"He's fascinated by numbers," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who worked with him in 1999 and 2000 when Plouffe was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He just has an insatiable appetite for this stuff and he could keep all of it in his head."
Carrick credits Obama's success with his campaign's long view.
"From the very beginning of this campaign, David was very focused on the calendar and the sequence of it," he said. "The Obama campaign planned for the potential of it being a longer campaign all along."
In politics since college, Plouffe worked with Axelrod on the successful 2006 campaign of Deval Patrick for Massachusetts governor. An earlier big win came in 1996, when he managed the campaign for Bob Torricelli to fill Bill Bradley's U.S. Senate seat.
Plouffe joined Axelrod's consulting business in the winter of 2000 and was named a partner of AKP&D Message and Media in 2004 (the "P" is for Plouffe).
"He has the capacity to handle more details in his head at one time than anyone I know," Axelrod said. "David is very determined at whatever he does."
Elmendorf, meanwhile, said he looks for more of the same from Plouffe in the general election.
"It was probably the best-run presidential campaign in a generation," he said. "They will have a plan. It may not be clear yet, but they will execute it."