During the 2012 presidential campaign, I had the opportunity to participate in many functions of the Obama campaign—organizing and constituency work with the Veterans and Military Families team, helping with GOTV in Ohio, fundraising, and working foreign policy surrogate operations.
From the perspective of a political director, who saw a wide variety of campaign functions in action, here are the top five winning strategic decisions made by President Obama’s team.
5. Latino star power
Much of the credit for Obama’s rout of Mitt Romney in battleground states is given to his stellar performance with Latino voters. But a progressive stance on immigration policy alone wouldn’t ensure turnout. The Obama campaign intentionally brought Latin-American surrogates into the campaign fold—cutting ads with “the Spanish language Oprah,” Cristina Saralegui, and naming Eva Longoria as a campaign co-chair. Instead of negative attacks or a drumbeat on the same old issues, this gave Obama the cultural connection needed to run up the score.
4. Military focus during the convention
Despite flubbing the first debate, Obama never trailed Romney in large part because the Democratic convention so drastically outperformed its Republican counterpart. But that took planning and smarts. In past years, Democrats spent Wednesday night on security and foreign policy while turning to an economic focus on Thursday. This year, the convention planners swapped it. That paved the way for Bill Clinton having extra time to make his now-famous “do the math” case and set up a John Kerry-Joe Biden-Obama closing lineup that featured a salute to the troops and effectively hammered home the “Commander-in-Chief” advantage. Romney fell right into the trap by failing to mention vets or Afghanistan in his nomination acceptance speech, and Obama opened a wide strength-plus-leadership gap.
3. Ignoring Romney’s PA-WI-MI bluff
We’ll always remember the David Axelrod mustache shaving bet, but that doesn’t reflect how difficult it is to stay your course when Romney is closing fast and putting more states on his media map. Ultimately, the Obama campaign polling operation stuck by their guns and didn’t panic when the Romney camp started making noise about Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. At the end of the day, Romney’s internal turnout model was heavily flawed and led their campaign to erroneous conclusions, and the Obama campaign looked brilliant. But another team might have made a different call.
2. The Biden debate strategy
Obama lost the first debate with a listless performance, and the narrative of the race shifted dramatically. Just a week later, Biden was set to face off against a younger, more charismatic, more attractive Paul Ryan. How could he overcome a barrage of economic attacks? Joe decided to be Joe. They threw DC-style politeness and collegiate wonkery out the window and decided to draw a blue-collar Uncle Joe v. elitist, cocktail-sipping Ryan contrast. Biden even called “malarkey” on Ryan. It worked by reminding middle class voters that Biden and Obama give a damn about them, because they’re, well, pretty much just normal guys when you strip away the glitz and prestige of the presidency.
1. Media Targeting
The Romney campaign was flush with cash at the end of the campaign and could have easily clobbered Obama on TV. But they didn’t. The Obama campaign built the world’s most sophisticated media targeting program, overlaying undecided voter and demographic data with media buy cost. As a result, Obama could reach the same amount of undecided voters (with cheap cable buys on ESPN Classic, HGTV and the Tennis Channel) as Romney could with much more expensive nightly news buys.
The Democrats also bought their media well in advance, thanks to strong targeting, and saved boatloads of cash. Obama’s team blew Romney’s team out of the water with media buy efficiency and held their ground despite being heavily outspent. And on Election Day their initial advantage held.
Michael Moschella is the national political director for the Truman National Security Project, which works to train candidates and political organizers at all levels.