Mitchell native recounts Obama campaign tales

For Steve Hildebrand, the "full-circle" moment came when he introduced his mother to Barack Obama. "Growing up in a large family that didn't have a lot of wealth and being able to have a moment where I had the opportunity to introduce my mother t...

Steve Hildebrand
Laura Wehde/Republic Steve Hildebrand, a political consultant and Mitchell native who served as deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama, speaks Thursday at the McGovern Library in Mitchell.

For Steve Hildebrand, the "full-circle" moment came when he introduced his mother to Barack Obama.

"Growing up in a large family that didn't have a lot of wealth and being able to have a moment where I had the opportunity to introduce my mother to somebody who just might be the next president of the United States, that was pretty cool," said Hildebrand, who spoke to an audience of about 30 Thursday at the McGovern Library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

Hildebrand, a 1980 graduate of Mitchell High School, served as deputy campaign manager during Obama's historic run to the White House. After the election, Hildebrand came back home to Sioux Falls and his political consulting firm, Hildebrand Tewes.

The opportunity to introduce his mother, Janice, to Obama came just prior to a May campaign event at Watertown.

"He could not have been more gracious and genuine," Hildebrand said. "He gave my mother a peck on the cheek."


Obama went on to lose the June South Dakota primary election to Hillary Clinton by 10 percentage points. Hildebrand said he took a significant amount of ribbing for letting his home state fall into the loss column, even though the Watertown trip was his only foray into the state. He said Thursday that Obama faced long odds in South Dakota, in part because the Clintons -- Bill, Hillary and Chelsea -- made a combined 42 appearances in South Dakota compared to Obama's four.

In addition to sharing personal stories from the campaign, Hildebrand also delivered a presentation he titled "An Improbable Journey." With the aid of PowerPoint slides and videos, he recapped the highlights of the campaign and offered insights into the crucial moments.

The work that was done to register millions of new voters was absolutely crucial to Obama's victory, Hildebrand said. He displayed numbers from several battleground states, including North Carolina, to prove the point. Obama's margin of victory in that state's general election was only about 14,000 votes, and it came after about 549,000 new voter registrations.

Obama would have lost 100 electoral votes across the country without the help of the registration drives, Hildebrand asserted, which would have dropped Obama below the winning threshold.

"We just wouldn't have won (without the registration effort)," Hildebrand said. "There's no question about it."

Hildebrand said he met Obama in 2006 during a Democratic event in Iowa.

"I knew that this guy was different," Hildebrand said. "I knew that he had something about him that, should it actually catch on, could go somewhere."

Hildebrand was soon among a group of about eight people who worked over the course of six meetings to convince Obama and his wife, Michelle, to enter the race for the presidency. When Obama decided to run, Hildebrand said, he was adamant about building a grass-roots coalition of millions of supporters who could break the partisan polarization in Washington.


During the first quarter of campaign fundraising, Hildebrand said, the campaign thought it would need to raise $12 million and projected only $9 million. Obama shocked the political establishment by reporting $23.5 million at the end of the quarter and beating Hillary Clinton's $20.5 million. Hildebrand called it the "money primary" and said it broke Clinton's hold on the title of frontrunner.

Obama then went on to win the Iowa caucuses, which Hildebrand said the campaign expected to lose by eight points, based on internal polling. After a setback in the New Hampshire primary, the campaign got back on track and began its slow march to the nomination. Hildebrand said that after "Super Tuesday" -- Feb. 5, when 24 states held primaries or caucuses -- the Obama campaign thought it had an "insurmountable" delegate lead. Still, the race dragged on into June.

"It was the longest Democratic primary campaign in the history of the country," Hildebrand said, "and I have the battle scars to prove it."

A highlight of the general election included what Hildebrand called the Sarah Palin "disaster," during which the country turned from curiosity about the Alaska governor to serious doubts about her readiness to assume the presidency in the event of John McCain's death. Hildebrand said Obama clearly won his debates with McCain and remained steady and strong through the economic crisis, unlike McCain, who temporarily suspended his campaign at one point in response to the economic turmoil. Obama also was helped by the Republican President George Bush's historically low approval ratings, Hildebrand said.

Other than those factors, grassroots campaigning and Obama himself made the difference, according to Hildebrand.

"There's no way that this improbable journey would have ever even started if Barack wouldn't have been the kind of thoughtful, intellectual, inspirational individual that he is," Hildebrand said.

After his presentation Thursday, Hildebrand was asked if he could have had an Obama administration job in Washington, D.C. He said he could have, but he passed on the opportunity because Sioux Falls and South Dakota are "home."

"I came back here," he said, "because I want to see sunsets and stars and listen to the birds and be with my dog and, you know, do all the good things you get to do in a more rural area."

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