The Obama message: Define Romney as unacceptable

Olivier Knox

So, in the end, did President Barack Obama "kill Mitt Romney"?

If Obama wins re-election, as he very well might, much of the credit will go to his campaign's relentless, months-long fight to get voters to see his Republican rival as a job-killing plutocrat and the heir to George W. Bush. Strategists in both parties say that the effort at least initially caught Romney flat-footed, and now needs to be successful only in battleground states like Ohio to swing the election to the incumbent.

If Obama loses the White House, as he very well might, some of the blame will go to his campaign's struggles to paint Romney as one consistent kind of villain, and to his disastrous performance in the first debate, which undermined that effort. Strategists in both parties say the president failed to press the charges leveled in months of campaign attack ads, while Romney's demeanor served as the best possible rebuttal.

Either way, strategists, political scientists and journalists will pore over the data to determine how "defining Romney" defined the 2012 race.

There are other candidates for the role of the defining dynamic of Campaign 2012. There was the push to turn out voters who favored Obama but might stay home. There was the "microtargeting" of voters based on mining personal information that, experts say, can predict which oval they will darken on their ballot, which lever they will pull, where the touch screen will feel a tap. There was the vaunted Obama "ground game," a get-out-the-vote machine that never went away after his history-making 2008 election.

Still, as the public awaits the results of the election, officials in both parties agree that the hard-fought contest could turn on the Obama campaign blitz that hit Romney just as he emerged from the Republican primary fight and looked to introduce himself to a more moderate general election audience.

"Part of the Obama strategy from day one was clearly to—in addition to promoting their candidate, and promoting their candidate's re-election—make their opponent unacceptable," a Democrat who has served as a senior presidential campaign strategist told Yahoo News.

"The whole race hinges on it," the strategist said. "There are lots of things about which you can say 'the race hinges on it'—get-out-the-vote efforts, for example. But if it's as close a race as everyone says it is, this may be the decisive factor."

Well, it is as close a race as everyone says it is. A Washington Post/ABC News public opinion poll released Thursday put Obama at 48.56 percent of the vote nationally to Romney's 48.49 percent.

The internal Obama campaign debate about how to go about making Romney unacceptable to the public began in earnest in July 2011, according to an official who took part in those discussions. On Aug. 9, 2011, the effort took an unexpected detour when Politico reported that Obama's plan was to "kill Romney"—notably to portray him as "weird," a term many interpreted to mean that the Democrat had OK'd attacks based on the former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith.

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Key line? "'Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney,' said a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House."

Senior campaign strategist David Axelrod promptly denounced the story as "garbage" and vowed to fire any staffer who used the "weird" attack line—and then basically confirmed the thrust of the Politico story. Romney is wei—well, see what you think he was saying.

"When he makes jokes about being unemployed or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back, and you say, 'What's he talking about?'" Axelrod told MSNBC.

At the same time, the campaign was so sensitive to the charge that it built a Web page specifically for the purpose of disputing that it had a "kill Romney" strategy.

And the Romney campaign complained loudly and frequently about Obama's hardball tactics (even though Romney himself swept the field of his Republican rivals with aggressively negative ads). They deplored that the candidate of "hope and change" had become the champion of "anger and division."

Obama aides don't dispute that they studied the lessons of 2004, when Bush beat back a stiff challenge from John Kerry. Part of Bush's strategy was a Karl Rove staple: Force the other candidate to defend what he considers his strongest attribute. In 2004, it was Kerry's military service—shorthand for his ability to manage national security. Democrats hoped a rising tide of public anger at the Iraq War would sweep Bush from office. Instead, Kerry spent months defending his military record and digging out from under his "I voted for it before I voted against it" comment about a military spending bill.

Cut to 2012: Romney is using his hugely successful run as a private equity investor as shorthand for his ability to manage the economy. Cue Obama campaign attacks, which began in earnest in mid-2012, on his time as the head of Bain Capital. And see the Obama campaign charge, just a few weeks ago, that Romney is "not one of us." (As The Washington Post noted, Romney would have been pilloried for using that historically loaded expression.)

How aggressive has Obama been? On Friday, ace Politico reporter Mike Allen reported in his daily "Playbook" column that Obama had dominated the airwaves. Allen cited figures from Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks political advertising. From Oct. 24 to Oct. 30, the firm found, the Obama campaign aired 35,731 ads at a cost of $24 million to Romney's 17,277 with a price tag of $11 million.

And, with a wry "finish strong, fellas" quip, Allen reported that CMAG found that 99 percent of Romney's ads had a negative tone over the same period, against 85 percent for Obama.

The most effective assault? Obama insiders point to two: one that used Romney's now-famous "47 percent" remarks against him, and another of the Republican candidate singing "America the Beautiful" while onscreen messages note that he parked some of his money in overseas accounts.

Joe Biden weighed in. The Obama campaign memorably dubbed Romney a job-killing economic "vampire." And it recycled similar attacks Romney's primary rivals had leveled against him. It wasn't always smooth sailing. And there has been recent second-guessing. But despite cries of "class warfare," they seemed to work.

"They were very successful early on," John Feehery, a former top Republican congressional aide, told Yahoo News. While the Obama campaign worked to "disqualify" Romney in the eyes of voters, "the Romney campaign was somewhat incompetent in defining their own candidate," said Feehery, now a senior executive at the Quinn Gillespie public relations firm in Washington.

"It put Romney in a terrible hole—and only the first debate helped him climb out of it," said Feehery. Romney just didn't come across as the monster of Obama's ads, in no small part because Obama failed to press his case against his rival.

"For a large swath of voters, by the time of the first debate, Romney had become an unacceptable candidate and people started tuning him out or had tuned him out," said the anonymous Democratic strategist, who asked not to be named to speak more candidly.

"But after the first debate, some percentage of those people took a second look at him," that Democrat said. "I don't know how many, but there's no doubt that he reopened what I would call the window of communication."

"You can't just talk about how bad your opponent is, you have to have your own agenda," said Feehery. "If you only take that one step, you are vulnerable. If your opponent suddenly comes across as competent, or not scary, that puts the lie to that theory, and then what do you have? Nothing."

Nothing? In the final stretch, what Obama had was evidence that more Americans blame his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for the sour state of the economy. In the main battleground states that will decide the election, 50 percent of likely voters fault the blunt-talking Texan, while 37 percent blame the smooth-talking Chicagoan.

So, in the latest strategic move, the president has painted his rival as the second coming of Bush.

Will it work?