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In New E-Book, a Chronicle of the ’34 Days That Decided’ the 2012 Election

December 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When the Obama campaign decided to spend big on ads early in the presidential race, it was a risky strategy. And it helped lead to Obama's re-election. Margaret Warner talks to Politico's Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush about their latest e-book, "The End of the Line": Romney vs. Obama: The 34 Days That Decided the Election."

JUDY WOODRUFF: If there was any doubt the 2012 campaign continues to be a topic of interest across the country, a new book about it debuted at number two Sunday on The New York Times list of the bestselling e-books.

Margaret Warner sat down with the authors a few days ago.

MARGARET WARNER: If Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign road on a message of hope and change, this year’s campaign against Mitt Romney was more like a long slog.

Now, less than six weeks after the election, more than a month before inauguration, two journalists at Politico have published an e-book about the campaign focusing especially on the final 34 days.

The End of the Line,” available only online, is the last in Politico’s series of four e-books on the 2012 contest.

The authors are senior reporters Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush and they join me now.

And, congratulations, gentlemen, on your book.

JONATHAN MARTIN, Politico: Thank you very much for having us.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s just set the context for a minute. If you go back to say mid-2011, the conventional wisdom was President Obama would have a very hard time, given how bad the economy was, given how high unemployment was.

What was your conclusion, based on this reporting, about whether he and his campaign won this year, won this campaign, or whether Mitt Romney and his team lost it?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, not to dodge your question, Margaret, but we think that it’s both, that both Gov. Romney failed to tell the story about who he was and make the case for his candidacy, and that President Obama effectively preempted his ultimate attempt to do just that by running a really brutal campaign against Gov. Romney in the spring and early summer.

Those two factors in our minds were what were so key in the president’s victory.

GLENN THRUSH, Politico: And the central paradox of the campaign is that Mitt Romney was supposed to be this CEO for the United States, right, the Harvard MBA, and Barack Obama was supposed to be this transformational figure and the greatest political performer of his age.

Well, Barack Obama didn’t really perform that well until late, and Mitt Romney certainly didn’t run the campaign well. And as it turns out, campaign management in this day and age is more important than any individual candidate’s performance.

MARGARET WARNER: And you all both say that one of the key strategic moves that worked against Romney was this decision by the Obama campaign in May of 2012. Explain why that was a risk for them, to put a lot of money into this summertime assault on Romney?

JONATHAN MARTIN: Well, we really think that President Obama won the campaign in the spring.

And what is key is a meeting that he had in the West Wing in late May, where his advisers basically told him, we want to spend the fall’s budget right now on a really tough TV assault against Romney.

And the president had to be convinced by his advisers to do this, because, obviously, he was thinking, financially, are we going to have that money in the fall if we spend it now?

And it was a risk, but it was one that ultimately paid off for President Obama. Gov. Romney at that point was still trying to sort of put together the pieces from his primary being just ended.

MARGARET WARNER: But why didn’t he respond? Why didn’t they refute the attacks about Bain Capital?

GLENN THRUSH: Well, one of the issues was Gov. Romney was just not willing to lend himself money, as he was in 2008.

There was a perception among his senior staff that he didn’t want to be seen as buying the election. So in order for him to have gone toe-to-toe with Obama at that point in time, he would have had to have used his own money. And that wasn’t even broached inside his campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the most fascinating things, I thought, here was you both said probably that the biggest strategic blunder they made, the Romney people made, wasn’t to launch a really robust campaign to explain to him as a man.


MARGARET WARNER: What explained that?

JONATHAN MARTIN: There was this constant, Margaret, tension between the candidate’s family and his staff in terms of how much to tell about Romney the man.

The staff wanted to make the election a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy, and make it all about the incumbent. The staff said — I’m sorry — the family said, well, no, we want to tell Mitt’s story, a father, a businessman, governor.

That tension was always there. In fact, we found out there was a documentary that was made about Romney from the ’08 campaign that the family liked and the staff killed. It still hasn’t to this day ever been seen that showed more of Mitt the man behind the scenes.

MARGARET WARNER: But that was because at least the strategists were concerned they didn’t want to make much of his Mormonism.

JONATHAN MARTIN: That’s right.


GLENN THRUSH: Well, the other issue with Mitt Romney is the more you exposed him early on in the campaign to regular people in normal organic situations, the worse he seemed to do.

So there was this odd paradox and with Mitt Romney the candidate is, he needed to make himself more human. Yet, every opportunity they gave for him to do so, the 47 percent video being one of them, made things worse.

MARGARET WARNER: But what was the hang-up about talking about, as they did very effectively during the convention, about what he had done through his church?

JONATHAN MARTIN: It was so fascinating.

It was always an issue in ’08 campaign. And I think that loomed large in the minds of his advisers in 2010, when they were looking at that documentary, was, Romney is being too open about his faith. It’s too candid about his practices, his prayers.

And I think the staff was concerned about how that was going to be received. Now, it turns out, both in the primary and the general election, his faith never really became an issue.

But, in 2010, the ’08 campaign was still sort of close in the mirror. And I think that was the concern of, what is the impact of this going to be on the primary going forward?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Glenn, what — meanwhile, let’s turn to President Obama, because you all document in the book that his handlers, his advisers had serious concerns about his performance even before the first debate. Explain that.

GLENN THRUSH: To me, this was the most fascinating reporting that we did, or I did in the book.

Early in the summer, actually late in the summer, in August, his campaign produced a document, a strategic document, sort of a bible for how he was going to proceed against Romney in the first debate in Denver. And what they advised him to do was to be as aggressive as possible, and to call Romney on some of the contradictions in his record.

Well, what happened in September? The 47 percent video surfaced, and Obama’s senior advisers, particularly David Axelrod and Anita Dunn, advised him to back off a little bit, look a little bit more presidential, don’t take those kinds of caustic shots at Romney.

And what resulted, what I learned through my reporting, was that the handlers weren’t just upset with Obama. Obama was really upset with them. He felt that at some point in time they started to give him contradictory information, that he was going into battle with not a clear idea of what to do. And that combination of overconfidence and contradictory advice I think really doomed him in Denver, as we saw.

MARGARET WARNER: You all also documented that he had one might say a bit of an attitude problem in that debate prep.


He didn’t want to take it seriously, because he didn’t take Romney seriously for so long. We report in the book he at one point told one of his advisers that Romney didn’t seem human.

So, this was a president who, like many incumbent presidents, spends four years in the White House sort of being, you know, handled gently, shall we say, and then all of a sudden he is trying to prep for somebody who is not going to treat him gently at all.

And when you combine the fact with his opponent being somebody that the candidate didn’t take seriously, it was a recipe for a disaster in Denver.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how — tell me, how did he react personally and how did the campaign react after that near disastrous first debate?

GLENN THRUSH: Well, what is interesting is, you know, Obama tried to put on a happy face with his campaign. And he would go from person to person, Dr. Phil-style, sort of soothing people and trying to make them feel better.

But the people who were really close to him, the David Plouffes, the David Axelrods, really knew that he was significantly impacted by this, that he was really shaken by the entire event. Very confident guy, but like any really confident person, when they get knocked off their legs, they are upset.

And they instituted sort of this “Buck up Barack” program internally that included a visit with his former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, a drive around the driveway in back of the White House in a Chevy Volt.

MARGARET WARNER: Which he never — he complained he never got to drive.

GLENN THRUSH: Which he complained he never got to do and nearly gave one of the groundskeepers a stroke when he was told.

JONATHAN MARTIN: But one of the fund parts too is, you always hear, Margaret, that this president doesn’t pay attention to the critics, he tunes out the Washington chatter.

Well, guess what? His staff had to take away his iPad because he was looking so darn much at the reviews after Denver.

MARGARET WARNER: Which would only depress him and his staff.

JONATHAN MARTIN: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there, but it is really great reading.

Thank you both.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Thanks, Margaret.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, another kind of year-in-review. We say goodbye to the six political ad characters we’re happiest to see disappear from the airwaves. That’s on the Rundown.