It turns out that Obama’s ground game, was in fact, as good as they said it was. Supported by as negative and polemic a campaign as an incumbent ever ran.
by Scott L. Vanatter
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” A thousand pictures will be painted in post-election analysis. A thousand time over. Here’s one.
It takes a pretty good team to make it to the Super Bowl. Good and great players and coaches; an astute general manager and smart owner, scouts and staff. How the team deals with injuries and setbacks. Strength training and conditioning. Attitude, execution, an effective game plan — and a bit of luck. (Note: “Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity.”)
It turns out that Romney put together a pretty good team. He was, in some ways, an ideal candidate. Sure there were rough spots to smooth over. There always is. The case could be made that Team Romney lost this Super Bowl — they gave it away through a poor offense, and a weak defense. Aspects of this are surely true. A poor, jobless economic recovery left their opposition vulnerable – Romney should have won. The case could be made that they played Prevent Defense – which almost always seems to fail (especially when it is your team). On top of that, the Offense never went for the kill. It played it safe. Yes, the team which makes the fewest mistakes usually wins. It is a truism that fans are prong to say that everything is wrong with the losing team. This is only partly true, if at all. If a few breaks had gone another way, the problems all would not seem that big of a deal. But, as Hillary once said, “Woulda, coulda, shoulda. We didn’t.” Neither did Team Romney. They didn’t win. They blew it.
This analysis is missing one thing – the opposing team’s players, coaches, attitude, and how they executed their game plan. Axelrod and Plouffe turned out to be more than just lucky the first time. They made their own rough and tumble luck, then and especially now. More on that in a little bit.
As with quarterbacks, the two candidates themselves bear the overwhelming brunt of the blame, or praise. The star quarterback and the high profile head coach are paid for results. This is as it should be. The candidates are surrogate quarterbacks, coaches, owners, and their own best advisers, even though they pay others to serve in these rolls.
Most losing Super Bowl teams deserve the rough and honest post-mortem which all good coaches, owners, and even players will perform. Team Romney will not resurrect itself for another Super Bowl run. But the GOP back bench will perform their own lessons learned and make their own run. Starting today. Really, starting many yesterdays ago. There never is a dearth of those
Now, a word about professional and amateur commentators who predicted a wildly different outcome. We were wrong. Never did like Kool-Aid. After the first debate, we thought we had the nectar of the gods in our cups. But it turned out to be a faux sugary concoction. How could we be so mistaken? Just as in Super Bowls, a couple things go our way, and the score is altogether different. Not this time. It was close, till the end. In the end, it was a three touchdown win. We weren’t shut out, but it was a spanking.
In the end, the country decided to give the first African American elected president a continuing / second chance to make good on his promises.
Below I will review a preliminary list of lessons learned.
First, a review the five problems I considered that Romney needed to fix from his first campaign. Then, I’ll add to that the beginning of a long list of other reasons he lost. By definition, a losing campaign could have done everything better. Some will make the case that if Romney had done this one thing better, he would have won. Perhaps. In two Super Bowls Peyton Manning’s brother Eli threw two unbelievable circus catch completions to save the day. Of course all the other players and all the other plays, etc., combined to set the stage for those two memorable catches. Neither catch, by the way, won the games in question. The team had to go down the rest of the field and win the game. Both offense and defense, not just the one wild fantastic play won the day.
ROMNEY’S FIVE ORIGINAL PROBLEMS
His Message — Romney did not craft a compelling way to translate his impressive back-story – that of an accomplished leader in business, sports and politics – enough for minorities and women to see how it would benefit them. Romney bet the farm that he had told his version of “the Economy (Stupid)” was enough.
He left certain issues on the table, e.g., Obamacare. He had an enlarged, nuanced story to tell on this issue. Unfortunately, developing the story arc was not easy to fit into 30 second ads. But should have been job number one for any campaign. Mentioning it in one short line per speech, when he did mention it, was not enough.
Also, he did not move far enough, soon enough back to the center after winning the GOP nomination.
His Manner — Romney pretty much overcame early criticism about an inauthentic manner — for sure after the first debate. It was other factors which did him in.
His Mormonism — I doubt that many will posit that it was his religion, in retrospect (after reading the tea leaves of exit polls), which will be seen to have been a problem. Romney lost by enough of a margin in key battleground states, that this will not obtain. I am guessing that Romney hit his turn out goals. The problem is no one on his team believed that Obama would hit his. He did.
His use of Metrics — Romney added a certain amount of empathy to his reliance on metrics when speaking to voters. He famously is a numbers guy. However, as smart as he and his team was on the numbers, they did not use them to their advantage, as, for example, Bill Clinton had done over his career. Using numbers is as much art as science.
With respect to the use of metrics and crunching data to plan how and who to target for their ground game, Obama’s team out-crunched and out-analyzed and combined more data from more databases, and then out-performed Romney’s team by a large margin. Obama found voters in several areas that Romney’s team never knew existed.*
His Management — The sharp knives will come out. There will be a debate as to whether and which of his management team failed the candidate. The case can also be made that the managers did the best they could with the candidate they were dealt. Surely, they needed to do better on messaging (minorities, women, youth), and turnout.
2016: Obama’s America – No appreciable bump occurred in the polls or in the November 6th vote, because as many as saw the documentary, it was only seen by those who already were not going to vote for Obama. Its enlarged, psychological, personally idiosyncratic view of the sitting president never bled into the popular understanding of who Obama was – a young, energetic, smart, talented, caring, multi-racial, multi-cultural, up-and-coming community organizer who is leading the nation into a post-racial society.
The 47 Percent – Romney failed to overcome the gotcha aspect of the video. He failed to use the core truth of the inarticulately-stated message of the tape into a better, less offensive, overarching message.
Ads – Axelrod and Plouffe bought twice as many ads in key swing states, twice as early, and they were twice as negative as Romney’s. Not a good ratio. The headline that he wanted to “let Detroit go bankrupt” was supported by Obama ads which told how Romney and the dastardly/evil Bain did worse — they proactively “closed plants” themselves.
Axelrod and Plouffe – It turns out that they were not just lucky in 2008. Though lucky they were. Then and in 2012 they crafted a tough Chicago-style message coupled with a $300 million Get Out The Vote machine — which was a good as they claimed it was.
Bain attacks – Romney failed to blunt these early attacks. To too many in battleground states, he was seen as part of the problem. Too rich to care. Too rich to have gotten that way morally. Axelrod and Plouffe, not to mention Cutter, painted the picture and it went undisturbed for too long. It stuck with too many in too many key places.
Benghazi – After initially getting out in front on terror attacks, Romney pulled back toward the end. Hi team bet that the economy and jobs were paramount. They were right, but they failed to make the case that the first African American elected president was to blame for the lack of growth in the economy and jobs. Or, that he didn’t deserve a second chance.
Bush – Obama succeeded in blaming Bush. For everything. As long as it helps him, Obama will continue to pull play this card.
Data – See metrics above.*
Debate – Romney clearly got back in the game with his performance in the first debate. There is a consensus that in the final debate he, essentially, sat on his lead and did not press Obama. Team Romney truly thought they was ahead by a touchdown, when in reality they were behind by three touchdowns.*
Define your opponent (before he defines you) — Romney failed to fully define himself. His opponents did. And did it first. This usually is a deadly order.
Demographics – The growth in minorities as a percentage of the voting population together with a harder immigration policy than that of Bush 43, combined with massively negative ad campaign by Obama on these issues made it that much harder for Romney to win.
Etch-a-Sketch – This was a real gaffe, and it did hurt. It confirmed — from inside his team – in the minds of too many votes the idea that Romney had overtly taken many positions which he subsequently changed. Then, this general idea backfired later in that he could not backtrack on some key ideas else he be hit as a flip-flopper.*
Fear – Axelrod and Plouffe created a plausible fear on the part of too many of Romney. Fear of having rights taken away, abortion, contraceptives, Planned Parenthood, voting, Big Bird, citizenship, etc.
Fundamental, structural issues – Exit polls will show where the Romney team failed to attract key constituencies. Too many youth, minorities and women were too afraid of Romney, based on unfair portrayal by an unprecedented amount of negative ads.
Ground game – Obama garnered some 69 million votes in 2008. Romney’s assumptions that they would not be able to maintain this number was accurate, Obama got about 9 million votes less in 2012. However, Romney was not able to get the number of votes McCain received in 2008. He got about 3 million less. If Obama had not found the new voters they did, or if Romney could have lost less voters from McCain’s total, he have won.*
Ground game – Obama’s team spent a reported $300 million on the ground game. This does not include the value of unions organizing to the nth degree. Turns out that their vaunted ground game turned out enough of their base to win. Total turnout was down from 2012, but high enough to win.
Immigration – Bush won twice with a larger percentage of Hispanic voters and a more nuanced policy on immigration. To win the nomination, the Romney team felt they had to go right of Rick Perry. Then, he could not head back to the center without appearing to take two craven positions.
Inauthentic — There is an element of truth to this charge, at least in the sense that if more of those who voted against him knew his real politics, and mode of governing, he would probably have gained many more votes.
Independents — Romney captured the supposedly important Independents. Obama has abandoned them, thereby will have that much more
Jobs – Romney made his case here, but not well enough to reach into the very real problems of minorities and single women being jobless. The very persons who would benefit from Romney’s expertise and pro-business point of view.
Let Detroit go Bankrupt – Romney’s inarticulate, too-easily sound-bited, position did hurt. In Ohio. Also, Romney never explained at any clear, or extended form that Obama did the very same thing.*
Liar – Along with other labels and claims, this was not answered early or effectively enough.
Losing benefits – Obama made the easy case that Romney would “take away” government benefits. Romney did not really address the fact that today too many depend on the government for too much.
Media – Bush won twice in the face of a hostile mainstream media. Romney could have too.
Micro-targeting – Obama’s team cobbled together enough minorities, blacks, Hispanics, and women to overcome a large percentage of whites and men who voted for Romney.
Mistakes – Yes, Romney stepped in it with a few unforced errors, but so did Obama. As they were part and parcel feeding into other problems listed, any mistakes only confirmed ideas which were already extant.
Mitch McConnell – His statement against Obama and his agenda did spill over into Romney’s campaign. Team Obama continually used this line.*
Moderate — Romney failed to parlay his reputation of Moderation into a winning General Election strategy.
Money – Before Romney formally won the nomination he ran low on money. They had to determine whether to accept federal funding or go it on their own. They chose to find the money and spent precious time raising money rather than campaigning.*
Money – Most thought Romney raised enough money. It turned out he did not spend it wisely. For a money guy, is it hard to fathom how he could be outspent two to one in ads and in the ground game in the swing states.
Negative ads work — Pollster told Obama that he cannot win on Hope and Change again, the people will not believe it. Obama’s only chance was to go negative. Respected Democrat analysts Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen predicted Obama would run the most negative polarizing campaign in history. That he had to, it was the only way he could win. He did. He won. On his part, Romney did not answer many — some would claim any — of these ads. Didn’t campaigns learn at least by the Dukakis campaign that you must answer hard hitting negative ads.
Obamacare – See Romneycare
Obamaphone — This federal program (wildly expanded under Obama) is essentially another effort to legalize “walking around money.”*
Personality – Romney overcame initial misperceptions that he was odd, stiff, weird. He lost on message and especially the Ground Game – which told the story that Obama did the best that could be done with the bad hand he was dealt and that the first African American elected president did not deserve to be put out of office.
Plant Closings – Worse than passively letting Detroit “go bankrupt” was the claim that he overtly close plants. This accusation hurt.*
Polling – As much as Romney is supposed to be a numbers guy, he was also known for hiring good people. His hired pollster made several erroneous assumptions. Many other smart people made the same errors. But when you run for the highest office, one has the extra responsibility of performing due diligence prior to the hire, and after the hire in triple-checking and testing alternate scenarios. Reports are that Romney and his team truly thought they were going to win.*
Polls – Nate Silver was right. His turnout assumptions were not overblown. Who knew? (Axelrod and Plouffe, to everyone else’s discredit.) One early report suggests that while total votes cast were down significantly, Obama and his ilk had the better models.
Primaries – What about other GOP primary candidates? A case can be made that a Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, or Paul race against Obama would be worse. In other words, a 49-state blow out, a la FDR or Reagan.
Race – A large portion of the chattering class and many voters in general thought America has moved beyond past problems into a Post-Racial world. No matter how sensitive and accusatory some commentators are on the left, neither Mitt Romney nor his team used race or even alluded to race during the campaign. On the other hand, many voters, enough to put Obama over the top, thought it was a good thing to give the first Africa American elected to the presidency the chance to fulfill the promised Hope and Change. This is not necessarily a bad or invalid thing. See Andrew Sullivan’s quote at the end of this article.*
Rich – Romney was painted in a negative light as rich, unknowing, and uncaring for regular folks. Haley Barbour says that Americans think that Romney is a ‘Plutocrat married to a known equestrian.’ And, he had a car elevator! That too many voters succumbed to such a simplistic, false argument is problematic. But it is also Romney’s failure to blunt and correct this characterization.
Riots – Though a small minority of radical commentators mentioned this a few times (that poor, inner-city blacks would riot if Obama lost), this idea did not rise high enough to make it into the consciousness of the masses. Hence, this was not a factor.
Romnesia – This childish term supported Obama’s accusation of Romney’s Etch-A-Sketchy campaign.*
Romneycare – Romney was uniquely prepared and positioned to educate the people as to the best way to solve healthcare problems for those who have not care. Obama’s stated goal of Single payer is not the way. Romney only ever said he would repeal it, not how he’d solve the remaining coverage problems.
Ryan – Romney bet on Wisconsin (and the seriousness of the Ryan Budget), not Florida. He’ll probably end up losing both.
Sandy (Superstorm) – Polls just after Sandy hit seem to indicate a lessening of Romney’s lead in the nationwide head-to-head matchup. I doubt the case can be supported by trustworthy exit polls, or by any battleground state polls that the storm — or even New Jersey governor’s compliments about how wonderful Obama was helping (as of only the first day only) — materially impacted the election.
Scandal – Now that Obama has been reelected, will the mainstream media see it clear to investigate the Benghazi terror attack? Will this issue and cover up grow into and blow up into a post-election scandal? Probably not.
Severely Conservative — It is true that, for the most part, Romney spoke conservatism as a second language. He could have not tried to hard, like a losign Super Bowl quarter back pushing too hard and not playing within himself.*
Strategy — Romney violated too many simple political maxims. He did not blunt Obama’s early Summer hits painting him as a rich Wall Street big wig who does not know or care about regular folks.
Strengths – Romney failed to capitalize on what should have been his greatest strength, business acumen. Again, he came close, but failed to explain, and — essentially – educate the public about how business and the economy worked. A campaign is, obviously not the best forum for this. However, without telling a good, believable “story” about this, he lost his greatest strength. Imagine Clinton being tasked to tell that story. He almost did (at a certain point early in the campaign).*
Tax Returns — Perhaps Romney learned the wrong lessons from his father’s campaign. George Romney released more than he needed to. Mitt Romney less than he could have. He bet this would not matter, but it added to the picture of him having something to hide.
Terror – Romney’s public fits and starts on this important issue was not elegantly or effectively put into play. It was also puzzling how quickly he abandoned the issue. He bet that it was only the economy which was important, then failed to drive it home to minorities, women, and youth.
Theme – The implicit message of Obama’s “Forward” (or, the improved, “Forward!”) trumped Romney’s “I Believe in America.” By definition, Obama’s theme put the hit on Romney that he wanted to go Backward. Romney never answered the accusation that he wanted to back to the failed Bush policies of the past.
Trump — May not have been a big issue with key swing state voters, but it seems unnecessary to have gotten as close to him as Romney did. Trumps fund raising connections and supposed cache did not trump his tacky reputation.
Turnout Models – Obama’s turned out to be right. It turns out Nate Silver was right.
Unclear positions – Romney chose not to explain budget cuts during the campaign. As smart as this may have been in actually governing, it did not work in campaign mode, as it appeared that he was ducking the hard questions.*
Unions – Bush won two elections in the face of massive union efforts on the ground. While they provided many boots on the ground, they’re participation was less important than other campaign factors. Though the Citizens United decision facilitated union members legally reaching out to non-union members as never before. Every little bit helped Obama win reelection.*
Vision – Romney had more “vision” than Bush 41, but lacked the thrilling story arc of the original 2008 “Change” – after all Obama symbolically and physically embodied the change in the future of possibility and race and justice in America.*
Voter Fraud — Voter irregularities are both well known and hidden. Nixon dutifully kept mum about those of his day. Until we can prevent such activities ahead of time, it is worse than useless to cry about them after the fact. Especially as they will not be able to be proved, if they exist at all. Photo ID, with appropriate safeguards, provisional ballots, etc., to avoid even the appearance of Voter Suppression, can ensure elections are not stolen.*
Vulture Capitalist — Clinton (Bill), and other Democrats actually gave personal testimonials to the value of Romney’s venture capital career. That Romney’s GOP primary opponents stooped to such levels did not help the GOP nominee later.
War on Women – Romney lost. Big time. The loss was more keenly felt by the GOP on November 6, because they didn’t believe the war existed. It did. Negative, false, and cynical ads created the war. Not any real GOP policies. Especially none which would ever be enacted. Planned Parenthood would still be funded, and abortion rights would still exist, without the ill-decided, but accepted policy of Roe v Wade being overturned. It did not help that a self-inflicted GOP environment discussing the nature of Rape is in play. Romney was quoted thousands and thousands of times that he would “get rid of” Planned Parenthood (he meant funding). All these sound bites did not show his real, more open, generous, and reasonable position.
Women, single – Romney captured his fair share of married women, but massively failed to attract any significant amount of single women who were told literally in several commercials that Romney would “take away” their contraception and their right to abortion. Fear won. Romney lost.*
Work hard and play by the rules — This phrase is short hand used by liberals to imply that poor workers work so hard, but their evil employers do not play by the rules. They are not fair. This line works all too well. Pro-business candidates are up against it if we/they wait till election time to educate citizens on the value of “personal responsibility.” Which is another phrase which most liberal mouth, but do not mean.
You didn’t build that — Obama stepped in it with this line, but it bespoke to the exact opposite of who Romney should have been targeting, regular workers. There are precious few business owners compared to regular workers. Team Romney overestimated the value of this meta message.
Youth – It appears that many more youth voted than was assumed by GOP-leaning pollsters.*
After Obama was declared the winner, Andrew Sullivan wrote the following, “Women, in particular, moved this nation forward – pragmatically, provisionally, sensibly. They did so alongside the young whose dedication to voting was actually greater this time than in 2008, the Latino voters who have made the current GOP irrelevant, and African-Americans, who turned up in vast numbers, as in 2008, to put a period at the end of an important sentence. That sentence will never now be unwritten. By anyone.”
Surely Axelrod and Plouffe have crafted enough negative, polemic arguments to capture the fears, if not the hopes, of these growing segments of modern America. Their efforts resulted in a win, the reelection of a president in one of the weakest positions in American history. His economy is weak, and now, his standing is weakened. Obama is the first president to be reelected with a lesser percentage of the popular vote and the Electoral College than his first term.
Romney said he offered real hope, for whatever reasons they did not buy it. For whatever reasons, the nation continues to trust the first African American elected to the highest office, or rather, did not feel t fair to put him out of office. Rather than grade pass or fail, the nation graded Obama on a curve.
Even though he has not really grown jobs, or economy, or tamed the deficits or the debt, or really acknowledged the existence of terrorism, he is the one the nation trusts to lead in all these areas.
Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In some ways, Obama’s campaign is like all winning ones; he put together a winning message and team. However in a very real way, the process of Obama’s unhappy win may haunt American politics for generations to come. It was unique in the annals of American history in the level of cynically resorting to the worst fears in us all. Unless he solves one or two of the great and pressing problems facing a modern America, his will go down as one of the most miserable wins ever.
Most football teams would rather win ugly, than lose. Obama has achieved this. Even he knows it. But then again, this is the Chicago Way, and his is now part and parcel of that tradition. It is up to him to transcend it.
*Updated November 8, 2012