President Obama’s campaign organization is the greatest political machine in modern history.
How it was possible to take a moribund economy, high unemployment, and no detectable foreign policy and turn it into a sweeping electoral victory over a credible opponent is one of the great political stories of our time.
Plouffe, Messina, Axelrod. Political geniuses who wiped away forever the Clinton campaign axiom, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and replaced it with, “It’s the Community Organizing, Stupid.”
A few years ago, I was talking to a Democratic member of Congress who is close to Obama. She who told me of seeing him on the podium as Obama was trumpeting his victory in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses over Hillary Clinton, the win that propelled him to the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.
“Nothing like a little community organizing,” Obama told her.
More than anything – more than changing demographics, Hurricane Sandy, the Romney campaign’s mistakes – or anything else – it was the Obama campaign’s relentless organization and prodding of its supporters and independents that made Obama’s success a reality.
The campaign collected peoples emails and addresses anyplace they could find them – from beauty salons to campaign rallies. They used them effectively, asking repeatedly through personalized messages for people’s money or their time.
I was signed up for the Obama campaign’s emails. They each began, “Keith.” I was signed up for the Romney campaign emails. They each began, “Friend.”
I’m not any campaign’s friend. I am Keith.
And on Election Day, Obama’s vast organization got everyone to the polls.
It is estimated that more black people, not fewer, voted in 2012 than 2008. More Latinos voted, not fewer, and an even greater percentage of them supported Obama this time. The youth vote did not decline from 2008. All this despite flagging enthusiasm for the president.
Here’s a telling anecdote related by a senior Obama aide to the press pool on Wednesday’s flight from Chicago back to Washington.
During flight, a campaign official talked about the ground game on background . . .
In describing the ground game, the official told of a conversation he had with a top field director on Monday. The GOP had tweeted that they had knocked on 75,000 doors in Ohio the day prior. Not to worry, the director said, “we knocked on 376,000.”
Then the president came in, and this aide said, “Tell him the door thing.” So he did. And the president responded, “That’s my team.”
That was not Romney’s team. Romney’s team was back in Boston Tuesday night, watching in awe:
In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night.
That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla. “It’s one thing to say you are going to do it; it’s another thing to actually get out there and do it,” said Brian Jones, a senior adviser.
Brian Jones and company didn’t do it. According to a fascinating piece by Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics, turnout, far more than the “changing demographics” everyone is talking about, was the key to Obama’s victory.
And who didn’t turn out? White people, who overwhelmingly backed Romney when they did make it to the polls. Republicans need to attract more minority voters. But if white voters don’t show up, they still won’t win.
According to Trende, about 6.7 million fewer whites voted on Election Day 2012 than in 2008. A critical statistic in a race Obama won by only about 3 million votes.
Part of the reason they stayed home, Trende says, might be that these voters didn’t like Obama but had fallen sway to the Obama campaign’s negative emphasis on Romney’s wealth, as well as Romney’s own failure to articulate a message.
But Obama’s base wasn’t particularly excited either. And they showed up.
There are two lessons for Republicans in this. The first is obvious: Run a better campaign.
But the second, which flows from the first, is less obvious. Some Republicans are already talking about the need to “moderate” the Republican message.
But campaign workers won’t spend 20 hours a day at the office working for nothing to elect someone without a clear philosophy they can wrap their arms around. And voters won’t turn out unless they can understand a candidate’s views and be enthusiastic about it.
Romney failed to aggressively embrace a philosophy of any sort. If he had run as a true conservative and explained relentlessly why conservative policies are needed, he might have attracted the right people to his organization and put them in a position to bring motivated voters to the polls.
Because, it’s the community organizing, stupid.