Green Room

Obama failed to define the campaign early

posted at 9:34 am on June 13, 2012 by

To demonstrate how Pres. Obama squandered a unique opportunity, let’s briefly revisit the story the left is telling itself about the failed recall campaign against WI Gov. Scott Walker:

There are reasons not to extract too many lessons from Gov. Scott Walker’s convincing victory in the Wisconsin recall election Tuesday. For one thing, he faced a weak opponent in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and for another, he vastly outspent Barrett to win by 7 percentage points. Most important, voters seemed to understand that a recall wasn’t the right remedy for Walker’s actions. As California was forced to learn the hard way, the recall is a better device for removing a governor who has engaged in misconduct than for punishing one over policy disagreements.

As previously noted, the left vastly overestimates the spending gap — but the second rationalization is equally interesting. Indeed, many progressives, including Markos Moulitsas, considered this a prime reason to discount their failure:

First, 60 percent of voters thought that recall elections were only appropriate for official misconduct, while 27 percent said “any reason.” Another 10 percent said “never”—and those voted for Walker 94-5. It’s hard going into any election with 10 percent immediately off the board, and for those who said “only official misconduct,” Walker won 68-31. Turns out people just didn’t like the idea of a recall—something worth filing away as an important lesson learned.

But what if the illegitimacy of the recall was the GOP message?

The Republicans’ biggest goal was to define a message and to get that message out early, said Matt Gagnon, the Republican Governors Association’s digital strategy director. The party decided early on that the message should focus on the idea that the election was an abuse of process — that recalls are meant only for Governors accused of criminal wrongdoing, and not for policy disputes. The Republicans started in on that theme in February and March, Gagnon said. All the messaging across television, online and mailing platforms was unified, he said.

Gagnon added that there was also plenty of criticism of Tom Barrett’s record on taxes and employment.

The lesson here is not simply that people did not like the recall. The lesson is that an incumbent can use a lack of intra-party opposition to raise and spend money to define a campaign while his partisan opponents battle each other in a primary (as Walker did while Barrett fought with Big Labor’s favored candidate, Kathleen Falk).

Team Obama should not have needed the WI recall to learn that lesson. A similar dynamic helped Bill Clinton win reelection by a margin greater than would be suggested by the economic fundamentals. Through May 1996, Clinton had the airwaves mostly to himself, because Bob Dole had hit his primary spending limits fighting off Steve Forbes and other rivals for the GOP nomination. Clinton had already spent $15 million (roughly $22 million in 2012 dollars), much of it on linking Dole to unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich “and praising Clinton as a welfare-reforming, budget-balancing, crime-fighting saviour of women, children and the elderly.”

In contrast:

$25 million in ads and what does President Barack Obama campaign have to show for it? Stagnant or sagging poll numbers, an opponent who’s finally showing fight, and dissension in the ranks.

In May, the Obama campaign devoted $25 million to campaign ads, most of it to a slew of positive spots highlighting his record on issues from health care to the auto-bailout. One featured an Ohio autoworker hailing Obama for “sticking his neck out” for the industry. In another, Obama explains why he decided to bail out the car companies. A third is simply an animated chart showing job growth under Obama’s tenure in office, ending with a text overlay “Do we really want to reverse course now?”

They did this knowing Obama’s effort to convince voters that “America is back” was a dud. They did this knowing that neither Obamacare nor the auto industry bailouts are all that popular. Moreover, when Team Obama did attack Romney early, it was with a muddled message that Romney was both a flip-flopper and a right-wing extremist. The Obama campaign put relatively little effort into linking Romney to Congress and a House GOP budget that would “end Medicare as we know it.” They had months to piggyback on the attacks other GOP candidates made on Romney’s record at Bain Capital, but never went all in. They could have done all of this while Obama’s poll numbers were lifted by temporarily good economic news, instead of looking desperate as Romney started closing the gap on Obama.

Time is a finite resource and thus one of the most valuable to a campaign. After TX Gov. Rick Perry fizzled as an alternative to Romney, the Obama campaign should have realized Romney was the most likely GOP nominee. Team Obama should have started attacking Romney as a tool of Wall Street and an extremist GOP Congress last year. They wasted months trying to seem above the fray, during a period in which big-spending outside groups were not coalesced around Romney. Obama will regret it.

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Good piece Karl

Their mentality was/is mitt is a weak candidate

cmsinaz on June 13, 2012 at 9:45 AM

His campaign didn’t need defining. He is the campaign and he is the Won. ‘Nuff said. Try as he might to run on his claimed record of less spending and creating 4+Million jobs in the last 27 months, anyone other than his in the tank media know that just ain’t so.

Kissmygrits on June 13, 2012 at 9:59 AM

Wisdom has shown me that Republicans seem to understand better that you have to examine the traits and character of candidate before you elect them, while Democrats more typically believe that you can penalize bad public officials after the fact.

History has shown me that trying to penalize bad public officials after the fact just doesn’t work well (i.e. Clinton impeachment, Walker recall, specious “war crimes,” etc.).

J_Crater on June 13, 2012 at 6:07 PM