Behind the Scenes in the 2012 Campaign

Campaign insiders recall the secrets of the Obama-Romney campaign.

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CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—For all the talk over the past year of the unfathomable expense of the 2012 presidential election, the two campaigns were painfully aware of the finitude of their financial resources. And that led to a key strategic split between the two campaigns: Was it better to spend early or husband resources for the final push? The Obama campaign made a $65 million bet on going early, and it paid off.

"We … kind of gambled on the front end and front-loaded our media, without any guarantee that we were going to be able to make it up on the back-end," David Axelrod, the campaign's senior strategist, said. In dollar terms, the campaign "moved $65 million out of October and September and moved it into June and July," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, recalled. It was a giant sum of money and one they didn't know if they would be able to replace in the fall.

The disclosure about the campaign's strategy came last week at a quadrennial political post-mortem conference hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Top officials from the Republican presidential campaigns and from the president's re-election effort gathered to recall and recount the strategy, twists, and turns of the presidential race. While the gathering held no earth-shattering revelations, it was rife with fascinating details and other interesting nuggets.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

"The last two weeks of the campaign … we just didn't think at that point TV mattered," Messina said.  "Coming out of the conventions our research showed that 75 to 80 percent of all voters had already made up their minds. We just thought spending earlier was a very important moment because that number … in June was 60, 65, 70. So we banked basically our entire campaign on spending money in June." Team Obama "took advantage of that period" after Romney won the nomination to "fill in the blanks" about the nominee, Axelrod said.

Asked why the Romney campaign didn't respond as Team Obama pounded their candidate over the summer, senior strategist Stuart Stevens pointed out that the Republican nomination had cost the campaign $135 million, leaving them depleted until their general election funding kicked in. "We spent all the money we had. And we spent money we didn't have and went and borrowed money. It wasn't like we were making a decision not to spend money," he said.

By the time their resources were replenished, the power of television advertising was diminishing. "How much is every media dollar worth? How impactful is it as you move forward in a campaign?" Axelrod asked rhetorically. "I have this feeling that media's very effective before the conventions and it is decreasingly effective after the conventions" when people pay less attention to ads—"people understand that what we do in some ways is—maybe in every way—is propaganda," Axelrod said—than to things like debates and media coverage.

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Even after the conventions were over the financial trade-offs weighed on the campaigns. As late as September it wasn't a foregone conclusion that the Obama campaign was going to seriously contest the state of Florida. "One of the things we had discussed internally was the state of Florida and how we were going to treat Florida," senior strategist David Axelrod recalled last week. "We had made a decision that we were going to wait until mid-September, after the conventions, and see where we were in Florida before we fully committed." The campaign had invested in the Sunshine State but had, for example, shied away from the expensive Miami media market. When the Sunshine State was still competitive after the two parties' confabs, the Obama campaign decided to go all in there. "The Florida decision was a big decision for us, it was a $40 million decision," added Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager. "We decided right after the convention we were going to go and go hard, and that was a big moment."

The campaign's $40 million gamble paid off richly as President Obama ended up carrying the state's 29 Electoral Votes on his way to victory last month.

Eastwooding. Actor Clint Eastwood was supposed to give his memorable remarks on the Republican convention's third night, but when Hurricane Isaac forced a rejiggering of the gathering's schedule, he was moved to a prime time spot just before Romney was scheduled to speak. He had spoken at a couple of Romney fundraisers and he was expected to reprise the remarks he had made there.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

"You have one of the … biggest, iconic Hollywood stars, who has never made an appearance at a political convention is willing to come in and say something on behalf of your candidate for five minutes, that's a pretty good opportunity," said Russ Schrieffer who ran the convention. He added that he had spoken to Eastwood: "I said, you know, ‘Are you going to talk about what we talked about, are you going to talk about what you talked about at these fundraisers?' And he looked at me and said, ‘Yup.' And it's Clint Eastwood—you argue with him!"

47 percent. Neither campaign saw the "47 percent" tape coming. (Romney strategist Stuart Stevens was at the event where Romney made the remarks but, he said to laughter, "I think I actually was out of the room.") As the campaign came under blistering criticism, Romney took responsibility for the blunder. "There was a lot of negativity about our campaign as a whole, but he's a person who takes personal responsibility," Mr. Rhoades said. "He would tell me: ‘You didn't say 47 percent, Matt. Stuart didn't say 47 percent. I did.'" Rhoades added that as a candidate, Romney "could be somewhat streaky. [But when] he starts to get hot, he starts to get hot. … He was starting to get his mojo and this event happened."

Asked what happened to the polls internal polling numbers, the campaign's political director, Rich Beeson, quipped, "We got bitter and started clinging to our guns," a reference to a 2008 Obama gaffe. Pollster Neil Newhouse added that "it had the effect finally of washing out the Democratic convention bump."

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The campaign scrambled to put together a five point plan to recover from the gaffe: First the candidate would have to have a strong debate performance; second the campaign moved to "gin up" its surrogate operation to get people like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and others out testifying about Romney's character; third they decided to have him give three major speeches, one on national security, one on jobs and the economy, and one on entitlement reform in an effort to get the media to focus on policy instead of the tape; fourth they reviewed where they were targeting their resources; finally they rethought the staging of their events to make Romney look more presidential.

In Chicago, Obama's team saw its polling lead increase around 2 percent, both in battleground states and nationally. But when they drilled down on where the movement was occurring, they saw something striking: "People were not moving towards Obama," said David Simas, Obama's director of opinion research. "There was a peeling off from Governor Romney to undecided. In all of our analysis at that time when we looked at who those people were ... these voters are going to go back to Governor Romney at some point."

Romney's "Manhattan Project." Romney started preparing for the October debates in June. He called it the "Manhattan Project" of the campaign. It involved three phases: policy prep, strategy prep, and mock debates. The last portion started at a "debate camp" in a house in Vermont where the campaign conducted five mock debates in three days "and for fun at night we did white board sessions," recalled senior adviser Beth Myers. All told, she said, the campaign conducted a jaw-dropping 16 mock debates. The aim was for Romney to be "loaded for bear," Myers said, with an attack on Obama prepared on every conceivable topic, but also relaxed so that people could see a likable Romney.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Asked what Obama's campaign's goals were in the first debate, Axelrod joked that after the "47 percent" tape, "had this inflated lead and we wanted to erase that in one night." He had warily eyed the first debate all along as a historic stumbling block for presidents. Obama too was getting voluminous amounts of prep materials—too much, Axelrod now thinks—but "presidents aren't used to this, there is a sort of ‘why do I have to do this' attitude," Axelrod said of the preparation for the first debate.

That problem was compounded by a strategic error on the Obama team's part: a desire to avoid diminishing the president by letting him get tangled up in an argument. "We had a strategy of limited engagement that we took to an illogical extreme," Axelrod said. That strategy also consciously included not mentioning topics like Romney's Bain record on the theory that Romney would have a well prepared response on those issues.

Coming off the stage neither candidate quite grasped the enormity of the Romney's win in the first debate. "I think he knew coming off the stage that it had gone well," Myers said of Romney. "I'm not sure he had a sense of how well it had gone." Obama was the same way: "I don't think the president knew that it was as negative as it turned out to be," Axelrod said.

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One counter-intuitive result of the first presidential debate: The Obama campaign saw a huge bump in volunteer activity after that debate as the post-47 percent complacency was wiped away.

Of course Romney had his own disengaged performance in the third debate, on foreign policy. "Seven percent of the public cared about foreign policy, our polling showed," explained strategist Stuart Stevens. "That was really a test of are you comfortable with this person's demeanor as president. It was not to prosecute the president's foreign policy. It was to get people—‘If Mitt Romney were my president, would I be comfortable with this person?'"

"Crazy Uncle Joe." Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson was tasked with playing Vice President Joe Biden in Paul Ryan's mock debate prep sessions. "For the vast majority of our mock sessions, he played crazy Uncle Joe—I mean screaming, yelling, interrupting—he didn't do the laughing," recalled Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Ryan. Senor had watched every Biden debate he could get his hands on (Ryan only watched the 2008 vice presidential debate, Senor said, leaving the vice presidential nominee to marvel at how respectful Biden was) and so knew that Biden will do what he needs to in any given debate. Senor and another Romney aide were wondered what would happen if serious, prosecutorial Biden showed up at the debate instead of the character Olson had been playing. "It turns out he was even more of the crazy uncle than Ted Olson had done in the mock sessions," Senor said.

During the discussion at Harvard, Senor had to ask: Was Biden's laughing part of the planned performance?

[See Photos: President Obama Behind the Scenes]

"There was some of that in the prep," Axelrod said. "I think, maybe, he was a little more amused than he expected to be."

The 98 percent. Teddy Goff, Obama's digital director, mentioned an arresting statistic about the president's online efforts: Obama has 33 million Facebook fans and between them, they are friends with 98 percent of the U.S.-based Facebook population. "That's more than the number of people who vote," Goff said. With the right engagement strategy, he said, "we knew that we could reach literally everyone in the United States. And that was a totally new dynamic that just didn't exist in 2008."

Indeed, as Goff pointed out, the digital revolution that has occurred over the last four years is remarkable. In 2008 Facebook was a fraction its current size, Twitter was relatively little known, and the first iPhone had just been invented.

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But one of the most striking things about how the Obama campaign leveraged social media is the extent to which they put new technologies to the service of very traditional grassroots political ends like neighborhood organizing and voter mobilization. "The difference between '08 and 2012 in the digital world is that … we got very close to erasing the barrier between the organizer in Des Moines and [campaign headquarters in] Chicago in terms of what we were doing," said Jeremy Bird, the Obama campaign's field director. "That integration took a lot of time to figure out, but it allowed us to basically run ward races, or run neighborhood races."

That isn't to suggest that the social media was used only for grassroots. Combining viewing statistics from satellite television with the campaign's voter file, for example, allowed the campaign to very specifically target nontraditional television shows. "So, for example, we were a little heavier in things like TV Land than we would have been previously," said Jim Margolis an Obama ad man. "We probably got about 15 percent additional efficiency in what we were able to do."

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