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Inside Obama's Campaign

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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."

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