This campaign sure is joyless

When I visited the Obama headquarters in late July, I was asked to present two forms of identification before entering the offices, which are in a downtown office building on a floor the campaign asked me not to divulge, for security reasons. The nerve center is a sprawling room filled with hundreds of campaign workers, most of them under 25, many sitting under their college pennants. Like many campaigns — and tech companies — it is also something of a sweatshop (this is even more pronounced in the swing-state field offices), where 100-hour weeks are expected, outputs are closely monitored and discipline enforced. For every kid organizer whose political fervor is ignited on the Obama campaign, there is another — and probably more — who is not making his phone bank numbers, lagging behind ambitious co-workers bucking for administration jobs and resenting the revenge-of-the-nerds arrogance of his bosses. Still, the feel of youthful political energy was palpable as I passed row after row of desks en route to the men’s room — an unauthorized foray, it turned out, as all visitors require chaperones at all times. In a far corner was an area dedicated to the memory of Alex Okrent, a 29-year-old staff member who died earlier this summer after collapsing at his desk. Okrent, a veteran of two previous Obama campaigns — 2004 and 2008 — was a beloved figure here, and many of the Post-its affixed to the shrine were in the vein of “Win It for Alex.” Okrent’s death hit the campaign hard; Obama called the staff from Washington, and Romney tweeted a message of condolence.

On this day, the Obama team was particularly giddy over Romney’s mishaps on his recent tour of Europe and the Middle East. (“Mitt the Twit!” the press secretary Ben LaBolt read aloud from his BlackBerry, quoting a London tabloid headline.) I met with four top officials in the office of the campaign manager, Jim Messina. They included Messina, LaBolt, Axelrod and the deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. On a few occasions, I looked up to see all four simultaneously typing on their BlackBerries. They are wary of speaking on the record, for fear of compromising their message of discipline. “I don’t want to be telling Matt Rhoades everything we’re doing,” Messina told me, referring to his counterpart on the Romney campaign. When he did speak on the record, it was often with a mouthful of string cheese, around which he spewed a litany of poll data (“Univision says we’re up 70-22 with Hispanics”), tech stats (“Facebook was one-ninth the size in 2008 than it is now”) and demographic trends (“the fastest growing population on Facebook is people over 50”).

I then headed down the hall for a brief separate interview with Cutter, whom I’ve known for years, going back to when she was John Kerry’s spokeswoman. “How are you?” I asked.

“Are we on the record?” she replied.