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‘This Is Where I Learned’: Hanover High School Graduate Returns Home as Head of Clinton Campaign



Sunday, December 20, 2015
Hanover — Sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the living room Friday evening, among the plates of baguettes and brie on offer for the dozens of arriving guests, two women volunteers for Hillary Clinton compared notes on the news of the day.

“Did you hear about Bernie’s scandal this morning?” one, middle-aged, asked.

She was referring to a data breach under investigation by the Democratic National Committee. After a firewall protecting data generated by Clinton’s campaign went down on Wednesday, electronic records indicate that a handful of users from the campaign of Bernie Sanders, D-VT, conducted searches of lists of potential Clinton supporters and saved some of that information into separate files. The other woman, college-aged, said that, when the firewall went down, it presented a moral quandary for Sanders’ staffers.

“They were going about business as usual and happened upon that information,” she said. “When you happen upon that information, you’re put in that position of ‘Oh, well — What does this mean?’ ”

The middle-aged woman saw less moral grayness.

“That’s probably a crime, to go in,” she said disapprovingly. “And when you run on a campaign of integrity …”

The Sanders campaign fired one individual involved in the breach, and was investigating others. The DNC initially announced that it would punish the Sanders campaign by blocking its access to the voter files, but the two sides reached an agreement on Saturday that restored that access.

On Friday, the two women were sitting in Rep. Sharon Nordgren’s house, one of several stately homes lining the length of Rope Ferry Road that connects the Dartmouth College campus to the Hanover Country Club.

While going door to door, trying to persuade potential voters to support Clinton, it can be hard for volunteers to know exactly what to say about, not only the data breach, but the dozens of other topics that might come up in a political discussion.

Pursuing conversation with other supporters is one way to feel out what to say, to get on message.

But when it comes to the Clinton campaign, only one person always seems to know what to say.

His name is Robby Mook.

Mook was born in Hanover 36 years ago, and if the hype describing his preternatural political savvy is to be believed, he has the potential to become a household name.

The volunteers were curious and eager to meet him.

He was due to arrive any moment.

Growing Into Success

For Mook, coming back to the Upper Valley while conducting a national campaign for president has to be a mixed bag — it’s a time of unbelievable opportunity, for both himself and his candidate, but there’s also the pressure of knowing that a single wrong move could ruin everything.

While Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination — most national polls have her leading by 25 points or more — those few scenarios that do show Sanders beating the odds begin with him gaining momentum by closing a moderate polling gap in Iowa, and then going on to win New Hampshire.

And, despite the best efforts of Mook and Clinton, the race in New Hampshire has remained stubbornly competitive. Polling averages show that Clinton and Sanders have traded the lead twice in the past five weeks; on Friday, a Boston Globe poll had Sanders edging Clinton, 48-46.

Sanders has always expected to do well in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, where he has many personal connections, but it would still sting for Mook to lose the battle for the very communities in which he grew up with his father, Delo Mook, a Dartmouth College physics professor, and his mother, Kathryn Mook, who worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Mook remembers that, after a childhood in Sharon and Norwich, his time attending Hanover High School was where he learned the basic building blocks of what would prove to be a talent for political strategy.

“This is where I learned to go door to door,” he said. “This is where I learned to get a petition signed. This is where I learned to persuade someone to support my candidate. This is absolutely the foundation of everything I do today.”

Mook’s early life included several campaigns in the area — including for Nordgren.

“I remember actually standing out in front of the polling place at Hanover High School with Sharon years and years ago,” he said.

While in high school, he also volunteered for former Vermont Sen. Matt Dunne, D-Hartland; in 2004, he worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. When he began managing campaigns, Democrats began to notice an increasingly impressive string of victories — in 2006, at the age of 26, Mook helped Martin O’Malley defeat incumbent Bob Ehrlich for the governorship of Maryland and Ben Cardin win a U.S. Senate seat against Michael Steele, also in Maryland. In 2008, he managed three state primary campaigns for Clinton — Nevada, Indiana and Ohio, all victories.

That year, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen reached out to Mook for help in her effort to unseat Republican incumbent John Sununu.

Shaheen said she has been involved in enough campaigns to sense trouble — and in 2008, she could read it in the faces of the volunteers who came to help her.

“I had developed a feeling for whether things are going well or not going well,” she said. “Things weren’t going very well. I felt I needed to bring in somebody who could work to make it better.”

Mook is known for his attention to metrics — data-driven measures of success that can win or lose a campaign. And Shaheen said Mook did bring a lot of focus to quantifiable goals, but he also spearheaded a transformation of the volunteer culture.

Mook powered a Sheehan win in which she netted 51.6 percent of the vote.

Tactics

If he puts Clinton in the White House, eight years after a botched effort against President Obama, Mook has the potential to join a list of famously great presidential political strategists — James Carville, Karl Rove, David Axelrod. But one notable difference is Mook’s age — he was born in 1979, a quarter-century after Axelrod, 29 years after Rove and 35 years after Carville.

Mook said he’s not thinking about his career, or the personal stakes of the election.

“This isn’t about me. This work is about making people’s lives better,” he said. “If you’re focused on that, you’re always winning. If you’re focused on yourself or your career or how much money you’re making, you’re going to be really unhappy and you’re not going to get very far.”

His youth has helped him be comfortable with the latest trends on social networking sites, including the live streaming video app Periscope, which exploded onto the Internet last spring.

“Periscope didn’t even exist when we started this campaign back in April,” he said, “and we were Periscoping from her official announcement speech in June. We’re growing and adapting and changing every single day, just like the country is. This campaign is about the future.”

Mook has other personal attributes that make an impression — he is smooth and professional without being uptight or authoritative, and he projects a sense of pleasant calm to those around him.

Earlier this year, a profile of Mook by the media outlet BuzzFeed reported on his almost-obsessive attention to detail during Clinton’s 2008 campaign; volunteers in Nevada were given a 175-page packet of procedures to follow while campaigning, and were expected to map out every half-hour of every day in notebooks he provided.

Each notebook was scrutinized and summarized in reports that were themselves summarized by higher-ups, with a final daily report going to Mook himself. That’s part of what makes Mook’s campaign tick — the idea that each volunteer is accountable for goals that are difficult, yet attainable.

On Friday night in Nordgren’s home, volunteer Lisa Talmadge, a retired nurse from Norwich, said Mook’s campaign was the most organized she’s seen since she first knocked on doors for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

“I tried to get involved in both the Hillary and Obama campaigns in ’07,” Talmadge said. “I was not impressed. They were totally disorganized. No one called me back. No one said, ‘Hey, when can you volunteer next?’ ”

This year, it’s different, she said.

“I have never seen a campaign so organized. It’s super-organized and very regimented.”

For example, Talmadge said, she now receives calls asking her to come to every organizing event.

“I think it’s coming from Robby,” she said. “I think he’s doing a great job.”

Taking the Floor

When Mook finally addressed the volunteers on Friday night, the third such meeting of the day, all of his considerable personal skills were on display.

He capitalized on his connection to the area by referencing changes to the neighborhood, joked about having a major goal of making Bill Clinton the first first gentleman of the Oval Office, and noted that he would be personally canvassing homes in Manchester on Saturday morning.

The volunteers had questions.

What about the trust issue, someone asked. Those who won’t vote for Clinton, “their catch line seems to be, ‘I don’t trust her.’ ”

Mook had a ready response.

“I actually love talking about trust,” he said.

“Some people are like, ‘the Republicans are going to make the election about trust.’ And I’m like, ‘Great! Because if this election is about who you trust to stand up for you and your family, we’re going to win this in a landslide.’ ”

A big part of Mook’s magic is in his hands, the way they constantly move to support whatever he’s saying at the moment, not with big sweeping gestures, but in intimate movements that draw his willing listeners into a close confidence.

“What I’m most scared about,” he taps his own chest, “in New Hampshire is that people sit home. It’s tied,” he interlocks his fingers, “here in New Hampshire.”

He counted on his fingers, warded off imaginary dangers with a flat palm, mimed little downbeats to punctuate the rhythm of his speech as he constantly reminded the volunteers of the stakes. The stakes are so high, Mook said.

“We’re going to take a really nasty U-turn,” he drew a U-turn in the air in front of him, “if we don’t elect a Democrat. The Republicans are talking about another ground war in the Middle East. We cannot go back,” he smacked his palm lightly for emphasis. “So, let’s do this together,” he said, his hands clasping each other.

With the energy in the room intense and positive, he excused himself to walk out the door, leaving clipboard-toting organizers to sign up volunteers for more hours of knocking on doors and making phone calls.

Outside, in the darkness, he hopped in the back of a white sedan to be driven to Manchester, still exchanging pleasantries with the few volunteers who had wandered outside. It was about six o’clock, time for a scheduled conference call with reporters to talk about the data breach.

In the car’s back seat, his face was illuminated by the dim glow of an electronic device as he put in a set of earbuds. He licked his lips, the pleasant smile that had accompanied his speech to the volunteers replaced by a look of tension.

When talking to the press, he was about to underscore the severity of the actions of the Sanders staffers, but it had to be managed with just the right touch, by the man who spends all day, every day, reminding others that the fate of the free world is riding on their actions.

Just before the call began, the car’s driver eased down the driveway, and Mook disappeared into the night.



Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.