How right is the (1st round of) CW about 2012?

As the retrospectives roll in, a debate unfolds about Obama's early ads

Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960 was published in hardcover in July 1961, a breakneck pace in an era when manuscripts were edited by hand. Of course, by contemporary standards, that timetable seems as languid as waiting on the docks for the latest news from Europe to be delivered by clipper ship.

Less than two months after the 2012 election, political mavens are already afflicted with eye-glaze from absorbing the initial spate of ebooks and now-it-can-be-told campaign retrospectives. There is Politico’s latest campaign ebook (the readable and insightful The End of the Line by Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin) and The Boston Globe’s where-Romney-went-wrong retrospective by Michael Kranish, not to mention Michael Hastings’s strenuous effort to channel Hunter Thompson for BuzzFeed. David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, weighs in with his how-I-got-the-scoop account of Mitt Romney’s 47-percent video. And since I started writing this column, I have undoubtedly missed some explosive new releases.

So what have we learned that we didn’t know back on that night when Karl Rove was begging Fox News not to call Ohio for Barack Obama?

The enduring mystery of Campaign 2012 is who videotaped Romney maligning 47 percent of America at a closed-to-the-press Boca Raton fund-raiser—and why? As Thrush and Martin write in the Politico ebook, “Romney’s team concluded the culprit came from the ranks of the hotel’s staff—not from a mole in the campaign—though they were never able to pin down who really did it.”

In his telling, Corn is rightly cagey about his confidential source (whose YouTube handle was “Anne Onymous”), but it seems likely that the Mother Jones bureau chief didn’t know much more than the Romney campaign. James Carter, who turned out to be Jimmy Carter’s grandson, provided Corn with an email address for Anne Onymous. But the person who videotaped the fund-raiser apparently remained elusive during his email exchanges with Corn. Anne Onymous praised Corn’s prior investigative work on Bain Capital, but still insisted on sending a copy of the videotape to the reporter “via regular first-class mail from a city other than where he lived.”

This cloak-and-dagger aura in no way invalidates the magnitude of Corn’s scoop. The tape was genuine, and the two-minute gap in the recording appears to have been a technical glitch and not any effort to edit Romney’s words. (Anne Onymous emailed Corn that “the recording device had timed out—or been jostled and turned off—at one point, and that he had restarted it.”)

So why does the provenance of the videotape matter? Simply because it is frustrating not to know the origins of a campaign bombshell that likely affected voting behavior far more than Clint Eastwood’s debate with an empty chair. Maybe Anne Onymous was a bitter waiter or bartender annoyed by the patrician pretensions of Romney’s high-rollers. Or perhaps Corn’s source was a politically dissident spouse dragooned into attending the Boca Raton fund-raiser.

Of course, some campaign mysteries remain unsolved for decades: Why did Richard Nixon’s henchmen break into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate? And who stole Jimmy Carter’s debate briefing book in 1980 and handed it over to Ronald Reagan’s campaign? So despite the growing pile of 2012 campaign books, the identity of Anne Onymous may not be known until long after Obama leaves the White House.

The power of the 47-percent video was that it reinforced doubts that Romney understood the lives and problems of the hard-pressed voters. As Marcy Hughes, a librarian who lives in Harrod, Ohio, said about Romney just before the election, “I don’t think he’s for the middle class. And we’re all middle class around here.” In every presidential election, I try to find an emblematic voter who crystallizes everything into one quote—and Hughes, who went with John McCain in 2008 but switched to Obama in 2012, is my latest nominee.

The roots of that impression about Romney pre-date the unveiling of the Boca Raton videotape. In fact, the fast-coalescing post-election orthodoxy is that while most TV spots were worthless (except, of course, for the profit margins of media consultants), the Obama campaign’s early effort to define Romney was a strategic triumph.

As Kranish writes in the Globe, “In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond.” The Politico ebook offers a similar account of the anti-Bain refrain. And I heard the roughly the same assessment from top Obama and Romney staffers at the late November campaign retrospective sponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

But does constant repetition make it true?

Political scientist John Sides challenged this glib version of the conventional wisdom in a provocative late December post for The New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog written in place of a vacationing Nate Silver. Based on national polling data from YouGov, Sides contends, “Views of Mr. Romney hardly moved in May or June, which is when the Obama advertising surge occurred.” Sides, who (surprise) is working on a campaign book with the scholar Lynn Vavreck, found a similar pattern in battleground state polling: “There are some bumps and wiggles in the battleground states, but nothing that suggests Obama’s advertising took a serious toll.”

While the sophistication of scholars like Sides (a major contributor to The Monkey Cage, a valuable campaign blog) enhanced 2012 coverage, reporters should be as skeptical about arguments rooted in political science as they are about the post-election assessments of campaign veterans.

And as presented in the FiveThirtyEight post, the YouGov polling data that undergirds Sides’s contention has its limitations. For example, there are no individual state surveys, just an aggregate of 11 battleground states. In theory, the early anti-Bain ads could have swayed voters in Ohio, but the effect is not visible when the data from other swing states (like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia) is added in. The YouGov polling data also includes Pennsylvania among the battleground states, although no ads were broadcast there until the final Romney feint at the end of the campaign.

My point is that—despite the vast contributions to world literature that will inevitably flow from Campaign 2012—there is much that we still don’t know about why Obama beat Romney. Sure, the anecdotes in both the Politico ebook and the Kranish article about the bitter relationship between Stuart Stevens (Romney 2012) and Mike Murphy (Romney for governor, 2002) offer delectable political gossip. But as I continue my 2012 read-a-thon, I remain much more riveted about the question of whether the early anti-Romney ads were a bane or a curse.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD. Tags: , ,