No doubt that overstates the case. But certainly the winter and spring provided ample cause for Obama to be cheerful. The rising poll numbers. The signs of life in the economy. The anniversary of Bin Laden’s death. And best of all was the sight of a spectacle that would quicken the pulse and gladden the heart of any Democrat in possession of both: the spastic goat rodeo that was the Republican nomination contest.
Few topics provoke such a mix of wonderment, contempt, and glee among the Obamans. On a bright afternoon in early May, Axelrod and I are having lunch in the shadow of One Prudential Plaza, the high-rise in downtown Chicago that houses Obama’s reelection operation. Axelrod is marveling at the jaw-dropping weakness of the Republican field when a news alert hits his BlackBerry. “Speak of the devil: Newt Gingrich suspends his campaign,” he says with a grin. “A landmark day in the history of American politics.”
From the outset, Axelrod and the rest of Team Obama assumed that Romney would ultimately emerge as the Republican nominee, though there were moments of uncertainty. “I believed a well-funded, clever, right-wing candidate could beat Romney,” Axelrod says. “The question was, did anybody fit the bill? Theoretically, Rick Perry was that guy, but he was less than met the eye—he never got the gun out of the holster.”
Perry wasn’t the only Republican whose doofishness caused Obama’s lieutenants to sigh. “All of Romney’s rivals ran incompetent campaigns at every level,” declares Plouffe, nodding appalledly as we tick off the series of malpractice-quality errors they committed, such as the failure to run ads featuring video of Romney signing the Massachusetts health-care law alongside Ted Kennedy. “They had terrible debate strategy, terrible research, and terrible ads. It was painful to see what could be done to Romney and see no one doing it.”
So painful, in fact, that eventually the Obamans decided to do the job themselves, taking the unusual step of becoming participants in the GOP nomination fight, making the arguments his competitors should have been but weren’t. It began with Plouffe appearing on Meet the Press in October and charging that Romney “has no core.” Soon after, the DNC released a two-minute TV ad titled “Mitt Versus Mitt,” hammering its target for being a flip-flopper. “That was the right narrative for him at the time, because it was a fundamental truth, and it damaged him in the primary,” says another Obama adviser. “His negatives went up to the highest of any presidential candidate in modern American history.”
Romney himself, of course, bore the preponderance of responsibility for that fate. The obvious examples are ones where the odd malady from which he seems to suffer—a hybrid of affluenza and Tourette’s—caused him to implant both of his tasseled loafers so far down his gullet that they were tickling his esophagus. But while “corporations are people,” “I like being able to fire people,” “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” his extolling of his wife Ann’s twin Caddies, and his proposed $10,000 bet with Perry would all become part of a greatest-hits reel in the hands of Axelrod’s minions to drive the message that Romney is out of touch, the more important blunders were on policy—and revealed a key weakness in the bargain.
“Romney is thoroughly tactical,” Axelrod notes. “He makes whatever decision he needs to get through the next battle without respect to the war. So he ran to the right of everybody on immigration because he had to beat Perry. He embraced the Ryan budget to get around Gingrich. And then he ran to the right of Santorum, or tried to, on contraception to fend off him.”
Thus did Romney exit the GOP-nomination tussle towing a metric ton of baggage strapped to his bumper, which dramatically weighed down his standing with an array of voting blocs. A mid-April ABC News–Washington Post poll put Obama ahead among women by 19 points, 57-38. An NBC News–Wall Street Journal survey a week later gave him a chasmic 47-point advantage, 69-22, among Latinos and a 26-point lead, 60-34, among voters ages 18 to 34.
It was around that time, not coincidentally, that the Obamans shifted the frame into which they wish to cram Romney: from coreless to, as Plouffe put it to the New York Times, “the most conservative nominee [Republicans] have had going back to [Barry] Goldwater.” To some, the two lines of attack seemed inconsistent: Whatever else might be said of the 1964 GOP standard-bearer, absent a core he was not. Privately, the Obamans admit that the first label was partly a matter of expedience. “It’s not like we could have said, ‘Hey, he’s the most right-wing guy ever’ during the primary,” says one operative. “That would’ve helped him in the primary!”