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Magazine / POLITICS

Chicago Hope

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

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

photo of Marc Ambinder
January 5, 2012

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.


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.”

• Turning out unmarried women, a group that gave seven in 10 of its votes to Obama in 2008, making up 27 percent of his total. The campaign wants to increase the share of unmarried women in the electorate by several percentage points.

How Obama finds these voters will require a significant investment of resources and a modification of tactics. In 2008, the campaign prided itself on communicating directly with voters; by the day of the election, more than 15 million people had experienced some form of personal contact. What’s rarely noted is that several million of those contacted didn’t vote for Obama or for Republican nominee John McCain. Indeed, many on the fabled Obama e-mail list—and even some donors to the 2008 and 2012 campaigns—didn’t vote in 2008. So job one will be finding those stragglers.

Some Democratic strategists think that no matter how successful Obama is in targeting demographic groups, he faces an uphill climb because of the economy’s poor performance on his watch. William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former aide to President Clinton, posits that Obama’s record has reduced his level of potential support across the board, that it is too late to reverse even many liberals’ perception that he is inept when it comes to fixing the economy, and that Latinos will not show up in large numbers because the president failed to push immigration reform through Congress—and because they are more likely to be skeptical of the party in charge in times of distress. Attitudes, he believes, matter more than demography, and judging by attitudinal factors, Obama is in trouble.

“Since the financial collapse began four years ago, events at home and abroad have disrupted Americans’ settled expectations. It would be prudent to assume that this will have a measurable impact on their political orientation as well,” Galston writes in The New Republic. “While it’s harder to predict the overall direction of these attitudinal changes, they may well tug against the influence of demography and reconfigure the political playing field.”

So which theory is right? Is Obama going to lose because he’s lost the confidence of the people who elected him? Or will he win because he has room to grow? Regardless, both the “demography is destiny” and the “economy is dispositive” camps agree that Obama needs to do a better job of activating his base. He will have to increase his share of the under-30 and the Latino votes by at least double-digit percentages to compensate for his decline in support among white voters, particularly blue-collar whites without a college education. That’s where Messina and the campaign come in. Closing this gap between Obama’s demographic reality and his demographic potential is the reason they exist.


Campaign persuasion is a mixture of emotion and ethos. Obama’s 2012 message incorporates both elements.

On Nov. 3, the campaign released a nostalgic video recounting the 2008 campaign and attempting to rekindle the ecstatic feelings of Democrats when they saw Obama walk on the stage as the victor in Grant Park. “I will never forget who this belongs to,” Obama is shown saying. The rest is a retrospective tableau of the campaign: cookouts, handshakes, cheering, door-knocking, baby-kissing—and a frame-by-frame pictography of Obama’s accomplishments. “There is so much left to do,” an optimistic Obama closes. On Nov. 6, the campaign sent volunteers another video entitled “What If?” It has a completely different tone. After all the work that has been done, it posits, what if “one year from now, all our progress could be erased?”

The second task is where the campaign anticipates the most innovation. It hopes to create a seamless experience for voters and online organizers, one that allows the campaign to use its resources much more efficiently. In 2008, says Joe Rospars, who was then the campaign’s new-media director and is now a senior adviser to the 2012 campaign, “we weren’t integrating all the data we were getting in real time from the field, and so you had scenarios where someone would talk to a field organizer, who would register it, and then they’d get a phone call maybe 20 minutes later on the same subject.”

As in 2008, the campaign is organized into pods. Only this time, the pods are vertically integrated. If Nevada’s field director needs a digital product, he can call his pod and be connected to a member of the digital team who is sitting right there—rather than to someone in a different department on another floor or across the room. On Nov. 10, 100 people showed up to what Obama’s field team assumed would be a sedate opening of its headquarters in Henderson, Nev. “That was a huge number, so someone called us, and we were able to get a photographer there immediately,” says Katie Hogan, a campaign spokeswoman. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to react that quickly in 2008.”

In 2008, most volunteers interfaced with the campaign using MyBo, a sophisticated e-dashboard. They could create profiles based on where they lived or on an affinity group, and they could join other groups of interests. There were 20,000 different groups in all, and the campaign’s databases tried to sync its list of voters who needed to be contacted with MyBo profiles that were a demographic match. The system helped generate enthusiasm and mobilize volunteers, but it failed as an efficient way to persuade voters who weren’t part of the system. Three mainframe databases were on the back end, none connected to the other. Voter contacts were not synchronized across the platform, and, ultimately, the campaign’s field team used offline metrics to count its votes.

MyBo was the most sophisticated field program at the time, but today it is in campaign-technology heaven somewhere. If beta tests go well, Obama 2012 will bring together its offline and online voter-mobilization experiences in a new dashboard, one that integrates not only the campaign’s voter databases but also almost every conceivable social-media platform that volunteers might use. So-called stream optimization—the ability to port in content from anywhere to anywhere—is a particular priority for the team.

As technology changes, so has the way that potential voters talk to each other. In 2008, Facebook was largely a place to display personal photos, not to share news links and initiate conversations about them. Twitter was in its relative infancy, and “we had text messages, but we didn’t have to worry about sophisticated programs,” says Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. The interfaces will be updated, but since communication is more direct, and there’s so much more of it, first principles will be important. “There is no excuse for a lack of authenticity or a lack of timeliness or old content on social networks,” Goff says. “The biggest challenge is eliminating the distractions and providing more emotional content to the video.”

The Obama team has also gotten better at small-dollar fundraising. It has figured out the peak times for sending fundraising appeals—there are certain times of day when people just aren’t in a giving mood.

Trial runs of the field apparatus have begun. The campaign has organized successful voter-registration drives in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, and New Mexico as well as Election Day get-out-the-vote drives in Indiana, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It paid particular attention to high-growth areas, such as the upwardly mobile counties around Charlotte, N.C., and to blue-collar counties in Ohio where the auto-industry renaissance is being felt.

“What we were able to do in Ohio was just amazing,” Messina says. The Obama campaign worked with the Ohio Democratic Party to gather signatures to place an initiative on the ballot that would repeal Senate Bill 5, which curtailed collective-bargaining rights. Far more important, though, was a signature campaign that netted enough votes to force postponement of a new law that would cut down on Ohio’s early- and absentee-voting opportunities, historically a source of Democratic strength. Because of the efforts of Ohio Democrats, the 2012 election will be fought under 2008 rules.


To donors and reporters, Messina lays out five mathematical scenarios in which Obama could under-perform his 2008 watermark and still wind up back in the White House. He assumes a base of Kerry’s Electoral College votes—those from 19 states plus the District of Columbia. Thanks to reapportionment, that base drops from 251 votes to 246.

The Western path assumes victories in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa, giving Obama 272 electoral votes (270 are needed.)

The Florida path adds that state’s 29 electoral votes—think Medicare and the seniors vote—to give Obama 275 electoral votes.

The potential Southern path delights the campaign, which has been trying to expand the Democratic map. The convention will be held in Charlotte—North Carolina has 15 electoral votes—and the campaign hopes that the general-election profile in Virginia is more favorable for Obama than it was in 2008. With Virginia’s 13 electorate votes, Obama would wind up with 274.

The Midwestern path seems tough: Obama is regularly losing to his Republican opponents in Ohio’s head-to-head polls. But under that scenario, he would narrowly win, getting 276 electoral votes if he kept the Kerry states and added Ohio and Iowa.

The last route is Messina’s version of expanding the map. Because of immigration, the campaign believes that Arizona is very much in play. Winning Arizona would give Obama 257 votes and some breathing room for any of these other scenarios.


In an election where contrasts will be stark, the Obama campaign is ready to apply its brush to Romney. Indeed, on the day I visited the Chicago headquarters in late November, a press aide was on the phone explaining to a counterpart that while “we all think it’s going to be Romney, we try not to talk about it.” That would change the following week, when Romney ran an advertisement in New Hampshire, misusing a quote by Obama. The campaign was ready with its ammunition, but it had not anticipated having to use it so early.

Romney will become the poster boy for the Obama campaign’s message about Wall Street. “If the opponent is Mitt Romney, he’s going to have to explain why outsourcing jobs and laying people off is a model for the country,” Messina says. “Mitt Romney wanted to let the major American auto industry go bankrupt.” (Romney’s position is more complex: He favored managed bankruptcy without federal money, while the actual bankruptcy was handled with federal money—a bailout in his eyes.) But one clue to why this particular attack might resonate can be found in the Obama campaign’s data about those who voted to overturn Senate Bill 5—the largest percentages came from those counties whose economies are tied to the auto industry.

Romney could cut into Obama’s percentage with upper-income voters, Messina acknowledges. “That’s their bet. But I think the primary has been hard for him in that world.”

The Obama campaign won’t hazard a public guess about whether another Republican could become the nominee, but privately, they hope for a scenario in which Romney has to slug it out for months and is forced to take positions to his hard right to secure the nomination.

In the meantime, Obama’s campaign will continue to inch forward, methodically preparing for the general election and slowly raising the temperature of the president’s core voters.

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