Analysis of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

Barak Obama will remain at the White House for four more years. His victory (303 electoral votes and 50% of the popular vote) represents to me a triumph of his campaign strategy over economic circumstances. According to the website realclearpolitics, a solid majority of 54% of Americans think that the country goes into the wrong direction, the unemployment rate stagnates at a high 7.9% and the president’s record of achievement is considered to be controversial by many voters. As I write in my new book, this provides a fertile ground for a challenger candidate. So, how did Obama pull off his victory?

I always encourage people to understand and plan an election campaign as a series of strategic decisions. Obama has made these decisions in an analytically very smart way and then implemented them with discipline. This was – just like in 2008 – the key to his success. It was a win on message, strategy, targeting, getting out the vote and discipline.

One of the most important strategic decisions was to invest millions of U.S. dollars into TV spots attacking Mitt Romney as early as last spring. I like to call this strategy the ruthless counter-offensive and it has helped many vulnerable incumbents in their respective re-election bids before. Negative ads might be unpopular with journalists, but if they are professionally executed, credible, well documented and adapted to the local political culture, they often have the desired effect with voters. Advertising is an unwelcomed guest and that’s why it works. In these ads, Romney was portrayed as a cold-hearted capitalist who amassed a fortune by outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. The fact that Obama has achieved better results in those swing states where the ads were aired compared to the rest of the country, is the best proof for the effectiveness of this campaign. This being said, it was also Romney’s mistake to let the summer pass by without defining himself in a positive way. This might sound obvious now, but many politicians are often hesitant to spend early in a campaign because they wrongly assume that the effect of early spending will be forgotten come Election Day. One can always raise more money in a campaign, but it’s impossible to recover lost time.

A second important strategic decision was made by Obama himself at the very beginning of his first term when he decided to save the U.S. auto industry. This proved to be a valuable asset for him three years later, especially in the swing-state of Ohio. In synch with this decision, the Obama campaign invested an unprecedented amount of money, time, personnel, advertising and infrastructure into Ohio. This decision was not without risk, because despite being a swing state, Ohio still traditionally leans Republican. As Ronald Brownstein noted, only four democratic presidential candidates since 1924 have achieved better results there then their respective national average of votes. But the investment payed off and Obama had built himself a protective wall which turned out difficult to crack. Altogether, there couldn’t be a bigger difference between Romney and Obama when it comes to discipline regarding their respective targeting strategy. Each campaign has to reach a decision on how much resources it invests into mobilising and how much it invests into convincing. The Obama campaign decided early on to invest considerably into micro-targeting. In that sense, the Obama campaign brought to new levels what George W. Bush started in 2004, building up an impressive wealth of data about their own voters. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, seemed to be hesitating about their targeting up until the last minute. The decision to invest millions into Pennsylvania during the last week of the campaign is symptomatic for this.

During the 90 minutes of the first TV-debate in Denver, Mitt Romney was an excellent candidate. For the rest of his campaign, however, he was probably the worst Republican presidential candidate of the past 36 years when it comes to campaign skills. They ran a defensive campaign, mainly banking on the self-destruction of the vulnerable incumbent. Such a strategy is almost always doomed to fail. I am further amazed how politically unprepared Romney approached this campaign. After all, he had been planning to run for President for at least six years and more likely for much of his adult life. Issues such as his secret tax returns or his past at Bain Capital were already raised during past campaigns and should have been pre-empted.

After finally having fought his way through a remarkably weak field of candidates in the primaries, Romney continued for months to run a primary campaign. In that sense, his choosing of Paul Ryan as a running mate can only be seen as a gift to the conservative base. I would have assumed that the Republican base in on board anyway, even for the sole reason of getting rid of Barack Hussein Obama. But candidates often make the mistake of leading a campaign that makes their own team happy instead of the target audience needed to win. What would have happened if Romney had picked a woman? It probably would have helped him closing the gender-gap. According to CNN’s exit-polls, 55% of all women voted for Obama whereas only 44% cast their ballot for Romney (Romney won the male vote with 52% over Obama’s 45%).

As I write in my book about challenger campaigns, it’s not enough to just talk about change and the economy. A challenger needs a coherent plan with a series of strategic measures and PR events in order to communicate that plan to swing voters. Romney’s “economic plan” is actually rather a list of goals than a credible and appealing plan. The tragedy of the race is that Romney’s background as a man from business and a governor from a traditionally Democratic state would have made him a pretty good messenger for such a strategy. 

Finally, there is one central thing that the Obama campaign understood better than the Romney campaign in their basic assumptions shaping the race: The demography of the United States is rapidly changing. This was the first election in the history of the USA where 10% of the voters were Latinos. A stunning 71% of them voted for Obama. As James Carville pointed out on election night, the Republican Party has now lost the popular vote in five out of the past six presidential elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012). The GOP will have to find ways to manoeuvre itself out of the ideological corner similar to the way European Social Democrats did during the 1990is.

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