Four Ways Campaign 2012 Might Have Led to a Different President

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Harvard’s Institute of Politics conducted its quadrennial postmortem on the presidential campaign last week with the professionals who ran the campaigns – all 12 of them. Don’t believe me? In alphabetical order: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Buddy Roemer, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.

The proceedings of the Campaign Decision Makers Conference were off the record until noon Monday, when the institute released audio of the sessions. Here are some factors that changed the course of the race and possibly even of history.

A Fateful Immigration Detour. Top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens “fell in love” with Perry’s book, Fed Up, in which he described Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, according to Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades. Romney went after Perry’s Social Security stand from the left and Perry was “badly hurt” by the third debate, Rhoades said. He added, “In retrospect, I believe that we could have probably just beaten Gov. Perry with the Social Security hit.”

Instead, Romney used the debates to wage a series of harsh attacks on Perry’s immigration policies as governor of Texas, such as in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. That tactic had ramifications well beyond the primary season. Ana Navarro, a Huntsman adviser, said that the GOP candidates – “trying to out-right-wing each other” in their debates – had a “terrible discussion that haunted Governor Romney all along about immigration.” Romney lost Hispanics to Obama, 71 percent to 27 percent, according to exit polling. The Republican Party is now struggling to find ways to repair its image among Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the country.

Straw Poll Circus. Pawlenty bet his campaign on the August 2011 Iowa straw poll, only to come in a distant third -- behind Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul – and drop out the next day. If he had skipped the straw poll, he might have gone all the way to the nomination or the White House. Until Perry got into the race, “we were most worried about Tim Pawlenty,” Rhoades said. He said Pawlenty’s retail campaign skills could have won him Iowa and New Hampshire, and “we had respect” for his jobs record as governor of Minnesota.

Phil Musser, a senior adviser to Pawlenty’s brief campaign, called the straw poll “a circus” and “a joke” and “a celebrity contest” that has run its course. “We made a fundamental strategic miscalculation about the level of investment that we chose to deploy there,” he said. One of the lessons of the 2012 campaign for top-tier candidates, he said, should be “don’t chase the shiny object.”

Perry’s Back Surgery. Strategist Dave Carney said that Perry expected to recover from what he considered minor back surgery in two weeks, but he was still having problems after four months. “It had a big impact” on his late-starting bid, Carney said. “The whole campaign was built upon a very aggressive, arduous schedule of travel in order to make up for lost time.” Perry’s discomfort affected his ability to stand, sleep, travel, study briefing materials, and pack his schedule with meetings, Carney said. If Perry had been pain-free and healthier, would he have given better speeches and been a better debater? And would that have made a difference? Hard to tell, given other problems such as Perry’s belated entry and lack of preparedness, but also hard not to wonder.

The Bain Bane. Romney’s record at Bain Capital has come up in every race he’s run, so it was no surprise that he had to deal with it again this year. Rhoades said that the campaign was successful in painting Gingrich's and Perry's attacks on Romney as a “vulture capitalist” as attacks on capitalism itself. Over the summer, however, once Romney had clinched the GOP nomination, he did not counter months of attack ads by the Obama campaign and an allied super PAC. Romney's aides said that was part tactical and part due to a cash shortage as the primary season drew to a close. “We spent all the money that we had,” Stevens said, and even borrowed some to stay on the air until the convention.

Given limited options, Stevens said, the campaign went with a series of “day one, job one” ads about the first day of a Romney administration, rather than countering the Obama offensive. “We tested this extensively,” Stevens said. “What voters wanted to know most is what Mitt Romney would do as president.” One consequence: The largely unaddressed attacks on Romney as a heartless capitalist magnified the impact of the leaked video that showed Romney at a private fundraiser describing 47 percent of the country as irresponsible moochers. We’ll never know what course the race might have taken had Romney mounted a defense as relentless as the onslaught.