It’s a new year, but there are many of us still not quite over the 2012 presidential election — as mourners, as victors, as students of politics and history. In their e-book, The End of the Line, Politico campaign reporters Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush review the videotape on the last 34 days of the general election. They took some questions over e-mail about the book, and the election, from National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “The television wasn’t even turned on in Romney’s room,” you report about election night. Why did he prefer to get updates from aides? Is it indicative of something more about Governor Romney?
Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush: Good question. It was one of those details that stuck out to us and we thought readers would find fascinating. As to the why: Romney, we’re told, preferred to spend the evening talking with his family (including some grandkids) and didn’t want the TV on to distract from their conversation.
Lopez: You relate that President Obama savored his reelection victory: “His enemies had failed — all the birthers, the Tea Party obstructionists who had written his obituary after the 2010 midterms, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who vowed to make him a one-term president like Carter.” That seems remarkably, albeit perhaps understandably, personal. Is the president thin-skinned about criticism? How much of a handicap is that?
Martin and Thrush: There’s no question that Obama has never been a person who felt entirely comfortable being told he was wrong by anyone, including his top staff and advisers. That said, he’s eventually conceded that fault internally to staffers and allies whom he perceives as working in his best interests. McConnell, the tea partiers, and other external critics who weren’t on his side were treated as enemies, and their failure to defeat him after four-plus years of attacking him made the victory sweeter than ever. Overall, he’s probably in the middle of the pack on presidential skin thickness.
Lopez: What was the “strategic ineptitude and . . . self-delusion” of the Romney campaign?
MARTIN AND THRUSH: In a nutshell: Assuming until after Labor Day that the election was going to be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy and that his 2008 coalition wouldn’t show up at the polls again.
Lopez: What marked the “resilience and flashes of inspiration” of the Romney campaign?
Martin and Thrush: Bouncing back from the “47 percent” comment to deliver a strong performance at the first debate in Denver was impressive. And the personal testimonials (in the form of videos and speeches) at the GOP convention in Tampa were inspired. What’s confounding is why they didn’t keep up that effort after the convention.
Lopez: What’s the lesson of an Obama campaign May decision about ads?
Martin and Thrush: This has been the subject of some post-e-book controversy. Nate Silver, among others, has argued that Obama saw no great movement in the polls following his decision to front-load his ad spending. That is not the view of Obama’s staff — and there is, at least, considerable evidence that late ads really don’t make as big a difference as previously assumed.
Lopez: Is a lesson of the Romney campaign: Be wary of “professionals”?
Martin and Thrush: Perhaps “be wary of single-minded campaigns when running against candidates who enjoy coalitions that don’t waver on the basis of bad news.”
Lopez: Why did the Romney campaign never counter the “not quite human” narrative of the Obama campaign? Do you believe they actually could have, compellingly?
Martin and Thrush: The GOP convention showed the possibility of such a humanizing campaign. It was never fully countered because they wanted to make the campaign about Obama’s handling of the economy. What we heard over and over again was that Boston subscribed to the school of “if you’re explaining you’re losing.” So their imperative was to, again, make it about Obama.
Lopez: Do you agree with the assessment that Romney emphasized the economy to his detriment?
Martin and Thrush: Look at what senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom says in the book. They were invested in tying the dismal economy around Obama’s neck and then . . . the economy started to improve.
Lopez: How has Obama’s lack of business experience been an asset? Does it carry over from the campaigns to the White House?
Martin and Thrush: He had no illusions about running anything other than a campaign — so he was unhindered by the need to prove that he was proving a larger management point, namely that business acumen directly translated to political competence.
Lopez: How was the reelection campaign’s youth strategy “Chicago-style politics”?
Martin and Thrush: Urban politics is about block-by-block organizing, as opposed to capturing vast swaths of the electorate based on national messaging. Not about paying people off, more about a focus on the micro.
Lopez: Do you believe Romney would have had a better shot if he had had a shorter primary? Was it a 350,000-vote difference, as Rich Beeson, his political director, contends?
Martin and Thrush: The race likely would have been closer had Romney not had to deal with a primary through mid-April. Given the Electoral College results, though, it seems unlikely that being free of Santorum, Newt, et al. in February would’ve changed the outcome.
Lopez: How did Jon Favreau become Obama’s alter ego? And what does it say about the president?
Martin and Thrush: Favreau has an uncanny ability to a) replicate the cadence of Obama’s natural speaking style and b) anticipate how Obama will respond to a particular situation rhetorically — a shooting, a second debate, etc. They often work off the same laptop.
Lopez: From a political-history point of view, is it, in fact, the tweakers, not the innovators, who change the world, as Obama pollster Joel Benenson noted, in explaining how the president won reelection?
Martin and Thrush: That’s a question . . . Probably both, but Joel’s point was that refining, rather than reinventing, is often the best strategy. Remember: Obama’s 2008 strategy borrowed significant elements from Rove’s work for Bush, especially on voter ID/targeting.
Lopez: Is the David Plouffe role the one that makes all the difference?
Martin and Thrush: Yep. A strong, reliable campaign leader who allows the candidate to focus on his/her main task: performing.
Lopez: You contend that “the election was decided” in the summer. What does that say about debates? Do we treat them as if they are much more important than they are?
Martin and Thrush: Debates matter. Denver helped Romney close on Obama. Some of those voters were inclined to back the challenger. But, given the “47 percent” gaffe, they may have stuck with Obama or just sat out the election were it not for Denver. The first debate could have been decisive if Romney had laid the groundwork earlier.
Lopez: From a pure political-junkie point of view: What did you love most about Election 2012? What was most frustrating and distressing?
Martin and Thrush: Any presidential election is fun, but the primary this time around may have been more enjoyable to cover. There’s been much, much ink spilled on the joyless slog of the general.
Lopez: How do you cope with your post-election withdrawal? What do you miss most about being on the trail?
Martin and Thrush: Reading history about more riveting campaigns and writing about the more compelling politics of the present and future. But, of course, we miss being on the trail with our colleagues and seeing so much of the country.
Lopez: What ultimately surprised you the most about the campaigns and the candidates?
Martin and Thrush: When Romney, after the Denver debate, began discussing his faith and his role as a minister. It was a sign, after running for president for nearly six years, that he was finally comfortable talking about one of the most important elements of his life. His campaign, following 2008, thought Mormonism would be more of a factor than it ultimately became in 2012. We report in the book that they even killed a behind-the-scenes documentary on Romney from the 2008 campaign made by a family friend because it showed the candidate being too open about his faith.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.