The Secrets of the 2012 Campaign

Obama and Romney’s top strategists reveal their hidden hopes, fears, and a few lessons from this year’s presidential contest.

Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod in Denver on Oct. 3, 2012

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

You’ve probably moved on from the 2012 presidential election. It’s clear that the Republican Party is trying to. Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio both gave high-profile speeches Tuesday in which they showed they had learned the lessons of Mitt Romney’s loss. “Both parties tend to divide Americans into ‘our voters’ and ‘their voters,’ ” said Ryan, sounding a little bit like Barack Obama circa 2008 and nothing like Mitt Romney, who was secretly recorded telling donors that 47 percent of the country wouldn’t vote for him because they considered themselves victims. “Republicans must steer far clear of that trap.” Sen. Rubio spoke at the same dinner as Ryan. Rubio mentioned the middle class 34 times in his half-hour speech, which may qualify him for a special badge of some sort.*

Before you move on to 2016, though, there is one important trove of information about the last presidential race that was just made available. Harvard’s Institute of Politics has released the audio of last week’s Campaign Decision Makers Conference. This is the powwow of the vanquished and victorious that has taken place every four years at Harvard since 1972. The top strategists from both sides sit across vast stretches of white tablecloth and discuss the battle they just waged.

Everyone was showered, shaven, and showed the benefits of sleep they had missed for the last 18 months. Most were on the cusp of long vacations in pricey locales. As a result, mostly everyone was polite (damn it!). Still, it was informative.

Why revisit Thanksgiving when we’ve already hung half the Christmas lights? Because the shape for the final script of 2012 will determine how the participants in the 2016 conference run their races. Those of us who participated in the gathering were asked to keep our notebooks closed until Harvard posted the material. Now that it’s available to all, here are the most illuminating disclosures: 

How Damaging Was 47 Percent? When Mitt Romney was recorded writing off the 47 percent of the electorate who planned to vote for Obama, was it a gaffe or a window into his belief system? Romney worked hard to argue during the last two months of the campaign that it was just a gaffe, but speaking to donors in a private conversation after he’d lost, Romney seemed to reaffirm the philosophy. He was recorded saying that the president had won, in part, because he had given “gifts” to certain constituencies.

When Romney’s team was asked about the famous 47 percent remarks in Cambridge, they were still spinning. They did not embrace Ryan’s view that the comments were symptomatic of a political instinct that seeks to divide the country but treated them like an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

“Unfortunately campaigns are long, laborious processes at times, and there’s many a fundraiser,” said Romney’s campaign manager Matt Rhoades. “The governor was very good the second go-around to make less of these kinds of mistakes, but nobody is perfect … [Romney] can be somewhat streaky. He is the kind of candidate who can put it out of the park … often times his political skills are underestimated. … He was starting to get his mojo, and this event happened, and it was unfortunate.”

The Romney team wasn’t the only one that noticed that their candidate was improving. Just before the video was released in September, the Obama team had noticed that Romney was starting to improve as a candidate. “His performance improved dramatically in September,” said Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod. “He very clearly was more relaxed, more connecting, and his rhetoric was broader and more inclusive.”

Romney’s improvement was showing up in the polling and focus groups, too. The Obama team had always relied on Romney being unable to speak to the middle class and those other key constituencies both campaigns were pursuing: disillusioned 2008 Obama voters, independents, and undecided voters. In early September that was changing. “What we began to hear in mid-September, which we had never heard before, was people referring to Romney as ‘relatable,’ ” said Obama’s director of opinion research David Simas. “As soon as they start saying ‘that’s a different guy than what I have learned,’ then that becomes a moment when we all start to pay more attention.”

Once the 47 percent comment came out, Rhoades said Romney showed his character under the pressure. “There was a lot of negativity about our campaign as a whole, but he’s a person who takes personal responsibility,” Rhoades said. “He would tell me: ‘You didn’t say 47 percent, Matt. Stuart [Stevens] didn’t say 47 percent. I did.’” (Unresolved, perhaps for all time, is the issue of whether Romney feels he needs to take responsibility for the underlying worldview.)

Romney’s improvement with voters halted. “We saw it almost immediately in the verbatims,” said the campaign’s pollster Neil Newhouse using the shorthand term for voter quotes gleaned through polls and focus groups. “You saw it in the numbers … this was a challenging time for us.”

The Obama campaign in Chicago saw the same nosedive. “In focus groups we started hearing Romney’s lines [from the video] repeated back: ‘I don’t have to be concerned with those people,’ ” said Simas. “What we started hearing in the focus groups was a recognition of the story they had been hearing about him earlier in the summer. It was reaffirming this piece that he was beginning to cure.”

But while the video may have stopped Romney’s ability to cure his aloof and out-of-touch image, the Obama strategists say it was not the boon that people thought at the time. “Those people were not moving toward Obama but moving away from Romney,” said Simas of the changing in polling in the aftermath. These were voters who would eventually move back to Romney. “No one believed us at the time,” says Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. “We were saying that as this 2 percent moved away from Romney it wasn’t ours. The race was closer than people thought at the time.”

Immigration Regrets: Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Was this his fault or a sign of a larger flaw in the party that encourages its candidates to compete to be ever tougher on undocumented residents to win primaries? (False choice, you may be saying: Both can be true! Fine, but figuring out what happened in the last election will help Republicans figure out how they’re going attract more Hispanic voters for the cycles to come.) Romney campaign manager Rhoades said he regretted that Romney had moved so far to the right on immigration during the primaries in order to out-flank Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “In retrospect,” Rhoades said, “I believe we probably could have just beaten Perry with the Social Security hit.” 

It wasn’t clear exactly what Rhoades regretted. It might have been simply that he wishes he’d anticipated Perry’s quick implosion. Why have Romney risk doing anything that might hurt him later if the target of the attack was going to collapse so spectacularly anyway? It didn’t seem that Rhoades regretted Romney’s policy positions per se. Romney backed a program of “self-deportation” in which enforcement of immigration laws would be so onerous that the undocumented would leave the country voluntarily. That set him apart from his Republican rivals, but many believe it made it impossible for Romney to ever reach out to Hispanic voters.

This immigration problem didn’t begin and end with Perry. Even after Perry got out of the race, Romney vowed that he would veto the Dream Act if Congress passed it when he was president.  These were what Axelrod called Romney’s “Faustian bargains,” positions Romney needed to take to secure the nomination but that came back to haunt him in the general election. “When you’re running for the nomination,” Rhoades said, “you’ve got to win the nomination. If you’re looking beyond securing the nomination too much, you are jeopardizing your chances of winning the nomination.”

Triple-Screen Polling: The Romney campaign was shocked on election night. Advisers had predicted that Romney would win decisively. That confidence was based largely on their polling, which was based on a generous interpretation of the electorate. The Obama campaign, by contrast, had several different streams of polling information coming in. This allowed Obama’s camp to more accurately understand what the undecided electorate was thinking and what their voters believed, so they could hone the president’s message and the scripts volunteers would use on the doorstep when canvassing. Obama’s main pollster Joel Benenson would put together one round of data from the battleground states. The campaign also hired pollsters with expertise in specific battleground states to do a second poll. Then, each night, the campaign itself polled 9,000 people in battleground states. Simas also had his own little private poll of undecided voters he checked in with and rotated regularly during the campaign. (We had a group like that, too!)

According to Simas, in order to test their polling methods, they then called in polling experts to deconstruct the three different sets of polls and recommend how they could do it better. Each time a new public poll came out, members of the Obama polling unit looked at its assumptions in order to determine if the public poll had a better understanding of the public than the campaign. That gave them confidence to stick with their numbers and ignore a lot of the public noise. “It just becomes a big horse-race story,” said Axelrod of the campaign coverage, “and you guys don’t even know where the horses are.” (Wait, this is a race of horses?)

Conventions Do Matter: Discussing the Democratic convention, Romney pollster Newhouse said it had a big effect not just on the horse-race polls but on the way that people felt about the country. “I got really tired of reading verbatim comments from voters praising the Democratic convention for weeks afterwards,” he said. “What their convention did, which we didn’t expect, was we saw a change in mood of the country—right direction and wrong track. We saw a change in economic optimism just as result of the Democratic convention. We don’t expect that. It was remarkable. There was a measurable change in the mood of the country. We were dealing with that for the first 15 days of September.”

The net benefit after the two conventions was enough to give the Obama team confidence to engage heavily in Florida, a state they were not going to fully commit to until they saw how things stood in early September. “The Florida decision was a big decision for us,” said campaign manager Jim Messina. “It was a $40 million decision and decided right after the convention we were going to go and go hard. That was a big moment. … They didn’t do enough to fix their Latino problem in their convention—although I thought Rubio gave a great speech. We looked at that and said, ‘We’re going all the way in in Florida.’ “

Eastwood Disaster: Blame another problem on the weather. Clint Eastwood—who gave a rambling, distracting, and artistically sloppy performance on Romney’s big night at the GOP convention—was originally scheduled to speak the night before Romney. But Hurricane Isaac cut the convention by a day and put him on the final night right before the nominee. Campaign aides expected him to reprise a speech he’d given at two fundraisers, but as has been reported, he pulled an audible at the last minute. “You’re going to talk about what you talked about at these fundraisers?” Romney’s senior adviser Russ Schriefer recalled asking Eastwood earlier that night. “He said, ‘Yup.’ It’s Clint Eastwood! You try arguing with him.”

Facebook Friends Help: In 2008, the Obama campaign did an analysis that concluded that 99 percent of the people the campaign contacted by email voted for Obama. “We went into this campaign with the understanding that anyone we were talking to directly, the vast preponderance were going to vote for us,” said Teddy Goff, Obama’s digital director. “And so the question was not ‘How can we serve them with content that will make them vote?’ but ‘How can we serve them with content and an experience and tools and resources and information that is going to make them go out and get their friends [to vote]?’ … Of Barack Obama’s now 33 million Facebook fans globally, they are friends with 98 percent of the U.S.-based Facebook population.”

Paul Ryan Was Good for Obama in Wisconsin: According to Jeremy Bird, the Obama team’s field captain, Romney choosing Ryan as his running mate fired up the troops. “Paul Ryan helped us in Wisconsin. Our folks in Wisconsin were totally demoralized. They had just gone through all these recalls, and we’d lost. It was the hardest state for us to mobilize our volunteers. … Paul Ryan regalvanized all of our troops in Wisconsin in a way that no other pick would have. You saw the polling numbers say that Wisconsin was getting closer, but for our folks it was a boost … in a way that we didn’t see coming.” He was also great for the campaign’s work in social media. “He was highly meme-able,” says Goff.

Romney’s “Manhattan Project”: Romney referred to his debate preparation by the code name used for the secret project to build the atomic bomb. He knew the debates would be important long before the first debate became the key to his comeback. In September, the video of Romney writing off 47 percent of the electorate surfaced. His campaign, already under siege for lack of direction, constructed a five-part plan for revitalizing itself. The most important part of it was doing well in the first debate. Incredibly, Romney had been preparing since June. “We knew whatever was happening that we’d need a winning jolt,” said Beth Myers, Romney’s senior adviser. In the end, Romney did 16 mock debates. “The way he gets relaxed and loose and comfortable was being prepared,” Myers said. During the Democratic convention, Romney participated in “debate camp,” five mock debates in three days. “Then, for fun at night, we’d do white-board sessions,” said Myers.

Romney Was Always No. 1 in Obamaland: Romney campaign advisers said they knew the primary would be a long slog, but they were not prepared for each primary to be treated as a “make or break” moment for the candidate. That wore on the staff and made them a little frazzled by the general election. If only they could have called the Obama campaign. Every Friday pollsters and strategists in Chicago ranked the GOP candidates. Romney was always No. 1, even as Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum had their moments.

That revelation was like many during last week’s sessions at Harvard, where the men and women who had kept so many secrets finally let us in on a few of them. Two-thirds of the way through the fifth of a planned six sessions, the electricity went out in Cambridge. The Obama and Romney staff kept talking, while those of us who had covered the campaign tried to make out who was saying what. It was a fitting end to the campaign, where the most interesting stuff always happened in the dark.

Correction, Dec. 6, 2012: This article originally misattributed a quote from Paul Ryan—“Republicans must steer far clear of that trap”—to Marco Rubio. (Return to the corrected sentence.)