What happened, anyway?

The election may be over, but the self-protective spin is not

Shortly after 11 p.m. (Eastern) on Election Night—with the polls still open only in Alaska—Mitt Romney aides were pleading with Fox News not to call Ohio for Barack Obama.That delicious detail, buried in a New York magazine article by Gabriel Sherman about Karl Rove’s on-air meltdown, tells you all you need to know about how spin is embedded in the psyches of major political operatives.

Not a single relevant vote was still up for grabs, but Romney insiders believed in their mind-clouding powers to bend reality to fit their preconceptions. The entire episode might be titled: “King Canute Calls Fox News.” That night, of course, Republicans accepted the indisputable nature of Obama’s victory and recognized that the only way they would ever experience a Romney administration would be on a conservative remake of West Wing.

That didn’t stop the spin, however, although its purpose dramatically changed. Judging from press accounts, leading members of Team Mitt devoted most of Wednesday to peddling don’t-blame-me explanations for Romney’s defeat. This is a venerable political-media tradition. It may well date back to the days when aides to losing candidates for the Roman Senate whispered to town criers “If only he had listened to me…” tales about the defeat of their boss.

A front-page story (“How the Race Slipped Away from Romney”) in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, by Sara Murphy and Patrick O’Connor, is a classic example of the genre. Citing few on-the-record sources and depending mostly on “top aides in both campaigns,” the Journal reconstruction pushes the ultimate no-fault explanation—Romney was outspent by Obama in the crucial period from mid-April until the GOP convention. The logic is that the Romney campaign, needing to replenish its campaign bank account after the primaries, neither had the resources nor the time to rebut pro-Obama attack ads demonizing Bain Capital.

This money-talks explanation contains obvious elements of truth. Exit polls from Ohio found that 56 percent of voters in the Making of the President State believed that Romney’s policies favor the rich. But reading the prisoner-of-their-sources Journal account, it is also easy to spot logical holes in the narrative.

Murphy and O’Connor acknowledge “the money crunch didn’t totally take the Romney camp by surprise.” But there is virtually no discussion in the article about why the blameless Romney aides did not develop an effective strategy to rebut the inevitable pain for Bain. The issue had been used against Romney since the 1994 Ted Kennedy Senate race, but the only response from Romney’s Boston headquarters was a series of Web videos from CEOs who said they had been helped by Bain. In similar fashion, Romney was supposedly too busy with fundraisers to create positive news over the summer, but the Journal story never tries to delve into which aides were responsible for the candidate’s disastrous and time-wasting July trip to Europe and Israel.

The same morning that the Journal opted for the cash-poor-rich-guy theme to explain Romney’s defeat (“Lack of money earlier this year stalled his campaign, and he never really recovered”), The New York Times, on its front-page, stressed how ineffective most campaign spending actually was. The Times story, by Nicholas Confessore and Jess Bidgood, points out that the Obama campaign was able to counteract Super Pac spending by “securing lower ad rates by paying for most of the advertising himself.” (For an explanation of why Super PACs had to pay higher ad rates and why, for the most part, the press missed that story, see this mid-September CJR column).

As we wait for detailed post-election analysis by political scientists and reflective reporters, a tentative case can be made that one set of Super PAC ads (maybe the only ones in the entire 2012 cycle) did do the job. The early anti-Bain TV commercials by the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action did help create a persuasive anti-Romney narrative. (Kudos to Time’s David Von Drehle for crafting a classic news-magazine sentence summarizing this argument: “Sharp guys wearing soft suits and perfect haircuts have been shutting your factories and offshoring your jobs for decades, and now get a load of Mitt Romney”).

But there is no convincing explanation in the Journal article or elsewhere in the press why pro-Romney Super PACs did not attempt to mount a defense of Bain Capital when the candidate himself was short on cash for TV commercials. The laws governing the natural universe did not dictate that GOP Super PACs could only run anti-Obama TV spots.

It is easy to understand why top aides in both campaigns embraced the theory that Romney’s cash shortage was enough to tilt the electoral scales. Because, in truth, there is one ideology shared by Republican and Democratic consultants that transcends partisanship—there is no such thing as too much money in politics. Their collective belief: If $6 billion wasn’t enough to change the outcome in the 2012 presidential and Senate elections, then let’s go for $10 billion or $15 billion in 2016.

Of course, there is that simple equation governing 21st century political tactics: more money equals higher fees for consultants. The Washington Post highlighted the avarice issue in a weekend article by Dan Eggen and Tom Hamburger, headlined, “Private consultants see huge election profits.” (As I mentioned in an earlier CJR column, the Los Angeles Times had blazed this neglected and overgrown path in a late October story, which came at a time more relevant to donors and voters). Eggen and Hamburger deserve credit for getting Obama admaker and media buyer Jim Margolis to talk at least vaguely about the taboo topic of consultant profits. Margolis told the Post that a 5 percent fee on the Obama campaign’s $306-million media buy handled by his firm would be “very high for a race of this magnitude.” But even a 4 percent cut on the $6 billion spent overall on Campaign 2012 would pay for a lot of orthodontia for the children of campaign consultants.


It was George Kaufman who suggested that the only way to have played a badly butchered bridge hand was “under an assumed name.” Every presidential campaign leaves me wishing that I had written a few articles under a pseudonym. A CJR column that, in retrospect, I would particularly like to partially rewrite was a June entry in which I belittled the myth of the all-knowing campaign seer.

Certainly, some in the press corps were overly impressed by the purported genius of Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades. Nothing better illustrates the dangers of campaign reporters hyping technology than the breakdown of the Romney campaign’s vaunted new get-out-the-vote system, called ORCA, a moniker inspired by the killer whale. But after reading a Politico article by Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns on the system’s Election Day collapse, I realized that maybe ORCA should have been renamed Ahab.

Back in June in that same CJR column, I wondered whether Joshua Green in a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story had over-hyped the data-driven genius of Obama campaign manager, Jim Messina. Judging from the unexpectedly high turnout numbers that the Obama campaign achieved from supposedly under-enthused groups such as Latino, African-American, and millennial voters, I clearly under-estimated the power of algorithms. Sometimes in campaign journalism there is almost as much danger in being too stubbornly skeptical as in being too credulous.

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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.