Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Election Day is finally here.
And even though neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has been declared a winner yet, there are some things that will still hold true no matter which candidate wins the White House tonight — or in the wee hours of the morning.
Here are POLITICO’s nine takeaways from the 2012 campaign:
1. Luck matters — a lot
Obama has assembled some of the best field operatives around. His team has run the gauntlet before, prepared a ground game for five years, had a basic playbook for the 2012 cycle and (mostly) stuck to it. Obama’s natural skills as a politician are far better than Romney’s. The auto bailout helped Obama maintain what has been a small but consistent polling lead in critical states like Ohio.
And yet a little bit of luck goes an awfully long way. For all his troubles throughout his term, Obama caught some needed breaks.
Obama was fortunate to be blessed with an opponent who declined to define himself until after the party conventions at the end of the summer. That allowed Romney to be swift-boated over his main calling card — his business experience. Obama was fortunate to draw a rival who ran a curious ad strategy that allowed Democrats to swamp him.
He was fortunate his opponent never, until it was quite late, made effective overtures to Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting bloc. He was fortunate the eurozone didn’t totally collapse. And he was fortunate that Romney went with prevent defense in the final presidential debate.
The climate for Democrats has also improved as the unemployment rate dipped incrementally and more people think the country is heading in the right direction.
Hurricane Sandy clearly did help Obama somewhat, in crass political terms, but it didn’t alter the political landscape. Obama remains in dangerous territory for an incumbent heading into Election Day, under 50 percent in a number of states. But that just underscores how lucky he is that Romney didn’t run harder.
This is not to say that Republicans have had bad luck — they have in some cases, but candidate quality matters. Obama’s backers would also argue he made some of his own luck with smart policy. Still, bad decisions on one side are the good fortune of the other.
2. Super PACs — it’s complicated
They were the favored boogeyman of most Democrats and the entity Republican hopefuls openly embraced. They were going to be the game-changer this cycle, allowing a small pool of roughly a dozen billionaires to buy elections. They would throw the campaigns into messaging chaos by creating off-kilter moments (see Ricketts, Joe). They would swamp the airwaves.
They certainly did flood televisions. But beyond being used as an epithet by Democrats to goose the base, the verdict on super PACs is mixed at best.
Some of the issue is how money was spent. The conservative Crossroads groups raised $300 million to recapture the White House and the Senate majority but may not come up with either. The Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity also raised vast sums toward the same goals.
Democrats had far less by way of super PAC money, but the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action got bang for its buck with surgically placed buys in a handful of battleground states — it was the chief purveyor of the Bain ads that drove up Romney’s negatives. Unions also flooded Democrats with support, but mainly in traditional ways, like get-out-the-vote operations.
Super PACs did play a large role in the GOP primary. Newt Gingrich’s super PAC kept his broke campaign alive through the South Carolina primary. Rick Santorum’s did the same. And Romney’s super PAC was a negative ad machine that ground Gingrich up, allowing the candidate some distance from the attacks and to conserve resources.
But in the general election, super PACs were simply less dominant overall. As for single rich donors like Sheldon Adelson, he may end up spending at least $100 million of his vast fortune to elect Romney…but not elect Romney.
This is not to say that super PACs have not mattered — they have. But in an era when both presidential campaigns were well-funded, maybe not the way everyone had expected. And it’s clear that just throwing money into races doesn’t automatically shake things up.
3. There were two different but parallel campaigns
One was taking place on Twitter and other places on the Web. The other was taking place in the battleground states.
The issues that flared up — hot, bright and out in the endless news cycle — often didn’t break through in a meaningful way to voters. Romney’s line about liking to fire people? Not really. Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe? Polls showed it had no measurable impact.
The grinding, death-by-increments sensation of the 2012 campaign for reporters and pols was also not quite so visible to voters. Instead, voters saw two politicians speaking about serious, weighty issues involving the country’s economy only in extremely pedestrian terms. “I’m rubber, you’re glue” could have been a bumper sticker this year.
The result was a very media-driven campaign that played out with a subset of elite opinion-makers, and then a larger campaign about the mood and feel of the country that took place among voters. The divide was real between what the media found important versus what voters did.
So, too, was the partisan divide that both campaigns exploited. On the final day of the campaign, the Drudge Report had a giant, paid-advertising banner for the Romney-Ryan ticket. On The Huffington Post was a paid ad for the Obama-Biden ticket. Those two images, juxtaposed, tell you much of what you need to know about 2012.
4. There is no longer just one Election Day
What there are is a series of Election Days, which begin weeks before the first Tuesday in November. Early voting is taking place in more states than ever before this cycle, and while it has been far from problem-free — see Ohio and Florida — it has significantly changed the landscape.
The Obama campaign has made a huge early-voting push over the past several weeks, incorporating that effort into its playbook and trying to bank as much of the vote ahead of time as possible.
The Romney campaign has pooh-poohed such efforts publicly, insisting it’s actually doing very well in this metric — better than John McCain, who was not a high bar in this regard — and arguing that the Obama camp is “cannibalizing” its Election Day share of the vote.
We’ll know soon which of them is right and which, as David Axelrod said two weeks ago, was bluffing. But the reality is that the landscape has changed in terms of how voting is conducted, and both parties need to adapt or face consequences.
5. Bill Clinton. Forever.
This is not a commentary on whether people do or should like the 42nd president. It is instead a reflection of his durability on the national stage.
There are few others in the Living Presidents Club, so it’s a tough metric. But Clinton’s love of campaigning and desire to be on stage is epic and empirical throughout 2012.
Yes, there are personal reasons why he’d want to lay groundwork nationally by helping Obama and down-ballot candidates — a big one being his wife’s potential political future. But the man also clearly enjoys this, and a lot more than either of the candidates currently running for the White House.
Clinton talked himself hoarse stumping for Obama over the weekend. He’s had advisers to the man who beat his wife in the 2008 primaries openly praise him to the press as the missing ingredient from the campaign this cycle. His positions — and his place in history — have been ratified by the Obama campaign.
And no one can argue he didn’t work hard enough for Obama.
6. About all that fact-checking…
The advent of fact-checking websites and reporters who crunch dubious claims from both sides has been a running theme this cycle. Both campaigns have alternately embraced the fact-checkers and slammed them.
The irony is that for all the fact-checking, both campaigns have invented their own narratives when it’s suited them — not to the same degrees but certainly for the same purposes.
The Obama campaign has made claims about Romney’s stand on abortion and the degree to which he’d curtail it a major focus of ads, despite the fact that they haven’t been totally accurate. The Romney campaign was slammed by Democrats for ads that accused Obama of “gutting” the Clinton-era welfare reforms, a claim that also was not quite based in fact.
But both candidates have, through selective media usage — soft interviews like “The View” and “People” for Obama, and friendly conservative outlets like Sean Hannity for Romney — been able to circumvent the mainstream press to say what they want.
The fact-checking industry is crucial. But it has also been thwarted plenty this cycle.
7. Ads don’t matter, unless they’re good
Given the plethora of ads aired in the presidential race on both sides, it’s remarkable how divided polls are at the close.
Between the campaigns themselves, and super PACs and other outside groups, the crush of TV spots in battlegrounds was impressive. So much so that it was hard to distinguish them after a while.
The Obama campaign made an early bet in terms of ad spending, placing heavy buys throughout the summer to define Romney early. Not all the ads were winners. But they had the benefit of airing before the commercial breaks during every show became clogged.
To that end, what matters more than ads themselves is making good ones — ones that stand out. That was an elusive goal on both sides this cycle.
For Democrats, the Priorities USA Action spots about Bain Capital were emotional gut-punches, using workers laid off from factories taken over by Romney’s company. On the Republican side, the most memorable spot was one by the Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure arm saying it was “OK to make a change.”
8. Both parties have soul-searching to do
This is less true for whichever party wins. But the Democrats and Republicans are facing questions about who will lead them, and what they will make their defining platforms, heading into 2016.
Obama has shown almost no interest in party-building, which is part of why Clinton has been able to enjoy the seventh or eighth of his nine political lives this year. He doesn’t want to do the grip-and-grins on behalf of other candidates.
Neither does Romney, who has never quite warmed to the world of retail politicking. If he becomes president, the party will need someone else — perhaps a Vice President Paul Ryan? — to tend to that effort in the way that Vice President Joe Biden has for Obama.
But Romney’s party is weighted with conservatives who may not embrace him in primaries, just as moderate Democrats held Obama at arm’s length in 2010 and this year.
That leaves an opening on both sides for someone to become the face of the party, if not the de facto leader.
9. Neither party has a deep female bench
In terms of field teams, most of the attention this cycle has been on Hispanic candidates — Julian Castro for Democrats, and Marco Rubio for Republicans.
Yet it’s notable how thin the benches on both sides are in terms of credible female candidates for the presidency (there were a large number of female Senate candidates running in 2012).
The obvious exception, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who may consider a 2016 bid — she has said she isn’t, but people close to the family are not convinced — and would likely be field-clearing if she does launch another campaign.
Beyond Clinton, there’s New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for the Democrats. On the Republican side, there’s New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez — a friendly Hispanic face who is pro-abortion rights, meaning she would have difficulties in the party primaries.
The decades of candidate-grooming on the GOP side has been largely focused on black and Hispanic officials at the local and state level. And the Democrats have not quite figured out what the next wave of strong female candidates looks like in the post-Clinton era, whenever that arrives.
Given that this is probably the last cycle in which a ticket will be all white and all male, it’s something both sides have to work toward.