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The Obama Campaign’s Real Heroes

Meet 10 key operatives who got the president re-elected

Barack Obama; Stephanie Cutter; Jim Messina; Harper ReedBarack Obama; Stephanie Cutter; Jim Messina; Harper Reed

Stephanie Cutter, Jim Messina, and Harper Reed

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Joel Kowsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.”

6. Teddy Goff
Digital Director

Teddy Goff directed the Obama campaign’s digital operations. That included handling the campaign’s email list for fundraising. The campaign famously A/B tested the efficacy of different asks to small groups – emails beginning with “hey” were particularly effective – before blasting the best performer to the entire list. The end result: $690 million raised online, up from $500 million in 2008.

But Goff was also captain of the campaign’s social media outreach. In the 2008 campaign, Twitter was in its infancy, and Facebook (at 1/10th its current size) played a bit role in the campaign’s outreach. By the end of 2012, in contrast, the president had nearly 24 million Twitter followers and 34 million Facebook friends.

That gave the campaign a direct line of communication to distribute high-quality shareable content – videos, fact checks, you name it – to millions of supporters who could lobby their friends. “People really trust their friends, not political advertising,” Goff said. “That’s why we put so much effort into making sure our supporters could be effective ambassadors for the campaign.”

Social networks also gave the campaign a lifeline to contact sporadic voters. Goff said the campaign didn’t have phone numbers for as many 50 percent of its get-out-the-vote targets under age 30. But they could reach 85 percent of those voters through a Facebook connection of another supporter. This “targeted sharing” – friends lobbying friends on behalf of the campaign through Facebook – was a true revolution in digital campaigning, one the Obama team credits for nearly repeating the wave-election turnout of 2008.

In contrast to the relentless negativity of the TV ad war, Goff’s social media outreach also provided supporters “a whole different campaign,” he says, full of positive messages about supporting the middle class and fighting for education–”uplifting stuff.”

And Twitter in particular, gave the campaign a new way to capitalize on the most polarizing elements of the GOP campaign, whether it was the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s VP – “he was highly meme-able,” said Goff – or providing an instant response to Clint Eastwood’s empty-chair lecture at the GOP convention, Tweeting out a picture of Obama in a chair reserved for the president saying “this seat’s taken.” “At the time,” Goff said, “that was the second most retweeted thing we ever did–second only to the same sex marriage announcement.”

7. David Axelrod
Senior Adviser

As he did in 2008, David Axelrod reprised his role as the campaign’s big-picture strategist. Immediately after the shellacking of the 2010 election, Axelrod recalled at the Harvard conference, he recognized that “the gravitational pull in the GOP was very much to the right” and that any plausible Republican candidate was going to “have to pass through that tollbooth to be nominated.”

Staking a bet that Romney was indeed the inevitable nominee, Axelrod was determined to draw out the nominating process and make Romney pay the price the price for his “Faustian bargains” with the GOP base. “It set us up to seize the middle,” he said.

Specifically, the Obama campaign made itself a player in the GOP primaries by hitting Romney then – not in the general election – for his flip flopping. “By introducing the issue of the alacrity with which he switched positions,” Axelrod said, “we could lengthen the Republican primary process. Core Republicans would be doubtful of his convictions.”

The result was that Romney had to court the far right by staking out extreme positions on issues like immigration, and even throw a Hail Mary by choosing right-wing darling Paul Ryan to be his running mate. Despite those heroic contortions, Axelrod gloated, “he never did solidify the base.”

8. Stephanie Cutter
Deputy Campaign Manager

Every campaign needs an attack dog and someone to call “bullshit.” Obama 2012 found both skills in Stephanie Cutter, the most high-profile woman on staff, whose nickname in Chicago was “The Ninja.”

Cutter rose to prominence in political circles as a fixer, helping patch up Bill Clinton’s image after the Monica Lewinsky debacle. But she had also been the communications chief for John Kerry in 2004, and, fairly or unfairly, shouldered much of the blame for that campaign’s failure to contest the attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Cutter clearly learned from that scarring experience, leading the Obama campaign’s rapid response to the flamboyant lies of the Romney campaign, in particular with straight-to-the-camera, this-is-how-it-really-is-folks YouTube videos like this one setting the record straight on Obama and Romney’s plans for Medicare.

Positioning herself as the campaign’s trusted voice of reason also made Cutter an effective attack dog, and she savaged the Romney campaign with gusto. When Romney picked Ryan, Cutter recalled at Harvard, “they weren’t ready to answer whether Romney supported Ryan’s agenda. They didn’t have clean answers on whether he supported the Ryan budget – but we had Romney on record for so long supporting the Ryan budget. Romney had called Ryan ‘the intellectual leader of the Republican party.'”

9. David Simas
Director of Opinion Research

David Simas ran the single most sophisticated polling operation in the history of presidential politics. And his operation helped not only guide the campaign’s message on Romney’s Bain record and building a better future for the middle class, it also gave the campaign deep confidence going into election day that it was on target for victory.

Simas helped turn Romney’s biggest strength – his technical knowledge about the economy – into a major weakness, fine tuning the campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital as an instrument of vulture capitalism. “The importance of Bain was to basically give him the technical expertise [argument],” Simas said at Harvard, “but essentially say just because he’s been successful doesn’t mean that you, as a middleclass family, are going to benefit from it.”

Simas helped Obama find his best message for a contrasting vision on the economy – a “middle class security message.” He was surprised, he said, that by a 55 to 39 margin, Americans said that “a vibrant and strong middle class was really the key” to growing the economy.

As the general election heated up, the Obama campaign had three separate sets of polling that measured the battleground. One, a weekly (and eventually daily) poll of the battleground by the campaign’s in-house pollster, Joel Beneson. Two, a suite of state-based pollsters, experts on their home demography, who conducted sophisticated surveys across ten states. And third, a separate nightly survey headed up by the campaign’s analytics department that interviewed 9,000 battleground voters every night, giving the campaign what Messina called “a very deep look at the electorate.”

Messina said Simas’ tri-pronged polling operation gave the campaign “real confidence” of victory because “all three were saying the same thing.” Added Axelrod: “We were never behind in our own polling – never.” The media’s horserace coverage and spin from the Romney camp, he said, gave the campaign an “illusion of volatility,” but “this race was fundamentally stable throughout.”

10. Jim Margolis
Senior Adviser, Adman

Jim Margolis led the president’s TV ad blitz, outfoxing Mitt Romney and his allies to air far more television spots despite being outspent. The key, Margolis said at Harvard, was keeping more money in-house. In total the Obama campaign aired more than half a million of its own ads, compared to just 190,000 aired by Romney campaign. Romney’s allies tried to make up the difference. And the GOP machine ultimately spent $135 million more on television than did Obama and Democratic allies.

But while candidates themselves qualify for the lowest rates broadcasters offer, SuperPAC players were forced to pay what the market would bear. That meant Margolis and his team were spending a half – or even a third – of what Karl Rove’s American Crossroads was paying for the same airtime.

The ad team also integrated seamlessly with the high-powered analytics of the data-driven Obama campaign. The campaign relied on incredibly detailed, commercially available data gathered from the from the set-top boxes of Americans in the battleground. “That information could then be combined with the voter file and all the other information we had,” said Margolis, which allowed the campaign, “in a much more targeted way, [to] speak to who we wanted to speak to.” By leading the campaign to air spots on who’da-thunk-it networks like TV Land – the channel for rerun addicts – Margolis said the analytics gave the ad team a “15 percent additional efficiency” in spending donor dollars on ads that would actually move votes.

Perhaps most important, Margolis and the rest of the Obama team made a bold call to hit the air hard and early attacking Romney on his business record. “One of the key decisions we made,” Axelrod said at Harvard, “was to frontload our ad spending on TV from May through August on the theory that that’s when it would have the greatest impact.” It was a gamble. The danger was that the campaign would deplete its war chest and get viciously outspent in the home stretch.

But it was a good bet. “That frontloading helped to set the stage in these voters’ minds,” Axelrod said. “When the 47 percent video came out, all of that work that had been done put that in the appropriate context for these voters.”

With a successful convention, the Obama team was able to reload for the final ad war, already having done Mitt Romney’s reputation severe damage. “Our strategy,” Axelrod said, “was much more effective.”

In This Article: Barack Obama


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