The top strategists of the Obama and Romney campaigns shared a stage last week at the University of Chicago to discuss the 2012 presidential campaign. The talk was sponsored by the university’s new Institute of Politics, which is run by David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former chief strategist. The discussion kicked off an intensive five-week examination of the 2012 campaign at the Institute of Politics.
The top strategists of the Obama and Romney campaigns shared the stage last week at the University of Chicago to discuss the 2012 presidential campaign. The talk was sponsored by the university’s new Institute of Politics, which is run by David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist. The discussion kicked off an intensive five-week examination of the 2012 campaign at the Institute of Politics.
Eight strategists, four from each campaign, participated in the discussion, which was moderated by NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd. From the Obama campaign, in addition to Axelrod, was campaign manager Jim Messina, deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, and director of paid media Larry Grisolano. Appearing from the Romney campaign were chief strategist Stuart Stevens, strategist and longtime Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, campaign manager Matthew Rhoades, and campaign spokesperson Beth Meyers.
The Obama strategists said they had planned to run against Romney for a long time and never wavered from their belief that Romney would win the Republican nomination.
“We assumed for a very long time that it would be Romney,” Messina said. Each week during the primary season the Obama campaign would rank the Republican contenders and Romney was never out of the top spot, Messina added.
The fight over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 was the low point for the Obama campaign, according to Axelrod.
“That was the line of demarcation,” Axelrod said. “Our numbers at that time were as bad as they had ever been in our presidency.”
During the primary, the Obama campaign, especially Axelrod, never missed an opportunity to talk about the health insurance mandate that Romney passed in Massachusetts. This hurt Romney with Republican primary voters and served to draw out the battle for the Republican nomination. It also served to blunt Romney attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which was the signature domestic achievement of the Obama’s first term.
“We admired what [Romney] did,” Axelrod said. “We did all we could to make him talk about it. Anything we could do to create a little mischief was good.”
The bad economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate was the main challenge facing the Obama campaign. The high hopes of transformational change that marked the 2008 Obama campaign had come face to face with the dirty, dreary details of governing and compromise. A lack of enthusiasm among Obama supporters was something the campaign knew it had to deal with. They knew that it would be hard, if not impossible to rekindle the passion of the hope and change message of 2008.
“We felt some apathy early on and people wouldn’t work as hard as they did in the past,” Dillon said. “Two words fixed that: Michelle Obama. She really fired up the base.”
The rise of Super PACs was something the Obama campaign feared. At first, the Obama campaign didn’t want to encourage Democratic SuperPACs.
“At that point it was the right thing to do,” Messina said. “It was true to who we were and what we were.”
But Messina was closely keeping tabs on the millions of dollars the Republican SuperPACs were raising. Messina figured the Republican Super PACs would raise $660 million. He wrote that number on a white board and showed it to Axelrod.
“David looked at that and said ‘we need to have a meeting’,” Messina recalled.
Messina and Axelrod met with President Obama and they decided they had to get in the SuperPac game.
“The reality is that you can’t play by two sets of rules,” Axelrod said. “It was a frightening thing looking at his white board. It was a chilling experience and so we had to make adjustments.”
They got the go ahead from Obama to encourage and work with Democratic SuperPACs as much as they could.
“It was challenging, but we all knew, having talked to the president, that he was going to take that step,” Axelrod said.
He added that he was surprised, and relieved, that Republican SuperPACs didn’t spend big money attacking Obama in the first few months of 2012.
“Our greatest fear was that SuperPAC ads would hit in January, February, March, when we were unprepared to deal with them,” Axelrod said.
In one respect the SuperPACs and the unlimited campaign spending made possible by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision helped the Obama campaign.
In January 2011. a five million dollar contribution to a SuperPac backing former House speaker Newt Gingrich by billionaire Sheldon Adelson kept the Gingrich campaign alive and Gingrich’s win in the South Carolina primary forced Romney to battle hard in Florida and on through March before he could wrap up the nomination. This drained Romney of cash and delayed his focus on the general election campaign as he fought off attacks from his right by Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
“The impact of SuperPACs was in elongating the process,” Stevens said. “Campaigns end because they run out of money. SuperPACs elongated this campaign in a way we’ve never seen before. It served to keep candidates alive.”
In the spring of 2012, the Obama campaign made a key decision. They decided to spend big money early in an ultimately successful attempt to define Romney to the general election electorate. Without a primary opponent, they spent heavily on developing a top notch field organization. Then Messina and Axelrod made the decision to make a huge ad buy to implant a negative image of Romney into the minds of the electorate at a time when the Romney campaign was low on cash and concentrating on fundraising.
“We moved $63 million from the spring into the summer,” Messina said.
The Obama camp's advertising hit television screens in May and June. The campaign decided that money spent on ads at that time would be more effective than saving their cash to saturate the airwaves in October. They knew this meant they would be outspent in October but decided that it was worth the risk because they felt early ads were more effective than ads lost in the blur of October advertising.
“One of the most significant decisions we made was to invest in the front end of the campaign,” Axelrod said. “We had to look at the President of the United States and say this is our bet.”
Messina agreed that it was a difficult conversation to have because no one knew if the strategy would work.
Vice President Joe Biden’s unscripted endorsement of gay marriage during an interview in early May, originally seen as a gaffe, turned out to be fortuitous. Obama had planned to address the issue later, but when Biden’s comments forced their hand, they made the most of it as Obama came out in favor of gay marriage reversing his prior position.
“It not only galvanized our vote, it brought in some new people and frankly most people didn’t know the behind the scenes or the back and forth so that part didn’t really affect the supporters,” Dillon said. “They just thought it was something that they had hoped the president would do, they agreed with in many ways and that made them want to get more engaged in the elections, so it was a boon for us.”
The president’s executive order in June to stop deporting young undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as children with their parents energized Hispanic voters and young people.
“It was so important for us,” Messina said. “We had a lot of young people who were really galvanized by the Dream Act.”
In June, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act giving the Obama campaign another boost.
“Our vote always correlated with people’s view of the Affordable Care Act and so after the ruling, the Affordable Care Act’s favorability went up and so there was kind of a lifting of the ceiling there,” Grisolano said. “That was very real.”
Romney’s strong performance in the first debate and Obama’s weak performance tightened the race after a bad September for Romney.
But even the bad debate had an unforeseen positive for the Obama campaign.
“I think there was actually some increase in volunteerism after the debate because people began to worry that maybe this thing was actually at risk,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod noted that the first debate revitalized the Romney campaign. He knew that Obama had to perform better in the second debate.
“Had (Romney) not performed in that debate the election was over,” Axelrod said. “The second debate was the reverse. We had to perform. We knew we couldn’t have a second bad debate.”
Political junkies will have more opportunities to analyze the 2012 race as the Institute of Politics continues its five-week series of events.
On February 19, Axelrod and Gingrich will share the stage at the university’s Mandel Hall at 6:00 p.m. for what, no doubt, will be a lively discussion.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster