by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
December 28, 2012
UNRAVELING THE LESSONS OF THE 2012 CAMPAIGN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Some Americans are still expressing shock and disbelief over President Obama's winning a second term.
Not to gloat, but I am not one of them.
As someone who has been following politics since I've been able to read, I believe that the 2012 presidential campaign will go down into the history books as an perfect example of how an incumbent can win re-election despite all the conventional wisdom that states otherwise. A list of those shibboleths may find value somewhere.
The Boston Globe on Dec. 23 put together a detailed post-mortem of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. The story, written by veteran political reporter Michael Kranish, paints a picture of a candidate and a campaign staff that still can't fully grasp how it lost so badly to a incumbent President thought to be politically vulnerable.
"His campaign made a series of costly financial, strategic, and political mistakes that, in retrospect, all but assured the candidate's defeat, given the revolutionary turnout tactics and tactical smarts of President Obama's operation," wrote Kranish. "One of the gravest errors, many say, was the Romney team's failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate's personal qualities and leadership gifts. The effect was to open the way for Obama to define Romney through an early blitz of negative advertising. Election Day polls showed that the vast majority of voters concluded that Romney did not really care about average people."
Actually, that part wasn't a grave error. That was just reality. A candidate who had already been exposed four years earlier as being, according to a New York Times report, "emotionally uncaring, intellectually inauthentic, [and] ideologically malleable," was not suddenly going to transform himself in the space of a few months.
And the voters knew this. As Kranish wrote, according to exit polls, "Obama beat Romney by an astonishing 81 to 18 percent margin on the question of which candidate 'cares about people like me.'"
Despite Romney's character flaws, there was still a possibility that he could win the election. He had more resources, and he was running against a President presiding over a sluggish economy. Again, the conventional wisdom had this race as close because of the economy.
Ultimately, it didn't matter because Romney had a campaign staff that did not know what it was doing.
In May, when I was at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for my 15th reunion, I heard from some reporters who had been covering the Obama for America operation in Chicago. The President had his campaign staff together and running at full speed for more than a year before the election, while Romney was just starting to pull together a national campaign operation in Boston.
The head start that the Obama team had was undeniable. They also had a undeniable advantage in the one thing that wins elections, even in the Super PAC era, people.
Kranish wrote that Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, "said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. 'Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and offices,' Beeson said. 'They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,' something that Romney did not have the staff to match."
How one-to-one? "The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics," wrote Kranish. "Each Obama worker would be responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney's team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference."
The people power advantage was backed up by a technological advantage.
The Obama team hired an ace programmer named Harper Reed, who had no campaign experience, but knew how to assemble an all-star team of techies to build get-out-the-vote (GOTV) software that could survive anything thrown at it, and then tested and tested it to make sure it would work properly.
By contrast, Romney hired Zac Moffatt, a Republican political operative who did not have the chops, the shops or the support team that Reed had.
Nonetheless, Kranish wrote that Moffatt's team "created a Facebook app that would enable the Romney campaign to locate voters who otherwise could not be found by telephone.
"Three weeks before Election Day, the app was unveiled by the campaign and downloaded by 40,000 Romney supporters. There was only one problem. Months earlier, Obama's campaign had developed a similar app, which had been downloaded by 1 million people."
And while the Obama campaign's GOTV software survived Election Day with nary a glitch, Romney's inadequately tested GOTV software crashed right when it was needed most.
As for strategy, the Obama campaign decided to go on offense immediately after Romney clinched the GOP nomination. It took $65 million in advertising money it had budgeted for September and October, and spent it in May, June and July in an effort to define Romney as the man he was in the GOP primaries - a self-described "severely conservative" candidate.
It worked, but unfortunately the big lead in the polls that President Obama built up during the summer nearly vanished after a lackluster performance in the first debate with Romney.
Romney knew the debate was his last chance to redefine himself to voters, and Kranish wrote that Romney worked much harder than Obama to get ready for the first debate. and nearly turned the election his way as a result.
But Obama did well in the next two debates, and although the race had tightened. Obama never lost the lead in most key states.
Romney's campaign blitzed the airwaves with mostly negative ads in the final two months of the campaign. But the early ad buys of the Obama campaign had already accomplished what is Job 1 in any political race: define your opponent before your opponent defines you.
The Romney team could not make up for the huge advantage that the President enjoyed in, as Kranish put it, having "far more people on the ground, for longer periods, and backed by better data."
Obama's field organization turned out 266,000 more Hispanic voters in Florida than in 2008. It turned out 209,000 more black voters in Ohio than in 2008. This, despite the best efforts of Republican governors in both states to suppress the votes of blacks and Hispanics.
Yes, President Obama did have a real advantage in not having a primary opponent. But his campaign team's real advantage was spending money in a smarter way, and not taking victory for granted. While the Romney team was utterly convinced it would win right up until the end, the Obama team played hard until the final whistle.
In the end, there are four lessons for future political candidates to take away from the 2012 presidential campaign.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph Holhut. a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Govenrment at Harvard University, is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.