CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—During the prolonged 2008 Democratic primary between then Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh gleefully launched "Operation Chaos" encouraging Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary in order to extend what was assumed to be a harmful race for the Democrats. Four years later Obama's team decided to inject a little chaos of its own into the Republican presidential primary.
As early as December, 2010, the Obama team decided that they wanted to make sure that 2011 wasn't simply focused on the Republican primary and GOP message. "We could not let the Republican primary go on with us being a sort of back seat and just let 2011 be about the Republican primary and Republican candidates going across Iowa and New Hampshire and all across the country and talking about the president's record without fighting back and without being a part of that conversation," Jeremy Bird, Obama's field director, recalled last week. Bird was speaking at a post-election conference hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, the audio of which was released earlier this week.
Even as the GOP primary season lurched along, Obama's team tried to figure out how to drag it out even more. The Obamans were surprised that Romney's GOP opponents weren't going after him more for his reputation for flip-flopping, so they worked to inject it into the race themselves. "We thought that by introducing the issue of the alacrity with which he switched positions we could lengthen the primary process because core Republicans would be doubtful of his commitment," Axelrod recalled.
They pushed "a little bit of it hands-on," Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, recalled. Obama adviser David Plouffe argued on Meet the Press that Romney had "no core," and weeks later had the Democratic National Committee produce an online ad and website on the theme of "Mitt v. Mitt … two men trapped in one body." But, Cutter added, "the media had a lot to do with this too because there was already a narrative of Mitt Romney … that he had been a flip-flopper." So, she added, "it wasn't hard to convince anybody of that but it was necessary to make sure that that was part of the conversation through the Republican primary."
Days later Fox News's Bret Baier asked Romney about his flip-flopping. "That was a good poking the bear kind of moment for us, and then it took off," Cutter recalled. ("You guys were playing in the Republican primary?!?" ABC News's Jonathan Karl, moderating the discussion at Harvard, asked incredulously, spurring Obama's senior advisers to half-demur with a series of shy responses of "Well...")
The Obamans never saw Romney's flip-flopping as a general election issue: "We didn't want to give people an out to say, ‘Well yeah his ideas are kind of nutty but he didn't really mean them.'" But the salutary benefit from their point of view was that was the issue was alive in the primary, it forced Romney to move further to the right to prove his conservative bona fides, damaging him as a general election candidate. "None of us had an idea at that time how right he was going to go in the primaries," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, recalled. But in an effort to prove himself, Romney ended up taking a series of extreme positions on issues like abortion and immigration which came back to haunt him. Matt Rhoades, Romney's campaign manager, expressed regret last week at the former Massachusetts governor taking such a strong stand on immigration in order to get to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's right. That issue ended up doing lasting harm to him with Hispanic voters.
(Going into the primaries, the candidate who scared Team Romney the most was former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rhoades said, because he could appeal to voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire; once Perry got in the race, he became a prime obstacle. For their part, the Obamans would every Friday rank the potential GOP nominees in order of likelihood and Romney was at the top of the list each and every week. "If there was an authentic conservative, who was well-funded and plausible, that was the greatest threat to Romney in the primary process and on paper that was Governor Perry, I guess until he spoke," Axelrod said. While former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was widely seen as a potentially formidable general election candidate, Team Obama didn't give him much thought after the 2010 midterm elections because it was clear that the GOP had gone too far to the right for Huntsman to succeed.)
Another issue Democrats tried to push into the primaries was Romney's record at Bain Capital. Obama's campaign also made tried to push the issue of Romney's experience at Bain Capital into the GOP primary conversation—almost to their regreat. They made sure that laid off Bain workers traveled to Republican primary states to tell their stories, for example. They were puzzled when his opponents didn't initially pick up the attack. But when they finally did, with gusto, said Cutter, "We were surprised at [their] vehemence … and also just slightly concerned that by potentially going overboard that would spoil the issue going forward."
Of course the Democrats' mischief was abetted by a revised Republican primary system wherein most delegates were distributed proportionately in states rather than on a winner-take-all basis. The Romney campaign had opposed an extended calendar (and had allies like lobbyist Ron Kaufman working at the Republican National Committee to try to keep the calendar from becoming too protracted) though they wouldn't say so publicly. Ultimately, Rhoades concluded, the proportional system hurt Romney because it allowed the primaries to go on forever.