A hacked email published by WikiLeaks this week shows that Democratic strategists — including top political allies of Hillary Clinton — were gauging voter attitudes about the Muslim faith of Barack Obama’s father during Clinton’s unsuccessful fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
If this had come out in the midst of the 2008 Democratic primaries it would no doubt prompt angry comments from Obama campaign staffers and condemnations of attempts to other-ize the senator. But Democrats, not surprisingly, were mum Friday.
According to Tom Matzzie and Paul Begala, two Democratic consultants advising the 2008 polling effort by Progressive Media USA, it was simply an effort to test Obama’s vulnerabilities in a potential general election against John McCain.
Begala and Matzzie told CNN that the group also tested arguments against Clinton, a claim that is backed up by a separate hacked email available on WikiLeaks as Document ID 2187.
“This is Campaigning 101,” said Matzzie, who was the president and executive director of Progressive Media USA. “You test the vulnerabilities of your candidate — something (Republicans) should have done for Donald Trump.”
The emails were published by WikiLeaks, which has now posted roughly 10,000 emails hacked from the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Clinton’s campaign has not confirmed the content or veracity of the emails.
“We’re still not confirming whether or not any of the WikiLeaks documents are authentic and are therefore not commenting on their content,” Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
In a January 9, 2008, email to Podesta, Begala, Matzzie and two others, an analyst at Stan Greenberg’s Democratic polling firm proposed asking voters for their reaction to 15 potential Obama vulnerabilities.
The list of anti-Obama arguments included this one about the faith of Obama’s father: “Obama (owe-BAHM-uh)’s father was a Muslim and Obama grew up among Muslims in the world’s most populous Islamic country,” an apparent reference to Obama’s time in Indonesia.
Twelve percent of the poll respondents in 10 battleground states at the time thought that Obama’s father being a Muslim and Obama growing up around Muslims was one of the top two reasons to vote against Obama.
Progressive Media found that the most effective Republican argument against Obama was the notion that Obama favored raising taxes by “$2 trillion.” Twenty-one percent of poll respondents said that the tax argument was one of the best reasons to vote against Obama.
Matzzie said that the polling project developed over a two-month period. Originally, it was going to test John Edwards in addition to Clinton and Obama, but he was dropped after he failed to win the Iowa caucuses and his chances at the nomination evaporated.
“It was pretty obvious Obama was going to be the nominee,” Matzzie said. “It was more important to understand attacks on him than it was two months earlier.”
Begala, who is now a CNN political commentator and an adviser to Priorities USA, a pro- Clinton super PAC, tells CNN that this email was labeled “McCain survey” because “it was designed to test attacks that might come in the general election.”
Begala was hired by Progressive Media USA to advise the group.
“We could not coordinate with either campaign, and worked to prepare to defend either candidate in the general election,” wrote Begala in an email to CNN. “Our entire focus was the general election. Both Obama and Clinton supporters were, at the time, concerned the eventual nominee would emerge wounded and vulnerable for the general election.”
The group disbanded after the nomination fight was settled because Obama publicly urged his supporters to give money directly to his campaign not to independent political committees. Progressive Media USA received funding from George Soros, Steve Bing, the Service Employees International Union and others.
In addition to gauging voter reactions to the Muslim faith of Obama’s father, the polling team also proposed testing that Obama had described his former cocaine use as using “a little blow.” The group also tested Obama’s support for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, his stance on gay adoption, and his 2007 decision to stop wearing an American flag pin.
The group tested multiple potential Republican arguments against Clinton including that she “flip-flopped” on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, that she “pandered to anti-war radicals” by cutting off emergency funds for the Iraq War and that she has taken “more money from lobbyists and special interests than any other candidate.”
“We were trying to simulate an election against McCain,” Matzzie said. “If you don’t include negative questions about your own candidates in the polling, the research is worthless because no real election is like that.”