'Collision 2012' Opens Wider Window Into Race Between Obama and Romney

Charlie Cook
August 13, 2013

By the end of a presidential campaign year, I'm sure I'm not the only political junkie who finally hits a saturation point and is very glad it's over. While no one actually lives and breathes politics 24/7, or even every waking hour, for those totally immersed in that world, you do eventually hit the wall and don't even want to think about it anymore.

But as predictable as that tipping point is for me, there is another point, when the dust has settled and someone comes out with a really first-rate chronicle of a campaign. This chronicle normally covers not just the "what happened, when, and why"—based on unparalleled access to the candidates, managers, strategists, and others—but also fills in holes that even the most devout political aficionados missed during the campaign, when we are all drinking out of a proverbial fire hose of information, data, and opinions. For the 2012 election, that book is now out. Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz's new book, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America, is everything one would expect from the worthy successor to the mantle of Balz's mentor, the late David Broder.

Without a trace of snarkiness or the self-righteousness that creeps into too many books by journalists about politics, and without overemphasizing which campaign operative stabbed which one in the back, Balz walks us through the often zany and never boring 2012 election cycle. Balz begins at the earliest days of the campaign, including the previously unreported 10-2 vote by Mitt Romney's family that he not run (with the eventual nominee among the 10 voting against a bid) and continues through every primary, caucus, stumble, and victory. We are taken through the general-election debates and into the thick of the final stretches of each campaign. We are given a behind-the-scenes perspective with each candidate on election night, and finally a post-mortem interview with Romney, conducted in January of this year, with his perspective on what might have been—but didn't happen. The objectivity and professionalism that Balz brings to this book are exactly what made Broder the best in the business during his day.

About 10 days ago, I already had an advance copy of Collision 2012 that I planned to take along to read on a very long trip, when I ran into Balz and his wife at our neighborhood grocery store the day before I departed. I asked Balz how rough he was in the book on a certain Romney strategist who I thought contributed much to making a winnable campaign unsuccessful, and he laughed and said, "Probably not as tough as you would like," which was admittedly true. But it was more of a statement of Balz's classiness and decency throughout this process, rather than of pulling punches. In this book, shortcomings and missteps committed by each of the candidates and campaigns are examined but not exploited or exaggerated. Balz points these errors out without trying to humiliate anyone.

At the same time, Balz refuses to take the proverbial bait and focus on the sideshows that dominated so much of that campaign yet meant very little. Anyone wanting to relive the zaniness that was the Herman Cain campaign will have to go elsewhere; Cain was only important to the story line to the extent that he demonstrated how far Republican conservatives were willing to search for a nominee before eventually, and very reluctantly, settling on Romney.

Balz goes into the internal debate within the Romney campaign over whether to shift resources into fleshing out who Mitt Romney was as a person by running biographical and testimonial ads that would apply a Teflon coating (my term, not theirs) to protect him from the bashing that was to come. This proposal was supported, notably, by Bob White, one of the candidate's best friends and most trusted advisers, and his longtime top aide, Beth Myers. Alas, opponents to the idea prevailed, and the campaign chose to keep Romney's messaging aimed squarely at bashing President Obama and his economic record, and focusing on what Romney would do alternatively as president. In my judgment, that specific decision to view the election as little more than a referendum on Obama and the economy, at the expense of portraying Romney as a three-dimensional human being with character worthy of holding our highest office, was an enormous miscalculation. The failure to produce that type of paid advertising was further compounded by scheduling elements of the Republican convention that would have helped make Romney's personal case; character-establishing testimonials and films were scheduled during time periods when they would not appear on network television and were seen by few.

Meanwhile, without overhyping the event, Balz goes into the fateful May 26, 2012, meeting between a half dozen or so top Obama campaign strategists and the president in the Roosevelt Room, when campaign manager Jim Messina proposed shifting $63 million that had been earmarked for the fall television advertising budget—about half the money set aside for September and 40 percent of the October money—to June, July, and August. The move, which was basically a roll of the dice, was made with the goal of defining Romney early and pejoratively in the battleground states. The shift was successful in basically beating Romney's brains in with the use of, among other ads, the now infamous ones that focused on Bain Capital. The advertising effort was so effective that even when Romney scored a huge victory in the first debate, his movement up in the polls in those swing states, where the scar tissue was so thick from the messaging push, was less than it was in national polls.

Collision 2012 reinforces my own view that the campaign pitted an extremely vulnerable incumbent who mounted a world-class, near-perfect campaign against a promising challenger who—while he made plenty of mistakes himself—was badly hurt by ill-advised strategic choices made by his campaign's high command.