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How They Did It: Political Tactics That Helped Obama Win a Second Term

November 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama secured a second term by building a massive ground game to move voters, and by running negative ads early in the campaign. Judy Woodruff talks to the Washington Post's Philip Rucker, The Wall Street Journal's Carol Lee and Slate's Sasha Issenberg about which tactics worked or failed in the costly 2012 elections.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president secured a second term thanks in part to building a massive ground game, coupled with an early investment in negative television ads defining Mitt Romney.

To get a better understanding of how Mr. Obama did it, and for an inside look at what hindered Romney’s campaign, we talk with three journalists covering different aspects of the race.

They are Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, who has been traveling with Romney all year, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, who covers the White House.

And we hope to be joined by Slate columnist Sasha Issenberg. He’s author of the book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” He’s dealing with a snowstorm right now in New York City.

So, Carol Lee, let me start with you.

At what point did the Obama campaign, did the Obama team begin to think about how they wanted to position themselves, and how did they do it?

CAROL LEE, The Wall Street Journal: Very early. They — the first step that they took was to determine that they were going to run in a terrible economy, and they needed a message that would be salable, regardless of what was happening in the economy.

And so they settled on this notion that they wanted to make the election about a choice, where voters were going to look and decide which candidate was going to stick up for them.

And that’s how you got — the president really hammered on the middle class message. That was a very early decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even before it was known who their opponent was going to be?

CAROL LEE: Right, exactly, because their opponent they always assumed was going to be the economy, essentially.

And then as time moved on, they figured it was definitely going to be Romney and they really zeroed in on him. And there were a couple of pivotal moments throughout the campaign. And one of them came December of 2011, where a bunch of the president’s senior staff met at their campaign headquarters in Chicago, and had recently seen a Pew Research poll — study — that showed that Romney wasn’t taking much heat in the primary.

And that concerned them, and that his opponents weren’t really attacking him in ways that they wanted him to be attacked. They wanted him to walk out of the primary limping.

And so they decided to, as one aide put it, create some turbulence for him and, in order to do that, decided they were going to go after his record on Bain Capital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this was as the primaries were still under way.

CAROL LEE: The primaries were still — so, it was unconventional move for the sitting president and his aides to engage in a Republican primary, but just they threw out some things on Bain. They had some former Bain employees traveling through Iowa during the primaries in order to get his — Romney’s opponents to engage, which they eventually did, as you will remember. Newt Gingrich did and Rick Perry both did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they really injected themselves into the primary process.

CAROL LEE: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Rucker, Phil Rucker, let me turn to you.

Tell us, first of all, how did the Romney folks early on see this campaign? And then how did they deal with this move by the Obama team, even in the primaries, to come after him?

PHILIP RUCKER, The Washington Post: Yes.

Well, from the very beginning, when Gov. Romney got into this race, he and his advisers decided that they wanted this to be a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy

And they thought that Gov. Romney, given his years of experience in the private sector, could present himself as the only Republican sort of with the skills and know-how and experience to turn around the economy. And they were just going to hammer that message all year long. And, indeed, they did.

But when the Bain Capital attacks came, the Romney campaign was pretty prepared for them. You will remember back in 1994, in his race against Sen. Ted Kennedy, he dealt with a lot of these same attacks over his career at Bain Capital, over the layoffs and a closure of a lot of factories that Bain was investing in.

And so the Romney campaign was prepared for those attacks, but they didn’t expect they would happen in the context of the Republican primary. They thought this would wait until the general election.

And then, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry brought it up back in January of 2012, the Romney campaign pretty effectively deflected those attacks. He ended going on to win the nomination.

The attacks didn’t seem to really stick too much. And what that did is created sort of a false confidence within the Romney brain trust that they had litigated this issue completely and that, come the general election, when the Obama campaign really stepped up its attacks on Bain Capital, that they just wouldn’t stick.

And of course, that wasn’t the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, at that point, Carol Lee, the Obama folks just bore down even harder.

CAROL LEE: They did.

There was a very — what they would describe as one of the most pivotal moments of the campaign came in May, when Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and other top aides went to the White House.

They had a meeting with the president in the Roosevelt Room and said, we’re thinking about basically spending 20 percent of our overall campaign budget on attacking Mitt Romney on Bain Capital, and here’s how we’re going to do it, and we’re not going to let up.

And we’re going to get him at a moment when he’s vulnerable, because he’s coming out of a primary, he’s a little bruised, and he can’t spend his general election money until after the Republican Convention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sasha Issenberg, I want to bring you into this, because, meanwhile, while all this strategy and planning was going on, in terms of a ground game, the Obama folks decided very early on they were going to do — take something they started in 2008, and virtually double down on it.

Tell us just very quickly how that worked.

SASHA ISSENBERG, Author, “The Victory Lab”: Yes.

This is basically an instance of I think tactics sort of informing strategy. The Obama campaign thought of this in many respects as a mobilization election. They had to put together the coalition that they had successfully turned out in 2008, a lot of — parts of the electorate that traditionally voted at a low rate and they needed to reengage them and mobilize them again, young people, minorities in particular.

And what they had on their side was a whole bunch of new tools. They started running these randomized control experiments, basically field experiments, that allowed them to understand what actually moved voters.

And they came up with a sort of body of knowledge, not only about specific issues that would persuade voters, little bits of messaging.

But they came to understand I think a whole lot more about what the value of an individual interaction with a volunteer was in both changing somebody’s mind or getting them out to vote. And that informed their ability to think they could, even if they were outspent in the fall, to do a lot of this work on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they really took this whole idea of identify the vote and get-out-the-vote to a whole new level.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Yes, and understanding what actually moves people.

I think there had been some big strides in 2004 in understanding how you segment the electorate, how you understand where your targets are.

But people still didn’t really know what happened when you interacted with them and who you should be trying to persuade, who you should be trying to mobilize and at what time.

And the Obama operation, by using experiments, got a whole I think new franchise on understanding the best way to sort of allocate resources and what you can use volunteers to do that you don’t have to spend your TV money on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, meanwhile, Phil Rucker, from the Romney camp’s perspective, they didn’t lock down the nomination until the spring of this year. By that time, that whole ground effort was very far along. How did the Romney camp view what the Obama folks were doing?

PHILIP RUCKER: They were, in many respects, in awe of what the Obama folks were doing, and they didn’t have the resources or the manpower or, frankly, the time and energy to devote to trying to catch up.

They thought they could lock down this primary nomination by the end of January or early February. And what ended up happening is they played the sort of extended game of Whac-A-Mole, where a different candidate would come up every month, and it wasn’t until the end of April that they secured the nomination.

And by that point, Gov. Romney’s campaign was pretty much broke. His image was severely battered by that nominating battle. He had lurched to the right on a number of issues.

And he was just really in a bad position to try to take on the Obama machine. They began to try to assemble a ground game and started raising some money, but even up until the end of the election this month, they didn’t catch up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

In just the very little bit of time we have left, Carol Lee, what would you say that the Obama folks believe is the most important thing that made the difference for them?

CAROL LEE: That front-end spending that allowed them to what now they would say is to soften Romney up ahead of going into the Republican Convention.

And then, luckily for them, they caught some breaks, too. If you remember, that — Romney’s 47 percent tape came right after that moment and kind of underscored the argument they were making.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where he was taped without his knowledge.

CAROL LEE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Phil Rucker, what would the Romney people say was mainly responsible for what happened?

PHILIP RUCKER: Well, they certainly point to the same things Carol just talked about.

They also think that the Obama campaign was just really exceptional in turning out voters and kind of identifying supporters in some of these states like Ohio and Virginia and Florida. And in the end, they weren’t able to match those metrics.

But it was really an image problem for Gov. Romney. And all through the summer, he was beaten up to the point where there was this foundational, severe image problem he had, and he just couldn’t recover, even in that first debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a quick final word from Sasha Issenberg on how much difference the Obama people believe that sophisticated ground game made.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Yes.

I mean, we’re in an era where our politics is obviously incredibly polarized. And I think the real challenge for most campaigns now is understanding how to identify and pinpoint people who are on their side, and then figure out what it actually takes to motivate them to vote, turning non-voters into voters.

And I think that the Obama campaign understood sort of early on that that had probably more to do with the outcome of this election than necessarily persuading the small number of voters who were really up for grabs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sasha Issenberg, thanks to you, especially for getting through that storm in New York City.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Phil Rucker, Carol Lee. We thank you, all three.

PHILIP RUCKER: Thank you.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Thank you.