Mitt Romney could have won. By Tuesday night, it was certain that 48 percent of the country no longer believed in the portrait of hope and change that Barack Obama offered up in 2008—if any ever had. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, the reality had grown somewhat repugnant to vast numbers of voters unhappy with a stagnant economy, even as Obama continued to portray himself as the good-guy savior (from George W. Bush, that is) in the White House.
But in the end, Obama secured a second historic election victory—in the face of staggering unemployment—largely because the alternative portrait that Romney presented to the country was far too incomplete. By failing to fill in critical details that would have fleshed out both his personality and his policies, the Republican challenger gave the American people a mere pencil sketch of a candidate. It wasn’t enough, and it was much too abstract. Too many voters couldn’t figure out which Romney would show up in the Oval Office. Would it be the Massachusetts-moderate redux they saw in the last six weeks of the campaign, or the right-wing ideologue from the Republican primaries who embraced a small-government zealot, Rep. Paul Ryan, as his running mate?
That’s not to underrate the savvy, and very savage, campaign that the Obama team ran, one that ruthlessly exploited all of these Romney weaknesses and cost the GOP candidate critical blocs of female and Hispanic voters who didn’t buy the reality of Moderate Mitt. For all of the fretting about how $5 billion in campaign spending left the nation with something close to the status quo ante—a Democratic president and Senate, a GOP House—perhaps the most successful chunk of advertising money ever spent in modern American political history was the initial $50 million or so the Obama team devoted last spring to defining Romney as an exploitative, job-exporting Wall Street plutocrat.
In a dynamic that played out much like 2004, when Democratic challenger John Kerry failed to respond to the Republicans’ “Swift Boat” attacks, Romney never responded effectively to the fat-cat charges. And he never overcame that image, as a blanket of Obama ads kept up the attack through Nov. 6 in the battleground states. “I think they were very smart in defining him early. The early ads paid off,” says GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who helped Newt Gingrich defeat Romney in the South Carolina primary by portraying him similarly. “I don’t think he ever really recovered.”
The Obama attack successfully neutralized Romney’s main argument that as a businessman and numbers whiz, he was best suited to fix the economy. Postelection polling suggests that even though Romney had slightly higher numbers on economic performance than Obama in some polls, his advantage there was eclipsed by doubts about the soundness of his policies and his evenhandedness. According to pollster John Zogby, while most voters on Tuesday cited the economy as their top issue, as expected, 52 percent said that Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy, while a plurality of 43 percent said that Obama’s policies more greatly benefit the middle class.
In addition, despite Romney’s impressive fundraising record, the Obama campaign was always ahead in organization, especially in maintaining its superb precinct-level ground game from 2008. This produced high turnout in the battleground states, even in the face of economic disillusionment. “It’s very tough to take out an incumbent president,” Tyler says. “Obama’s team just created a firewall in the battleground states.” The Obama campaign’s computer models also appear to have read
the electorate far more accurately than Romney’s did.
The biggest mistakes of the 2012 election campaign were made by Romney himself.
Finally, Romney kept committing unforced errors, and Obama made very few. Romney’s gaffe-strewn tour of Britain and Israel in July; his callous exploitation of Ambassador Chris Stevens’s killing in Benghazi, Libya, on the day of his death (Sept. 11, no less); above all, his mind-boggling videotaped dismissal of “47 percent” of the country as bloodsucking government dependents—it all played into the Obama team’s portrait of him as a clueless, not-ready-for-prime-time player. By the time the Republican nominee regained his footing with a powerful performance in the first debate on Oct. 3 and began to run a fairly smooth campaign, it was too late to overcome an image of incompetence, aloofness, and lack of definition.
All of this best explains how Obama set a postwar political record by getting himself reelected despite a 7.9 percent jobless rate (no president since FDR had done it with the jobless rate above 7.2 percent), favorable ratings barely hovering at 50 percent, and a majority of Americans saying the country was headed in the wrong direction. The president squeaked into a second term by persuading critical pockets of voters in battleground states who appeared to appreciate his efforts on the economy (especially in the industrial Midwest, which was grateful for the auto bailout), and weren’t as bad off as the nation as a whole—such as Virginia, with its 5.9 percent unemployment rate, and Ohio, a big beneficiary of the auto bailout, with a 7.2 percent jobless rate that was well below the national average.