Plouffe was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, in a Catholic family (he is now an Episcopalian), the son of Frances (née Vincent), a stay-at-home mother, and James Everett "Jim" Plouffe, a factory worker who later had a job in marketing. He was raised in a working-class household. Plouffe attended St. Mark's High School. He left the University of Delaware prior to graduating in 1989 to pursue a full-time career in politics, and completed his full undergraduate degree in May 2010.
Plouffe began his political career by working for Senator Tom Harkin's 1990 re-election campaign. He later worked as a state field director for Harkin's unsuccessful 1992 Presidential campaign. In the same year he successfully managed Congressman John Olver's first re-election bid in Massachusetts. In 1994 Plouffe managed Delaware Attorney General Charles M. Oberly's unsuccessful campaign against Senator William V. Roth. He then worked as campaign director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1995. In 1996 Plouffe managed Bob Torricelli's successful campaign to fill Bill Bradley's New Jersey seat in the United States Senate.
From 1997-98, Plouffe served as Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's Deputy Chief of Staff. In 1999–2000, as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Plouffe led Democrats to gains that came within several thousand votes of winning back the House. He also led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to unusually high fundraising amounts, during his tenure at the DCCC. In the winter of 2000, Plouffe joined AKPD Message and Media but left briefly to serve as a strategist for Gephardt's unsuccessful Presidential bid. He returned to the firm and became a partner in February 2004. Beginning in 2003, Plouffe and fellow AKPD partner David Axelrod worked on Barack Obama's 2004 Illinois Senate campaign, beginning his association with Obama. Plouffe worked with Axelrod on the successful 2006 campaign of Deval Patrick for Governor of Massachusetts.
Plouffe was the campaign manager for Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign. He is credited with the campaign's successful overall strategy in the race (primarily against then-Senator Hillary Clinton) for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, to focus on the first caucus in Iowa and on maximizing the number of pledged delegates, as opposed to focusing on states with primaries and the overall popular vote. He is also credited by The New Republic for Obama's success in the Iowa caucus and for crafting an overall strategy to prolong the primary past Super Tuesday. The Chicago Tribune writes, "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". Plouffe also maintained discipline over communications, including controlling leaks and releasing information about the campaign on its terms. Averse to publicity himself, Plouffe's control over the internal workings of the campaign avoided the publicly aired squabbles that tend to trouble campaigns.
In June 2008, when then-Senator Obama clinched the Democratic Party nomination, he thanked Plouffe for being the one "who never gets any credit, but has built the best political campaign, I think, in the history of the United States". In May 2008, David Axelrod praised Plouffe, stating he had "done the most magnificent job of managing a campaign that I've seen in my life of watching presidential politics. To start something like this from scratch and build what we have built was a truly remarkable thing". After winning the election on November 4, Obama credited Plouffe in his acceptance speech, calling him "the unsung hero of this campaign, who built the...best political campaign, I think, in the history of the United States of America".
Plouffe went to work as an outside senior adviser to the Obama administration, in January 2009. His book The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, discussing management strategies and tactics that he used in the 2008 campaign, was published on November 3, 2009, and became a New York Times bestseller. He later issued a video challenge for Obama supporters to buy a copy of his book on December 8, 2009, in order to "Beat Sarah Palin" and her bestselling book for one day. He signed with the Washington Speakers Bureau to give paid speeches and plans to engage in non-government consulting work.
In May 2009, Plouffe delivered the convocation address at Cornell University. He spoke about the balance between family time and professional time, and how he had yet to learn exactly how to accomplish an appropriate balance, but hoped to devote more time to his family than he was physically able to during 2007 and 2008.
In January 2011, Plouffe joined the White House as Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor. Plouffe replaced David Axelrod as Senior Advisor when Axelrod returned to Chicago to help run President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
In his role as senior advisor, Plouffe led the crafting of White House strategy and communicating the president's message. He attended the president on his domestic and overseas visits, including the May 2011 state visit to the UK.
After a successful reelection and inauguration of President Obama, Plouffe departed the White House in January 2013. During a national news event, on his final day in the White House, Plouffe was singled out by the president saying, “What people don’t always realize, because he doesn’t like to show it, is the reason he does this stuff is because he cares deeply about people. And he cares about justice, and he cares about making sure that everybody gets a shot in life. And, those values have motivated him to do incredible things, and were it not for him, we would not have been as effective a White House and I probably wouldn’t be here.”
After leaving the White House in early 2013, Plouffe became a contributor for Bloomberg TV and ABC News.
In April 2013, Plouffe was inducted into the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame.
In the summer of 2014, rumors circulated that Plouffe might return to the White House as Chief of Staff. On August 5, 2014, Plouffe denied he planned to return at a Politico Playbook lunch, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he did not expect Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to depart.
On August 19, 2014, Plouffe was appointed as Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy at Uber, the ride-sharing company.
In January 2017, Plouffe was hired by Mark Zuckerberg to lead policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. He’ll lead a bipartisan policy board alongside Ken Mehlman where they’ll announce policy members and work to find opportunities to work with the government.
Plouffe has drawn criticism for his paid speaking engagements abroad while on hiatus from advising Obama. In early 2009, Plouffe spoke in Baku, Azerbaijan, for $50,000. The event's sponsor had ties to Azerbaijan's authoritarian government. Following complaints from human rights groups, Plouffe donated his speaking fees to the National Democratic Institute.
In December 2010, Plouffe received $100,000 for two speeches in Nigeria from an affiliate of the South African telecommunications company MTN Group. At the time, MTN had been doing business with the government of Iran since 2005. Recently, MTN has come under increased scrutiny by the United States for allegations that the Iranian government used the MTN network to track and monitor dissidents. MTN has been listed on the "Iran Business Registry" of watchdog group United Against Nuclear Iran since 2009. White House spokesman Eric Schultz explained that Plouffe only spoke to the group about digital communications and cellular technology, and declined to meet with the company's leadership. Schultz also said the criticism of Plouffe's speeches before he joined the White House was "misplaced".
In 2013, in response to Congressman Darrell Issa's accusations that the Obama administration knew about the IRS targeting of not-for-profit conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Plouffe tweeted: "Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today", referring to two incidents in Issa's past. In 1972, while a teenager, Issa was accused of stealing a Maserati sports car; the charges were later dropped. In 1982, a Cleveland warehouse belonging to Issa burned to the ground. The fire was ruled suspicious and Issa collected an insurance payout, but he was not charged with any crime.
In February 2017 Plouffe was fined $90,000 by the Chicago Board of Ethics for the violation of ethics rules when he failed to register as a lobbyist after contacting Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Plouffe was trying to help the ride-hailing service Uber (company) with regulations for picking up travelers at Chicago airports. The board also fined Uber $2,000 for hiring a lobbyist who violates the city’s lobbying laws. Plouffe, David. The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, Viking Adult (November 3, 2009); ISBN 978-0-670-02133-8
Plouffe appeared on Race for the White House in the episode about the 1948 United States presidential election.
Plouffe is married to Olivia Morgan, a Senior Advisor to Maria Shriver’s A Woman’s Nation, a member of Obama’s President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and Director of Federal Relations to Gray Davis when he was governor of California. The couple resides in San Francisco, and have a daughter, who was born two days after the 2008 presidential election, and a son.