Obama strategy proves successful

Focus on demographics and economy carries him back to White House

When Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign decided on a strategy to win the 2012 election, they decided not just to run against Mitt Romney by painting him as a wealthy businessman immune to the concerns of the middle-class.

Long before the Republicans had their candidate, Mr Obama’s team also set out to change for good the electorate that would choose the nation’s next president.

The combination, of leveraging the country’s new demographics and old economy against Mr Romney, might alone have been enough to win Mr Obama re-election on Tuesday night.

But it was backed by what both parties agree was the largest ever political machine constructed in the country, with scores of offices established for more than a year in battleground states, buttressed by pioneering digital tools.

Throughout the campaign’s inevitable ups and downs, the Obama team kept its swagger, even while many supporters panicked as the polls tightened.

Three days out from the vote, with national opinion surveys showing the candidates deadlocked, David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s longstanding adviser, conveyed certitude that the president would win. “All we have to do now is execute,” he said.

In the 12 months leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Mr Obama launched a series of policy pivots to put together a fresh coalition for a White House that could not rely on the support of white, blue-collar voters, who had soured on the president.

The administration spurned the Catholic Church by demanding health insurance coverage that Church-linked institutions provide to female employees include contraception. Mr Obama also belatedly embraced gay marriage.

Out of the blue in June, Mr Obama bypassed Congress with an executive order allowing young Hispanics in the country illegally to apply for work visas, reinforcing strong support from America’s fastest-growing new voting group.

“There will be more Latinos voting in this election. That is just a big thing to understand,” said David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, in the election’s closing week.

On the economy, Mr Obama worked to damp disappointment with his stewardship of business, by presenting himself as the self-styled champion of the middle-class, whose status and relative income have been declining for decades.

His economic pitch dovetailed with the one policy that helped him most in swing states – the auto bailout. His decision to use government funds to rescue GM and Chrysler and, by extension, the rest of the industry, took Michigan off the table and shifted Ohio into his column.

Mr Romney was on the other side of all these issues, trashing the idea of immigration reform in the Republican primaries to defend his right flank, and never able to row back his opposition to the government-led auto rescue.

The election should have been Mr Romney’s to win. Mr Obama went into the campaign with his favourability ratings at the lowest level of any incumbent president since 1980. The most-watched benchmark – whether the country is on the right or wrong track – was also deeply underwater for much of 2012. The jobless rate remained stubbornly high, at 7.9 per cent in October.

Mr Romney was also a more formidable opponent than last night’s result would indicate. Gaffe-prone early on, polls nevertheless showed that voters nearly always deemed Mr Romney to be better qualified to manage the economy, the issue exit polls taken on Tuesday showed they cared most about. Mr Obama also entered the election as a shop-soiled president who had led the country through four years of sub-optimal economic growth.

Mr Obama’s turnround on the economy can paradoxically be traced back to what seemed to be one of his lowest moments – his August 2011 stand-off with congressional Republicans over lifting America’s borrowing limits.

The debacle hurt all sides in politics but Mr Obama most of all. He looked ineffective, about the worst tag that can be attached to any occupant of the White House.

But the stand-off with Republicans also allowed Mr Obama to recast himself as the defender of America’s battling families.

The new policy, driven by Mr Plouffe, called for a relentless focus on the middle-class, which in the US is often analogous to what is defined as the working class in other developed countries, while pressing for higher taxes on “millionaires and billionaires”.

The “middle class” first strategy also fitted neatly with attacks against Mr Romney, whom the Obama campaign painted as a wealthy candidate who would serve his own class’s interests.

Mr Romney’s team had always wanted to make the election a referendum on the economy. Mr Plouffe aimed to reverse that and make the poll a referendum on Mr Romney.

The fruits of the Obama campaign’s strategy can be seen in Tuesday night’s results and the president was clear in thanking “the best campaign team … in the history of politics” in his victory speech. “You will have the lifelong appreciation of a grateful president,” he said.

Mr Obama won Hispanics and single women by huge margins. His share of the blue-collar white voters was highest in states such as Ohio. African-American turnout was as strong as 2008.

His campaign machine ensured that in every state where the contest was tight, apart from North Carolina, Mr Obama prevailed.

The Obama campaign will leave a legacy as well. Whoever runs for the presidency in 2016 will have to grapple with the new American electorate, with the share of white voters in steady but permanent decline.

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