Hope 2.0: Inside Obama’s Campaign
The president’s reelection machine is gearing up to mobilize millions of volunteers. But are they too fed up to turn out?
By Tim Dickinson
Progressive America Rising via Rolling Stone
Pass through security into the headquarters of Obama 2012, and the effect is like stepping into the world’s most high-tech dorm room. Spanning the entire floor of a Chicago skyscraper, the campaign’s nerve center boasts a ping-pong table, a staff of 300 and a life-size cardboard cutout of the president dressed in a University of Montana jersey. They don’t use phones up here; most of the digital team weren’t even issued any. Instead, campaign workers communicate mostly by e-mail, G-chat and Twitter. Rows of young staffers, some perched on yoga balls, are quietly coding new online tools to engage supporters, tweaking a video of Sarah Palin attacking Obama, and tracking metrics of volunteers recruited and new voters registered. An energetic hum fills the room, punctuated only by mouse clicks.
Given Barack Obama’s transformation from insurgent politician to establishment president, you might expect his re-election campaign to emphasize the benefits of incumbency, leaning on big-dollar donors and party insiders. But the campaign staff assembled in Chicago has a different plan to return Obama to the White House: They’re building the mother of all field campaigns – one that is even more dependent on face-to-face organizing than it was four years ago. Obama 2.0 has been quietly re-engineered from the bottom up, powered by new high-tech organizing tools designed to mobilize volunteers and target new voters more quickly and efficiently. By the start of early voting in October, the campaign expects to transform college dorms and coffeehouses across the country into 20,000 all-volunteer, fully functioning field offices.
"To be honest, I’m amazed at what they’re doing," says Temo Figueroa, who directed Obama’s field operation against Hillary Clinton in 2008 but is not a part of the campaign this year. "It makes what we were doing look like a startup."
Obama and his team know that come fall, they will face an epic ad war backed by the nearly limitless funds being poured into Republican Super PACs. So the campaign is returning to the potent combination of cutting-edge technology and timeworn field techniques it deployed in 2008 – the president’s one advantage that the GOP can’t match. "The other side has decided this is a race about Super PAC ads," says Jim Messina, the campaign manager of Obama 2012. "We have a different theory about the whole deal. Both sides are going to have beautiful TV ads, and everyone is going to spend millions of dollars. But we’re going to win this on the ground, person-to-person, volunteers talking to voters about the issues."
There’s only one problem with running a people-powered campaign this time around: the people. Ever since he charged to victory in 2008 on a movement of his own creation, President Obama’s relationship with his activist base has been an uneasy one. Instead of deploying his loyal army of 13 million citizen-activists to pressure Congress to enact his agenda, Obama essentially mothballed his massive campaign machine as soon as he took office. He also dispatched his top deputies – including Messina, a Beltway veteran of 17 years – to tell the "professional left" to sit down and be quiet. "The progressive community was better organized than I’d ever seen before, but they were all leaned on by the White House to not raise hell," says an insider from the ’08 campaign. "That first year and a half, it was like, ‘No, we’ll take care of it.’ You got a visit from Jim Messina or someone, saying, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’"
This postelection shift from "Yes We Can" to "I Got This" left many supporters feeling like they’d fallen for a bait-and-switch. "When they cut us loose in 2009, people were really disillusioned," says Marta Evry, a volunteer who ran phone banks that placed more than 600,000 calls for Obama in 2008. "Especially young people. The first time you get jilted is the worst."
Even some of the architects of Obama’s ascendancy acknowledge that it will be difficult for him to reignite a campaign machine that he shelved three years ago. "The campaign has the resources, techniques and staff on a scale that’s quite remarkable," says Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor and former Cesar Chavez deputy who developed the "Camp Obamas" that trained 3,000 of the campaign’s grassroots leaders in 2008. "The question is whether they can get the moral energy back."
From the start, the campaign decided to confront its enthusiasm deficit head-on. "I have no rose-colored glasses on," says Messina, a rangy operative from Montana who has become the president’s most trusted fixer. "There’s always going to be people who are less engaged than last time, or pissed about something. We’d be stupid to brush that off. The better way is to have a conversation and engage them. We see that as an opportunity to organize."
A year ago, Messina gave the campaign a formidable goal: to call up every person who had volunteered or donated to the effort in ’08 and ask them to come back onboard. The outreach was initiated by a core group of loyal campaign volunteers who had been working with the Democratic National Committee since the end of the last campaign.
It was tough going. In 2008, campaign organizers could muster 1,000-person crowds with a single e-mail blast. This time, only a handful of potential volunteers would show up – and those who did wanted to vent as much as they wanted to help. "The first meetings they had, these young organizers out there are really hearing it," says Figueroa. "They actually had to organize to get people to show up. A good, solid 10 to 15 minutes of material about ‘what the hell we expected’ and ‘what didn’t happen’ and ‘why we’re so disappointed.’" The challenge for the organizers was to listen – and then to turn the passion around, telling the disgruntled supporters that they had a choice to make: Give up and let the Republicans take back the White House, or get to work again and fight for four more years.
The campaign focused heavily on the president’s accomplishments: averting a Great Depression, rescuing the auto industry, repealing the discrimination of "don’t ask, don’t tell," overhauling health care, ending the war in Iraq, nominating two women to the Supreme Court and taking out Osama bin Laden, not to mention two years of steady employment growth and 3.5 million new jobs. By November, the campaign had logged a staggering 1 million conversations with former supporters.
The ultimate goal is to reactivate these core supporters as volunteers, plugging them into a new and improved version of Obama’s campaign machine. In 2008, the campaign was so awash in cash and volunteers that it resembled a "fantasy camp for political operatives," writes former campaign manager David Plouffe. But that effort, despite its groundbreaking integration of social media and Internet fundraising, was far from perfect. Outwardly, the campaign looked like "a very smooth, corporate exercise," recalls Plouffe. "In reality, it functioned more like a MASH unit day-to-day."
Huge quantities of data about donors and volunteers and e-mail subscribers flowed into the campaign, but were dumped into multiple databases that couldn’t be easily cross-referenced. My.barackobama.com – the campaign’s social network – signed up 2 million members and gave volunteers unprecedented capacity to organize house parties and phone banks. But those well-meaning volunteers often found themselves working from outdated scripts, or sending voters to out-of-the-way meetings because the system didn’t understand the local geography of battleground counties. For all the grassroots enthusiasm, the campaign was unable to impose a coordinated, hierarchical structure on the freewheeling, self-organized efforts that sprang up during the primary battle.
The 2012 campaign has been retooled for ruthless efficiency and top-to-bottom control. At the center of the overhaul is a closely guarded tool that the campaign will soon debut called Dashboard, which builds on a rudimentary platform that techie staffers coded during the crush of the 2008 election. In its first iteration, known as NationalField, the tool was accessed exclusively by campaign staffers, who used it to monitor the daily activities of the sprawling grassroots effort. Dashboard seeks to take this brand of high-tech organizing to the campaign’s masses, creating a kind of Facebook for local activists. The first time you log in, Dashboard will assign you to a team of volunteers the campaign is organizing in your neighborhood. You’ll compete with local teammates, and the campaign will track your performance in real time.
"You can see what others have done, and you can track your own progress," says Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. "It’s like a personal fundraising thermometer – but at scale, and applied to field organizing."
The 2012 campaign will still have field offices, but that’s not where the action will be. With Dashboard and other high-tech tools, a canvasser with a smartphone can plug into a constantly updating list of door-knock targets based on their GPS location, without ever having to check into a campaign office. "Instead of 100 people in a central location, we’ll have 300 people in a lot of decentralized places," says Jeremy Bird, the campaign’s handsome, boyish field director, who made waves in 2008 by orchestrating Obama’s upset win over Hillary Clinton in South Carolina. "We’re building an ecosystem in which every corner of a state is covered, and it’s the local volunteers who are talking to their neighbors. And people are much likelier to trust their neighbor than they are a paid-for-by ad on TV. That power of the personal narrative and the relationships of people on the ground – that’s the persuasion part."
But all the improved integration and efficiency promised by Dashboard will mean nothing if the Obama campaign isn’t able to put bodies on the ground. And few places is the effort more energized – and extensive – than in Michigan, a must-win state for the president.
Comparisons to 2008 are inevitable, but they’re also moot. Obama doesn’t need to reproduce his 365-to-173 Electoral College rout of McCain – he just needs to grind his way to the magic number of 270. "We think there’s over 40 different pathways to get there," Messina says. In the "Midwest Path," for example, Obama wins by taking Ohio and Iowa – even if he loses every state in the South. In the "Florida Path," Obama can fumble away Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and the Rocky Mountain West – but still win simply by taking Florida. The strategy, as in 2008, relies on using Obama’s grassroots machine to keep as many states in play as possible. But almost all of the scenarios require Obama to win Michigan and its 16 electoral votes. That’s why, one insider says, the campaign is treating the state as "a true battleground – it’s one of our largest operations."
Obama already has eight "regional grassroots offices" in Michigan, with plans to expand to a dozen in the coming weeks. Mitt Romney, by contrast, apparently shut down his Michigan office soon after he won the primary on February 28th. A call to Romney’s press office to arrange a visit to a field office in Michigan produces only puzzlement. "In Michigan?" a bewildered spokeswoman tells me. "We obviously had one. I don’t even know if I still have the address."
The Obama field office in Detroit, a spacious operation overlooking the Motor-City Casino near Interstate 94, has been up and running since June 2009. Open seven days a week, it has made some 40,000 calls in the past three months, working to transform supporters on the sidelines into active volunteers. It has also registered more than 4,000 people to vote. There’s not a paid organizer in the room, but it remains a hive of self-organized activity, with more than a dozen volunteers working cellphones, often until 10 or 11 at night.
The queen bee of the office is a tenacious "spring fellow" named Victoria Edwards, an experienced community organizer in her midforties, who is throwing herself into campaign work as if it were her full-time job. The fellows are unpaid, but they’re trained by campaign staff to perform at the capacity of someone on payroll – and there are already more than 2,500 in the field. So many supporters have volunteered to sign up, in fact, that the application process for fellows is now more selective than a spot at Oberlin. Edwards puts in at least 25 hours a week, including six hours devoted to training and conference calls. "The spring fellows are the workhorses of the campaign," she says with a laugh. "That’s what we signed up for – abuse us."
Edwards has been assigned to organize a network of neighborhood teams that will be the face of the campaign here in Detroit – knocking on doors, registering new voters, driving people to the polls. Under the decentralized model, the volunteers may go the entire campaign without once interacting directly with a paid Obama field organizer. As the campaign heats up – and more and more volunteers are recruited to the campaign, or plug in on their own through Dashboard – the turf covered by each team will be broken down into smaller and smaller chunks. "Eventually, you might have eight different teams in a single neighborhood, with a separate leader for each one," says Edwards. "That’s what we’re working for."
In addition to building an unprecedented network of neighborhood teams, Obama is also working to influence the size and composition of the electorate. "The common I’ve-run-campaigns-before wisdom is: Don’t register new voters in a presidential campaign," says Bird, the field director. "The thinking is, you should be fighting over people who are already registered." Too many registered voters sit things out as it is. Why spend all the time and money required to find and sign up new voters when it will eat into your ad budget?
But the Obama landslide in 2008 was the direct result of the campaign’s ability to register and turn out new and unlikely voters. Among previous voters, Obama beat McCain by a margin of 50 to 49 percent. Among the millions of new voters activated by the campaign, however, he trounced his GOP rival 71 to 27 percent, a blowout of 44 points. "You can reshape the electorate," says Bird. "It’s built into our ethos that we can do this, and we have to do this."
To repeat that historic victory, the campaign has taken charge of the Democratic voter registration effort. That’s in part because it has no choice: Traditional allies that used to do the work, like the late ACORN, no longer exist. But the campaign also knows that there are easily targeted populations of voters, including Latinos, gays and African-Americans who could break for the president by margins of as high as nine to one. Last month, the campaign registered more than 5,000 voters in North Carolina – a state Obama carried last time by just 14,000 votes. "Talk about changing the electorate and making it better for you," says Messina. "That’s a big chunk of business. You don’t do that if you’re taking all of your money and putting it on TV."
From his days in Montana politics – he served for years as chief of staff to conservative Democratic senator Max Baucus – Messina has a reputation as an intimidator; a nice guy, but the kind of hard-nosed operative you don’t want to cross unless you want to be exiled to political Siberia. "He was used as a boogeyman," says a former deputy. "It was, ‘Do x, or Jim Messina is going to find out and you’re gonna be fucked.’" Many liberals don’t trust him, viewing him as the embodiment of the transactional politics that bogged down a transformational president. Baucus, a fatherlike figure to Messina, was given wide latitude to steer health care reform through the Senate, a task that dragged interminably, and almost doomed Obama’s top legislative priority.
Yet there’s no hint of Messina’s tough-guy history at the campaign’s collegial headquarters, where he occupies a tidy window office with a million-dollar view of Millennium Park. From top to bottom, this is Messina’s campaign. At the demand of the president himself, the motto from 2008 – "Respect. Empower. Include." – now has a fourth beat: "Win." And campaign victories – by ugly means, if necessary – are where Messina excels. "He lives for the winning," says the former deputy, who recalls how Messina once used opposition research to trip up a tough Baucus challenger before he could make it out of the GOP primary. "This guy wakes up in the morning thinking not only ‘How the hell can I beat the Republicans?’ but ‘How can I make it hurt, too?’ He does the dirty work. In some ways, I’m refreshed by it – a Democrat willing to play hardball."
Messina also has deep experience in the Obama campaign. After the 2008 primaries, Plouffe wanted to step down from his role as campaign manager to attend to his pregnant wife. Instead, Obama brought Messina in to share the load. Messina quickly grafted into the Obama inner circle – a feat few in or out of the White House have accomplished. Messina was entrusted with controlling how to spend the campaign’s money to defeat McCain – an experience he likened to "getting the keys to the fucking Ferrari."
In person, Messina is more relaxed than the guy in the boxy suits in the YouTube updates the campaign puts out. He says "dude" and quantifies things in "shit-tons." I ask him where he sees targets of opportunity in the electorate. "I’m absolutely obsessed with Latino voters," he says.
Getting those votes is far from a sure thing. Obama not only failed to secure the comprehensive immigration reform he promised to pass in his first year, he has actually deported almost twice as many illegal immigrants as George W. Bush did in his first term. Yet reaching Latino voters is hard-wired into Obama 2012: All major communications go out in both Spanish and English, and the national political director is Katherine Archuleta, the first Latina to hold that job in a major presidential campaign.
The opportunity Messina sees with Latino voters is twofold. First, the population is booming: The number of Latinos voting in 2012 is expected to jump by 25 percent over 2008. Second, Mitt Romney has chosen to prove his right-wing credentials by outflanking the entire GOP field with extremist positions on issues dear to the Latino community, embracing Arizona’s racist immigration law as a "model" for the country and spouting the language of "self-deportation" used by hard-line anti-immigrant activists. "Romney’s position on immigration reform is to the right of every major Republican nominee of our lifetime," Messina says. "That’s going to be a real problem for him to come back to the middle with those voters."
In 2008, Obama won 66 percent of the Latino vote. In a head-to-head race, current polling shows him beating Romney by a staggering 70 to 14 percent. Courting Latino voters could be key not only in tossup states like Nevada or the campaign’s top new target, Arizona, but also in Midwestern states like Ohio, where immigrants have made inroads in recent years. "It’s not a huge population in Ohio," says Figueroa, who guided the campaign’s Hispanic outreach in 2008. "It’s three percent – but, shit, that’s the difference. Have you heard of Romney or Santorum doing anything in Ohio with Hispanics?"
The other key target for Messina is the 8 million young Americans who will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2012. The youth vote turned out in huge numbers back in 2008, breaking for Obama by a margin of 66 to 32 percent. But the president has lost his mojo with Millennials. According to a recent memo from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, "Younger voters remain aloof from the president." The numbers put the president up just 55 to 43 over Romney among young voters. The slippage, Greenberg says, can be viewed as "either a problem or an opportunity" for the Obama campaign.
To bolster the president’s support, Obama 2012 is reaching out to college students through what it calls Greater Together Summits. The goal is to recruit student supporters to work for the campaign on their campuses, and to arm them with facts and figures about Obama’s record. Few presidents in history have delivered as much for young voters: He expanded Pell grants, oversaw a sweeping reform of student lending, put limits on credit-card companies that solicit on campuses and passed tax credits to help parents pay for college.
In February, a summit the campaign hosted in North Carolina for students at historically black colleges and universities was a big hit. Students thronged the auditorium at North Carolina Central University, forcing the campaign to expand the event into an overflow building. But in March, when the Obama team holds a similar summit at the University of Michigan, the warning signs are all too clear. The event is headlined by Obama’s former White House youth liaison Kal Penn, the Hollywood star better known to pot-smoking moviegoers as Kumar. Yet the ornate Michigan Union ballroom, which can seat 600 students, is only two-thirds full.
The kids who have shown up are a far cry from fired up and ready to go. When Penn kicks off the event, he lights into the students: "That was the most polite applause I’ve heard in my life. Do it again!" But the crowd doesn’t really come alive until Rep. John Dingell, the octogenarian congressman from Michigan, creakily takes the stage. "Kal," he says, "you’re a great example of a young person who is dedicating his time and efforts to helping this country and our president – and, most importantly, the public perception of White Castle."
After the event, I run into Sarah Abramson on the front steps of the student union. A 23-year-old law student with reddish glasses and straight blond hair, she’s all worked up – but not because she’s starry-eyed for Obama or gung-ho to defend his record. Like many of her peers, she’s furious at the Republicans over the assault being waged on women by Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh and GOP state legislatures across the country.
"The Obama campaign being here – it’s an opportunity to act on the rage that we already feel," Abramson says. "It’s not just contraception. Republicans are talking about not reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. It’s all of the state laws that are trying to make it harder for women to have an abortion, even when it’s needed. I feel like they’re trying to put me back into the 1950s – and I’m not going to stand for that. That ain’t happening."
Abramson’s anger speaks volumes about Obama’s campaign. Beyond all the talk of field offices and online organizing tools and voter registration, the president’s best shot at re-election lies not with his record, but with his opponents. Obama won in 2008 because he positioned himself as a vehicle for American optimism, the living embodiment of transformation and progress. But now that candidate of boundless promise has become a president boxed in by the poisonous partisanship of Washington. Like Bill Clinton in 1996, Obama can no longer offer any realistic agenda for sweeping change – he can only vow to be better than the alternative. If his secret weapon in 2008 was hope, this time around it’s fear. It’s not about how far we’ve come – it’s how much ground we’ll lose if the Republicans are able to implement the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-gay agenda they’ve been championing during the ugly and seemingly endless GOP primaries.
I ask Abramson if she’s ready to volunteer for Obama. "I’m usually lazy and apathetic when it comes to voting," she says. "I don’t like situations where you have to knock on people’s doors – it’s just awkward for me. But you realize that things matter. So I am volunteering. I’ve got time in August and I’m going to spend the entire month either in my home district or on the campaign trail, in my car campaigning. And I’m going to do as much as I can while I’m here on campus. Because I’m just pissed!"
This story is from the April 12th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.