The call came during perhaps the darkest hour of the nastiest fight in modern Democratic Party history. After months of bitter sniping between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, vandals had attacked an Obama office in southern Indiana in May 2008, breaking windows, stealing an American flag and spray-painting the future President’s initials on the storefront with phrases like hamas votes bho. Just a day before the state’s primary, Obama’s staff and volunteers were forced to abandon the building for safer ground.
That’s when Mitch Stewart, Obama’s Indiana state director, took a call from Robby Mook, his counterpart and rival at the Clinton campaign. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m Robby. If your staff or volunteers need to move out of an office, they can work out of the Clinton offices,'” remembers Stewart, who initially thought Mook was joking. But the Clinton operative was serious, effectively proposing to share a trench in one of the last battles of a brutal primary war. Stewart declined the offer, which never became public, but he never forgot it. “There was no reason he had to do that at all,” Stewart says now. “At a moment like that, the generosity and kindness comes through.”
Seven years later, such goodwill for Mook–and Stewart is by no means the only Obama acolyte singing his praises–could pay dividends for the Democratic Party and its favored nominee. Hillary Clinton has tapped Mook, 35, as her likely campaign manager. His task now, which is occurring far from public view, is at once overwhelming and delectable: to compile a team of strategists, technicians, managers and salespeople from the best of the Clinton and Obama orbits for the most technologically advanced voter-mobilization effort in history. That’s the easy part. Mook will then have to make that group, with its competing egos, allegiances and agendas, work as one under the spotlight of a general election.
As an official matter, this operation does not exist yet, and the senior players have been instructed not to cooperate with reporters looking to divine details of Clinton’s still unannounced vision. But as word has spread about the Obama talent signing up for Clinton’s campaign, some outlines of her thinking on 2016 have been revealed. Just as personnel choices often determine policy priorities at a new White House, staff lists can augur a road map for a campaign. And so far, those signals point to a campaign that is being designed to avoid the missteps of Clinton’s first run for President while taking advantage of the technical genius of Obama’s two successful campaigns. The failures of 2008 were many and glaring, but among the biggest was the fact that Clinton’s message was focused on her “ready on Day One” experience, casting her more as an inevitable force of nature than a human being with a story accessible to voters. The campaign also suffered from a senior team that divided against itself in spats that became deeply personal, often spilling into the press.
Even worse, it was out of date from the start, built for a 1990s-style general election that did not profit from the technological advances that made raising small donations and organizing volunteer networks easier than ever before. Instead of embracing the future, Clinton’s senior advisers earned a reputation for mocking it. “They look like Facebook,” Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn famously told a colleague, derisively describing the young people who turned out to cheer Obama in Iowa. The Facebook candidate went on to win the nomination, and Clinton, who became a huge supporter of online organizing at the State Department, made it clear that she would not miss the digital boat again.
The team taking shape now is designed to leave these problems in the past. Mook, who worked for Clinton and won in three states during the 2008 campaign, is a field specialist steeped in the latest arts of organizing, having worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 people-powered campaign to pioneer the sort of house-party-focused operations that Obama mastered. His partner on the campaign trail, Marlon Marshall, 35, helped lead Obama’s 2012 field program before working at the White House and is expected to return to Clintonland. They are expected to be joined by Teddy Goff, 29, who ran digital operations for Obama in 2012, refining a high-tech machine that raised about $504 million through online efforts in the 2012 cycle.
Clinton has also recruited two of her former foes from Obama’s fold, despite the roles they played in her 2008 downfall. Jim Margolis, 59, the two-time Obama campaign adman, helped author the Obama story and was directly responsible for the devastating one-minute Iowa television ad that cast Clinton as an insider running “the same old Washington textbook campaigns.” His firm has close ties with the analytics wizards of the 2012 Obama campaign, led by Dan Wagner, suggesting that Clinton will focus once again on improving the targeting of campaign ads. Margolis will be joined again by Joel Benenson, 62, the lead pollster for both Obama presidential campaigns, who helped craft the change message that Obama used to defeat Clinton’s promise of experience in 2008.
The entire effort is expected to be overseen by John Podesta, 66, a veteran of both Bill Clinton and Obama’s Administrations, who will join the campaign as a chairman. Podesta, more than anyone else, should be the bridge between the no-drama culture of Obamaland and the more rough-and-tumble instincts of the Clinton dynasty. Other Clinton veterans, including admaker Mandy Grunwald, 57, are expected to return as well. The goal, of course, is to go to voters with the best of both camps. “This is not going to be the old Clinton campaign,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s old campaign manager, who has been watching the formation from a distance. “Again I think it will be the Republicans playing catch-up.”
The Coming Clash
The question of how all of these people will get along is now the talk of political circles, though both camps are presenting a unified face before anything has a chance to go wrong. “The question for any staff is, Are you able to develop and execute a campaign plan with a complete focus on the best interests of the candidate?” says Ben LaBolt, Obama’s 2012 spokesperson, who plans to sit this cycle out. “There is certainly an attempt to do that.”
But the past is never past, as the saying goes, and the talk of this precampaign season is whether the unity will last. By some measures, the facade has already begun to fall apart.
On Feb. 9, David Brock, a longtime Clinton ally and a veteran of the 1990s political wars, resigned his post on the board of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC founded by Obama veterans that had been designated to fund a blistering television-ad campaign on behalf of Clinton before the coming general election. He accused unnamed members of the group of orchestrating “a political hit job” against his principal fundraiser, Mary Pat Bonner, who reportedly receives high commissions in excess of 12% on the money she raises. “Frankly, this is the kind of dirty trick I’ve witnessed in the right wing and would not tolerate then,” wrote Brock, who had a career as a conservative Clinton basher before switching sides. He defended Bonner’s fees as a small price to pay for the enormous sums she raises for progressive causes, including his groups.
The break was the first big test of whether the two camps will be able to merge their operations or find themselves competing over control in the back rooms. Priorities–which is run by Buffy Wicks, a former Obama-campaign staffer, and co-chaired by Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign chairman–denied any involvement in the leak. Brock is a Clintonland favorite, both because he raises vast sums and because he is fiercely loyal. But the animosity among Obama loyalists for Brock, a political knife fighter not known for lowering temperatures, was impossible to conceal. “He is a cancer,” said John Morgan, a Florida lawyer and Obama fundraiser, to the New York Times.
Such name-calling wouldn’t matter if Clinton’s allies had not helped set up Brock and Priorities as partners for the coming campaign. Brock’s opposition research group, American Bridge 21st Century, has become the go-to shop for digging up dirt on Republican candidates and is expected to work closely with Priorities in its messaging strategy. Now Democrats fear that the public finger-pointing could exacerbate a divide within the Democratic donor class about whom to trust with their money, drying up funding streams just as the taps need to open wider. In a matter of hours after Brock’s resignation letter leaked, Priorities staff and Brock released joint statements saying they were both committed to working together. The Priorities statement was signed by co-chairwoman Jennifer Granholm, a longtime Clinton supporter and the former Michigan governor. Messina, the group’s other co-chair, was notably absent from the statement, suggesting the potential for more fireworks to come. “This is just a blip,” says one Democratic insider. “But it will be one of many blips.”
As in most large organizations, the blips could tilt the scales. Just how Clinton handles her operation this time, amid a swirling narrative that she is unable to enforce order, will be a major test. “Everybody’s on board,” explains a second party veteran with links to both camps. “But on board what? Who is going to be in the room when she makes a big mistake? Her team isn’t a lot of people, but they take up a lot of oxygen. I think they are going to deal with the Obama operation as independent contractors.”
It will fall to Mook to mediate many of these disputes while trying to run a billion-dollar campaign. That sounds impossible and may well be, but if you could create a relentless supermanager to keep the peace, that person would look a lot like Mook–young, calm and technically adept, with a long record of winning both elections and the allegiance of his team.
He won high marks last year by leading a near flawless campaign for Virginia governor by Terry McAuliffe, one of the Clintons’ closest advisers. “Nobody could have executed that campaign better,” McAuliffe told TIME about working with Mook. “In Clinton world there are a lot of friends, a lot of people who want to help, and what he is able to do is direct all of their energy in a positive way. He can make sure campaign staff can do their jobs without losing focus.”
Just a year earlier, the organizer who calls himself the Deacon on a private email listserv of allies literally helped write the book, for a group called the New Organizing Institute, on how campaign managers should run 21st century “engagement” campaigns that focus on motivating voters to see elections as movement-building moments. The bottom line: you cannot abandon traditional television ads and campaign craft, but you also have to expand the base turnout by exciting people in a way they don’t expect.
“Hillary had a hard time in 2008 telling her story, making herself accessible as a human being for voters,” says Marshall Ganz, the Harvard scholar of movement organizing who helped inspire a generation of Democratic operatives, including Mook. In 2008, Clinton would say things like “I am not running because I am a woman,” a phrase meant to impart her experience but which dissuaded some female volunteers from rallying around her. “There is a big difference between marketing and movement building,” Ganz explains.
The first campaign Mook ever ran was a small one, a state-delegate race in northern Virginia in 2005 on behalf of Dave Marsden, who won big with fewer than 13,000 votes. One of the campaign’s mottos: “Finally, something to get excited about.”
Marsden is facing re-election again this year, and when he heard Mook was up for running a top spot in the Clinton campaign, he texted a message to his former aide, offering to pay $100 more a month than Hillary if he came back to his campaign. Mook wrote back, saying he would consider the offer. “I may go to offering him $200 more,” joked Marsden. “It’s either Hillary or me.”
–WITH REPORTING BY MICHAEL DUFFY, HALEY SWEETLAND EDWARDS, ZEKE J. MILLER AND JAY NEWTON-SMALL/WASHINGTON
This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.