By Walter Shapiro
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – David Axelrod was poised to answer a question about Barack Obama’s power failure in the first presidential debate when the lights went out all over Harvard.
The electrical outage last Thursday afternoon provided odd punctuation to the campaign retrospective hosted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a quadrennial tradition dating back to 1972. In a combination of the show-must-go-on pluck, Washington-style earnestness and reverence for Harvard, the conference continued in the dark for half an hour before it came to a hasty conclusion with the power still out.
As stirring as it was to watch 9 senior Mitt Romney advisers and 7 top Obama insiders reminisce about the campaign at the same table, there were no blinding revelations from the two-day session. (The IOP had placed an embargo on the proceedings until Monday, when audio tapes of the gathering were released.)
The enduring value of the conference was how it illuminated some of the murkier aspects of Campaign 2012:
Paul Ryan: Matt Rhoades, Romney’s press-shy campaign manager, is not normally a colorful storyteller. But Rhoades described a full bro-mance between Romney and Ryan as the Republican presidential hopeful courted the Wisconsin congressman to be his running mate.
“It’s like talking to your buddy and he’s met a girl and he’s giddy,” Rhoades said of his conversations with Romney about Ryan.
In contrast, Beth Myers, who headed the vice-presidential search for Romney, confessed, “I didn’t know who is was going to be until he told me who it was going to be.”
Clint Eastwood: Under the original schedule, the 82-year-old Hollywood star was slated to deliver his public endorsement of Romney on the third night of the 4-night GOP convention. But Hurricane Isaac forced the Republicans to squeeze the gathering into 3 nights. That gave Eastwood a high-profile prime time spot on the convention’s final night, with memorable results.
Eastwood had been expected to reprise an anti-Obama riff that he had used at private Republican fund-raisers. Before Eastwood went on stage in Tampa, Romney strategist Russ Schriefer double-checked whether that was indeed the script. “Yup,” said Eastwood, never hinting at the performance to come: an impromptu debate with an empty chair.
As Schriefer explained, conveying the powerlessness of campaign aides when confronted with mega-watt celebrity, “Clint Eastwood – are you going to argue with him?”
Romney Debate Prep: It may be the single most impressive (or exhausting) number of practice sessions in in the half-century history of presidential debates. According to Myers, Romney conducted 16 separate mock debates to get into shape to face Obama. As she put it, “He wanted this to be the Manhattan Project of our campaign.”
Romney Polling: Maybe it was fitting that the unexpected darkness at Harvard precluded an extended discussion of why Romney’s internal surveys were so much more upbeat than public polls – and reality. On Election Day, recalled Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, “I was cautiously optimistic.”
The Romney high command made clear that it never abandoned hope of winning Ohio. Their late forays into Pennsylvania (Romney even made an election-day stop in Pittsburgh) were based on a long-shot bid to win a state that does not encourage early voting and where they thought voters might be open to a last-minute appeal.
The Mormon Factor: Unless I somehow missed it, there was not a single reference during the conference to Romney’s religion. The guiding principle of American politics over the past quarter century in many ways has been – bet on tolerance.
Obama Polling: David Simas, Obama’s top polling analyst, said the president was never behind in the surveys conducted for his reelection campaign. Even though the Obama campaign used three separate polling firms (including one operation that conducted 9,000 telephone interviews on most nights), it concentrated solely on battleground states and ignored national surveys showing a close contest with Romney. Simas said Obama’s lead was almost always in the 2 to 4 percentage point rang in swing states.
Only once did Obama hold a larger advantage. That was during the mid-September period when a bounce from the successful Democratic convention and the unearthing of the inflammatory Romney “47 percent” video expanded Obama’s swing state lead to 6 points. As Simas explained, the major shift was among Republican-leaning independents and white males moving from the Romney camp to undecided. After Obama’s poor performance in the first debate, those voters came back to Romney.
Obama adviser Axelrod was withering in his disdain for media’s obsession with largely meaningless national polling trends. At one point Axelrod snapped, “Everything becomes a big horse-race story – and you guys don’t even know where the horses are.”
Obama’s Ground Game: It is easy to forget that in 2008 Twitter barely existed and Facebook was just entering its period of exponential growth. That is why – as Teddy Goff, the digital director of the president’s campaign explained – Obama this year had a much more potent organizational arsenal than in 2008.
Goff cited one example emblematic of larger truths.
The Obama campaign had cell phone or land-line numbers for only half the voters under 30 who had been targeted as likely supporters of the president. Normally, that would be a crippling problem since young voters are not likely to be home on weekends when Obama volunteers knocked on their doors. But because the Obama team asked its most loyal backers to send in their lists of Facebook friends, the campaign harnessed Facebook contact information on 85 percent of the younger voters they were targeting.
Obama’s Debate Preparation: Axelrod only partly answered the lights-out questions about the first debate (also known as the Debacle in Denver). The biggest issue, he suggested, was that all incumbent presidents have “a why-do-I-have-to-do-this” attitude about debate preparation.
Axelrod also wondered if the campaign had fed Obama too much material to absorb. “We had this inflated lead,” Axelrod joked, “and we wanted to erase it all in one night.”
But Obama was surprisingly slow to realize how devastating his first debate had been. (The Romney camp, by the way, was equally laggard in recognizing the full extent of the damage from the 47-percent tape.)
As Axelrod put it, “I don’t think the president knew it was as negative as it turned out to be.”
The entire Harvard conference was a reminder that, for all the media hype, there are no infallible geniuses in politics. All campaign strategists operate within the fog of politics – and, for the winners, the adroit moments tend to outweigh the obtuse setbacks.