The Final Days

VII.The Obama campaign ran the biggest, best-financed get-out-the-vote campaign in the history of American politics. It wanted to turn out minorities and the young, groups that traditionally stay away from the polls. For the cautious, self-consciously virtuous Obamaites, this worthy goal posed some special challenges.

The campaign wanted to reach out to young black men, but in a way that would not antagonize white voters. The rap artist Jay-Z offered to perform in concert for Obama in October, but the campaign was "nervous," recalled Jim Messina, the campaign chief of staff. Black leaders from the community in Detroit and Miami pleaded with Obama headquarters, Messina recalled, saying, in effect, "You keep saying to us, 'Go produce sporadic African-American young voters.' Give us the tools. Jay-Z is a tool and you have to give him to us."

Warily, the campaign agreed but still called the rap star's management to ask him not to say anything about McCain or Palin onstage, for fear that the rapper would make crude or incendiary remarks that would wind up on Fox News. Jay-Z agreed not to riff on the Republican candidates, but he said he wanted to perform a song, "Blue Magic," that includes the line "Push, money over broads, f––– Bush/Chef, guess what I cooked? Made a lot of bread and kept it off the books."

At a concert on Oct. 5 in Miami, Jay-Z decided to skip the line about Bush, but the crowd, familiar with the words, roared it out anyway, as giant portraits of Bush and Obama lit up the backdrop. The incident passed largely unnoticed by the media—and the Obama campaign registered 10,000 new voters in Miami.

"Walking-around money" is an old and somewhat disreputable political practice of dispensing cash to local pols, grass-roots community leaders and preachers to get out the vote on Election Day, particularly in poorer areas inhabited by racial and ethnic minorities. As money changes hands, a certain amount of winking is typically involved; not all of the funds go to, say, hiring drivers or passing out leaflets, and the recipients are not shy about asking. (During the Robert F. Kennedy campaign for president in 1968, Kennedy operatives made sure not to bid up the going rate for walking-around money, or to hand it out too early, lest they have to pay twice.)

On Oct. 21, Michael Strautmanis was riding, along with a NEWSWEEK reporter, through the streets of Philadelphia in an aged Honda Accord driven by a baby-faced law grad who had volunteered for the campaign 10 days earlier. Strautmanis had been a close friend of Michelle and Barack Obama since he worked at the same Chicago law firm in the late '80s. He was on his way—or so he thought—to a one-on-one meeting with a local Democratic congressman. But word arrived that the meeting had been expanded to include the Democratic city committee, a local power center in Philadelphia's Democratic politics. One of the city committee's roles was as collector and dispenser of walking-around money. Obama had refused on principle to hand out walking-around money during the Pennsylvania primary, which he lost by eight points.

"I'm not doing that," Strautmanis said, to no one in particular. He quickly called a friend to arrange a place where he could meet with the congressman—alone. Next was a meeting with a state senator, who greeted Strautmanis like an old friend, even though they had never met. The state senator said he was in awe of Obama. "He's the greatest bulls–––ter in the world!" the politician exclaimed. "I know he's bulls–––ting me, but it feels good!" Sensing he was perhaps being a little too frank, the state senator said, "I want to be as helpful as I can." Strautmanis said the campaign planned to "overwhelm the system" with a massive turnout. They planned to have volunteers knock on every door of every likely voter in Philadelphia, three times—on Saturday, Monday and Election Day. The trick then was to get them to the polls. The state senator suggested buses "with AC and a health-care worker onboard" for senior citizens. "And street money," the senator said. "I know you guys didn't do it in the primary, but …"

Strautmanis continued, asking, "What about the churches?" The senator became a little vague, or perhaps coy. "The churches are …" he began, pausing. "They're in a different place." He suggested some churches might hold out support if they're not courted, but, the senator added, "After he gets elected they'll be the first ones asking, 'Can we get to the ball?' " Strautmanis politely changed the subject. "So what are you working on, policywise?" he asked.

After the meeting, Strautmanis admitted to seeing some benefit. "I think we should do it," the Obama aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "It's just part of the culture here, and what will it cost? A couple of hundred grand? … For a lot of people, if they don't get it, they just flat-out won't engage." (The Obama campaign ultimately refused to provide any walking-around money, though as Politico reported, some was provided by local sources.)

In some ways, the technological challenges were less complicated for the young vote getters of Team Obama. On Election Day, campaigns need to find a way to turn out supporters who have not yet voted. This means matching lists of supporters with lists of voters appearing at the polls. During the primaries, the Obama campaign was able to update its lists every three hours, a pretty impressive frequency.

But not good enough. The geeks at new Media, working with the field department, had created a program that would allow a "flusher"—the term for a volunteer who goes out to round up nonvoters on Election Day—to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. The New Media magicians dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station. "I have no idea how [Project Houdini] will work," Steve Schale, the campaign's Florida state director, told NEWSWEEK a week before Election Day. "But if it does work, it will redefine get-out-the-vote … It's an amazing, fascinating tool, and if it works, it will be the model that everyone uses going forward."

In past presidential campaigns, Democrats relied on loose organizations of volunteers and labor unions to get out the vote. This time around, the Obama campaign was as tightly run as the old Karl Rove Republican machine. In the battleground state of Ohio, "instead of volunteers assembling at 200 parking lots at union halls, we have 1,400 neighborhood teams in the state that we have spent six months recruiting and training and managing, said Jon Carson, the overseer of Obama's national network of volunteers. "We've taken the best of those volunteers, and they're giving us 40, 50, 60 hours a week. They're empowered, and we made them accountable. I can tell from here in Chicago; did you make the phone calls, the door knocks?"

With five days to go, the campaign's chief strategist, David Axelrod, looked less anxious than usual. Indeed, he almost seemed well rested. Speaking with a NEWSWEEK reporter at an Obama rally in Sarasota, Fla., he smiled, exhaled audibly and said, "I'm sniffing the finish line." Gone, for the moment at least, was the melancholy slump of the shoulders and the guarded look in his eyes. Obama was leading in red states like Virginia and even threatening McCain in his home state of Arizona. The night before, some 35 million people had watched a powerful, if slick and gauzy, half-hour infomercial on Obama that aired in prime time on every network but ABC. The cost—$4 million—was a trifle for an organization that was outspending its opponent's campaign on TV by about three to one and had raised $150 million, a record amount for one month, in September. Axelrod had traded in his usual hiking boots for a pair of comfortable-looking slip-on loafers. He looked nearly presentable.

Speaking to a reporter a few days earlier, on Oct. 26, he had marveled at his opponents' missteps. He had been surprised by the choice of Palin. He called it an act of "message suicide," noting that the McCain campaign had spent the month of August trying to persuade voters to choose experience over celebrity, then "in one fell swoop they throw experience out the window, they hitch their wagon to this celebrity they're creating—and plainly [McCain] didn't put 'country first'." Axelrod said he regretted "overreacting" to the "celebrity" ad in August, but when Palin gave McCain a brief surge in the polls in early September, he was happy that Obama had essentially ignored the advice of Democratic wise men, which he said was "You have to destroy her." His think-first instinct was standard Obama operating procedure. As he put it: "You can't judge the impact of the storm in the middle of the storm. You have to let the storm pass."

By this point, Axelrod's mind meld with Obama was so complete that the two men barely needed to speak. Eric Holder recalled that from time to time during the deliberations over choosing a running mate, Obama would catch Axelrod's eye, just for an instant, seeking some sign of approbation or disapproval. Axelrod's phone would routinely ring shortly before midnight, the hour when Obama liked to do his deep thinking. (Axelrod would know it was Obama calling by his ringtone: the tune to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder.)

It was hard to overstate Axelrod's feeling for the candidate. When the political consultant had first met with Obama in Chicago to discuss a potential presidential run in 2006, Michelle had asked her husband what he could "uniquely" contribute if he was elected. Obama answered that, right off the bat, the day he was elected, "the world will look at us differently—and I think a lot of young people across the country will look at themselves differently."

To Axelrod, the romantic who read old Bobby Kennedy speeches for fun, this was the sort of transformation that he (along with a lot of '60s liberals) had spent his whole life dreaming about. At the time of that meeting with the Obamas in 2006, Axelrod had been "so disgusted with the state of politics, so disillusioned—we were about to elect a governor [Rod Blagojevich], he was an old client of mine and a friend, but he was disappointing—I wanted to be involved in something that reminded me of why I got into this work in the first place," he recalled. On Sunday, Oct. 19, Axelrod had been lying alone on his hotel bed watching "Meet the Press" when Colin Powell movingly endorsed Obama. Axelrod had thrust his fist in the air and became choked up.

Mark Salter, McCain's closest aide, had become increasingly isolated during the final weeks of the campaign. On the morning of the last debate, he had found the candidate stewing in his hotel room. McCain had become riled up after watching some conservative pundits on Fox urging him to lay into Obama that night. Campaign manager Rick Davis was also urging the candidate to take a more aggressive posture toward Obama on the Lewis comments. Davis argued that Obama had tried to bait Hillary Clinton, and she had called him out on it. Davis wanted McCain to do the same. Once again, Salter found himself as defender of the McCain brand, arguing that the candidate needed to stay dignified and not stoop to conquer. But McCain himself disagreed; he wanted to give Obama a chance to repudiate Lewis' comments. The discussion became heated. As he sometimes did when he was angry and frustrated, Salter stalked out of the room to have a cigarette.

The polls continued to look grim for McCain as the campaign entered the final weekend. He was trailing by an average of 8 points in 14 battleground states—falling further behind in nine and leading in none. On Halloween, a top McCain aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter that McCain's odds of winning were roughly equal to "drawing to an inside royal flush." But McCain, who loved to joke "it's always darkest before it's completely black," seemed unflustered, even happy. His aides had seen this mood before. McCain did not mind being the underdog; he seemed to almost glory in battling for a lost cause. "The crazier things get, the calmer he becomes," said Matt McDonald, a senior adviser to McCain.

Salter was not surprised by McCain's attitude. Years before, McCain had told him how he idolized the character of Robert Jordan in Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms." Salter had written a chapter about Jordan in the book he coauthored with McCain, "Worth the Fighting For." Salter (in McCain's voice, and clearly imagining McCain) described Jordan as "a man who would risk his life but never his honor." The title of the chapter was "Beautiful Fatalism," after a phrase Hemingway had used to describe warriors "who stayed loyal to a doomed cause." That pretty well described John McCain as he entered the last days of the long campaign.

On a bus trip through Central Florida, McCain was tired but cheerful, exuberantly shaking hands with shoppers at an open-air market and humbly thanking a veteran of the Navy's submarine service. He made two brief, humorless statements to his former friends in the press. The crowds turned on the reporters, yelling, "When are you going to stop lying to America?" McCain-Palin supporters had embraced Joe the Plumber, and Palin, with her crowd sense, broadened the franchise to include Tito the Builder and Angela the Hairdresser (and Barack the Wealth Spreader). Irrepressible, Lindsey Graham had started calling his Senate pal "Joe the Biden," which McCain found inexplicably hilarious.

There wasn't much laughing on a bus ride through Pennsylvania. McCain sat alone in the back with his friend and aide Steve Duprey. "How are we doing in New Hampshire?" the candidate asked Duprey, who had been the New Hampshire GOP chairman. McCain had a great fondness for the Granite State, where the independent-minded voters had given him overwhelming majorities in the Republican primaries in 2000 and 2008. Duprey hesitated, but looked McCain in the eye. "We're probably going to lose," he said. McCain looked genuinely shocked. "How did that happen?" the candidate asked, shaking his head. It wasn't just Obama, Duprey told him.

In truth, McCain's "ground game," as the get-out-the-vote effort is sometimes called, was not strong. In many states, the McCain campaign was out-organized as well as outspent by Obama. Duprey believed that McCain's political director, Mike DuHaime, and the political operation did not understand New Hampshire. DuHaime, who had run the ill-fated Giuliani campaign, practiced off-the-shelf Republican red-meat politics. Duprey's own son had received a mailer highlighting McCain as pro-life. Duprey, like many New Hampshire Republicans, was pro-choice. Duprey told McCain, "I'm a supporter of Planned Parenthood. If they are mailing something like this to me, who else are they mistargeting?"

In a losing campaign, backbiting is inevitable. McCain knew this from his own experience. In 1996 he had played the role Lindsey Graham performed for him—he had ridden on the campaign plane as a friend/adviser to Bob Dole, the Kansas senator challenging President Bill Clinton. In the fall of '96, the Dole campaign had become a circular firing squad as the polls pointed to a Republican defeat. Indeed, McCain himself had been one of those advisers occasionally second-guessing campaign strategy with reporters, even as he tried to counsel his buddy (and fellow wounded vet) Senator Dole. McCain did not want to read about his own campaign's infighting in the press. "Don't do that to me," he had told Salter and Schmidt, Davis and Charlie Black. And by and large they didn't. But especially as Schmidt brought in outsiders from the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, the "unit cohesion," as McCain might put it, began to crumble.

On Sunday, Oct. 26, McCain's handlers had considered simply removing the Sunday Magazine from the candidate's copy of The New York Times, but McCain demanded the paper before anyone could remove the offending article. "The Making (and Remaking) of a Candidate," by Robert Draper, documented, in detail and with behind-the-curtain scenes, the many strategic lurches of McCain and his advisers. Before he was halfway through the 8,500-word article, McCain declared, quietly but firmly, "I'm very disappointed."

The discomfort among McCain's advisers was plain to see. Tensions had been building: in early October, as reporters trooped through the lobby of one hotel, they witnessed Salter and Nicolle Wallace arguing heatedly. Days later, Salter was unhappy with a statement by Wallace that seemed to defend the angry crowds stirred up by Governor Palin. Salter and Wallace clearly had a strained relationship. As reporters, who had been kept away from McCain, boarded the plane that day through the front door, they paraded past the candidate who was sitting on the couch that had been installed—but never used—for "Straight Talk" chats with the press. The candidate who had once traded japes with his press-corps pals did not even look up; he just looked glumly at the floor. He was flanked by Salter and Wallace, who stared grimly ahead.

Reporters noticed that Salter had been spending less and less time with his old pal Schmidt, and that Schmidt was more often seen in the company of Wallace. McCain's 24-year-old daughter Meghan, was increasingly, and sometimes profanely, complaining that her father was being poorly served by his advisers. The atmosphere on the bus was becoming so poisonous that one midlevel staffer e-mailed another to say, "Kill me." And yet, as the odds grew longer and Election Day grew closer, Salter took his cue from McCain, or perhaps from their shared mythic doppelgänger, Robert Jordan. Salter stopped brooding and began joking around, as if he were mocking the fates. To the tune of "Rocky," the music used to introduce McCain as the fighting underdog at rallies, Salter entertained staffers with a shadowboxing match with Schmidt. The latter became a little overenthusiastic, however, and clipped Salter's aviator glasses, slightly cutting and bruising Salter's eye socket. When reporters asked what had happened, Salter pointed to the small wound and joked, "Vicious staff infighting."

The sharpest jabs were aimed at Palin. An anonymous McCain staffer described her to Politico as "wacko" and a "diva." When Politico reported on Oct. 21 that Palin had spent $150,000 for clothes for herself and her family, the governor had been all wounded innocence. At a campaign stop in Tampa, she said, "These clothes—they're not my property, just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased. I am not taking them with me. I am back to wearing clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska." Publicly, McCain aides backed up Palin, saying that a third of the clothes had been returned immediately, before they were worn in public, and that the rest would be donated to charity. Privately, however, McCain's top advisers fumed at what they regarded as Palin's outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist, but thereafter Palin had "gone rogue," as the media buzz put it. She began buying for herself and her family—clothes and accessories from top stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. A week after she announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards; the McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent "tens of thousands" more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as "Wasilla Hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books. A Palin aide said: "Governor Palin was not directing staffers to put anything on their personal credit cards, and anything that staffers put on their credit cards has been reimbursed, like an expense. Nasty and false accusations following a defeat say more about the person who made them than they do about Governor Palin." The aide added, "It's incredibly egregious that you even consider running this."

On the last full day of campaigning, Monday, Nov. 3, Obama walked out onstage and surveyed the crowd for a few extra seconds before giving his stump speech. The crowd was in a festive mood. A middle-aged woman with a silk scarf salsa-danced with a beaming Latino man, holding both hands above his head and flashing the victory sign as he spun and gyrated to the song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." Reporters, who rarely budged from the laptops in the press room to hear Obama deliver his well-worn speech, streamed toward the stage to get a better view of the candidate. They seemed to sense that the long campaign was finally over, that this was their last chance to see the political phenomenon, who rarely came back to talk to the press. "I have just one word for you, Florida," Obama declared to the crowd. "Tomorrow." He drew on the oratory of the civil-rights movement, intoning, "We have a righteous wind at our backs."

That morning, Obama talked by phone to Michelle in Chicago and learned that his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, had died. He had broken off the campaign the week before to fly to her bedside in Honolulu, and he was glad to have had the chance to say goodbye to the woman he called "Toot" (after Tutu, the Hawaiian word for grandmother). Late in the afternoon, standing before 25,000 people in Charlotte, N.C., he mentioned his grandmother's passing. "She has gone home," he said. His voice grew hoarse, and he called his grandmother a "quiet hero," one of many quiet heroes who toil in obscurity to create better lives for their families. Unlike Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes—who all readily choked up or shed tears—Obama rarely showed any emotion. But now he reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his face, wet with tears.

On election morning, Obama voted at home in Chicago and flew to Indiana. He made a surprise stop at a union hall serving as an Election Day canvassing center and phone bank. "Hey, guys!" he said brightly as he entered the room. The candidate began taking the phone from the hands of phone-bank callers and catching several voters on the other end of the line by surprise. Then it was off to the gym for his ritual basketball game.

At Obama headquarters at 233 North Michigan Avenue, there was the usual profusion of pizza boxes and harried-looking staffers. But the finance bullpen was empty. The mighty Obama money machine was finally silent; its staff had been sent to the states to work the polls. In the boiler room on the 19th floor (bare concrete floors and swatches of industrial carpet duct-taped to the floor over bundles of wires and cables snaking underneath some 20 tables), special desks had been set up for every battleground state—ready to respond to a low turnout or unleash a flood of robo-calls. But at 3 p.m. on Election Day, with polls open across the country, a spot check revealed no burgeoning crises, no surprises, only minor problems swiftly dealt with. If anything, the staff, primed for trouble on every front, was pleasantly surprised to find little of it. The "boiler room" seemed like a misnomer. The bloodless, businesslike atmosphere had the feel of a corporate office on a slow Tuesday, not a political war room on decision day.

At the very end, the Reverend Wright did make an appearance. An independent expenditure group called the National Republican Trust PAC ran an ad on "Saturday Night Live's" prime-time election special. The ad attacking Obama's former pastor was slick, with much better production values than the crude Reverend Wright videos running on the Internet. But it was too little, too late. When a NEWSWEEK reporter e-mailed a top Obama adviser for reaction, a reply came back reading simply: ZZZZZ.

McCain insisted on a final town hall in New Hampshire. His aides wanted a brief rally near the airport in Manchester (New Hampshire has only four electoral votes, and the campaign wanted to move on to bigger states), but McCain insisted on the long bus ride to Peterborough, a rustic town like the many where McCain had—twice, in 1999 and 2007—created political momentum from nothing. On the ride, he joked with New Hampshire friends and Joe Lieberman about the fun times in New Hampshire—dragging voters to town halls when he stood at zero in the polls. New Hampshire adviser Mike Dennehy later said that McCain's town-hall event in Peterborough was his "best event in New Hampshire, probably ever." Afterward, when McCain boarded the plane, he turned to Dennehy and said, "How many are we down by?" Dennehy looked at him for a second. "Let's not talk about that tonight," Dennehy said.

On the last flight home to Arizona, McCain came back to say goodbye to the reporters he had long since virtually stopped speaking to, still stunned by what he viewed as personal betrayal by friends in the press corps. "Feelin' good, feelin' confident about the way things have turned out," the candidate said, delivering the necessary white lie. "We've spent a lot of time together … We've had a great time. I wish all of you every success and look forward to being with you in the future." Behind him, Cindy McCain did not disguise her feelings. She teared up and looked drained. So did McCain's traveling buddies Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.

Steve Schmidt spoke briefly with the reporters. "Are you happy with the campaign?" he was asked. He answered: "I think we did our absolute best in really difficult circumstances … It is highly doubtful that anyone will have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year." Another reporter asked if he was happy with "the pick of Palin." He ducked the question. Schmidt was trying, not very hard, to hide his true feelings. He had been compelled to personally take over Palin's debate prep when she seemed unwilling to engage in the drudge work of learning the issues. McCain's advisers had been frustrated when Palin refused to talk to donors because she found it corrupting, and they were furious when they heard rumors that Todd Palin was calling around to Alaska bigwigs telling them to hold their powder until 2012. The day of the third debate, Palin refused to go onstage with New Hampshire GOP Sen. John Sununu and Jeb Bradley, a New Hampshire congressman running for the Senate, because they were pro-choice and because Bradley opposed drilling in Alaska. The McCain campaign ordered her onstage at the next campaign stop, but she refused to acknowledge the two Republican candidates standing behind her. McCain himself rarely spoke to Palin (perhaps once a week when they were not traveling together, estimated one adviser). Aides kept him in the dark about Palin's spending on clothes because they were sure he'd be offended. In his concession speech, McCain praised Palin, but the body language between them onstage was not particularly friendly. (Palin had asked to speak; Schmidt vetoed the request.)

McCain's speech, written by Salter, could not have been more gracious to Obama. It evoked McCain's life of service with humility and reminded voters what McCain's campaign might have been. He said he had no regrets. "Today," he said, "I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone …"

On election night, Obama ate a steak dinner with his family at their home in Chicago's Hyde Park. Repairing to a hotel suite, he closeted himself with the core group that had been with him from the beginning—Axelrod, Plouffe, communications director Robert Gibbs and Valerie Jarrett, his family friend and mentor. Various children—Obama's two girls, the children of Michelle's brother Craig, Gibbs's son, Joe Biden's grandchildren—happily wandered in and out. For most of the fall, the campaign had worried about Ohio as the most important battleground state. When the news came through that Obama had won Ohio, Obama said to Axelrod, "So it looks like we're going to win this thing, huh?" Axelrod replied, "It looks like it, yeah." He deadpanned, "I don't want to congratulate you until I can congratulate you." According to Jarrett, Obama was "as even-tempered as ever."

In a sea of Americans in Grant Park in Chicago at midnight, Obama said, "It has been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." Yes, it has.