What happened to Barack Obama’s once vaunted political machine? The outfit that put upwards of 8 million volunteers on the street in 2008 — known as Organizing for America — is a ghost of its former self. Its staff has shrunk from 6,000 to 300, and its donors are depressed: receipts are a fraction of what they were in 2008. Virtually no one in politics believes it will turn many contests this fall. “There’s no chance that OFA is going to have the slightest impact on the midterms,” says Charlie Cook, who tracks congressional races.
Neglect is to blame. After Obama was elected, his political aides ignored the army he had created until it eventually disappeared. No one was in charge; decisions were often deferred but rarely made. By the time they realized they needed more troops, says longtime consultant Joe Trippi, “their supporters had taken a vacation from politics.” (See Mark Halperin’s take on the coming Republican tsunami.)
So earlier this year, when the White House gave OFA a whopping $30 million — more than half of the party’s entire budget for 2010 — senior Democrats suspected a hidden agenda. Several tell Time that OFA boss David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, is using the cash to rebuild an army for 2012 under the cover of boosting turnout in 2010. OFA is putting staff into such states as Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona, which have few close statewide races this fall but which are all prime targets in an Obama re-election campaign. “This is totally about 2012,” Cook says. (See how Obama became Mr. Unpopular.)
Plouffe denies the charge. “I couldn’t object more strongly,” he says. Plouffe notes that OFA volunteers knocked on 200,000 doors in late August — an impressive number, but only a tenth of what it could do in 2008. (Comment on this story.)
Not even sorcery may be able to rekindle the excitement many first-time voters showed back then. “The popularity of the President with these voters is not a transferable asset,” says Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist. “I don’t think it’s realistic that they would ever be able to replicate the unbridled enthusiasm. It’s like a first kiss: you can never experience it twice.”