Plenty of 2012 pitfalls for Obama and Romney
President Barack Obama's stunningly bad performance at the first debate was no surprise to his closest advisers -- Obama had stormed out of a debate prep session just days before the disaster in Denver.
Before he flopped, Obama's team pressured their distracted boss to take Mitt Romney more seriously and bear down during debate practice -- and he shot back, accusing them of sending him into battle with a mushy, ill-defined plan of attack.
"This is all great," he told the team during one of 11 prep sessions he attended, most of them at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. "But what am I actually supposed to do when I get onto the stage? You are telling me what not to do. I feel like I'm getting a lot of contradictory advice, guys."
If Obama's crisis of confidence flared at a particularly inopportune time, the never fully resolved problem of how to present Romney to the public was foreshadowed in a dispute between the Republican's family and his advisers two years before the campaign even began.
A behind-the-scenes documentary on Romney from the 2008 campaign made by a filmmaker friend of the candidate's sons aimed to show the warm and decent man behind the awkward politician prone to reinforcing his own rich-guy caricature. But the film was spiked by the advisers and has never aired. The problem, in the eyes of the candidate's high command: The film was too heavy on Romney's Mormonism.
Campaign 2012 played against type.
Romney, the self-professed master manager, the man who wanted to be the CEO of the USA, couldn't even manage his own delusional campaign or find a formula to sell his own brand.
Obama, presumed to be the greatest political performer of his generation, couldn't -- or simply wouldn't -- perform at one of the most crucial moments of the campaign to the bafflement and frustration of his own staff, who were left to try to buck up a dispirited president in the wake of the first debate catastrophe.
These are the conclusions of "The End of the Line," an eBook out Monday published in collaboration between POLITICO and Random House and based on more than three dozen interviews with central players on both campaigns.
If the 2012 campaign started off as a slog, the Oct. 3 Denver debate momentarily transformed the race into a real contest, one that pivoted on a surprising paradox that upended pre-election conventional wisdom.
The electoral machine that produced a president this year, the billion-dollar startup that functioned with the greatest corporate efficiency, was an Obama campaign based in Chicago and rooted in the streamlined ethos of Silicon Valley, not the Boston-based corporate takeover team run by Romney like a family business.
Obama's 332-electoral vote victory vindicated his strategy to define Romney early. But there was plenty of drama behind his campaign's no-drama fa?ade, particularly after Denver.
Romney's campaign, scrambling to catch up after a protracted GOP primary, was not only outclassed by the incumbent, but held too long to the mistaken assumption that the election amounted to a referendum on Obama's economic policies. By the time the candidate and his top adviser, Stuart Stevens, realized a message of "Obama isn't working" was insufficient, it was after Labor Day and too late. By then -- never having made his own case in a sustained and effective way and giving Obama fodder at a crucial moment -- Romney had been defined as a cartoonishly out-of-touch fat cat.
The former Massachusetts governor kept open a line of communication with his former strategist, Mike Murphy, and brought former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman into his confidence. But the ever-loyal Romney stuck with Stevens until the end and never seriously doubted his pollster Neil Newhouse, who produced a steady stream of fatally over-optimistic poll data rooted in a skewed model of the electorate that vastly underestimated Obama's support.
Yet it all came down to Romney himself, a resilient and cool-headed executive who could never quite stop trying to apply his idiosyncratic boardroom method of operation to the vastly different task of modern campaigning.
One example would resonate with his staffers after it was all over. After the primary, Romney instituted a point system that assigned a specific numerical value to each event -- rallies, speeches, fundraisers and so on. The more labor-intensive the event, the more points it was assigned. Romney's instructions to his assistant were that he was not to exceed 900 points on a given day, the better to manage his time. The rule was seldom enforced but remained on the books throughout the campaign.
Obama was saved, in the end, by a game plan that focused on "nine governor's races" in key battleground states and an audacious decision to raid his campaign's end-of-the-line budget to spend more than $100 million in an early summer negative ad blitz that caught Romney flat-footed.
But his top advisers knew this was a victory against a weak opponent that for a time felt too close for comfort.
Obama -- who privately joked Romney wasn't quite "human enough" to get elected as the campaign hit the homestretch -- bounced back after the first debate and roared back to life in the final three weeks.
But a man with unshakeable confidence was deeply shaken by his own failure in Denver -- far more than anyone on the outside could have known at the time. Intuitively, Obama and his top advisers quietly waged a campaign-within-a-campaign to buck up their bummed-out candidate and, even more quietly, to purge distractions and negativity from his midst.
Gone, for a time, was Obama's beloved iPad, which delivered a stream of sour commentary. Gone too, gently shuttled off to campaign events outside the Air Force One bubble, was his close friend Valerie Jarrett, who had a tendency to "stir him up," said more than one Obama insider.
Obama campaign officials publicly denied there was any organized effort to get Jarrett out of Obama's space. But privately, a top Democratic official said they needed to "make sure she wasn't around all the time ... that she was gainfully employed somewhere else."
Other passages in the book reveal:
- Both Romney's campaign in Boston and Karl Rove in the New York studios of Fox News advised the candidate to delay his concession by more than an hour after hearing from the same person: Romney's Ohio campaign chief, Scott Jennings, who held out slim hope for a win as he refreshed state and county election websites.
Factions emerged in Romney's campaign about how soon to concede, and for a time, senior officials considered sending Paul Ryan to the podium to send the crowd home until the morning. But after Romney's high command consulted with Portman and Jennings, they scrapped that idea and soon after, bowed to reality. First though, Romney had to pen a concession speech: He had written one only for his anticipated victory.
- As Team Romney dithered, some Obama aides, including Jarrett and David Axelrod, seethed -- with Axelrod telling the authors the delay was "childish." As time dragged, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina was tasked with gently pressuring Boston -- leaving a voice mail and then a text for Romney campaign chief Matt Rhoades. Jarrett was even more uneasy. "Come on, call!" she said. Obama tried to calm everybody down. "Don't push. ... This is hard. He'll call; don't worry," he said, according to one of his top aides. "Look, he needs to do this in his own time."
- Tagg Romney, the candidate's eldest son, was unhappy with how the campaign was handling his father before the first votes were cast in the GOP primary -- and questioned the dominant role of the mercurial Stevens. When Newt Gingrich surged in December, Tagg Romney told friends he was deeply frustrated, exasperated that in his view, his father was constrained from being himself and forced to cautiously adhere to a tight script.
Despite his family's unease, the candidate kept his confidence in Stevens. "I think as a result Stuart just ran wild," said one source close to the family.
- David Plouffe, Obama's White House counselor and 2008 campaign manager, privately feared one strategy he believed could sink the president: a focused effort to define a "Romney Way" to kick-start the economy that not only criticized Obama but blasted the trickle-down approach of George W. Bush.
Boston never really pursued it, to Plouffe's relief.
- Murphy, a consultant feared by Obama's brain trust in Chicago, had a secret meeting with Romney at the candidate's Lake Winnipesaukee house in August and emailed him advice later in the fall but never became a threat to his nemesis Stevens. Gillespie took on a more powerful role in the fall, but he ultimately butted heads with Stevens. Seeing Romney's polling difficulties with Hispanics and women, Gillespie pushed to make a more aggressive case with ads in Spanish in Florida and on the abortion issue in Virginia.
There was a late effort on this front, but Romney had already been defined with such crucial voter blocs, and Stevens was wedded, until late in the campaign, to the "referendum on Obama" approach -- convinced that if Romney was explaining, he was losing.
- Plouffe took a far more hands-on role overseeing the Chicago-based reelection than had previously been known. White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, who emerged as Plouffe's right-hand man, was quietly dispatched to Chicago for at least one day a week to keep tabs on the messaging operation and keep intra-office squabbling to a minimum, according to several staffers.
Campaign officials, who had grown accustomed to a year of autonomy, felt the tug of White House strings. "We couldn't make a decision without [Plouffe] signing off on it," said a member of the Chicago brass in October.
- At a late May meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Obama signed off on a risky plan to drop a significant portion of their cash, more than $100 million, on a summer assault on Romney. This meant raiding the campaign's fall budget, potentially robbing it of cash down the homestretch. That entailed slashing broadcast ad spending in the final weeks to a fraction of what Romney's was expected to be -- a mere 1,500 "points," in advertising parlance, when the challenger was expected to hammer home as much as 5,500 points over the same period.
"It was an untested proposition, if you could go naked at the end of a campaign and still win," Plouffe told the authors of this book. "We thought it would work because voters would be so saturated in October, and they would have just lived through the debates. ... Better to define Romney early and force him to playcatch-up. ... It was a gut-wrenching decision, really. You were staring into the abyss."
Obama said "OK. Go for it" -- but he never stopped fretting about the campaign's cash situation and told aides he never wanted to go into debt as Hillary Clinton had done in 2008.
- Romney had a way to combat the summer onslaught but never seriously considered it: tapping his own multi-million dollar fortune. But his advisers, recalling the bad publicity the candidate got for steering tens of millions of his own dollars into his 2008 campaign, were uneasy about being perceived as trying the buy the White House. Campaign manager Rhoades never even broached the topic of self-funding with Romney, according to a senior campaign official.
- Clint Eastwood ignored the script he had been given for his GOP convention speech and left Romney officials stunned in disbelief about what was taking place on stage.
"I was seated with Rhoades," recalled longtime Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. "We were up in the Romney box, looking at each other, saying, 'What the hell is going on here?'"
Added Fehrnstrom: "We sent him a script and some talking points, and basically, what we wanted him to perform was his 'Halftime in America' spiel," the aide said, recalling Eastwood's much-praised 2012 Super Bowl ad for Chrysler.
"That's what we expected him to do. And he showed up without any notes, nothing for the teleprompter, and he asked for a chair, and he was given a chair."
- Obama was frustrated with the contradictory advice he was getting from top aides before the Denver debate. In August, Obama's debate prep team drafted a detailed strategy memo for the initial faceoff that called for Obama to take the fight to Romney, according to campaign officials. "He's going to come out and do that Massachusetts moderate routine," senior strategist David Axelrod told a colleague at the time. "And we've got to call bullshit on him."
But after Romney's "47 percent" debacle, adviser's urged Obama to pull back a bit, to seem more presidential and less caustic. Obama and his team flew west on Sept. 30, still not quite sure of how to handle Romney.
- The Obama high command was deeply worried about their candidate's preparedness as Denver drew closer. As he prepped outside of Las Vegas before the first debate, the small circle of aides who saw the raw video of one of the practice sessions could see how bad things were: The optics were chillingly Nixon 1960. Obama was grim and hardly making eye contact with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, his debate partner.
He particularly hated the post-prep session where the team sat together and reviewed the video. During one, as the team was critiquing his performance, Obama got up, said, "Enough!" and walked out.
- Obama adviser Jarrett -- a close friend of the First Family but an unpopular figure with much of the president's staff -- was irritated with the debate prep team after the Denver debacle. Another adviser said she made it clear "the team, and not just the president, made a strategic miscalculation" and needed to "adjust their antennae." She hadn't been part of the debate team and demanded to know why Obama's other aides hadn't gotten a heads-up that he was about to bomb.
Her intervention made the situation more fraught than it needed to be, and they took steps to calm the situation.
It would be a good idea, several top staffers quietly agreed, if Jarrett was occupied with business that didn't offer her much unstructured time with Obama on Air Force One during the final weeks.
- Romney's internal polling mistakenly had him leading, but the seeds of his demise were evident in some of the emails his pollster, Neil Newhouse, sent to senior staffers.
On Oct. 30, Newhouse shared some of the "verbatims" -- the quotes poll-takers jot down from those surveyed -- from the previous night's surveys.
"The negatives range from voters complaining about the fact that Mitt never campaigns in [African-American] areas, not sure who the real [Mitt Romney] is, his views on women's rights ... the 47 percent ... his cut-throat capitalist views (Wisconsin voter), Medicare vouchers," wrote Newhouse.