A surprise was in store for Marlon Marshall, a top Hillary Clinton aide, as he arrived to brief President Obama at a campaign stop in Philadelphia recently. Marshall would lay out the day’s schedule in the Beast, the president’s heavily armored limousine that serves as a rolling Oval Office.
It was a rare pinch-yourself moment for Marshall, a perk afforded the man tasked with the more prosaic assignment of locating and assembling, motivating and deploying an army of staff and volunteers across the country on the mission to elect Clinton.
Marshall had to be goaded into showing a photo of his ride with Obama as he ended a more typical workday the next day. His final stop: a Manhattan hotel where he would address volunteers who will make calls and travel to swing states.
Barely in the door, he was in demand. A volunteer focused on New Hampshire urged him to ensure a particular member of Congress visited as a surrogate. Another came up to offer his suggestions on other ways to engage voters.
“We’re feeling really good about where we’re at in the battleground states,” Marshall told the crowd later in what was part pep talk, part debrief of shifting polls. “It doesn’t matter. If we do what we need to do, and we execute our strategy, we’re going to win.”
If Clinton secures a historic victory in the presidential race, Marshall can be credited with implementing the plan that got her there.
Marshall, 37, oversees the largest division of her campaign and interacts with just about every other aspect of it. Officially, he’s the director of states and political engagement, but staffers toss out any number of descriptions of his job — one called him an “overgrown community organizer.” A common refrain is to say he’s in charge of everything from the “grass roots to the grass tops” – strategizing with supporters from that New Hampshire volunteer to those as high-ranking as the president.
It’s a high-intensity position for the low-profile Marshall, but his adeptness has earned him trust from the campaign’s highest levels, and the loyalty of his staff and field army.
“It’s like the Beatles are coming to town when Marlon comes,” said Corey Dukes, the Clinton campaign’s Pennsylvania director.
He was a White House liaison to the State Department in 2009 before joining the Democrats’ congressional campaign committee, and later the president’s reelection campaign before a return stint at the White House, until he was one of the first hires Clinton made in 2015.
Bringing on Marshall signaled to many in the party what kind of race she intended to run: adapting the Obama playbook that paired an expansive team of local organizers with the most sophisticated data and technological tools, helping to identify likely supporters and ensuring they voted.
Democrats are counting on that formula to blunt the angst-fueled candidacy of Donald Trump. And with 13 days to go and Clinton’s lead steady in polls, a stream of voter registration, ballot request and early turnout data are starting to prove that Marshall’s battle plan, devised over months, is working.
Party leaders are also looking to the formula to sustain Democrats into the future.
“We both really believe in this organizing work, not just its power to influence the outcome of an election but its power to leave something behind when the election is over,” said campaign manager Robby Mook, who worked with Marshall several times before hiring him for Clinton’s campaign.
“There are a lot of really talented, well-developed leaders in our party and in the progressive community playing really important roles in this campaign and other campaigns because of him.”
Mook and other campaign officials credit Marshall and his top deputies for a strategy in the Democratic primaries that staved off the insurgency from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. It was as much about shrewd delegate targeting as it was ensuring a Clinton strength – overwhelming support among African American voters – remained so amid a rapidly unfolding and at times thorny debate over issues of race and criminal justice.
A St. Louis native, Marshall is the most senior African American on either presidential campaign. He has helped navigate Clinton through uncharted territory, as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged and challenged politicians of both parties to demonstrate how they were addressing systemic biases.
Marshall accompanied Clinton on visits to places that have become synonymous with unrest sparked by racially tinged violence: one trip near Ferguson, Mo., outside Marshall’s hometown of St. Louis; and others to Charleston, S.C., and last month to Charlotte, N.C.
Over cheese and chips, with a “Marles In Charge” sign nearby, Marshall also oversees a daily ritual of handing out awards, to both honor a staffer for success on behalf of state teams and playfully admonish those who fell short.
A common refrain among Marshall’s colleagues both past and present is to praise his steadiness and his ability to inspire co-workers. Mook credited Marshall for forcing him to take a victory lap at campaign headquarters after they returned to Brooklyn on the night Clinton scored five key primary victories in March.
One of Marshall’s most common expressions, applicable both in response to good news and bad, is to say: “Please believe.”
Mitch Stewart, who held a similar position to Marshall’s on Obama’s reelection campaign, recalled the sense of foreboding the day after Obama’s disastrous first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012. Marshall, then one of his deputies, was a solitary voice bucking up his colleagues.
He seized on a suggestion of a state director to initiate a challenge among Florida staff to see who could register the most voters, making it a national competition between the states “to turn what was a negative into a positive.” It resulted in the campaign’s biggest voter registration weekend to that point.
“Those type of personalities are so critical in a campaign because it’s full of ups and downs,” Stewart said. “The people that can remain somewhat constant and level and grounded are really, really important.”
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