In the Fall of 2011, nagging unemployment and sagging polls made President Obama’s reelection seem unlikely. A year later he swept to victory with a campaign unlike any in history. (More)

The Center Holds, Part III: A Message Built to Last (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Jonathan Alter’s new book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Thursday we began with the president’s enemies and what Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Yesterday we saw how President Obama’s introversion, and some miscalculations, added to his challenges. Today we conclude with how the Obama campaign built and carried a winning message to hold America’s center and block radical conservatism in 2012.

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning author, reporter, columnist and television analyst. The Center Holds is his third New York Times bestseller, along with The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010) and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006). He spent 28 years at Newsweek, where he was a longtime senior editor and columnist, and also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. Since 1996 he has been a frequent analyst and contributor on NBC News and MSNBC.

“Is Obama Toast?”

On November 3, 2011, poll maven Nate Silver’s New York Times headline Is Obama Toast? shocked Democrats and thrilled Republicans:

Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog. Let’s not oversell this. A couple of months of solid jobs reports, or the selection of a poor Republican opponent, would suffice to make him the favorite again.

Silver then offered four predictions, based on the Republican nominee (Mitt Romney or a weaker candidate like Texas Gov. Rick Perry) and 2012 GDP growth (a stagnant 0% or a robust 4%). In fact Romney won the GOP nomination and 2012 GDP growth was a modest 2.2%, almost exactly splitting Silver’s benchmarks. As an 83% favorite in a stagnant economy and a 40% underdog in a robust economy, Romney should have been at least a slight favorite – in Silver’s model – given the actual 2012 economic conditions.

Yet the Huffington Post’s poll-tracker showed President Obama leading throughout the race, even after the president’s dismal performance in the first debate. How did an election that Romney should have been favored to win … end with President Obama becoming the first president in almost six decades to win twice with a majority of the popular vote?

“The Clown Car”

Part of the answer, Alter suggests, lay in the weakness of the Republican Party, exposed through a series of 22 debates. At one time or another, five candidates – Romney, Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain – led in a race that Alter calls “the clown car.” He writes:

Under normal circumstances, politicians benefit from sustained public attention. Not this time. Comedians and bloggers enjoyed a daily feast of material with which to make Republicans look ridiculous[.] … Each gaffe faded in a day or two, but they left a cumulative impression. Federal Judge Richard Posner, a barometer of principled conservative thought, complained that the GOP had become “goofy.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to the field as “bumbling clowns.” Even Pat Robertson, the godfather of the religious right, worried about the impact on the general election: “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off this stuff.”

Of course Republicans did not “lay off this stuff” – they seem eager to repeat that mistake for 2016 – and the result was a party brand widely, and correctly, perceived as radically out of step with most Americans.

“The New Chicago Machine”

But 2012 was not simply a matter of Republicans blowing a golden opportunity. As Alter writes, the Obama campaign had built a political machine unlike any other in history. One campaign staffer called it “a governor’s race on steroids,” emphasizing the U.S. presidential race is really 50 simultaneous state elections.

Alter describes Obama’s campaign headquarters as a place state-of-the-art data analysis melded with shoe-leather campaigning:

In Chicago, the focus was more prosaic. The first task was to bring back those who had unsubscribed from the Email List and to register the millions of kids who had turned eighteen since 2008. In the early going, the door knocks and other voter contact would be targeted on hard-core Obama supporters who might become committed volunteers again. Then came the establishment of neighborhood team leaders, with eight to ten precincts apiece under local, regional, and state directors. Eventually more than thirty thousand of them became full-time volunteers. Finally, there would be “persuasion” of undecideds and a massive GOTV campaign for early voting and on Election Day. The whole thing would be much better organized than in 2008, which had already been the best organized presidential campaign in history.

“All roads lead to the face-to-face conversation”

The Obama campaign brought 2008 Iowa caucus organizer Jeremy Bird to Chicago, where he teamed up with Mitch Stewart, who had run President Obama’s winning 2008 campaign in Virginia. They shared an office on The Floor – a vast, open bay that provided space for hundreds of Chicago campaign workers – and worked together well:

By now the two were old roommates, having shared an office at OFA inside Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, and they developed various Oscar-and-Felix routines. Stewart liked to dip tobacco and was a Diet Coke fiend, which left Bird (and sometimes Stewart) confused over which old Coke cans contained soda and which tobacco juice. They had the walls repainted with an erasable surface so they could constantly diagram their complex field maneuvers, like Eisenhower and Patton planning the invasion of North Africa.

The two were relentless about keeping the focus on the old interactions, not the new technologies that were helping them sharpen their focus on the voters they needed to contact. “All roads lead to the face-to-face conversation,” Stewart said. “It’s not about math; it’s about helping those relationships.”

Sasha Issenberg described the result in The Victory Lab, quoting another Chicago staffer: “We ran a national election like a school board race.”

“A Message Built to Last”

Alter writes at length about the Obama campaign’s messaging plans, ranging from the president’s speeches to national ads to microtargeted local ads and phonebank and canvassing pitches. Ultimately the campaign tried – and succeeded – in painting Mitt Romney as a callous plutocrat, out of touch with the lives and needs of hardworking Americans. Romney’s infamous 47% remarks reinforced a story the Obama campaign had been telling for months, in ads that went unrebutted because the primary race emptied the Romney campaign coffers.

The Obama campaign portrayed the 2012 election as “a make or break moment for the middle class,” an assessment that became Alter’s thesis. A Romney victory would mean a hard-right turn into a radical conservatism that served those with privilege at the expense of everyone else. An Obama victory would cement the pragmatic centrism of today’s Democratic Party and help to enable what the president called “an economy built to last.”

But in that historic victory there was also a message built to last. The 2012 campaign showed that – despite Citizens United and oceans of corporate cash – elections can still be won by energized, motivated, organized grassroots campaigns that focus on face-to-face interaction. The campaign’s 2012 slogan was “Forward,” but it proved the truth of the president’s famous words from 2008:

“Yes we can.”

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Happy Saturday!