Starting in the spring of 2011, another group of consultants, working for Barack Obama, began gathering voters in conference rooms, paid them the usual fee, between $75 and $100, and asked them questions about the president and the economy. They tested their knowledge. They explored their fears. They took notes.
The Obama camp won’t officially talk about that work, but a person familiar with the findings says there was a tension between voters’ emotional response to the economy—which was brutal—and an intellectual understanding that Obama wasn’t fully to blame for it. What that meant was they had to separate the emotional response from how people thought of Obama—to frame the election as a choice between the likable and the unlikable, with personal trust as the fulcrum on which the argument hinged.
“I believe where authenticity and character count, we score pretty high on that, and people trust him,” says Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic adman who’s a senior strategist on Obama’s campaign (and who helped make the half-hour film Stevens cited as inspiration). “Governor Romney has a record that repeatedly points to a finger in the wind and a willingness to take any position that he believes will further his own political goals, do whatever it takes to get elected.”
In storytelling terms, that meant Obama needed to paint Mitt Romney as very unlikable, even repellent. Enter his storytellers, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, Obama’s White House chief political aide and chief strategist. Plouffe and Axelrod, who had been partners in Chicago firm AKPD Message and Media, have their own impressive negative gifts. In 2008, while Obama ran on the “hope” brand, the Obama campaign spent more money on negative ads than any other campaign in history, much of it under the radar—for instance, a radio ad that micro-targeted independent women and claimed McCain was against stem cells for medical research, even though he supported it.
Without the “hope” message, “this one is going to be harder,” says a Democratic strategist who is friends with Plouffe. “They’re going to be more negative; they just have to be. It has to be more about Mitt Romney.”
Making the early calculation that Romney would be the likely nominee for Republicans, senior Obama officials started testing attack lines this past August by telegraphing to Beltway website Politico that they intended to “kill” Romney with a narrative that painted him as “weird,” an awkward, unlikable stiff.
The story backfired, with critics questioning whether “weird” was code for Romney’s Mormonism and therefore a subtle smear. Axelrod leapt to put out the fire, insisting the campaign wouldn’t focus on “gratuitous personal attacks”—even though he underlined the attack by putting a finer point on it. “Presidential campaigns are like MRIs of the soul,” Axelrod said. “When he makes jokes about being unemployed or a waitress pinching him on the butt, it does snap your head back, and you say, ‘What’s he talking about?’ ”
A more promising line of attack may be on Romney the plutocrat. The Obama campaign was looking for ways to exploit Romney’s hypercapitalist background long before Bain Capital was a gleam in Newt Gingrich’s eye. Again, it looked to the past, exploring ways in which other campaigns had turned facts and policies into stories with the power to turn an election. One model was the 1936 presidential race between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Alf Landon, when Landon campaigned on austerity and the promise to repeal Social Security—and lost in a landslide. More recently, Chris Lehane, a former operative for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, has told the Obama people to study the California gubernatorial race of 2010, which pitted former eBay CEO Meg Whitman against veteran Democrat Jerry Brown.
“We did a series of polls or focus groups, and the fact that she has been associated with Wall Street, she cut jobs and gave herself a big bonus, was a disqualifier for being governor,” Lehane says. “The second you entered that into the discussion, the discussion ended. Ultimately the story line [Brown] developed on her was she was willing to put her own interests ahead of the public interests.”
Margolis made ads in California senator Barbara Boxer’s 2010 campaign against Carly Fiorina, another CEO candidate, formerly of Hewlett-Packard. “For a lot of people,” says Margolis, “they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Gee, she is someone who took care of herself, closed down our factories, moved jobs overseas, bought new yachts. Is that really someone who is going to fix this economy?’ ”
It was Newt Gingrich, of course, who began the work of linking Romney and his role in high finance to the terrible economy. “This offers the potential to level the emotional playing field for the president,” says Priorities USA Action pollster Geoff Garin.