It’s often said that people aren’t as brilliant or talented as they seem when they win, or as dumb or inept as they seem when they lose. That should be kept in mind in any analysis of the 2012 general-election campaign. It’s easy to talk about how great and effective the Obama campaign was and to ridicule the Romney effort. But Republicans by all means should look at this year’s presidential campaign with a critical eye and try to figure out what went wrong. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has formed the Growth and Opportunity Project that, despite its awkward title, is a five-person group of party officials that will examine the 2012 campaign and recommend what the GOP should do differently.
In 2004, President Bush’s reelection campaign was pretty much state of the art and, at worst, evenly matched with John Kerry’s campaign. The margin in that GOP victory was 2.4 percentage points, compared with the 3.6-point deficit this time. However, by 2012, the party’s state-of-the-art apparatus had clearly atrophied. The up-and-down nature of John McCain’s 2008 campaign didn’t help.
The fact that Mitt Romney wasn’t able to really begin his general-election campaign until April 11, the day after Rick Santorum suspended his candidacy, meant that the Republican challenger had only six months to match what the Obama campaign had been building for four years. Still, Romney’s folks thought they had a competitive chance, only to find that their Project Orca, the computer system that was supposed to connect campaign headquarters with get-out-the-vote operatives in the field, turned out to be a dead but very expensive whale that washed up on the beach on Election Day. Daily Kos and some other media outlets have reported on President Obama’s Project Narwhal and Project Dreamcatcher, two data-integration and data-mining efforts that allowed his campaign gurus to use their analytics to enhance the effectiveness of their door-to-door and telephone-canvassing efforts to an unprecedented degree.
It’s long been understood that presidents who face contested nominations almost inevitably lose: Witness Gerald Ford in 1976 after tangling with Ronald Reagan in the primaries, Jimmy Carter in 1980 after being preoccupied by Edward Kennedy’s challenge, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 after Pat Buchanan’s primary bid. Conversely, incumbents who escape primary challenges almost inevitably win.
One can argue that the presidents who lost were so weak that they drew nomination challenges or were unable to prevent them. Just as good a case can be made for the opposite—that the nomination challenges weakened them, making a general-election loss more likely. But a third explanation is that an incumbent with no nomination worries is able to spend four years preparing for a one-day fight, while challengers usually face competitive primary contests that delay their ability to prepare for the November battle.
My hunch is that each side will now create a super PAC that is unrestricted by the campaign finance laws shackling party committees. With a longer lead time to prepare for Election Day than an individual campaign is likely to enjoy, these “shadow” party committees will invest in developing the organizational fieldwork that is incredibly expensive and labor intensive. In the past few days, Obama for America seems to be redirecting the costly apparatus put together to successfully reelect Obama toward mobilizing support for the president’s second-term agenda.
Another fact of modern campaigning that became enormously clear this year is that a law of diminishing returns applies to television advertising. With general-election ads effectively beginning in June, a saturation point was reached in the key battleground states by September. Much of the final 60 days of advertising—including an unusually large percentage of TV spending by the Romney campaign and pro-Romney outside groups—occurred after many voters in those states had effectively hit the mute button.
I recommend listening to the audio file of Harvard’s Institute of Politics 2012 Campaign Decision Makers Conference (available on the conference’s website). Sadly, I had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend this year. Hearing the Obama campaign operatives talk of shifting $60 million in planned advertising from September and October to June and July while the Romney campaign was holding spending back was like watching an old war movie in which you witness a patrol heading right into an ambush. The president’s campaign spent while swing voters’ minds and ears were still open; the Romney camp held back until most voters were ready to throw things at their TVs if they saw one more ad.
Obviously, the Republicans have a lot of work to do to get back into the game before the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest, and return to where they were in 2004.
This article appears in the December 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine as First Things First.