Del Sur al Norte, December 2012 – The magazine of the Fundacion Centro de Estudios Americanos (Center for American Studies Foundation) of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The following article by Senior Director G. Philip Hughes was featured in the ‘Special Edition on the 2012 Elections in the United States’ issue. (Article available here in Spanish: Elecciones Presidenciales)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At least not for Republicans. And not according to Republicans.
A failed President – one who had presided over nearly four years of 8%+ unemployment; over the weakest economic of the postwar period; over economic growth barely above 1% and annual trillion dollar budget deficits – re-elected for another four year term! A President whose major accomplishments in office have been pushing through a still-highly-unpopular national health care scheme and winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan according to pre-announced deadlines – a policy regarded by many national-security-minded Americans as a thinly disguised ‘cut and run’. Defeating a Republican nominee with a successful business record and demonstrated ability to turn around troubled operations – one whose sole experience in elected office was as the moderate Governor of arguably the nation’s most liberal state, a state dominated by Democrats in which bipartisan compromise offered the only path to achieving anything whatever.
Not only did Obama win a second term; his Democrats, with twice as many Senate seats to defend as their Republican opponents (22 to 11), actually expanded their Senate majority by a net of two seats. Practically the only consolations for Republicans were successfully defending their majority in the House of Representatives — despite a net loss of 11 seats, the Republicans retained control of the chamber by a comfortable 233-199 majority – and expanding (by 1, to a total of 30) their record number of Republican Governorships.
Republican and Republican-leaning commentators predicted a very different outcome. Karl Rove, architect of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 election victories and organizer of American Crossroads, a major independent group supporting 2012 Republican candidates, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on October 31: “My prediction: Sometime after the cock crows on the morning of Nov. 7, Mitt Romney will be declared America’s 45th president. Let’s call it 51%-48%, with Mr. Romney carrying at least 279 Electoral College votes, probably more.” Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, wrote in The Washington Examiner on November 2: ”Bottom Line: Romney 315, Obama 223. That sounds high for Romney. But he could drop Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and still win the election.”
Fat chance! As it turns out, Obama won all but one of the so-called battleground states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin. Romney won – barely — North Carolina, a ‘battleground state’ that went for Obama in 2008.
How could this happen??!! That’s the question many Republicans were asking themselves on Tuesday night, November 6, and in the days and weeks afterwards. Obama won by only about 3 million votes, out of slightly less than 122 million votes cast for the two major parties’ candidates (62,611,250 to 59,134,475) but racked up a compelling advantage in the Electoral College (332 to 206; 270 are needed for election). Republicans could console themselves that Obama’s vote total was some 9 million fewer than in 2008 – a record turn-out election year – suggesting that his support had slipped. But Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, polled some 3 million fewer votes than John McCain – considered a weak Republican candidate – received four years earlier. If everyone who voted for McCain had turned out for Romney, he would have won. So thought many Republicans. If Obama’s margin could have been so easily overcome, how significant could his victory have been?
The answer is: very significant! The close popular vote suggests the election was not as epochal or the total vindication that partisan Democrats may claim. But neither was it a fluke or a merely temporary setback. The election revealed – or, better, threw into relief – crucial demographic shifts in the American electorate with profound implications for future elections – the strategy, the tactics, the possible outcomes. And it may have re-written the ‘play-book’ for U.S. electoral campaigns going forward.
So … what happened??!! Let’s review the series of factors contributed to Obama’s victory, to Romney’s defeat, and to the Democrats’ success in fighting the Republicans to a virtual electoral standstill nation-wide.
Grand Strategy, Conventional Wisdom, Unconventional Tactics. The contrast between the respective theories of and strategies for the campaign of the Obama and Romney teams was striking. From all indications, the Romney camp’s theory of the campaign, and strategy for winning it, were based on very conventional thinking. For them, the campaign was about one big, overarching issue: the economy. It was lousy. Obama had been President for four years. However constantly Obama blamed his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the ‘economic mess’ he inherited, he couldn’t escape responsibility it. Pocketbook issues are famously decisive with American voters. Obama’s job approval ratings hovered persistently below 50%. Polls consistently showed majorities of Americans thought that the country was ‘on the wrong track’ on the bell-weather polling question. No incumbent President since Franklin Roosevelt had been re-elected with unemployment above 7.5% for over 40 months.
All the Republicans had to do, it seemed, was to present a plausible, non-polarizing alternative to Obama and Obama would get ‘fired’ by the electorate. A resume of business experience and of successful ‘turn-around operations’ might help. Emerging in May from a 6-months’-long, bruising Republican primary contest, Romney seemed like he might be ‘the right man for the job’ – of beating Obama. Although his moderate record as Governor of Massachusetts and his ‘flip-flops’ on key issues left conservatives with lingering doubts, Romney generated, ironically, high ‘voter intensity’ among Republicans. He also polled well with independents – a key to defeating Obama, who had carried the independent 52% to John McCain’s 44% in 2008.
All of this was fairly conventional thinking and strategizing – a page straight out of the standard playbook of American politics.
As it turned out, the Obama campaign wasn’t following the textbook of American politics; they were writing a new one.
Saddled with a weak record on the economy and an unpopular ‘signature accomplishment’ health care program, Obama’s campaign recognized that they needed a big theme, since the ‘big issue’ – the economy – worked against them. That theme – “Forward” – conveyed the positive impression of progress while implying that the alternative was a return to ‘the bad old days’ of George W. Bush. As a theme, it had the additional merit of offering no insight whatsoever into Obama’s goals and plans for a second term. Remarkable! A Presidential re-election campaign without a second-term agenda!
The solid block of states predictably supporting the Democratic candidate in national elections – California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland; the New England states; the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii – enabled Obama’s team to focus on the battleground states mentioned earlier. But, given recent demographic shifts in the electorate, Obama’s people saw the opportunity to build coalitions of minority voters – Hispanics, Asians and women to complement their traditional strength among blacks and Jews. This, along with liberal white Democratic voters, ultimately proved more than enough to offset Obama’s losses among independent voters and Romney’s supposedly energized Republican base.
To reach these voters, Obama’s team assembled an enormous database of information on voters nationwide – not merely names, addresses, zip codes (a proxy measure of affluence), voting and political contribution histories, but also information derived from credit agencies about consumption patterns and property ownership – all geared to identifying and targeting their voters. And they put together a team of ‘quants and stats’, an assemblage of quantitative analysts and statistical experts to analyze and ‘mine’ this data to maximize Obama’s vote. Along the way, Obama’s team was able to identify sub-issues – even ‘non-issues’ – that resonated with subsets of voters. (For instance, Obama’s team used the issue of women’s access to contraception – shown to resonate with urban single women in places like North Carolina and Virginia — to mobilize their voters and ‘turn them off’ to Romney’s appeal, even though no one and no issue in the election threatened this access in any way.)
By contrast, Romney and the Republicans deployed a much more conventional array of political campaign advisers and strategists who, working from more aggregate, ‘macro’ numbers, plotted their strategy through states whose combination could produce a majority in the Electoral College. Cleverer and more unconventional than the Republican’s approach, Obama’s targeted ‘micro’ strategy simply beat Romney’s ‘macro’ one.
Character Assassination as High Politics. According to press reports, Jim Messina, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, approached the President in late spring with a bold and unconventional advertising strategy. Realizing that Romney was about to emerge as the Republican nominee after the long, costly primary battle – but with depleted coffers to cover the months between May and the August Republican convention — Messina urged Obama to ‘spend big, now’, especially in battleground states. The idea was to ‘define’ Obama’s opponent by savaging his business record (his principal ‘selling point’) before Romney could gather the resources to respond. This bold stroke contrasted with the conventional wisdom – as practiced by the Republicans this year — of husbanding the campaign’s dollars so that they could ‘carpet bomb’ the battleground states with advertising in the campaign’s concluding 10 weeks.
Messina may have been inspired by the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ campaign, launched against Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, by his former comrades-in-arms during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. The book and advertising campaign sponsored by this independent veterans group during the ‘August lull’ in the campaign impugned Kerry’s Vietnam War record and undermined his fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chie in the midst of on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But even if Messina was inspired by the 2004 episode, he took the idea much further. The attacks started much earlier – as soon as it was clear that Romney would be the Republican nominee – and went on all summer, not merely for a month. They were highly targeted in battleground states. And they were directly funded by Obama’s re-election campaign – then echoed by other supportive operations. As post-election survey data subsequently revealed, Romney’s image in these states never fully recovered from this barrage. And the Republicans’ ‘conventional wisdom’ advertising strategy couldn’t undo the damage in the campaign’s closing weeks.
Inside Your Own Echo Chamber. For decades, conservatives and Republicans complained of one-sided, Democrat- and left-biased news reporting and commentary by the major U.S. broadcast networks and nationally important newspapers and maagaazines. With the advent of conservative talk radio two decades ago and of Fox News Channel roughly 15 years ago, conservatives and Republicans found a series of media outlets more congenial to their viewpoint. These outlets, however, may have done as much harm as good for the Republican cause in this election cycle. While they helped focus attention on some issues helpful to Romney and harmful to Obama – e.g., the deaths of four diplomats during the destruction of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya – their steady predictions of Obama’s defeat and their scenarios for a Romney victory helped blind Republican strategists and activists to the potency of Obama’s actual campaign plan.
Where Was the Tea Party? Two years ago, when Republicans swept the mid-term elections on a wave of opposition to Obama’s first months in office, the stage seemed set for a Republican re-capture of the Senate and the White House in 2012. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The 2010 ‘wave’ election for Republicans was largely fueled by the voter activism and turn-out generated by the Tea Party (an acronym for ‘Taxed Enough Already’ that also evokes a Boston episode that led to the American revolution). But in 2010, by backing of a handful of strictly conservative candidates over moderates with state-wide vote-getting appeal, the Tea Party may have cost the Republicans control of the Senate. Tea Party Senate candidates – notably in Delaware, Colorado, and Arizona – lost. So, the 2010 record of the Tea Party was mixed: Republicans couldn’t have swept the election without them, but couldn’t win the Senate with their candidates.
In 2012, Republicans reaped all of the Tea Party’s negatives with few of its benefits. Tea Party-backed Senate candidates went down to defeat in heavily Republican Indiana and in Missouri, where the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat hung onto re-election against a Tea Party candidate who pronounced, before the election, that women’s bodies had a natural defense mechanism against conception in cases of rape. This candidate’s medical ‘epiphany’ triggered unanimous appeals from the Republicans leadership to withdraw from the race. He refused. Instead, he lost. At the same time, the Tea Party apparently failed to generate the voter enthusiasm and turn-out for the Republican ticket that it contributed in 2010 – noticeable in Romney’s disappointing showing among white working-class, ‘blue-collar’ men. So, between lost Senate opportunities and a disappointing voter mobilization, in 2012 the Tea Party fizzled.
Bottom Line. In the 2012, President Obama’s campaign engineered a brilliant tactical victory – one that will be long studied and may well re-make the way future U.S. elections campaigns are fought. Republicans misapprehended what Obama’s people were up to and underestimated the effectiveness of his tactics. Whatever other mistakes Republicans may make in the future, they won’t repeat the ones of 2012!