November 6, 2012 6:27 pm

A triumph of strategy, money and theatre

On a chilly Monday morning, on the election’s eve, an unusual Zen-like calm seemed to descend on three of Barack Obama’s most battle-hardened advisers.

As they waited for the president to take the stage with Bruce Springsteen in Madison, Wisconsin, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs, veterans of Mr Obama’s 2008 run, spoke sentimentally about their candidate, their friendships and the small rituals observed on voting day.

“All rituals will be observed,” said Mr Gibbs, of Mr Obama’s insistence that he get in a game of basketball on Tuesday in Chicago, while voting was under way.

Even as they expressed confidence Mr Obama would win, the trio appeared exhausted at the end of a long campaign. At last able to wind down, the group was philosophical that everything was now in the hands of voters.

Mr Obama and Mitt Romney’s policies and political personalities grabbed most headlines on the campaign trial. But elections are also a volatile mix of staff, strategy, logistics, money and theatre, all fine-tuned for each battleground state.

For challengers like Mr Romney, the election meant running two campaigns over two years, first to win over Republicans for the party’s nomination, and then to take on Mr Obama for the presidency.

For Mr Obama, election preparations had overwhelmed the business of government by August last year, after he gave up on reaching any kind of entente with congressional Republicans.

Along the way, the candidates’ every move, to the left, right or sideways on multiple issues, has been amplified in real time in a twitter-driven media that can lift and then write off the chances of both sides, often on the same day.

The campaigns themselves have to try to rise above that noise and execute their strategies in the face of media maelstroms and change directions when their plans don’t work.

“Campaigns are long. People forget that,” said Stuart Stevens, Mr Romney’s chief strategist, just after perhaps his candidate’s best moment, the first debate against Mr Obama in Denver in early October. “It’s hard to become the president of the United States. And it should be.”

Mr Romney learnt some lessons from his first run at the presidency, in the 2008 election, when he spent millions of his own dollars and still lost the nomination to John McCain.

In depth

US elections 2012

staff fixes the presidential seal before US President Barack Obama gives a press conference

President Barack Obama defeats Mitt Romney to win a second term in office

In the early days of the 2012 race, he kept his hand in his pocket in the bellwether caucuses of Iowa, a state where he had outlaid more than $10m in 2008 and lost. This time, he came out of the contest even with Rick Santorum.

But a decade later, there were other issues extending beyond single contests like Iowa. Mr Romney was running in an avowedly more conservative Republican party than in 2008, and he struggled for months to shrug off his mantle of “moderate Mitt”, a legacy of tacking to the left to become governor of Massachusetts, a largely Democratic state.

Some of the shifts he made to win the nomination have haunted him in his contest with Mr Obama. To fend off Rick Perry, the Texas governor who has long had to deal with security along his state’s border with Mexico, Mr Romney ran far to the right on immigration.

That still wasn’t enough for the Tea Party. For months, Mr Romney could never get above 30 per cent support levels with conservative voters. All manner of rivals, from former house speaker Newt Gingrich to businessman Herman Cain, topped conservative rankings.

It wasn’t until the Florida primary in February, with the help of blanket advertising from outside campaign groups, that Mr Romney crushed Mr Gingrich and firmed as the presumptive Republican nominee.

Mr Obama’s advisers, in the meantime, had begun researching Mr Romney in readiness for the general election. Their most important finding – that the public didn’t know much about the former private equity executive – was one they quickly set about fixing.

When the history of the 2012 campaign is written, the ads launched in May attacking Mr Romney’s stewardship of the firm he founded, Bain Capital, may be recorded as the turning point.

The Obama campaign, and outside campaign groups supporting the president, painted Mr Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who would govern for the one per cent.

The spots were especially effective in Ohio, where Mr Obama has consistently polled better among blue-collar whites, these days a core Republican constituency, than he has elsewhere in the country.

By the final weeks of the campaign, when anyone who turned on their TV in Ohio would literally be seeing scores of political commercials in succession, such advertising would never have had the same impact.

“That money spent early was money well spent. Later, it would have had five per cent of the impact,” said a longtime Democratic strategist.

The damage done to Mr Romney was compounded by leaked comments he made to a $50,000-a-head fundraiser in Florida in April, when he said that the 47 per cent of Americas who did not pay federal income taxes considered themselves “victims” and deserving of handouts.

But Mr Romney turned the election around in 90 minutes at the first presidential debate in Denver when he confounded his caricature and totally dominated a listless Mr Obama. The race was tight from then on.

The Hispanic vote remained a wild card. Mr Romney was never able to make his way back after his right turn on immigration in the primaries, something Mr Obama exploited by announcing an executive decision allowing some young Hispanics to apply for temporary work visas.

But the Hispanic vote would only be decisive if they turned out to vote in greater numbers than usual. It was one of the many questions to be answered only when the ballots are counted on Tuesday night.

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