CHICAGO This is what grinding it out looks like at President Barack Obamas election headquarters: scores of young staff members intently clicking away at computer keyboards as they crunch gigabytes of data about which way undecided voters are leaning, where they can be reached and when; strategists standing at whiteboards busily writing and erasing early voting numbers and turnout scenarios; a lonely pingpong table.
The wave of excitement that coursed through Obamas headquarters here four years ago has been replaced with a methodical approach to manufacturing the winning coalition that came together more organically and enthusiastically for him in the last go-round, a more arduous task with no guarantee of success.
As Washington and the cable news commentaries breathlessly discuss whether Mitt Romneys post-debate movement in the polls has peaked, Obamas campaign technicians and thats what many of them are are putting their faith as much in the multimillion-dollar machine they built for just such a close race as in the president himself.
We are exactly where I thought we would be, in a very close election with 12 days left with two things to do and two things only: persuade the undecided and turn our voters out, said Jim Messina, the presidents technocratic, 43-year-old campaign manager, slightly paler and more hunched than he was when the campaign began.
Pointing to the rows and rows of personnel outside his office Thursday, he added, Everything in that room has been focused on that.
In 2008, Obamas political team here was preparing another one of its trademark showstoppers: a half-hour prime-time program extolling Obamas background and character across four networks, culminating in a live feed from a boisterous rally in Florida.
There will be no such razzmatazz this time. Any extra money in this tight, final phase of the election is being wired to Nevada and Florida for more Spanish-language ads, to Iowa and Ohio for more on-the-ground staff members, and to Google and Facebook for more microtargeted messaging to complacent, maybe even demoralized, young supporters.
At the White House, it is clear that the action has moved to Chicago, with some staff members pining to be on the campaign trail and others whiling away the time preparing for the lame-duck congressional wrangling on the budget impasse.
For Obamas campaign staff in a nondescript office tower here, the task now comes down to creating an electorate more favorable to Democrats than most major pollsters have assumed, with percentages of Obama-friendly black, Latino and young voters that rival those of 2008, at least enough to offset the large drop in support among other segments of the population, like independent men.
Twelve days will tell whether they are bluffing. An ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll Thursday had Romney with a 50-percent-to-47-percent edge among likely voters nationwide, the first time the challenger had reached 50 percent in the poll. But Obamas aides here are at least projecting an air of confidence that their system, the construction of which began long before Republicans cast their first primary season votes, is working as they hoped it would.
After using their huge database to increase registration among favorable voting groups in crucial states, they are now pinpointing people who ordered absentee ballots and need a nudge to send them, or sporadic voters who indicated they would vote for the president but may need to be pushed to show up at their local polling place.
We made a strategic choice very early on that getting our supporters and the right type of supporters to the polls before Election Day was a big priority for us, said Mitch Stewart, the Obama campaigns battleground state director, who has been helping organize Obamas supporters since the 2008 election and started at the campaign two years and, in his words, 20 pounds ago.
There is little dispute that for Obama to at least come close enough to matching his 2008 coalition to win he will need to induce people to vote in a way he did not have to four years ago, before the full impact of the Great Recession was followed by intensive partisan wrangling that took the wind out of some supporters.
Obamas aides said they had prepared for the need to rebuild his coalition all along and that is why they have kept careful tabs on his former supporters, and worked to identify potentially new ones, since he took office, all the while perfecting ways to keep track of them, keep in touch with them and persuade them to vote.