How Obama did it: Fashioning victory in the 2012 US presidential election

Dennis Phillips

Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin The End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: The 34 Days That Decided the Election, Playbook 2012 (POLITICO Inside Election 2012) (Kindle Single), New York, Random House, 2012 (1717 Kb). Amazon Digital Services, ASIN BOOALBR6IC, RRP $US1.99.

Samuel L. Popkin The Candidate: What It Takes To Win—And Hold—The White House Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012 (272 pp). ISBN 9-78019992-207-9 (hard cover) RRP $39.95.

On Tuesday, 6 November 2012, Barack Obama became the third US president in a row to win a second term in office when he defeated Republican candidate Willard Mitt Romney by a popular vote of 65.8 million (51 per cent) to 60.9 million (47.2 per cent). In the Electoral College, where 270 votes are required to win, Obama took 332 Electoral votes to Romney’s 206 (Statista 2012). Obama also became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to win at least 51 per cent of the popular vote twice (Giroux 2013).

Many pundits were surprised by the size of Obama’s victory. Two days before the election polls indicated that Obama and Romney were locked in a virtual tie. A survey by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News called the contest ‘a statistical dead heat’. Most polls agreed the race was ‘too close to call’ (Lemire 2012). Leaders of the Republican Party, along with many political analysts, believed Romney had a slight edge. They confidently predicted Obama could not win when faced with a persistent, nationwide unemployment rate hovering at seven to eight per cent (Muller 2012).

The obvious question is ‘how did he do it?’ How was Obama able to defy opposition predictions of his imminent political demise and win a stunning victory more impressive in many ways than his spectacularly successful 2008 campaign for the presidency?

THRUSH AND MARTIN’S ‘THE END OF THE LINE’

In The End of the Line, the fourth and final eBook in the POLITICO ‘Playbook 2012’ series, Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin, senior reporters for POLITICO.com have produced a compact, highly readable and inexpensive account of the critical final days in the 2012 race for the White House.

The essential message is that Obama’s ‘ground game’—the exacting, unglamorous attention to organisational detail—made all the difference. Thrush and Martin argue the Obama team’s successful analytic and strategic approach to the campaign contrasts dramatically with Romney’s ‘self-delusion’ and ‘strategic ineptitude’. In effect, the Republican Party’s approach to the 2012 presidential race ‘pivoted on a paradox. Romney the manager couldn’t manage his own campaign’ (loc. 62–121).

The Obama team, on the other hand, began work early and performed brilliantly. Jim Messina, one of the president’s ‘tech-obsessed’ campaign managers, ‘spent two years building the billion-dollar Obama operation from the ground up’ (loc. 25, 145). In May 2012, six months before election day, ‘alpha advisers’ David Plouffe, David (‘Axe’) Axelrod and White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer decided to launch an expensive and aggressively negative media attack portraying Romney as ‘a rich white guy who is out of touch with the middle class’. Their goal was to define their opponent early, force him to fight a rear-guard action to identify ‘the real Romney’ and make the campaign all about Mitt rather than the Obama record and the fragility of the American economy (loc. 153, 158, 163–189, 235).

The Obama team began work early and performed brilliantly.

Over three months (May, June and July), Obama spent $100 million on a salvo of negative ads in swing states attacking Romney’s record, his personal wealth (estimated at $250 million), his ‘rich man’ tax policies, his opposition to the 2009 auto industry bailout and his role at Bain Capital, a leading private equity management firm (loc. 153, 189, 198–222, 260–278). Romney, backed by an ultra-conservative and inept Republican Party, offered a highly vulnerable target. The Obama campaign team rarely missed an opportunity to take advantage of their opposition’s most obvious weakness.

Romney’s choice in early August of US Congressmen Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate added little to the Republican ticket. Conservatives viewed the 42-year-old Ryan as a rising star who brought youth, zest and potential to their party. Plucked from the 435-member US House of Representatives rather than the more prestigious 100-member Senate, Ryan was best known in Congress for his radically conservative alternative budget proposals. But Ryan had no national profile and he hailed from Wisconsin which borders on Mitt Romney’s home state of Michigan. In short, Romney’s choice of Ryan offered neither ideological, political nor geographic balance to the Republican ticket. It seemed rather more like just another Romney concession to the Republican right-wing (Phillips 2012).

In their post-election review, the Romney campaign team concluded their early failure to aggressively counter Obama’s negative ads and define their man more clearly constituted their biggest tactical failure (loc. 360–365). Romney’s propensity to say ‘weird, off-putting things’ made their task even harder. The most famous example came on 17 September, at a Florida speech to wealthy donors, where a hidden video camera captured Romney’s unfortunate comment that 47 per cent of the electorate could be counted on to support Obama simply because they viewed themselves as social ‘victims’. From that point onward ‘Mitt happens!’ became the Republican Party’s ‘mordant watchword for the candidate’s gaffes’ (loc 356, 406–420).

And it wasn’t just the candidate who seemed eager to put his foot in it. The Republican Party as a whole was mistake prone. At the Republican Nominating Convention in Florida, an event televised to an audience of millions, someone got the bright idea of unleashing an ageing Clint Eastwood whose ‘bizarre, rambling lecture to an empty chair’ promptly went viral. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s rousing speech at the Democrat Convention, followed by the Clinton/Obama ‘man hug’ embrace, provided a timely image of party unity (loc. 313–18, 397–406). Despite these and other problems within the Romney campaign organisation, Barack Obama had significant concerns of his own. Thrush and Martin remind us Obama was happier with a 2008-style ‘Yes We Can!’ inspirational pitch than with a ‘slug-it-out’ 2012 ‘give me four more years’ campaign (loc. 511, 538).

Preoccupied with the daily obligations of the presidency and enjoying a narrow but seemingly durable lead in the polls, Obama under-estimated the potential for a Romney surge. To the surprise of the president and his advisers, Romney won the first formal presidential debate, held on October 3 at the University of Denver. For the first time in the campaign Obama’s poll numbers fell behind those of his Republican challenger (loc. 744).

Nothing ignited the Obama team more than the appearance of failure.

Nothing ignited the Obama team more than the appearance of failure. David Plouffe went to work immediately trying to convert defence to offence, arguing the media seemed eager to hype one poor debate performance into some sort of campaign ‘game changer’. At the same time, the Obama team worked hard to improve the president’s preparation and remind him how much was at stake in the two remaining debates (loc. 656, 744–758).

As important as they were, the three presidential debates were only a minor part of the campaign. The Obama team’s strategic planning was so good that it could suffer a debate setback and still rebound successfully. Overall, the president’s talented advisers completely out-classed Romney and the Republican Party in their understanding of the rapidly changing nature of modern political campaigns. Their use of social media provides one important example. Thrush and Martin explain how the Obama analytical team created a ‘slick, free Facebook app.’ Whether the individual user knew it or not, ‘every download gave the campaign instant access to a person’s “friends” list’. To their eventual regret, Republicans dismissed such innovative use of the Internet as just a modern version of ‘Chicago-style politics’ (loc. 772–781).

ORGANISE!

Obama’s attention to organisational detail greatly exceeded the Republican effort. In the crucial state of Ohio, for example, Romney opened 36 local ‘field offices’. Obama had 96 (loc. 845–849). It is one thing to have a small army of volunteers wishing to make their individual contribution to a campaign, but quite another to organise and use those volunteers effectively. Romney had a big reputation as a business manager, but the Obama campaign proved by a wide margin to be the best social manager.

Throughout the campaign, Obama also proved much more ‘demographically aware’ than Romney (Associated Press). Even though the Hispanic community felt neither candidate gave them the attention they deserved in an election where the Latino vote constituted a record high ten per cent of the electorate, the Democrats spent $12.4 million on over 15,000 Spanish-language ads compared with $9.7 million the Republicans spent on about 8,500 ads (Deruy 2012).

Romney’s failure to connect with minority voters constituted merely one aspect of his overall image problem. Some prominent members of his own party were acutely aware of this. At a Republican governor’s convention after the election, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour noted that Romney was too easily portrayed as ‘a vulture capitalist … a quintessential plutocrat … married to a known equestrian’ (loc. 1063). An unfair exaggeration to some, Barbour’s observation was given force by prominent donors to the Romney campaign—billionaires whose sources of income seemed at odds with the Republican Party’s emphasis on moral conservatism (Fitzgerald & Bykowicz 2012).

Romney’s failure to connect with minority voters was only one aspect of his image problem.

Las Vegas casino owner and billionaire Sheldon Adelson led the list. Early in the campaign Adelson, believed to be worth about $25 billion, declared his financial contributions to the Romney campaign would be ‘limitless’ (Bertoni 2012). Election day came as a disappointment to Adelson and others of his ilk. The New York Times estimated Adelson actually contributed about $60 million to Republican candidates. Of the eight individuals he supported, all lost (‘Sheldon Adelson’ 2013).

While few Americans were aware of the extent to which high roller gamblers invested in the Romney campaign, almost everyone paid attention when the weather intervened. A week before the election, hurricane Sandy, one of the largest Atlantic storms on record, hit the east coast, particularly New York and New Jersey. President Obama contacted Chris Christie, the popular Republican governor of New Jersey and promised prompt and substantial federal government disaster relief. In an age of fierce partisan political bickering, news photographs of Obama and Christie working jointly to deal with a major natural disaster symbolised the ‘united, non-partisan front’ many American longed to see (loc. 1082–1096).

Romney remained confident of victory to the very end. On election eve friendly pollsters told him he would win the key swing states of Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and Virginia. The next day he lost them all (loc. 1084). Throughout the campaign Romney let favourable anecdotal evidence get the better of him. Every day and in every way, he was reassured of success. At every campaign stop enthusiastic supporters turned out in their thousands to tell him Obama would be a one term president and he and the Republican Party would soon be in a position to get the country back on the right track (loc. 1097–1201).

It was easy for Romney to ignore contrary anecdotal evidence obvious to any attentive observer. For four years the Republican Party in the House of Representatives had trashed its own reputation by blindly obstructing almost every significant Obama legislative proposal. Ominous signs were also visible to perceptive viewers of the crowd at Romney rallies. When news cameras scanned the cheering multitude, white faces were prominent, Afro-American and Latino faces absent. The 2012 presidential election demonstrated decisively that the ‘minority’ vote in America is more important now than ever before. Obama won 75 per cent of the Latin vote (Foley 2012) and 93 per cent of the African-American vote (McCormick & Giroux 2012).

SAMUEL POPKIN’S ‘THE CANDIDATE’

As its sub-title indicates, Samuel Popkin’s The Candidate, published during the 2012 presidential campaign, sets out to explain ‘what it takes to win—and hold—the White House’. Popkin, one of America’s leading political scientists, is well placed to take on this complex task. He is professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and has served as a campaign consultant to a variety of winning (and losing) Democrat presidential candidate—George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Romney remained confident of victory to the very end.

Popkin argues there are three possible campaign paths open to presidential aspirants. He (or ‘she’—Popkin is eager to include women even though there has never been a female president or major party presidential nominee) can run as a ‘challenger’, an ‘incumbent’, or as a ‘successor’ (Popkin, pp. 4, 7, 56). The difference between an incumbent and a successor is that a successor is trying to retain the presidency for her/his party, presumably when the party’s incumbent has served two terms and is no longer eligible to run. The Democrat nominee in 2016 will be running as a ‘successor’ because the twenty-second amendment to the US Constitution mandates a two-term limit.

The Candidate is organised around these three categories. Chapters three and four examine the problems and opportunities facing candidates challenging for the White House. Chapter four (pp. 86–132) focuses on the struggle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to be the 2008 Democrat challenger and is the most interesting and informative chapter in the book.

Chapters five and six discuss the problems facing incumbents. Chapter five’s sub-title—‘Regicide or more of the same’—suggests the hurdles may be insurmountable. However, it is worth noting that Obama is now the third consecutive president (following Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) to run successfully as an incumbent. If we include Ronald Reagan, four of the last five presidents (all save George H.W. Bush) have been successful incumbents.

Popkin notes how often early front-runners fail to meet expectations in the race for the White House. During the early stages of the 2008 primary campaign, many people assumed Hillary Clinton would win the nomination easily and probably go on to be the first woman to occupy the Oval Office. What Popkin describes as the challenger who ‘couldn’t lose’ in the early stages of a campaign is eventually beaten by a less celebrated contender (pp. 1–3).

Popkin generally agrees with Thrush and Martin that the vital ingredients in a successful quest for the Oval Office are organisation and team work. The Obama campaign team that defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination was merely the forerunner of the up-dated, flexible and much advanced team that buried Mitt Romney in the general election (pp. 51, 86, 99, 109).

Despite its wealth of historical detail, Popkin’s book has some puzzling omissions.

Hillary Clinton began her 2008 quest for the nomination ‘with majority support in every poll, a massive war chest, a team of stars, and national campaign experience’ (p. 86). But her team also suffered disagreements and divisions that eroded their effectiveness (pp. 121–131). Obama’s talented strategic advisers, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and others, made his personal ‘multiracial, rags-to-Harvard’ story all the more appealing (pp. 86–97).

Despite its wealth of historical detail, Popkin’s book has some puzzling omissions. At a time when every presidential campaign must be carefully attuned to national demographic change Popkin pays little heed to the significance of ‘minority’ (including women) voters. Furthermore, as Joel Avrunin notes in a perceptive review on Amazon.com, Popkin never tells us precisely what it takes to win and retain the presidency. He is rather more instructive on how to lose it. At times Popkin seems to be arguing every candidate who succeeds does so because ‘she’ is a successful campaigner, while every candidate who loses does so because ‘she’ is not a successful campaigner (Avrunin 2012).

Popkin needs to pay more attention to the fact that the strategy and tactics involved in American presidential campaigns have changed enormously in recent years. The US Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission blunted decades of legislative effort to cap campaign spending (US Supreme Court 2008).The rapid growth in popularity of Facebook and other social media innovations opened numerous options for perceptive campaign strategists to ‘bring the message home’. Chris Hughes, a Facebook founder, joined the Obama team in 2008 to help build MyBO.com. In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Obama made far better use of the social media than his Republican rivals (pp. 95–97, 108–109; see also MyBO.com).

CONCLUSION

Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns for the presidency occurred primarily because his campaign team understood change—demographic, technological, social and political—better than their opposition. Obama’s success clearly demonstrates the extent to which innovation and change—two of the president’s favourite words—are now more important than ever in presidential elections. Even though unprecedented sums of money are available, Romney proved in 2012 that cash alone is not enough. When it came to the final vote, superior understanding of fundamental social change, combined with careful strategic planning aimed at maximising voter turnout, made all the difference. As the votes were counted, it soon became apparent the Obama team’s superior organisation and attention to detail—the campaign ‘ground game’—made all the difference.

REFERENCES

Associated Press 2012, ‘Obama campaign woos Hispanic vote with TV, radio ads’, New York Daily News, 9 June [Online], Available: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/obama-campaign-woos-hispanic-vote-tv-radio-ads-article-1.1092602 [2013, Mar 8].

Avrunin, J. 2012, ‘Everything is obvious … once you know the answer … great history but poor predictive power’, Amazon.com, 22 August [Online], Available: http://www.amazon.com/Candidate-What-Takes-White-House/dp/0199922071 [2013, Mar 8].

Bertoni, S. 2012, ‘Exclusive: Adelson’s pro-Romney donations will be ‘limitless’, could top $100M’, Forbes, 13 June [Online], Available: http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenbertoni/2012/06/13/exclusive-adelsons-pro-romney-donations-will-be-limitless-could-top-100m/ [2013, Mar 8].

Deruy, E. 2012, ‘Spanish-language political ad money just a drop in the bucket’, ABCNews, 16 November [Online], Available: http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/Politics/obama-camp-spent-spanish-language-ads/story?id=17741497 [2013, Mar 8].

Fitzgerald, A. & Bykowicz, J. 2012, ‘Donors invest millions in Romney for billions in returns’, Bloomberg Business Week, 29 August [Online], Available: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-08-28/donors-invest-millions-in-romney-for-billions-in-returns [2013, Mar 8].

Giroux, G. 2013, ‘Final tally shows Obama first since ’56 to win 51% twice’, Bloomberg, 5 January [Online], Available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-03/final-tally-shows-obama-first-since-56-to-win-51-twice.html [2013, Mar 8].

Lemire, J. 2012, ‘Barack Obama, Mitt Romney still neck-and-neck in the presidential election’, New York Daily News, 5 November [Online], Available: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/obama-romney-dead-heat-article-1.1196300 [2013, Mar 8].

McCormick J. & Giroux, G. 2012, ‘Divided America revealed as women, Hispanics back Obama’, Bloomberg, 7 November [Online], Available http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-07/divided-america-revealed-in-exit-polls-of-voters.html [2013, Mar 8].

Muller, S. 2012, ‘Obama wins “extraordinary” re-election bid, despite high unemployment’, MSNBC, 7 November [Online], Available: http://tv.msnbc.com/2012/11/07/obama-wins-extraordinary-re-election-bid-despite-high-unemployment/ [2013, Mar 8].

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Born in the United States, Dr Dennis Phillips received his PhD in American history from the University of Wisconsin/Madison in 1972. He is a dual Australia/US citizen who has lived in Australia for forty years. Until retirement in 2010, he taught US politics and history at Macquarie University and at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.