Inside President Obama's Reelection Machine

Obama re-election campaign office
Cranking at Obama headquarters in Chicago. Officials there boast that they are building an operation that will put their previous effort to shame. “Our efforts on the ground and on technology,” campaign manager Jim Messina says, “will make 2008 look prehistoric.” Greg Ruffing / Redux for Newsweek

The Obama campaign is not kidding around. I recently visited its headquarters in Chicago, and I can personally vouch for how much it’s not kidding around. Yes, there was a blue Ping-Pong table in the middle of the office—custom-made, evidently, because the Obama 2012 logo was emblazoned on it. (Twice.) There were printouts of people’s nicknames—Sandals! Shermanator!—where corporate nameplates usually go. There was a mesh trucker hat from South Dakota, which was blaze orange and said “Big Cock Country” on the crown. There was a cardboard speech bubble (“nom nom data nom”) affixed to an Uglydoll. There was miniature air-hockey table. A narwhal mural. A stuffed Rastafarian banana.

But do not be deceived. There was also a chaperone following me everywhere I went and digitally recording everything anyone said to me. Ben LaBolt, Obama’s press secretary, and Stephanie Cutter, his deputy campaign manager, closed their doors as I walked by. An underling clammed up when I asked what she and her colleagues do on the weekends. At one point my minder agreed to let me out of her sight for a few milliseconds, but then I got too close to a big whiteboard covered in hieroglyphic flow charts and she instantaneously materialized at my side, having somehow teleported the 50 yards from where I’d last seen her. “Sorry,” she said, not sounding sorry at all. “You can’t look at that.” The next day it was covered by a tarp.

In short, the place is intense; Obama’s minions are very serious about lots of things, including the business of reminding themselves not to be so serious. But then I would be intense, too, if I were the Obama campaign. With 10 months to go before Election Day, the president’s job-approval rating is loitering around 46 percent, which is a problem, because the incumbent party has lost the last five times its president started Election Year below 49 percent. Likewise, no president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 has been reelected when the unemployment rate is as high or higher than it is now (8.6 percent), and no president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 has won a second term when GDP growth is as slow or slower than the current pace (2 percent). While none of these afflictions is fatal in and of itself, Obama has to overcome all three of them at once. No other modern president has even attempted this daring feat, let alone survived it.

obama-campaign-FE04-main John Sommers II / Reuters-Landov

So it makes sense for Chicago to be uptight. The president’s legendarily leakproof operation has splintered, with top advisers talking out of turn for the first time since he was elected (Exhibit A: Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men). The halo that hovered over Obama’s head back when he was a hopey-changey candidate—the halo that lured a vast army of political neophytes to the polls—has given way, of necessity, to a politician’s less celestial aura. And then there’s the expectations game to contend with. In 2008, Obama was the underdog. His team didn’t have time for anxiety; there was always another fight to focus on, another impossible victory to engineer. But this year, there is only one: Nov. 6. And because the presidency is theirs to lose, Obama’s staffers are, understandably, worried about losing it. They know the White House has had trouble selling what they see as Obama’s impressive record—and now the burden falls on them. “There are going to be some white-knuckle moments,” one 2008 veteran told me. “It’s going to be really hard.”

The good news for Obama is that it may be harder for Republicans. While the GOP candidates have spent the last year parading and pirouetting on Fox News, the president’s team has been quietly, methodically channeling their worry back into the campaign—and creating something, I discovered in Chicago, that will be even bigger, even smarter, and even more surprising than their revolutionary 2008 operation. Before my chaperone apprehended me near the whiteboard, I noticed a photograph taped to a developer’s Mac. “Everyone chill the fuck out,” it said. “I got this.” I knew the line; it had first appeared on a JPEG of Obama, scowling and resolute, that went viral in September 2008, during one of the Democratic Party’s inveterate panic attacks. But the president wasn’t in this particular picture. In his place was the operative in charge of getting him reelected: campaign manager Jim Messina. No doubt it was a comforting mantra for the developer, and for the rest of the twitchy Chicago crew: chilled-the-fuck-out-or-not, Messina’s got this.

Who knows? It may even turn out to be true.

Unlike his celebrated predecessor, David Plouffe, a boyish, buzz-cut operative who smiled inexplicably after every sentence, the rangy Messina, 42, rarely permits his features, which include a pair of rather prominent, purplish lips, to form any particular expression; he tends to roam the office blank-faced, his shoulders slumped forward and his head cocked at an inquisitive angle. At the start of our interview, Messina, a proud Montanan who spent two years as Obama’s top Capitol Hill fixer before taking over the campaign, seemed to delight in answering my questions as curtly as possible, as if to say, “I will give you what I want to give you, and not a syllable more.” But he has something to prove, too. In Washington, Democrats “wonder whether Messina can make the leap from trusted No. 2,” as Politico recently noted, and there have even been skeptics in the West Wing, where the 2008 veterans joked, at least initially, that the 2012 roster represented a “B Team” of sorts, according to a source familiar with the White House’s inner workings. All of which is just to say: it didn’t take long for Messina to start crowing about the intricate machine he’s managed to assemble, 700 miles away from the Beltway big top.

The president’s greatest advantage, Messina explained, is time. Without a primary war to wage, his staff has been able to dedicate the past 10 months exclusively to general-election preparations—a head start not only over 2008 (and previous incumbents) but over a bumper crop of clumsy Republicans who have been too distracted by 2011’s 13 televised debates to bother with old-fashioned chores such as fundraising or field organizing. “We now have people on the ground all across the country who’ve spent four years, five years in our system and know how to do this, who believe in this guy, and who are trained,” Messina told me. “That’s just a huge piece of business. [Mitt] Romney and [Newt] Gingrich don’t have operations on the ground in these states.”

Consider the numbers. In January 2004, George W. Bush’s aides bragged that they’d held a grand total of 52 training sessions around the country for precinct leaders. The Obama campaign, by comparison, held 57 ... in a single December week ... in a single state, Iowa. Right now, there are more than 200 paid staffers working in Chicago—double Bush’s head count at the beginning of 2004, and more than double Romney’s current total. (Bill Clinton employed only 40 people at this point; the first President Bush was still stuck in the single digits.) Messina has already hired an in-house design crew, an in-house gear team, and in-house tech developers, who are tinkering away on a top-secret application that will track every conversation that every single Obama volunteer has, every door they knock on, every action they take. (More on that later.) As one returning staffer put it, “This is what we looked like toward the end of the 2008 primary season, in June. Not at the beginning.”

Meanwhile, Obama’s fundraising brigade hit the million-donor mark in six months flat, or twice as fast as last time around, with nearly half of the campaign’s cash now coming from donors giving less than $200—a much higher percentage than in 2008. Even the corner-office crowd is sticking with the president, at least for the moment: together with the Democratic Nation-al Committee, Obama raised $15.6 million from financial-sector workers through September, more than the entire Republican field. All told, Chicago and the DNC have raked in an estimated $190 million to $200 million to date, which is roughly quadruple Romney’s projected 2011 haul, and analysts expect the campaign could reach $1 billion by November.

Money and manpower, however, are only as good as the message they help to convey. When I asked Obama’s top lieutenants about his image problem—how he manages to get caricatured as both a crypto-Marxist radical and an unprincipled, professorial pushover, all at the same time—they responded, almost reflexively, with the usual excuses: we inherited a terrible economy, and, anyway, we really have passed a lot of legislation. But while that analysis is basically accurate, as Beltway scorekeeping goes, it’s hardly the kind of rallying cry required to remobilize millennials and independents, key constituencies among whom Obama’s support has plummeted more than a dozen percentage points since 2008. And so Chicago is crafting a new, more combative message. “I speak as one who has responsibilities in this regard, so I take a good deal of the blame,” David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, confessed. “We took a guy who speaks about vision and values in as compelling a way as anyone of this generation, and we made him into a narrator of the day-to-day decision making of government.”

The plan for 2012, according to Axelrod, is to tout the president’s achievements while also recognizing that “people are less interested in a tote sheet of what has been accomplished” than in “how we, and alternatively how the other side, would approach the larger economic challenges” facing the middle class. Translation: voters should expect (1) more talk about the future than the painful recent past, and (2) a merciless populist assault on the Republican nominee’s alleged belief in “trickle-down social Darwinism”—an “every man for himself” ideology designed, according to Axelrod, to ensure that “whoever starts with the advantages will likely multiply them, while everybody else pedals faster and faster just to keep up.” Think No We Shouldn’t (elect a Republican) instead of Yes We Can. “You’re looking at a lot more competitive situation, and that’s what we’re preparing for,” Axelrod admits. “It’s going to be a very vigorous debate.”

The campaign recognizes, of course, that its new tone is unlikely to inspire the sort of dreamy fervor that first swept Obama into office. Asked about Occupy Wall Street, for example, a prominent Democrat familiar with Chicago’s thinking said he “hope[s] those folks are keyed in to the debate,” because it “would be a really profound mistake” to “assume these problems will be solved somehow outside the political system.” But keying them in (along with the rest of the 2008 coalition) won’t be easy. Which means that the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes grind of maximizing turnout and persuading voters to support the president, both online and off, will be even more important than it was four years ago. Messina says he’s ready. “Our efforts on the ground and on technology,” he promised me, “will make 2008 look prehistoric.”

From what I saw in Chicago, Messina is right to boast. In a dark, distant corner of the office, a team of more than a dozen developers sat on big, bouncy yoga balls, tapping away on the customized black keyboards they brought from home. Many of them had unusual facial hair, or unusual piercings, or both, which may be why I heard someone refer to them as “those guys who look like they’re Occupying the office.” Nonetheless, the developers were very much welcome at One Prudential Plaza. For months now, they have been figuring out how to rewrite the campaign’s code—created when the iPhone was a novelty, when Twitter barely existed, and when Facebook was one tenth its current size—for this year’s digital landscape. And they’ve come to some interesting conclusions.

The first is that the campaign can do a much better job of “treating people like people,” according to Michael Slaby, Obama’s chief integration and innovation officer—provided it harvests the right data. Don’t ask a disenchanted Ohioan for money; woo him first. Don’t reach out to a supporter who donates $5 during the State of the Union the same way you’d reach out to a supporter who donates $5 during a Republican debate; they respond to different incentives. To figure out who each of us is, and what each of us wants, Slaby and his team are constructing a “microlistening” and computer modeling program that will comb online and off-line behavior patterns for voter information, then use it to personalize every interaction we have with the campaign: fundraising, volunteering, persuasion, mobilization. “The voters we need to reach and the donors that we’re trying to raise money from and the supporters and volunteers we’re trying to activate—they’re all the same group of people,” Slaby told me. “And for us to communicate with them in an integrated and intelligent way, where all of those things get met and we listen effectively, it requires us to evolve.” In 2012 the Obama campaign won’t send its backers a video and say, “Share this with everyone you know”; it will say, “Share this with your four Facebook friends in Pennsylvania’s crucial Lehigh Valley swing district who are worried about the president’s tax policies.”

Slaby’s second insight is that Obama’s online and field operations need to be far more integrated than they were in 2008. Back then, the campaign encouraged supporters to create profiles on a social networking site called MyBarackObama.com. But while MyBO was advanced for the times, it was also weirdly detached from the actual field structure—and from Facebook, which has since become the world’s default social network. So for 2012 Slaby decided to ditch the site and start from scratch. The campaign still isn’t ready to unveil its MyBO replacement, but I managed to collect a couple of clues during my visit to Chicago. “We’re not building a social network,” one insider told me. “You don’t need to create an account. You don’t need to upload a photo.” Instead, by logging in with their Facebook ID, volunteers get immediate access to “any tool that you can get in a field office. You can have that at home, on your computer, in real time, in a way that connects to what your friends are doing and what the people around you are doing.” The campaign, meanwhile, gets immediate access to your Facebook network, plus whatever information you choose to enter about the voters you eventually contact. This way, the insider explained, “we can say, ‘Call your friend of a friend who is a lot more likely to be persuaded if you talk to them’” than if an anonymous volunteer were to call instead.

The final piece of the tech puzzle is smartphones. In 2008 the campaigns focused on SMS because texting was the most sophisticated thing most voters could do with their phones; now, almost every mobile device can surf the Web, play and share video, and connect to Twitter and Facebook. “If my mom, who’s 62, is working off a smartphone and is a supporter of the president, then that’s huge,” Slaby told me. “People can now make calls, canvass, and be engaged on a deeper level from wherever they are.” Last November, the campaign redesigned its website so that it would look and work the same on every platform: PC, mobile, tablet. The motivation wasn’t merely aesthetic; a site that renders properly on a smartphone makes it easier for volunteers to register new voters and call undecideds on the go, and that kind of efficiency translates into extra votes. Or so Chicago hopes. As Slaby put it: “The ’08 campaign doesn’t win 2012. We should learn what we can from last time, and be smart about things that worked then still working now. But it’s a new world.”

The offline operation is just as cutting-edge. Messina’s plan is not to go after every state Obama carried in 2008; instead he will be content to recapture the 251 electoral votes that John Kerry won in 2004 and build from there. He sees five paths to 270, several of which hinge on the president increasing his margins among Latinos, the fastest-growing subset of the electorate. “One of the defining issues of the Republican primary has been the complete race to demagogue immigrants, and there will be a price to pay politically for that kind of rhetoric,” Messina told me. “The Latino vote will be absolutely crucial in this election.” The West Path would add Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to the Kerry states, for 272 electoral votes. The Florida Path would add just Florida, for 275. The South Path runs through North Carolina and Virginia (274 electoral votes), while the Midwest Path includes Ohio and Iowa (270 electoral votes). Finally, there’s the Expansion Path: Obama carries all the Kerry states except blue-collar Pennsylvania and libertarian New Hampshire, then compensates with victories in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and John McCain’s home state of Arizona, which was uncontested in 2008, for obvious reasons.

Messina’s Five Paths spiel may seem like straightforward spin: the president can’t be in trouble; just look how many options he has! But when I met with Jeremy Bird, Obama’s wonky national field director, he made it clear that Chicago isn’t just speculating about these routes—they’re actively testing the waters, and have been for a while. In Iowa, for example, Bird & Co. are preparing for the Democratic caucuses as if they were contested. Their first paid staff members arrived in Des Moines nearly two years ago, and now Obama’s Iowa operation—eight offices, a dozen staffers, hundreds of volunteers, 1,280 official events, 4,000 one-on-one conversations, and 350,000 calls to supporters—likely surpasses that of any Republican running. Bird’s plan is to treat Caucus Night like a massive statewide organizing session, “training [caucusgoers] for what we have to do and giving them specific goals, because the general election will kick off that night.” A week later, Obama volunteers from Massachusetts will flow across the border into New Hampshire, practicing for next November. “The primaries and caucuses allow us to test our systems,” Bird explained. “Do we have car-sharing systems online so that people can car-pool? Do we have people from Springfield, Mass., going into Nashua [N.H.] always, so they get to know the organizers, so they get to know the turf they’re walking, so they get to know the people they’re talking to? It’s just a big opportunity.”

The opportunities aren’t limited to the early primary states, either. In North Carolina, Obama staffers and volunteers used last year’s mayoral race in Charlotte, which will host the 2012 Democratic convention, as a dry run for the general, road-testing their voter-registration and turnout tactics “with an actual election coming up, so there were deadlines and people were focused the way they will be next year,” according to Bird. By Election Day, supporters of Anthony Foxx, the Democratic incumbent, had made more than 200,000 phone calls—10 times his challenger’s tally. Foxx wound up winning by 35 percentage points. Meanwhile, similar operations are already underway in more than a dozen key swing states, including Ohio, where volunteers teamed up with labor groups last November to sink Gov. John Kasich’s ban on collective bargaining, and Arizona, where the campaign has already opened three offices and recruited a Latino candidate for Senate. As one Republican strategist from Raleigh, N.C., recently told The New York Times: “This is real. I’ve seen it. I’m coming off the front lines—it ain’t fun and we better be ready.”

Two weeks after I left the Windy City, I called Axelrod and asked what worried him most about 2012. The contours of the contest were already clearer than they’d been in Chicago. Obama had just delivered his much-ballyhooed speech in Osawatomie, Kan., blending the populist notes he’d recently been sounding on taxes, regulation, and middle-class boosterism into a coherent, campaignlike appeal. “This country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, and when everyone plays by the same rules,” he’d said. Gingrich had just started to slide in the polls; Romney was just about to become the frontrunner (again).

“Between now and November, things will happen, the implications of which can’t be known,” Axelrod answered. “That’s something you have to live with during those sleepless nights.”

Out in Chicago, an army of brilliant worrywarts is slaving away to ensure that Obama won’t lose the 2012 election because of organization or technology—and thanks to them he probably won’t. But no one really knows if Chicago’s meticulous planning will be enough to protect the president from defeat. Not Axelrod. Not Messina. Not this year. If Romney secures the Republican nomination, reelection will be far more difficult than if, say, Gingrich were to prevail; Romney tends to tie Obama, or come close, in head-to-head polls. If the president’s support among Hispanics, which has slipped several points since 2008, doesn’t bounce back, then several of Messina’s Five Paths may turn out to be dead ends. If Obama’s new middle-class message doesn’t resuscitate his approval ratings, which are lower than his disapproval ratings (and have been for months), then independents may side with the GOP. And so on. No wonder Team Obama is so controlling: the more you can’t control, the more you control what little you can.

As I was talking to Axelrod, I remembered something I’d seen a few weeks earlier at an Obama rally in Scranton, Pa. Outside the high-school gymnasium, a phalanx of local Tea Partiers was holding signs and shouting about a president who “hates America” and a first lady who “wants to take your kids away because they’re fat.” Inside, Obama had just ambled into view, loose-limbed and grinning, to the predictable peal of pubescent delight. This is all online; you can go watch it. But it isn’t as strange as it was in person. Here’s what happened, at least from my vantage point: one moment, Obama was there, in his white shirtsleeves, shaking Scranton’s hands across a steel barricade. And then he was gone. The president’s disappearance was brief; by the time the Secret Service agents lunged forward, he had already escaped his captor, who turned out to be a particularly demonstrative fan. Still, for that split second, in the Scranton gymnasium, with all the rage outside, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Is the crowd embracing Obama again? I wondered, or is it swallowing him up?

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