WASHINGTON -- As sentimentality goes, President Barack Obama hosting the last campaign event of his political career in Des Moines, Iowa, is hard to top. The Hawkeye State launched the then-junior senator from Illinois to national prominence. And there is a movie script-like quality to having such a historic political trajectory emerge out of the frosty cornfields.
Speaking just steps from his 2008 caucus headquarters on Monday evening, it seemed at times as if the magic hadn't faded.
"I came back to ask you to help us finish what we started because this is where our movement for change began," Obama declared. "To all of you who’ve lived and breathed the hard work of change: I want to thank you. You took this campaign and made it your own ... starting a movement that spread across the country.
"When the cynics said we couldn't, you said yes we can. You said yes we can and we did. Against all odds, we did," he said.
Wiping the occasional tear from his eye, and looking over a crowd of 20,000, Obama concluded with the same story that he told on the last day of his '08 campaign: about the origins of his signature "fired-up-ready-to-go" chant. The arc of his first term in office was seemingly complete.
But if anything, the late night rally in Des Moines underscored how different Obama's first and second White House runs have been. For all its poignant undertones, Monday night marked the end of a campaign that had little of the emotional appeal of four years ago. There was no sweeping "hope" narrative, no history-making proposition, no shadows of the Bush years to escape. Instead there was a business-like approach to a daunting task: how to re-elect a president with a slate of accomplishments, but with reduced popularity, a poor economy and no novelty.
"The biggest difference between 2008 and 2012 is that the sense of the mission changed," said one Obama campaign adviser who, like nearly everyone, would discuss the campaign's inner workings only on condition of anonymity. "In 2008, there was the sense of optimism and hope around the mission -– of changing the world. In 2012, the mission is as much the clear-eyed recognition of how important stopping the other side is. It is a grimmer, more realistic sense of mission."
How Obama's aides traversed this path is a story that will be told in greater detail in the election post-mortems. But months of conversations and notes kept in documents and notepads tells part of the story. And it shows a team that, while lacking the heartstrings of 2008, stayed true to other guiding principles: data-driven decision-making and solid execution.
"There has always been a laser-like focus on the part of the campaign on how to get where they need to be," explained Hari Sevugan, who served as a spokesman for the 2008 campaign. "It was about delegates in 2008 and pathways to 270 [Electoral College votes] in 2012. "The formula, then and now, was always inspiration and energy at 30,000 feet and a no-nonsense attitude toward numbers and mechanics on the ground."
It started in the spring of 2011, when top advisers to the president conducted a series of focus groups to get a clear sense of what was in store. What they found was sobering. Voters were gloomy about their current situation. Worse, they assumed their kids would inherit poorer lots than their own. They didn't all blame the president. In fact, they still liked him. But they had to be convinced of two things: That their lives could get better and that Obama was the person who could affect that.
To accomplish those two tasks, the president's aides made a series of decisions. The first was to chart specific maps to 270 electoral votes. The second was to figure how best to operate within the boundaries of that map. The third was to unearth ways to make their campaign cash go further than their opponent's.
In December 2011, campaign manager Jim Messina unveiled five pathways to victory during a briefing with a group of reporters. Virtually every state he identified as critical has maintained that distinction, with the exception of Arizona (which, even then, was labeled a longshot). There were some miscalculations. Messina assumed that New Hampshire and Wisconsin would both remain solidly in Obama's camp. He also gave equal weight to paths involving North Carolina (now, a reach) as those involving Ohio (less so). But the paths have largely endured.
Meanwhile, aides plotted a comprehensive messaging shift and a media campaign to complement it. In December 2011, the president delivered a speech in Kansas designed to break the conversation away from deficit reduction and the debt ceiling debacle and on to job creation and economic security. The campaign booked $25 million worth of ads for May 2012 alone to build off that message.
"It's been a very disciplined campaign, incredibly focused," said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, one of the campaign's top surrogates. "And they have followed their plan as far as I can tell, without any significant deviation."
The campaign began to pinch pennies. Aides booked ad purchases in bulk, instead of week by week. They gave a public okay to super PACs, despite the president's previous opposition. And they decided, like in 2008, to hoard resources, rather than share with other Democratic campaign committees.
There was one place they splurged. Aides bet big on a ground game, hoping that direct "persuasion" -- person-to-person contacts -- could move the dial a few, critical, notches.
"We never set out to run the same campaign and the organizational stuff -– which the president has always strongly believed in -- was born out of a necessity of knowing that these states were going to be one- to three-point races if we were lucky," said one top Obama campaign official.
And like 2008, staff members had conviction in their strategy. In the early summer, when a lagging jobs market had top Democrats fretting that Romney could win an election focused on the economy, aides scoffed at the proposition.
"They are operating under the Woody Allen theory that 90 percent of life is just showing up," one top campaign official said at the time. "But there is such intense scrutiny in candidates for president. If people don't feel comfortable with who you are, it is very tough. In a race that is all about economics, this guy's profile is not a great profile."
The official was right. And yet, when the campaign did put a microscope to the Romney profile -- launching attacks on his private sector record -- there were howls again. Once more, the campaign didn't budge. "Predictable [for our party]," another aide said of the criticism over the Bain attacks, "but stupid and wrong."
It was easy, of course, to ignore the second-guessing when the plan was proving fruitful. But after the first debate, the campaign's internal resolve was tested. Publicly, aides projected calm. Privately, some were stoked with anxiety over the president's performance. Internal discussions took place over whether to alter the map or message. They tinkered with the latter -- "they changed their emphasis," said one top consultant to the campaign, "not giving up on the Romney-extremism but focusing more on the shifting positions." But they struck with the former.
"Same map, tighter race," is how the aforementioned Obama campaign adviser put the post-debate mindset.
The next month was a dizzying scramble that saw the president restore some of what he gave up that night in Denver. But even after Obama gave one final slap of the lectern and wave to the Iowa crowd on Monday, the final verdict is out on whether the decisions he and his staff made were correct. The campaign is projecting confidence. Part of it is common pre-election preening. A lot of it is faith in numbers. But a good deal of it is because, while it may not have the same feel as 2008, they've been here before.
"There is no doubt about it," top adviser David Axelrod told The Huffington Post, when asked whether he felt the campaign had a leg up because of experience. "The experience of having done it helps. The people who are running our operations are the people who have been with us for five years."