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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?

President Barack Obama walks on the stage to speak at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
March 29, 2012 8:00 AM ET

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.

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