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Obama campaign: attack dog strategy worked

US President Barack Obama looked reluctant to leave the stage. He hung back as everyone shuffled away, a happy bunch. He turned around to face the cheering supporters once again. Yashwant Raj reports.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2012 01:10 IST
Yashwant Raj

US President Barack Obama looked reluctant to leave the stage. He hung back as everyone shuffled away, a happy bunch. He turned around to face the cheering supporters once again.

He raised his arm and waved. Some in the crowd of over 10,000 people packing the election night venue McCormick Place, Chicago were in tears, arms wrapped around each other.

The president took one more round before disappearing into the cavernous exit to join family friends and staff for a long night of partying celebrating his victory.

It had now given the president another term, defying political odds, given the state of the economy. Despite improvements since Obama took office in January 2009, growth is sluggish and unemployment remains high at 7.9%. The housing sector, which caused the recession, has recovered but stays fragile.

In short: everything Republican Mitt Romney was saying about the president's record on the economy was correct. Yet he failed to convince voters that that was a good enough reason for the president to be evicted from the White House.

"A lot of people did not blame Obama for the economic problems that the country faced during his administration," said Marc Joseph Hetherington, a professor of politics at Vanderbilt University.

"They continued to blame George Bush."

That's what Obama was telling voters. And they believed him, not Romney, who continued to trail the president in trustworthiness for much of the campaign.

The former private equity executive came across as cold and ruthless, a man who enjoyed firing people. He looked hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Americans.

But here is the problem. That wasn't Romney at all. That was what the Obama campaign said he was. And backed it up with millions of dollars worth of ads. The effect was a stunningly inaccurate portrait of a man made to look least suited for the Oval office.

"I have followed Romney for four years - he is a decent man, has a beautiful wife and has an ability to communicate and motivate," said Timothy Amos, a Tennessee Republican, at the party's convention in Tampa, Florida.

Friends and acquaintance spoke of a deeply caring man, who actually wrote up a will for a boy dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the 1970s. Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, spoke of a loving and playful husband and father.

But between spring, when the Obama campaign decided to focus on Romney's character, and the convention end of August the Republican candidate had become everything the rival camp said he was.

Romney didn't help his case with his own missteps. To appear as excited as other Nascar car racing enthusiasts, Romney offered this up in February: "I have some great friends who are Nascar team owners."

He got savaged for that.

But Romney was not to be the ideal candidate the Republican party wanted. He was a northeastern conservative - a liberal for the rest of the party - who was trying, and very hard, to be the party's unifying candidate.

Some conservatives were openly disparaging of his credentials. And he expended a substantial portion of his equity as a middle- of-the-road conservative when he tried to reconfigure himself as a "severe conservative" to defeat party rivals such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

Romney looked unconvinced of his new avatar. And voters could tell, specially Republicans who were desperate to see Obama voted out. And Obama's agile campaign machinery was quick to spot a chance, and capitalise on it.

Romney was now a flip-flopper. A man who could say or do anything to win the presidency, a family aspiration. His father, George Romney, a true American success story, ran for the Republican presidential ticket in 1968. He lost to Richard Nixon, who went on to win the presidency.

George Romney remained an inspiration for his son Mitt Romney, who began every major public appearance with a silent invocation to his father, when running for presidency.

Even if Romney had succeeded in shaking off the Obama campaign's distorted portrayal of himself, he would have found it hard to combat its ground game, a copybook model for all aspiring politicians, scaled down, or up, to suit the race.

"These guys came to my house one day and asked who I was voting for," said Rajesh Chandra, a doctor in Cleveland, in battleground state Ohio. He was voting for Obama, for sure. But he didn't let on. The visitors wanted him to sing some document saying he was voting for Obama.

A first time voter, having recently received his US citizenship, Chandra hesitated. In fact, he completely rebelled agains the idea of giving anything in writing. "I told them I had not made up my mind," said Chandra. The visitors moved on.

That was one of the more effective strategies of the Obama campaign at work. The ground operation was elaborate and aggressive, based on a report compiled by the campaign drawing upon lessons learnt from 2008.

In fact, the Obama campaign machinery never stopped.

Within days of winning a landslide in 2008, when most operatives would have taken a well deserved break, a team headed by senior campaign adviser Jeremy Bird, went right back to work at campaign headquarters in Chicago.

He launched an exhaustive investigation of the campaign based on hundreds of interviews with campaign officials and a survey of 700,000 volunteers. This became, officials have said in recently published interviews the bible of the campaign.

Around 2011 beginning, still reeling from the November shellacking, top political advisors of the president, led by David Axelrod, peeled themselves from the "chattering classes" of Washington and moved to Chicago.

David Plouffe, the man widely credited with engineering Obama's 2008 run, also returned to the president's retinue after a break of two years. He would now decide everything the president did, which could have a bearing on his re-election.

But some like Bill Burton left the White House to assume leadership of strategically significant position outside the campaign -- he led a Super PAC Priorities America, which could in newly changed circumstances collect and spend huge amounts of money without adding to the candidate's account.

Money would be important in this campaign. Obama's team raised $632 million compared to Romney's $ 389 million. But together with their outside uncoordinated bodies, Romney outspent the president $1 billion to $932 million, according to opensecrets.org, an outfit that tracks election collections and expenses.

It didn't help the challenger though.

Mostly because of the Obama campaign's ground operation. It's a gigantic machine at that level fired by a few staff at the head of an army of volunteers working phones and knocking doors to get out the vote.

Talking to reporters on the president's plane the day after election day, an Obama aide spoke of a conversation he had with a top field director on Monday. The GOP had tweeted that they had knocked on 75,000 doors in Ohio the day prior. Not to worry, the director said, "we knocked on 376,000".

Then the president came in, and this aide said, "Tell him the door thing." So he did. And the president responded, "That's my team."