Big Bet Six Months Ago Paved Way for President
Nov 7, 2012
CHICAGO—Jim Messina wanted to bet the bank—six months before Election Day.
One Sunday in May, Mr. Messina, the manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, went to the president along with other top advisers and proposed an unorthodox strategy. The campaign, he said, wanted to spend heavily, starting immediately, on ads blasting away at Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
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The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.
The president gave his approval. And within weeks the Obama campaign was blasting away in a late-spring offensive, forcing Mr. Romney to respond to charges about his business record and personal finances rather than making the president defend his record.
Mr. Obama won his re-election battle, amid persistent economic anxieties, in significant measure because of that bet on defining Mr. Romney early. There were other factors behind the Obama win, of course, including the surprisingly strong support of former President Bill Clinton, a secretly taped video, the timing of a nearly disastrous debate performance that came early enough in the calendar to allow Mr. Obama to recover, and a hurricane that ended Mr. Romney's last, best chance to catch up.
Mr. Obama also benefited from support from his party's most loyal voters, who were generally pleased with his first term. Still, the decision to go after Mr. Romney early and hard proved crucial. It turned the election from a referendum on the president almost into a referendum on his challenger.
Nowhere was that more true than in Ohio, a pivotal swing state where Mr. Obama's attacks on Mr. Romney's tenure as a buyout specialist who supported outsourcing American jobs resonated with blue-collar voters whose state reaped benefits from the president's bailout of the U.S. auto industry.
The strategy also caught Mr. Romney at his most vulnerable time. The Republican nominee had been damaged by the bruising primary season. He limped out of it in mid-April battered and short on money to defend himself.
His top advisers faced the harsh reality that no matter how much money they raised for the general election, they couldn't, under election law, spend it until Mr. Romney officially claimed his party's nomination in late August. Mr. Romney would have to weather months of negative ads without the financial resources to respond forcefully.
"Our hope for the summer was to survive it and to be in the game until the conventions," said Russ Schriefer, one of Mr. Romney's top strategists. Looking back on that phase, Beth Myers, a longtime confidante to Mr. Romney who ran his first White House bid, said, "I didn't have a full appreciation of how frugal we were going to have to be and how profligate their spending was."
The Obama campaign's quest to define Mr. Romney began taking shape months earlier, at the end of 2011. The campaign brain trust, fearing Mr. Romney was waltzing through the Republican primary without being hit hard enough, met to decide how to go after him. They chose a two-pronged strategy: Characterize Mr. Romney both as a flip-flopper who had reversed himself on a range of issues, and as a conservative zealot for positions he took in chasing the nomination.
But ultimately, the Obama camp decided to focus on the charge that he was an out-of-touch conservative—in part on the advice of Bill Clinton. During one meeting, in June at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, with Mr. Messina and senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, the former president told them to avoid attacks on Mr. Romney's inconsistency.
"Look, flip-flopper can play both ways," Mr. Clinton told them, meaning that characterization might actually make some centrists more comfortable with Mr. Romney on the theory that he would eventually drop his more conservative positions. The positions Mr. Romney took during the primary "are so far outside the mainstream they're going to be a problem in the general," Mr. Clinton said.
When the strategists behind Priorities USA Action, a super PAC—an unaffiliated political-action committee—created to help re-elect Mr. Obama, gathered in the Dupont Circle office of pollster Geoff Garin last December, they similarly decided to avoid the flip-flopper attacks that were then dominating the Republican primary debate. The group, which included former Obama White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, polled on the issue and realized few swing voters were moved by the claim Mr. Romney often switched positions.
Instead, they decided to focus on the Republican's tenure at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded. The Priorities USA team set out to find people who lost their jobs as the result of a Bain deal, culling news reports and public records to find subjects. They eventually filmed interviews with 18 former employees of Bain-owned companies, some of which were too scathing to air.
So by time the Obama team was ready to attack in May, the stage had been set. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA unveiled their first Bain attack ads in May to much fanfare. Both spots featured workers laid off when Bain closed a steel mill in Kansas City, Mo.
The ads were controversial, even among Democrats, but they put the Romney forces back on their heels. Meantime, the springtime money crunch at Romney headquarters was so acute that finance director Spencer Zwick, who built a fundraising juggernaut during the primary, broached with Ben Ginsberg, the campaign's top lawyer, the idea of taking out a loan.
The finance aide and a small group of trusted Romney advisers agreed to secure $20 million to help bridge the lean summer months, and began airing in limited markets some initial ads talking about what a Romney administration's agenda would be. But the money didn't allow a full-scale ad buy.
Meanwhile, a group of flush Republican super PACs stepped in to lend the presumed GOP nominee some air cover. The biggest, American Crossroads and its affiliate Crossroads GPS, realized early that the Obama team would front-load its advertising to hammer Mr. Romney when he couldn't return fire.
The super PACs helped level the money race. Still, super PACs are better equipped to launch negative attacks than present positive images of the candidates they support, and they couldn't shield Mr. Romney entirely. "It's very hard to tell the candidate's story without the candidate," said Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, which was legally barred from coordinating with the Romney campaign.
Voters' opinions of the Republican nominee soured significantly over the summer, according to polling from that phase of the race. The Romney campaign's inability to go on the offense also allowed the White House to define a set of issues by announcing policies that explicitly catered to critical voter groups.
In January, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a ruling requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The decision energized many women even as it inflamed religious conservatives and leaders of the Catholic Church.
But the decision with the greatest political implications was Mr. Obama's June announcement of his executive action ceasing the deportation of many young illegal immigrants. The policy shift became an immediate rallying cry for Latino voters and undercut a nascent effort by some Republicans to craft legislation to give children who entered the U.S. illegally a pathway to stay.
Meanwhile, a quieter fight played out on the ground in swing states as the Obama forces and Republicans sought to build an infrastructure to help mobilize their legions of supporters as Election Day approached.
The Obama team started gearing up for 2012, just days after his historic 2008 victory. A few dozen Obama aides, led by field director Jeremy Bird, went back to Chicago after the election and embarked on an exhaustive investigation of the first campaign. It included interviews with hundreds of volunteers and local field directors, as well as a survey of 700,000 people involved in the campaign. The resulting 538-page report became the training bible for this year's bid.
By late summer, Mr. Obama held a small but steady lead in national polls as well as in most swing states. The summer conventions came and went with Mr. Obama getting a further bump in the polls—as well as a new weapon. Former President Clinton's eloquent deconstruction of Republican tax and spending policies proved a highlight of the Democratic convention, overshadowing Mr. Obama's own speech a night later.
Mr. Clinton would become a tireless advocate during the remainder of the campaign. The morning after the last presidential debate, Mr. Messina had breakfast with the former president at the Hyatt Hotel in Chicago and got his commitment to campaign every day for Mr. Obama in the final 10 days before the election. After receiving his schedule, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Messina to say, "I can do more than this."
By September, events were flowing the Mr. Obama's way. The low point for Mr. Romney came when the liberal magazine Mother Jones posted a secretly recorded video of him telling donors he wouldn't worry about the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal taxes because they expected help from the government and would never vote for him.
Garrett Jackson, a young aide who travels everywhere with Mr. Romney, had the delicate task of showing the Republican nominee the video. Mr. Romney felt his words were being misinterpreted, but he also expressed regret to his senior advisers. "He was just sort of rueful," said Ms. Myers, a longtime confidante. The candidate sent one senior aide an email taking responsibility for the gaffe and promised to lead the turnaround.
The damage was immediate. Mr. Romney slipped by as much as five percentage points in the days after the video made the rounds online. Aides started referring to the campaign in the past tense. It became clear the presidential debates were his last chance to get a foothold in the race.
Mr. Romney intensified his already comprehensive debate preparations. And it paid off as soon as the first debate began. Sen. Rob Portman, who played the part of Mr. Obama in all the Romney debate preparations, regularly opened the practices by wishing first lady Michelle Obama a happy anniversary. So when Mr. Obama answered the first question of the first debate by doing exactly that, Mr. Romney was armed with a friendly quip: "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine—here with me!" he said.
Romney advisers knew their man was poised for a good night just a few minutes into the debate because he seemed relaxed and had a clear grasp of the facts behind his answers. In contrast, Obama advisers could tell the president was off his game even before he walked on stage.
Afterward, the mood of both campaigns reflected how dramatically the first debate had reshuffled the White House race. As Mr. Romney watched a replay of the debate and listened to the postdebate commentary about Mr. Obama's performance, he turned to an aide and asked, "Was he really that bad?"
Mr. Obama was chagrined. "I guess the consensus is that it didn't go particularly well," he told Mr. Axelrod, his longtime adviser, in a phone call that night. "You can't tell up there."
Mr. Romney surged in the polls. For the first time, more voters viewed him favorably than viewed him unfavorably, a turn that even Mr. Romney's advisers didn't expect.
Still, the surge proved insufficient to overcome the summer's worth of damage. Ohio illustrated the dynamic. The Obama campaign had spent millions of dollars there on ads, focusing heavily on Mr. Romney's tenure at buyout firm Bain Capital and his opposition to the government rescues of Chrysler and General Motors GM -4.28% .
The ads made a deep impression with blue-collar voters. The Romney camp unveiled its own ads criticizing the auto bailout in the final weeks of the race in a last-ditch bid to stop the bleeding.
Nationally, the Romney surge appeared to peak about 10 days before the election, just short of the strength he would need to win. Then, Mother Nature intervened. Hurricane Sandy hit East Coast, causing tremendous damage in New York and New Jersey. Both candidates briefly suspended campaigning.
The president spent a day touring the damage with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a prominent Romney backer. Mr. Christie gave a full embrace to the president for his actions in the storm's aftermath—marking an odd finish to a hyperpartisan campaign.
Media coverage of the storm made it harder for the Republican nominee to re-stoke partisan passions in the final week. By the time the storm passed, Mr. Obama's advisers were confident they would hold on.
Mr. Obama grew more wistful as Election Day neared. The president, who rarely shows emotion, his closest aides say, reminisced with aides as they jetted across the country the past few days and even teared up during his final campaign rally Monday night in Iowa—the state that launched his improbable bid for the White House in 2008—as he asked voters there for their help one last time.
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