CHICAGO—"We could lose.”
That’s David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief reelection strategist, injecting an obligatory note of caution into what is in every other way a “there’s-no-way-we-can-lose” assessment of the campaign. From top to bottom, Obama’s team keeps this self-effacing qualifier around mostly for amusement, like a yo-yo, a balsa-wood airplane, or a paper-clip necklace.
Every campaign, of course, believes it’s going to win. Obama’s team, however, conveys such a visceral sense of self-confidence that even protestations to the contrary take on air of comically profane absurdity.
“I don’t want you to leave here thinking I’ve got my feet up on my f------ desk and I’m sanguine,” Axelrod says after a 51-minute interview in which he surveys the landscape and finds nothing but roses for Obama and thorns for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “I’m not! I treat this as a struggle to the end, and we’re going to fight that way.”
There is no end of fight in the Obama campaign. Pugilism has displaced post-partisanship. The president’s aides fastidiously remind every reporter who asks about the brass-knuckle campaign conducted so far that it spent $25 million on “positive” ads in May. Losing track of their own talking points, senior advisers then offer a surgical assessment of the political vivisection they performed on Romney on issues ranging from unreleased tax returns and Bain Capital to outsourcing and a Swiss bank account, wielding TV ads and attack lines in June, July, and August.
“They didn’t give people anything to grab on to, and they allowed us to define him before he could define himself,” Axelrod says of Romney. “And now they are playing catch-up. And now they are running bio ads. The summer is when candidates and races get defined. That’s why we made a strategic decision that it was better to muscle up in the summer. I can’t think of a presidential race determined by paid media after Labor Day.”
That’s Axelrod’s understated way of saying—feet-up-on-the-desk protestations notwithstanding—that he thinks the election is already over. In fact, campaign officials purposely approach the race as closer than they truly think it is. For more than two months, the campaign has been subtracting 2 points from internal polls that consistently show Obama ahead nationally and state by state.
The sources of Team Obama’s bristling reelection conceit certainty can be found in the usual places and within shopworn metaphors (demographics, ground game, approval ratings, likability). But the campaign also enfolds unique cultural and political touchstones: Richard Pryor by way of Chico Marx. Ronald Reagan. John Kerry. And Paul Ryan.
Obama’s team scoffs at comparisons to the 1980 campaign between embattled Democratic President Carter, dogged by gloomy economic news in every direction and unabashedly pro-free-market Gov. Reagan. Many of this year’s differences from that picture do not augur well for Romney. Obama did not face a party-splitting primary. Carter did—as well as an independent alternative to Reagan. Carter had to contend with high unemployment, high interest rates, and high inflation. Obama confronts only one of those. Carter trailed Reagan starting in June and led by a narrow margin only sporadically down the stretch. Also, Obama’s 2012 approval numbers are far better than Carter’s were and have been higher ever since March. By this stage of the 1980 campaign, Carter’s approval rating had fallen to
32 percent (with a 5-point bounce to 37 percent in September).
“Those guys over there love to talk about 1980, which I think is delusional for a whole range of reasons,” Axelrod said. “Obama is not Carter, and Romney is not Reagan.”
The Obama campaign, looking at the demographic shifts since then, has concluded that if the 1980 turnout were repeated this year, Carter would have fared better and might even have eked out a razor-thin victory (especially since he wouldn’t have conceded to Reagan at 9:01 p.m. Eastern time and to the nation at 10:30). “The demographic changes in the country over the past 30 years have been pretty dramatic,” Axelrod said. “That’s certainly a factor.”
A few choice stats that Team Obama likes to ponder: The white share of the population has declined from 79.6 percent to 72.4 percent in the past 32 years. The Hispanic share has grown from 6.4 percent to 16.3 percent. The black population has increased from 11.7 percent to 13.6 percent. In recent surveys, Obama has an approval rating in the high 80s among blacks and high 50s among Hispanics (he averages 37 percent among whites). More important, the share of married couples has fallen from 65 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 2012, and among single voters Obama’s approval rating is in the mid-50s. Among all women in the CNN/ORC and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys in early August, he ran 9 and 15 points ahead of Romney, respectively. In the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama led 63 percent to 32 percent among college-educated women. The furor over Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape” this month would seem only to further this advantage.
One last point: Obama’s ground game has been registering new voters since December; in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico, the number of eligible but unregistered Hispanic voters exceeds Obama’s 2008 winning margins in each state (that means there’s plenty of pad if Obama’s team registers new Hispanic voters—even if those Latinos register as independents).
Many in Obama’s inner circle also believe that Obama is the more likable, Reagan-like figure who can remake his party and the nation’s policies. They see Romney as far more like Carter, who never wore well with his party, was prone to awkwardness, and won the nomination by default. They also doubt any comparison to the economic doldrums of then and now and any possibility of a late-breaking shift of Democratic and undecided voters to Romney (as happened with Reagan).
“They have this fantasy that the debates will come and the dam will break like it did in 1980,” Axelrod said. “I think they are delusional.”
Obama’s senior advisers see the election as much more like 2004 than 1980—except they are the Bush-Cheney team (right down to the daily precinct-by-precinct spreadsheet reports from swing states on voter contacts and persuasion). They have a likable president seeking reelection in troubled times who possesses definite and possibly debilitating political weaknesses (like Bush). They see a challenger who has a unified party but a hard time connecting with the growing ranks of independent voters. They see a figure of wealth who comes off as an out-of-touch elitist and who is guarded about key aspects of his life story (like Kerry).
Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, even said that there are moments, fleeting though they may be, where she does “empathize” with Romney’s team. But not very often. Cutter is, after all, the operative who suggested that Romney might have committed a felony on a Securities and Exchange Commission filing for Bain Capital and who says she had no objection to Vice President Joe Biden telling an audience in Danville, Va., (where civil-rights protesters once met with arrests and violence) that Romney’s bid to repeal new Wall Street regulations would “put y’all back in chains.” Even Team Obama’s pity is pitiless.
It’s the Richard Pryor/Chico Marx meme, though, that adds texture to Chicago’s otherwise drone-like certitude. It’s all about lying eyes and how much Obama’s advisers are counting on them. This came up in response to Romney’s attempts to portray Obama as either corrupt (the $535 million taxpayer investment in the now-bankrupt solar-energy firm Solyndra), or out of touch (his remarks that the private sector is “doing fine” and that small businesses “didn’t build” all that made them successful).
“It’s like that line from that Richard Pryor movie,” Axelrod says. “ ‘Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes? People trust their lying eyes. They’re not going to believe the [Romney] ads. They know who [Obama] is. You try to runs ads suggesting that he’s corrupt; they know he’s not corrupt. You try to run ads saying he doesn’t care about the state of the economy; it didn’t move anything. You can’t tell people what they’re not willing to believe and expect it to work. You’re not going to tell them what their lying eyes tell them.” (Pryor fashioned the “lying eyes” line in his 1982 movie Live on the Sunset Strip. He lifted it from a bit by Chico Marx as the character Chicolini in the 1933 movie Duck Soup, and then seasoned it with a vulgarism.) It’s also worth noting that Obama’s advisers deny the allegation of corruption. That’s secondary, though, to how they evaluate the political implications—hence the oddly self-condemning nature of the “lying eyes” comparison.
All of Chicago shuddered when Obama made his remarks about small businesses and the role government plays in their success, knowing that Romney’s team would jump on it as an example of Obama’s intellectual hostility to individual initiative. Romney built events in swing states around the comment and made it a symbolic theme at the GOP convention in Tampa. The gaffe created genuine nervousness among Democrats. Obama cut a TV spot at the White House the Sunday after the massacre in Aurora, Colo., describing the election’s big choice. Axelrod described it as an antibiotic ad meant to stave off infection. Cutter called it a way to plug a hole in the dike before water started to seep through. No Obama ad has tested better with campaign focus groups.
“When we show that direct-to-camera spot to people, they say, ‘I think he’s pretty sincere,’ ” Axelrod said. “This is what makes [the Romney campaign’s] task so hard. They keep trying different ways to crack into the safe.”
RUNNING AT RYAN
As for Ryan, every single top Obama adviser sees a comparison to Sarah Palin. Not in terms of depth of knowledge, political experience, policy innovation, or powers of persuasion—they rate Ryan ahead of Palin in all these categories. The pivotal similarity they talk about is that Ryan, like Palin, reverses the rival campaign’s own narrative. Sen. John McCain ran against Obama based on leadership, heroism, Senate experience, defense credentials, and sacrifice for one’s nation. Palin undercut the leadership and experience arguments and injected partisan passion. Her selection didn’t sink McCain’s campaign (the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing financial meltdown did that), but Palin diverted the campaign from its own path.
Top Obama advisers believe that the same dynamic has now happened with Romney’s pick of Ryan. Until Ryan, Romney’s overarching theme, at least from Chicago’s point of view, was to use the economy against Obama in a sweeping indictment of his presidency. A referendum with a capital “R.” Obama hated this terrain and wanted to disqualify Romney as an unacceptable alternative (Bain, Swiss bank account, Cayman Island business, tax returns) and to shift the election to a choice about the future—Obama’s path forward versus Romney’s retooling of Bush’s policies.
“Their theory is very simple: The economy sucks; [voters will] fire the president,” Axelrod says. “They’ve put all of their chips on that one number. Maybe their number will come in. But there’s a lot more dimensionality to it. There’s a larger [economic] crisis that’s been going for a longer period of time that goes to the viability of the middle class.”
Axelrod took careful note of Romney’s mid-August attempt to reframe his economic proposals to make them more meaningful to middle-class voters by talking about take-home pay and debt-per-child rather than big, eye-glazing numbers or a 59-point economic plan. “They are now trying to get with it,” Axelrod says. “He is just a lousy exponent of that theory. He’s not someone you look at and hear, and say, ‘There’s a guy who is going to fight for the middle class.’ So they are playing on our side of the field on that argument.”
Other top advisers see the Ryan pick as spotlighting the future of Medicare, Medicaid, and federal spending on education, student loans, environmental protection, farm programs, and food safety. All would face spending cuts under the Ryan budget. “This crystallizes the argument we have been trying to make for months,” says Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager. “Ryan on the ticket helps us with three subgroups of voters—seniors, women, and young voters. We thought they wanted a referendum. Now they’ve given us a choice. We feel very good about how that choice will come out.”
Chicago’s transcendent sense of invulnerability is so grandiose that it finds odd common cause with one of the moments of George W. Bush’s presidency that liberals reviled most. A simple question, posed then and now, evokes the same answer: What mistakes have you made?
“You know, it’s funny,” Axelrod said. “The whole Bush question. What mistakes have you made? And we all made fun of him. But when you’re in it, it’s not that easy to say what mistakes you’ve made. I think we’ve run a pretty good campaign. We’ve had a few stumbles along the road, but you’re going to have that.” Axelrod says that Obama knows he stepped into it by saying the private sector is doing “fine” and “you didn’t build that.” “He would like those back. But I would take that any day and have my guy out there, because we gain so much more.”
THUMB ON THE SCALE
Every top adviser to Obama knows that the race will be close. They concede that some states won in 2008, like Indiana, will likely be lost but the damage won’t be enough, they believe, to jeopardize their chances of reaching 270 electoral votes. They know Romney’s team has assembled eight possible scenarios to win the White House. Only one doesn’t include Florida’s 29 electoral votes (it relies on Michigan’s 16, Pennsylvania’s 20, and Wisconsin’s 10). With Ryan on the ticket, Team Obama now believes that Florida is in play and that the Democrats’ narrow advantage there will grow. It doesn’t see Ryan helping Romney with women or Latino voters, removing a potential cause of demographic anxiety.
In Chicago, talk of unexpected events toppling Obama’s path to reelection are largely cursory. This nonchalance, by the way, is said to perturb the Windy City’s mayor, and former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who frequently warns that the president’s popularity is “defying gravity” and that the campaign must ward against its tendency toward all-knowing arrogance.
As to gravity, Obama’s team has begun preemptively making things look worse in its own polling. For at least two months, the campaign has detected a ripple in the data caused by a spike in voters identifying themselves as Democrats. The numbers that come back on self-identified Democrats don’t match, statistically, voter-registration rolls or historical patterns. This anomaly cropped up in public polls in August. Romney aides have taken careful note and don’t know what to make of it. They take comfort that Democratic voter registration from 2008 is down 800,000 while GOP registration is down less than a tenth of that. Independent registration in the same period is up 207,000. But what if independents are choosing to call themselves Democrats? What if Republicans are? What if people are lying? Obama’s analysts have decided to subtract at least 2 points from Obama’s support in every internal poll.
“We keep weighting our polls down,” Axelrod says. “This has been true of our national polling and state-by-state polling. We’re watching it. We don’t know what it means. We’re not willing to say this means there’s been some kind of conversion. But it certainly doesn’t mean there is a Republican wave. It’s a real subject for investigation. There’s no doubt there’s a pattern out there. At the very least, it kind of militates against their theory that there’s a big wave coming and the wave is going to move in their direction. There is nothing in the data that would suggest that.”
If politics is a game and a presidential campaign the biggest one of all, confidence counts. It’s not that Obama’s team doesn’t second-guess itself or constantly fret over every possible tremor, real or imagined. It does. But the Chicago headquarters is not only a fortress of security (three layers of it and the requirement that “tout le monde,” as Tom Wolfe would say—the 350-plus paid staffers; the legions of summer interns; and even senior White House adviser David Plouffe—must leave a driver’s license at the front desk). It’s also a fortress of surety.
“The worst thing you can do in politics is assume too much,” Axelrod says laconically. “We could win, or we could lose. I think we’re going to win.”
In Chicago, that’s not an assumption.
This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.