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POLITICS

Chicago Hope

How Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters is readying for the general election.

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Team Obama: Focusing on the base.(Ralf-Finn Hestoft)

On the sixth floor of the Prudential Building in downtown Chicago, Jim Messina’s empire spreads out like two big-city newsrooms, joined together by a warren of small conference rooms named after swing states. On first glance, the operation looks—and sounds—disorganized. But it is soon apparent that there is logic to the way President Obama’s campaign manager operates.

For one thing, when Messina wants to address the staff—or pump them up—he can simply walk out of his office and project his voice. (A wag had a sign printed commemorating one of his outbursts: “Everyone chill the [expletive] out. I got this.”)

 

For another, every part of the organization—from the media department, to the political office, to field, to digital, to film and video—are only a short walk away. The word that best describes the operation is “integrated,” and that’s the probably as close as a layman will come to figuring out how apresident with middling popularity might win an election in an environment in which the unemployment rate is holding steady above 8 percent and pessimism about the future prevails.

To win the 2012 election—which, at this point, most likely will mean defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama’s brain trust and his 200-odd headquarters staffers will have to integrate the demographic profile of Obama’s 2008 supporters with the largest possible universe of like-minded voters who share a similar profile in 2012.

One campaign adviser who followed Obama to the White House displays his hand—five digits, each representing a percentage point of the electorate, and folds each one down. “We were at 52 … 51, 50, 49, 48, 47. We can go no lower than 47. How do we get to 50? We find people we missed last time or find new people who fit the profile,” this adviser says.

 

“Our base is not necessarily the Democratic base,” Messina notes in an interview. “Obama’s base is Obama’s base.”

This strategy mimics the one that then-President Bush used to win reelection in 2004. Campaign manager Ken Mehlman and senior strategist Karl Rove divided the electorate into affinity groups, worked to inflate the size of each, and used their communications resources to weaken Democratic nominee John Kerry among demographic groups that overlaid both candidates.

Bush lost among self-identified independents in both 2000 and 2004, but he managed to increase the share of conservatives across the electorate by 3 percentage points. Obama’s approval rating among pure independents dropped to a low of 30 percent before Thanksgiving. Although that number will need to rise, it’s not the metric that his strategists obsess about. Messina has a theory of the case that tracks Rove’s view of political demography: Imagine the election is a football game that will be decided by the size of your team’s crowd in the stadium—only there are no limits to the amount of tickets you can buy. And form follows function: The campaign is organized to make sure that the Obama brand is a magnet for as many voters as possible.

Almost every day, Messina joins David Plouffe, the man who used to hold his job as Obama’s campaign manager, on a telephone conference call. Plouffe is now Obama’s senior adviser at the White House; in that post, he has crafted the president’s relatively successful populist turn and refined a communications strategy that yoked Obama more closely to the expectations of his electorate. Often, two other mainstays from the 2008 campaign—former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former senior adviser David Axelrod, who will reprise his role as the campaign’s senior strategist in 2012—will join in on the call, too. Obama, unlike Bill Clinton, hasn’t felt the need to change the cast of his advisers, even though the circumstances he faces as he seeks reelection could hardly be more different than those in 2008. As Messina travels the country talking to donors and political groups, he often hears complaints about the Obama campaign’s relative insularity. But it is hard to fault the president for not trusting a Democratic establishment that, he believes, represents interests that often do not coincide with his own.

 

OBAMA’S TARGETS

Looking ahead to the general election, these are the demographic imperatives that Messina cares most about:

• Attracting millennials, people in the generation now between ages 18 and 30, to the polls. “There are 8 million millennials who need to be registered and persuaded to vote for Obama,” Messina says.

• Capitalizing on the surge in the Hispanic population. “Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, and Michael Bennet all got a larger number of Latino voters than Barack Obama did because that’s how fast the Latino vote is growing,” says Messina, referring to the 2010 campaigns of the Democratic senators from Nevada, California, and Colorado, respectively. “That is going to be hard for our opponent to deal with.”

This article appears in the January 7, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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