I consider myself a voracious consumer of information. This was true during the 2012 presidential campaign, and it remains true today.
This week, one month after the end of a close election, we learned that, in Ohio, President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 63,000 votes more than the preliminary count showed. The margin, which was supposed to be painfully narrow, grew to 166,214.
This didn’t change the outcome, but it certainly shifted the post-election narrative — at least for political junkies and historians who watch these things closely.
The shifting numbers showed that the story never really ends.
Every four years, Harvard’s Institute of Politics gives campaign operatives and reporters about a month to cool down, then invites everyone to Cambridge to rehash the campaign.
In many instances, these politicos have competed across party lines without ever having met in person. The sessions are largely free of rancor, and the professionals in the room seem mostly curious about one another.
In this environment, Obama adviser David Axelrod could joke that the president’s campaign manager Jim Messina had conveniently left the room when the subject turned to Obama’s first disastrous debate performance.
And in this room, Romney adviser Beth Myers could share that the Republican nominee took part in a whopping 16 debate preps before he took on the president. And another adviser, Russ Schriefer, confessed that no one knew what Clint Eastwood was going to do when he stepped on their Tampa convention stage.
“It’s Clint Eastwood,” Schriefer said of the tight-lipped actor. “You argue with him!”
Hindsight is a form of grace in the political world. In a day and a half of sessions, the pros were at turns rueful, curious, baffled and only a little boastful about their successes. Harvard, fortunately, has posted the audio recordings of their reminiscences online here.
Romney’s selection of running mate Paul Ryan turns out to have been a combination of painstaking, months-long vetting, cold-eyed calculation (Wisconsin being a key state) and — in the end — an explosion of bromance chemistry.
“As soon as they got out there campaigning together, it was like talking to your buddy who’s just met a girl and he’s giddy,” said Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, who like other advisers referred to their candidate affectionately as The Gov. “They hit it off immediately.”
The Democrats, by turn, were stunned at how well their Charlotte convention — which for a time looked snakebit — turned out. As the Romney advisers lost sleep and pulled their ads off the air, they watched Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama rouse their base while stepping on any GOP bounce that Republicans had hoped for.
“What their convention did, which we didn’t expect, was we saw a change in mood of the country…” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. “We saw a change in economic optimism just as a result of the Democratic convention. You don’t expect that.”
Democrats claimed the advantage, suddenly dumping $40 million in Florida, where they had hesitated to spend money in markets like Miami. Meanwhile, Republicans discovered they were targeting states and constituencies — like Latino voters — who were further out of reach than anticipated. Pennsylvania, they thought, was gettable. But Democratic turnout in Philadelphia and its suburbs ended up swamping whatever lead they’d hoped to build in the rest of the state.
It’s true that anyone challenging an incumbent has a steep hill to climb. The Republican strategists figure they spent $135 million to win their nomination this year, while the President coasted unchallenged to renomination. The Romney folks admitted, for instance, that they spent too much time and money worrying about candidates like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who turned out to be perfectly capable of defeating himself.
And while the Republicans were duking it out internally and depleting resources, the Democrats made a critical decision to dump $65 million into television ads that would define Romney in late spring and early summer, rather than in the fall — when they bet most voters would already have made up their minds.
One reason this worked: Axelrod and others decided that after a year of relentless advertising and media coverage, voters would be deciding for themselves once the debates began.
“People understand that what we do in some ways –maybe in every way — is propaganda,” Axelrod said. “They view that this is not objective truth. So they tend to believe what they can see with their own eyes.”
And so it was that voters saw with their own eyes the most damaging moment of the Romney campaign — when a tape leaked that showed him talking about how 47 percent of the nation’s voters would never support him because they were victims.
“Obviously it was not a high moment for our campaign,” said Rhoades, who praised Romney for taking full responsibility for the stumble. “But it speaks to who Mitt Romney is… that we were able to make a run and come back from that.”
They just didn’t come back far enough.
Both sides — including representatives of independent SuperPacs and other defeated primary campaigns – were reasonably candid during the Harvard discussions.
Jim Margolis, one Obama adviser, even leaped ahead at one point to an unasked question: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
“My regrets,” he said, speaking for every campaign operative in the room, “are what we collectively did to the poor people of Ohio.”
I am certain every Buckeye agrees.