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The Obama Campaign's Real Heroes

Meet 10 key operatives who got the president re-elected

Stephanie Cutter, Jim Messina, and Harper Reed
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Joel Kowsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images
December 7, 2012 1:45 PM ET

Now that the dust has settled and the vote totals are nearly certified, it's clear that the 2012 presidential election was never a squeaker. It was a landslide. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by more than 4.6 million votes nationwide, driving the Republican down to a karmic 47 percent of the popular vote.

Obama didn't win on merit alone. His high-tech, data-driven, socially-networked campaign was one for the history books, turning out key demographic blocks in astonishing numbers. Consider that in Ohio, the president's team drove the African-American share of the electorate to up to 15 percent, versus 11 percent in 2008. That's more than 200,000 new votes for the president in a state decided by a margin of 165,000. In other words: That was the ballgame.

President Obama owes his second term to a masterful campaign team – few of whom are household names. Here are ten heroes of the Obama 2012 team:

1. Jim Messina
Campaign Manager

Messina was never a popular choice among rank-and-file Democrats to lead the president's campaign. In the White House, he'd cut many of the most unpalatable backroom deals to secure the passage of Obamacare. Worse, in previous campaigns in his home state of Montana, his record included airing this awful gay-baiting TV ad. And the one error he's admitted to in the post-election aftermath won't make progressives happy: "We waited too long to get into the SuperPAC world," Messina told an audience at Harvard's Institute of Politics' quadrennial debriefing of the presidential campaigns' top brass.

But at the helm of Obama 2012, Messina proved himself a devilishly capable campaign manager. He had ridden shotgun to manager David Plouffe in the historic 2008 campaign, and Messina leveraged that experience to build a campaign that empowered the president's grassroots supporters as never before. Messina began by voraciously reading about the past century of presidential campaigns. But he also leaned on the expertise of outside-the-Beltway advisers like Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, who encouraged Messina to tap top private sector talent.

From the start, Messina broke down the electorate into the president's most winnable demographics – unmarried women, Latinos, African Americans, LGBT voters – and targeted them with a passion for data and analytics unfamiliar in the trust-your-gut world of political consulting. "We knew exactly who we had to go get," Messina said, "and that's how we got the turnout numbers that mattered."

2. Michael Slaby
Chief Integration and Innovation Officer

The 2012 campaign gave the Obama campaign one luxury that it didn't have in 2008: Time. And the campaign made the most of that asset by engineering an in-house solution to a problem that had flummoxed previous campaigns. Namely, that the campaign's databases couldn't talk to each other. The party's voter file, Obama's fundraising database, third-party commercial data – they didn't synch up.

The task of data integration fell to Michael Slaby, who launched a project – codename: Narwhal – that gave the Obama campaign a key advantage. If John Q. Smith from Columbus, Ohio, texted the campaign a $10 donation, they could know immediately where he lived, how he'd voted in the past, who his Facebook friends were, what issues were likely to drive his support, and the likelihood of converting him from a one-time giver to a big-time volunteer for the campaign.

To accomplish this task, Slaby recruited for the Obama campaign as if it were a fledgling tech firm, drawing from the deep talent pool of Chicago's tech scene to build what one of his hires called a $1 billion, "disposable startup."

3. Rayid Ghani
Chief Data Scientist

It's one thing to aggregate terabytes of data on the American electorate. It's quite another to make that data give up its secrets. For that job, the campaign snatched up Rayid Ghani, an expert in artificial intelligence from Accenture Labs, to be its Chief Data Scientist – an unprecedented job title on a presidential campaign.

Ghani's directive was to devise algorithms that could sift through the massive amounts of data collected by the campaign. If you used Facebook to log onto the Obama campaign's website, you revealed to them your entire social network. The campaign also leveraged the work of 2 million volunteers who interviewed more than 24 million voters – and took notes that could be plumbed for their "motivations, attitudes, and protestations."

The campaign used the Ghani's top-shelf analytics to rank target voters individually. "We could build support scores for every single voter in battleground states," Messina said at a late-November Politico event. "1 to 100, on whether they would support us.

The data also allowed the campaign to tease out how to best message these target voters – information that could be pushed out to door-knockers in the field. The guiding principle for Ghani's and the campaign's work, he said in a recent interview, was simple:  "Does it get me more votes? If not, I don't care."

4. Harper Reed
Chief Technology Officer

No one personified the hacker vibe of the Obama campaign more than Harper Reed, the campaign's Chief Technology Officer, who sported a caveman beard, Buddy Holly glasses and ear piercings. When Reed was hired, Jim Messina reportedly told him: "Welcome to the team. Don't fuck it up."

Reed oversaw the creation of in-house tech tools, the most powerful of which was Dashboard – the campaign's all-in-one solution to empowering organizers and managing their efforts. Dashboard was a web tool that could be accessed by mobile devices as well as desktop computers, helping guide a volunteer's efforts – whether the job was making calls, registering new voters, door knocking or turning out the vote on Election Day.

A hierarchical social network, Dashboard gave volunteers on the ground a platform with which to communicate with Obama 2012 team members in their neighborhood and even track their performance against their peers'. More important, the program fed data up the chain of command to paid field organizers, regional managers, and back to Chicago, so that the campaign could measure the performance of its field operation in real time.

The Romney campaign's tool designed to monitor turnout on election day, Orca, was never properly tested and failed disastrously in the crunch. By contrast, Reed stress-tested his programs and systems in live-action role play simulations. "We worked through every possible disaster situation," Reed  told the Atlantic. "We did three actual all-day sessions of destroying everything we had built."

5. Jeremy Bird
Field General

Organizing the Obama campaign's unprecedented army of get-out-the-vote volunteers was Jeremy Bird, a former Harvard divinity student who took to political organizing as though it were his higher calling. Bird leveraged the technology of Dashboard to organize far beyond the campaign office. "We could run neighborhood races," he said at Harvard. Yes, the Obama campaign outpaced team Romney with its network of campaign offices in the swing states –  786 to 284, by one academic's count. But for team Obama, each of those offices was just a hub for a network of volunteer field offices, each headed by a "neighborhood team leader" who had been rigorously trained up to the competence of a paid staffer, who organized in the precincts of actual voters. As a result, team Obama had an exponential advantage over Romney. "We had 30,000 neighborhood team leaders who did basically nothing but volunteer for us full-time," Messina said.

"Our volunteer neighborhood team leaders owned the campaign," Bird said. "They had 8-10 precincts and they knew how many people they needed to register, knew how many people they had to persuade. They knew where the polling locations were because their kids went to school there, they went to church there." Bird admitted that the campaign's biggest trouble spot – especially early on – was the youth vote. "We knew we had to organize meticulously and doggedly on these college campuses," he said. On a campus like Ohio State, that meant ramping up the number of organizers from two in 2008 to as many as ten in 2012. The campaign had "the wind at our back" in 2008, Bird said. "This time we knew we had to grind it out."

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