Ashley Spillane, 28, Democrat

Executive Director, Atlas Project

Initially, Ashley Spillane wasn’t sold on a career in politics. Back in 2002, a friend convinced her to help out on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s race for governor in Maryland. Two years later she was in Ohio working as a field organizer on the Kerry-Edwards campaign, and it was there that she finally found her calling. “I was supposed to go abroad to Jordan, but went to Ohio instead to work in the field on the Kerry campaign,” Spillane says. “Even though we lost I found myself really wanting to stay involved.”

Spillane stayed in Iowa for the 2006 cycle, managing a staff of 30 as the regional field director for the Iowa Democratic Party. From there she found her way to Tom Vilsack’s campaign, and eventually to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—Spillane was a regional field director on Clinton’s Iowa effort. By the time she started working in the AFL-CIO’s political department in the summer of 2008, Spillane had already amassed an impressive amount of field experience.

At the AFL-CIO, Spillane continued to impress, overseeing the development and distribution of 23 million mail pieces targeting swing voters in the presidential race, as well as key statewide and federal races across the country. But it has been her work at the Atlas Project which has practically made her a household name among progressive strategists and consultants across the country. Atlas is a one-stop shop for Democratic campaigns and independent expenditure groups to— legally—view what the other one is up to.

“It is likely to change the way people do campaigning, the way they spend money,” says Atlas Project Co-Founder Steve Rosenthal. “Right now, there’s inefficiency in the process.” Spillane pioneered the “Atlas Debrief,” which has turned into an annual strategy conference that attracts hundreds of Democratic campaign operatives who trade stories and share tactics. Ahead of this cycle, Spillane helped develop the Atlas online toolkit—a database that can be accessed by operatives and progressive groups, which houses an astounding level of comparative data on strategy, media spending and messaging.

In addition to her work at Atlas, Spillane is currently pulling double duty—she was recently named executive director of Democratic Gain, the liberal campaign training group.

Brendan Steinhauser, 30, Republican

Director of Grassroots Strategy, FreedomWorks

Brendan Steinhauser has quickly earned a reputation as one of the smartest and most effective organizers behind the Tea Party movement. As the director of grassroots campaigns for FreedomWorks, Steinhauser has trained and led activist groups in all 50 states to help elect conservatives to Congress, and the boots Steinhauser has helped put on the ground have been welcomed by GOP campaign strategists across the country.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Steinhauser was drawn to political activism and to the conservative movement cause. He often attended debates, boycotts, and protests with his peers while leading the UT chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas—it’s where he first gained to exposure to many of the same organizing tactics he employs on the campaign trail today. Upon graduation he also published a book, “The Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses.” It was a step-by-step guide for student leaders looking to organize campus conservatives around the country.

In 2005, Steinhauser moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as a director for FreedomWorks. With passion for the Tea Party cause and an underdog mentality, he has helped elect over 80 new members of Congress. In 2009, Steinhauser also helped organize the March on Washington, which brought Tea Partiers to the nation’s capital in record numbers to protest excessive spending and debt. “I don’t think I’ll do anything as meaningful as that,” says Steinhauser

Chris Talbot, 28, Democrat

Founder, Talbot Digital

Chris Talbot is often the youngest person in the room when he gets to a strategy meeting. Recently, he was brought in by the State Department to help with outreach and democracy building in Latin America. With a background that includes three years on the election and issue advocacy team at Google, Talbot has expertise in online communications, message development, and social media. It’s the kind of stuff that can make government bureaucrats and veteran operatives roll their eyes.

“When you’re the youngest in the room, you’ve got to demonstrate your credibility,” he says. “What you need to do in digital is actually tie your work back to objectives that matter in a campaign.” Talbot is fascinated by the role of youth in politics. He closely followed last year’s Arab Spring, where a youth driven protest movement eventually toppled three North African dictators. During a recent trip to Latin America, he heard from clients that they wanted to reach young voters. It was refreshing, he says, because in the United States “there’s less focus on youth and young voters.”

Along with work for Rock the Vote, Talbot also helped Boeing in its successful bid to land the contract to build a new fleet of tankers for the Air Force, and developed the digital video strategy for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) reelection campaign last cycle.

Still, his campaign and corporate clients are less interested in young voters given that the demographic isn’t considered a major political player. “We’re an old country,” Talbot says. “And when you look at the voters, we’re even older.” He continues: “Abroad there’s this energy, but there’s not a strategic approach. It’s very nascent. We think we can work with the people trying to build these movements.”

Dave Tollaksen, 29, Democrat

Senior Analyst, Mellman Group

Dave Tollaksen grew up in a political family in Wisconsin—one that wasn’t afraid to talk politics at the dinner table. He calls his dad a fiscal Republican, while his mother was the consummate swing voter. His father hailed from a traditionally Republican family, and his mother’s side included plenty of Democrats and union members. “It’s fair to say I heard both sides of the conversation for years,” Tollaksen says.

But it was an internship in 2004 with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that convinced Tollaksen he wanted to make a living in politics. He had been trying to decide between the DSCC and a gig at the Wilson Center. Tollaksen ended up in Oklahoma working on the coordinated campaign for Brad Carson’s Senate race. “Going to a place where Democrats struggle was probably one of the best choices of my political career,” he says. “It forces you to understand the sort of message you need to make Democrats successful in a state like Oklahoma. And you learn the lesson of authenticity.”

After the 2004 cycle, Tollaksen found himself in the same spot hundreds of other Democratic operatives were in—unemployed. With a background in econometrics and game theory from Notre Dame, Tollaksen landed an internship with The Mellman Group. In the years since, he’s worked his way up from intern to senior analyst.

Last cycle, Tollaksen worked two of the country’s biggest Senate races. He handled polling, focus groups, ad testing, and targeting for the reelection efforts of Sen. Barbara Boxer in California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. “We had polling results that were right when everyone else was wrong,” Tollaksen says of Reid’s campaign against Republican Sharron Angle. “I’m more proud of that than anything else we’ve done.”

Roberto Trad, 35, International

Senior Partner, Strategic Communications Arts and Crafts Institute

Roberto Trad began his career as a journalist. In fact, his first reporting job led to his first exposure to a political campaign. Trad interviewed a slew of hopefuls, mostly candidates for local elections in Mexico City, and he was hungry for more. And after spending some time in public relations, Trad’s desire to make a career out of politics led him back to the world of academia. So he went from Mexico to New York City to earn an MA in political science at the New School University.

“Working in PR, I realized that I needed more of an education in politics and political science,” says Trad. “So I went to study hard core traditional politics and get a better understanding of that.” In 2003, Trad worked as a consultant for PRI candidates for Congress in Mexico, and a couple of years later he was opening up a political consulting firm of his own. The professional turning point for Trad was Rafael Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign in Ecuador—Trad played a central role in Correa’s win in a tough race. Trad’s resume includes work for more than 20 campaigns, including four presidential races, in three different countries.

For Trad, statistics and critical thinking form the core of his firm’s philosophy. “We’re not interested in being rock stars,” Trad says of the principals at his firm. “We’re interested in coming up with new methodological approaches to solving client problems.”

Paul Winn, 33, Republican

Political Director, Smart Media Group

Five years in Albany taught Paul Winn a few lessons. As a young operative out of then-Gov. George Pataki’s office, he cut his teeth managing races for the New York GOP’s state Senate campaign committee. Not an easy task in a deep-blue state where the competitive contests are concentrated in the most expensive media market in the country. “You really have to be focused on who your targeted audience is,” says Winn. “I learned how to deal with districts where you’re up against a significant Democratic enrollment advantage.”

By 2006, Winn was ready to make the leap to national-level politics. He decided to decamp for a consulting job in Washington with Smart Media Group. He came south a winner, having recently made a sizable windfall, although it wasn’t a campaign victory bonus. Growing up near Saratoga, which has a long history of horse racing, Winn often spent time at the track. He got to know horses. During a trip to Belmont Park on Long Island, he bought the supplementary program and put his analytical skills to use. Winn picked six winners in a row and walked out $10,000 richer. “I do fashion myself a pretty decent handicapper,” he says. “I love the race track.” In horse racing, just like media buying, there’s no grey area, just winners and losers. “There are a lot of ways to interpret a poll,” he says. “There are not a lot of ways to interpret a buy.”

Winn’s since gone on to work on races throughout the country, including Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s primary win and Rep. Kevin Yoder’s 2010 victory.