Obama campaign manager Jim Messina could have put the staff Ping-Pong table anywhere, but he chose a piece of carpet right outside his office at the Chicago headquarters. "It's part of what I learned when I did my tour of all the tech companies," he says, referring to a trip he took through Silicon Valley in early 2007 to learn how to build the most technologically savvy political campaign in history. "You have got to have fun things for them to do. Because they will stay longer. They will be happier. They will do cool stuff."
Never mind the constant bip-bop, bip-bop of the bouncing ball that can be heard through Messina's walls. "I don't even notice it anymore," he says. That's either because he likes to think of the Obama operation as a sort of Facebook or Google of campaigns or because he has bigger worries on his plate. In politics, high tech is basically synonymous with mobilizing huge numbers of people, which is one of the things the Obama campaign believes it does well. In 2008, digital devices and websites allowed Obama to convene 35,000 volunteer groups, attract 3 million campaign donors and raise more than $500 million online. Those numbers--never before seen in any presidential campaign--forever changed politics, or so it was thought at the time.
Four years later, Obama for America 2.0 is on track to beat its own records, with a whole new set of mobile and social-networking tricks at its disposal. Through the end of June, the campaign raised $112 million from donors who gave less than $200, compared with $93.6 million from the same group at the same point in 2008. The campaign already boasts 2.4 million donors this cycle, a benchmark it did not hit until late August 2008. Yet Obama's aides are convinced they will lose the money race this time. "We're not scared," Messina explains. "We're realistic."
The reason is simple: the small, online money that dominated the last campaign cannot beat the big money that is about to dominate the current one. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has proved to be a formidable fundraiser, mining vast networks of wealthy supporters for lots of large checks. Through June, his campaign raised the maximum contribution of $2,500 from more than 33,000 Americans, compared with roughly 18,800 who gave that much to Obama. But Romney's real advantage comes from the checks his supporters are writing to outside groups. In June alone, a super PAC supporting Romney raised $20 million in chunks as large as $5 million, nearly matching all the money Romney has raised from donors giving less than $200.
This advantage has called into question the future of the Internet-enabled money machine that was pioneered by Howard Dean in 2004 and lifted Obama to the White House in 2008. In a world of motivated billionaires and court rulings that allow unlimited donations to fund advertising up to Election Day, the people-powered campaigner is no longer king. "After this election's over, it is much more likely that all the candidates in both parties will be meeting with billionaires than figuring out how to mobilize millions of people," says Joe Trippi, who managed Dean's campaign in 2004. "It will be a huge setback."