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Some on the left have argued that the President dropped the ball by failing to keep his network of supporters engaged and by following his transformational campaign with a transactional governing style. "Fighting to make something happen is different than sitting back and trying to mediate something," says Marshall Ganz, a supporter turned critic of Obama, who teaches at Harvard. "People can't organize around that."
That critique gets a rise out of Obama's senior staff. "Those are the types of things that people with lifetime tenure like to say," remarks Axelrod. "What we have tried to do is effect change in the real world, in a difficult environment." Still, Obama's inner circle understands that the grass roots need rejuvenating. "Everything in 2008 was in service of the hand on the door knocker," says Joe Rospars, who will reprise his 2008 role as the campaign's top digital strategist. "That's the one thing that will be exactly the same."
Obama's senior staff has hatched a plan to start anew, urging the President's supporters to look beyond the grind of the past two years and toward the simpler choice of the next election. Obama strategists want to force the question early. When the Obama 2012 website went live on April 4, it asked a simple question: "Are you in?" The accompanying YouTube video, which was e-mailed to supporters, focused on field volunteers knocking on doors and working phones, just like in the old days. "You can't be half in," explains one Obama team member.
Playing One on One
To further engage the troops, Obama's aides came up with the one-on-one-conversation strategy, letting disillusioned or just disconnected former volunteers vent concerns and renew old passions. "We have the great luxury of spending a huge amount of time ensuring that we can have a very personal conversation with supporters in a way that alleviates any concern about enthusiasm in the long run," says Gibbs. "It's an extraordinary advantage."
The Chicago plan will play out in places like the Denver suburb of Arvada with volunteers like Suzan Rickert, a recently retired health care worker. For more than 25 years, Rickert, 60, has been active with her local Democratic Party, and she has long been accustomed to caucus meetings with just four or five people in attendance, including her husband and her. But for a fleeting time, she says, something happened when Obama burst onto the scene. "In 2008 we had 80 people," she remembers. "I want them to come back."
A few weeks ago, she answered an online appeal for volunteers to donate 40 hours a week all summer working the phones and pavement for the President. She decided to put off her plan of starting a small business, after being assured that she would not be the only person over the age of 25 on the job. Her training has yet to begin, but she has already started meeting with former volunteers, including a gay couple and a pastor, at the local Starbucks or Panera Bread. "Once you get people talking, they go and go," she says. Her sessions tend to last an hour, and the results of the conversation are entered into the Democratic National Committee's VoteBuilder master database.
The new volunteers will be matched up with the existing network of Organizing for America volunteers and staff that the DNC has nurtured for the past three years. "No other President going into a re-election effort has ever had a grass-roots network that we have in these states," says Stewart, 35, now battleground-states director.
The campaign, along with the DNC, has also been testing new strategies and technologies, like iPads that can play videos for voters during neighborhood canvasses or mobile applications for reporting data about voter contacts and responses. For each swing state, number crunchers have developed individually tailored recipes, with mixes of voter registration, base mobilization and persuasion, that will be required to win. And they can mine a Facebook community of nearly 21 million supporters, plus 8 million Twitter followers. "Obviously the technology is different" than it was in 2008, adds Plouffe. "The data is going to be much richer this time."
Of course, a great field organization alone is never enough to win a campaign. Obama will still need to hone a winning message and weather a recalcitrant economy. Axelrod likes to compare the field organization to the field-goal unit on a football team. "You have to get close enough to the goalpost for them to make a difference," he says. But right now, with Republicans many months from having a nominee of their own, organizing is one thing Obama's advisers can control. And if they can control it, they intend to master it. Again.