WASHINGTON -- In a bare-bones room on the second floor of an office building blocks away from the Capitol lies one of the more influential political operations in Washington D.C.
Roughly forty staffers sit along white tables in the room, only a handful of whom even the biggest political junkies would know by name. They work in relative silence, staring into one of the two computer monitors in front of them, headphones covering their ears. On the walls are mounted a dozen 42-inch televisions turned to one of the three major cable news networks. Pipes are exposed in the ceiling above and the cement floor below has no carpeting, revealing painted instructions for future movers. Off to the side, a server gives off a heated, humming sound.
It is in that server that the one of the largest collections of campaign-related video footage will soon to be stored. American Bridge 21st Century is a relatively new Democratic operation -- conceived by David Brock, the founder of the highly successful progressive media tracking organization Media Matters, and run by former high-ranking Hill and campaign staffers -- but its ambitions, as exemplified by plans for that server, are far-reaching: The group aims to redefine the art of opposition politics.
"I think I can do this better," Bradley Beychok, American Bridge's campaign director recalled Brock telling him just before Beychok came onboard. "I think I can do this smarter. I think I can do this on a larger scale."
As the 2012 campaign gears up, outside groups like American Bridge are indeed working on a larger scale, certainly when viewed in the context of recent Democratic Party history. In 2008, the Obama campaign urged donors to funnel their contributions straight into their coffers -- thereby depriving other organizations of desperately needed funds -- but there have been no such directives this cycle. When two high-ranking White House officials set off to start a group of their own, no one stood in their way. The result was Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, a non-profit and super PAC hybrid.
"[Obama] shut us down when I tried to set up a super PAC in '08," recalled Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic consultant who helped those two former senior staffers, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, launch the Priorities USA enterprise. "I didn't agree, but he was my leader so I shut it down."
Begala added that he was impressed with the party's efforts to improve its operations. "I think it is great that we win the White House when we produce candidates with talent like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. I think it is more impressive that Republicans win the White House with B and C level talent. George W. Bush was not Ronald Reagan in terms of talent. And yet he won ... and part of that is because there was a permanent conservative infrastructure that we lacked."
There are multiple components to that infrastructure, and the groups that have sprouted up during the past year have managed to carve out individual niches. American Bridge has limited its scope primarily to opposition research. The group was responsible for unearthing the highly embarrassing revelation that an autobiographical portion of Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) website lifted language from an Elizabeth Dole speech. Currently, it has 15 trackers, staffers whose sole job is to follow and tape Republican candidates, in the four main early presidential primary states and ten states where key senate elections are taking place (Nevada is the sole overlap).
Several top strategists, including Susan McCue, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and J.B. Poersch, former director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, launched Majority PAC to help Senate candidates specifically. Majority PAC has focused on the 2012 race and television ads, while other groups like Protect Your Care, which started with a $5 million budget, have focused on specific issues such as defending the president's health care legislation.
"The growth in outside groups allows us to micro-target issues that aren’t necessarily the story of the day or the main focus of the party committees," explained Protect Your Care spokesman Eddie Vale. "Regardless of what has been happening in each individual news cycle, we have been able to maintain a constant health care offensive."
The mothership, if there is one, is the Center for American Progress. The powerful D.C.-based organization founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta in 2003 is a think tank combined with an advocacy group, equipped with a blog and rapid-fire twitter feed. Its capacity to produce narrative-changing news -- whether through its own trackers or investigative researchers -- is envied even by seasoned political reporters. "They break more stories than we do," one conceded.
In 2008, CAP and Media Matters helped support the outside government groups that the Obama campaign deprived of funding sources. And while CAP doesn't have to play the role of Daddy Warbucks four years later, the organization embodies and embraces the belief that non-party infrastructure is the future.
"If you look at the broad, long sweep of history, the American people are more distrustful of government, more distrustful of politics, and more distrustful of political institutions, and the right captured this earlier on than the left," CAP's new President Neera Tanden told The Huffington Post in a recent interview.
"It's like crying over spilled milk to wring your hands over institutions disaggregating," she added. "This is not the world we're going to live in, even in five years. We're always thinking about new ways to communicate to folks and new ways to get information to folks and it's been a hallmark of CAP. One thing I definitely want to continue is to think about how you're always innovating in everything you do, because those who don't fall behind and die."
Innovation isn't the only key to survival. Cash matters too. And while CAP has been blessed with resources -- from 2005 to 2009, its staff grew from 100 to 250 -- groups newer to the scene are encountering difficulties.
When Burton said he hoped to raise $100 million, top operatives in the party expressed confusion, not because they doubted that he could do it but because they didn't understand why he'd raise expectations that high. Sure enough, on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the organization had spent less than $1 million on advertisements -- a number that is certain to increase as the campaign gets more critical but failed to match anticipation.
American Bridge was initially conceived as an all-in-one political shop. But it quickly scaled back its mission. The group's president, Rodell Mollineau, told The Huffington Post earlier this year that he viewed the entity as a $15 million operation.
"This shit ain't free," he said. "You can quote me on that."
So far, aides say, the group is on track to meet its budget, much of which goes into payroll.
Individual progress aside, the development of an outside infrastructure has presented the party both with challenges and opportunity. Burton's group, for instance, recently launched a $100,000 digital ad campaign against Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP frontrunner. The investment was certainly appreciated within Obama campaign headquarters, but the message was a touch off-key: emphasizing Romney's conservatism rather than his opportunism.
Priorities USA and the Obama campaign are prohibited by law from coordinating. But the Democratic National Committee, which serves as an arm of the reelection campaign, has brought on board an operative -- Ellen Qualls, formerly of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)'s office -- to work with allied groups where is it legally permissible. And where there have been holes, they've moved to plug them, launching an ad campaign promoting the president's jobs package and running a Hispanic media campaign pushing back on Republican attacks.
The power, indeed, still rests within the party, and the Obama campaign in particular. Ken Goldstein, the president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, notes that even though outside party advertising has risen over the past decade, "the percentage of ads being aired by candidates has stayed the same." But that doesn't mean that party leadership isn't grateful for the additional help.
"What Barack Obama has today is what Bill Clinton could have really used. And that is this progressive infrastructure around him," said Begala. "We are building the infrastructure that will sustain progressives even when we don't have at the top a guy with Obama's talent or Clinton."
The slideshow below shows how President Obama's 2012 campaign is shaping up: