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Top officials for all the 2012 presidential campaigns gathered at Harvard University last week and opened a window on their d...
Top officials for all the 2012 presidential campaigns gathered at Harvard University last week and opened a window on their decision making -- and their regrets.
It was an eight-hour seance on steroids, dissecting everything from President Barack Obama's poor performance in the first debate to Rick Perry's back problems.
Through hours of questioning from journalists, the strategists were quite candid about mistakes made and opportunities missed.
The quadrennial conference, which has been sponsored by the Institute of Politics since 1972, was particularly large and revealing this year with representatives from all the GOP primary campaigns and the president's team.
Listening to the GOP campaigns revisit their losses was painful at times but also offered some insights into how a campaign will delude itself to get the brass ring.
Here are the top 10 delusions of the 2012 election as told by those who lived it:
1. The Jeep ad was a winner.
"Look, we think that ad helped us," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said of the much-mocked TV ad the Romney campaign ran in the closing weeks of its Ohio campaign that, in the view of many, ultimately backfired on the GOP nominee.
The ad claimed "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China."
Chrysler quickly put out a statement denying it was moving North American production to China and the president slammed Romney for scaring people into thinking they were losing their jobs. Fact-checkers also dubbed the ad misleading.
"There are two ways to look at this," Stevens explained.
"I know it brought up a difficult subject for Romney," he said, referring to the criticism Mitt Romney endured over his infamous op-ed in The New York Times headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.""But it provided people with information and reassured them and reduced the impact of the ads that have been run against him."
Top Obama strategist David Axelrod shot back to much laughter: "We think it helped us, too."
Obama media adviser Jim Margolis added: "It reinforced a very clear message that was critical in Ohio, in terms of the auto industry and what the president's positions had been. Having that become part of the closing conversation was very helpful to us."
2. Clint Eastwood would bring to the Romney campaign what he brings to the silver screen.
Romney's top strategists said they believed having Eastwood speak at the GOP convention in Tampa would draw a larger viewing audience, and they did not have a clue that he was going to talk to an empty chair. The aging actor's antics ended up becoming the story of the night, upstaging Romney's convention address -- and not in a good way.
"Personally, I don't think it was a big deal," said Stevens, who must have been watching another channel when Eastwood spoke.
A few minutes before Eastwood took to the podium, Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said he asked the icon whether he would simply express the thoughts he had at two previous fundraisers, where he reportedly made a strong case for Romney.
"He looked at me and said, 'Yup.' It's Clint Eastwood. You agree with him," Schriefer said.
Meanwhile, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said the Eastwood performance was a windfall for his operation. "I remember Teddy [Goff] running into my office saying this thing was exploding online. You could see immediately what a disaster it was for him, both with our people, swing voters," Messina said. "No one thought it was a good move."
Digital director Goff said that Eastwood's shtick of pretending to talk to the president in the chair riled the Democratic base.
"Our people found it offensive in a really visceral way," Goff said. "Such a personal show of disrespect for the president was very, you know, sort of helpful to us."
3. Running for president a month after back surgery is a smart move.
Advisers to GOP primary candidate Perry revealed that the Texas governor was in pain throughout his brief White House run -- and said his discomfort contributed to his awkward debate performances.
"I think it had a big impact. He was in pain," said Dave Carney, Perry's longtime top political consultant. "It was difficult to study, more difficult to get comfortable. We'd get to a debate site and we were supposed to meet 50 people. You can't do that when you're in pain. It's a negative meeting so you don't want to have it."
Originally, Carney said, Perry and his doctors believed he would quickly recover from his July 1, 2011, back surgery. But the governor was still recovering when he launched his campaign a month later.
"The whole campaign was built on a very aggressive, arduous travel schedule to make up for lost time," Carney said.
Carney added that the surgery affected Perry's debate performance because he had difficulty standing and couldn't get a "decent night's sleep."
The moral of the story: "Oops."
4. Saving your advertising dollars for October is a good idea.
The Obama campaign gambled by front-loading its advertising schedule because, Axelrod said, "The truth of television in a presidential campaign is it becomes less relevant the deeper you get into a race." That's arguably more true in a year like 2012, when a plethora of super PACs rained down on the airwaves, drowning out all but the most original message in the fall.
"I don't think there is, in the modern era, an example of a television ad after Labor Day that was decisive in a presidential race," Axelrod added. "We gambled, and we gambled on front-loading."
The Romney campaign, on the other hand, held back more that $20 million for eleventh-hour ads, according to Stevens -- running them at a time when most people had made up their minds.
The mistake proved fatal for the Republican, as Obama and his Democratic allies -- seeking to define Romney before he could define himself -- unleashed a series of ads in early summer portraying him as an out-of-touch rich guy who keeps money in Swiss banks. Romney's personal negatives took a nosedive and never recovered until after the first debate.
Romney tried to push back -- but by October, it was too late.
5. Dropping out of the race at the first whiff of failure gives you a leg up for veep.
Surprisingly, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty folded his GOP primary tent the day after his disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll. His departure came on the heels of a poor debate performance. It became known as the "Obamneycare" debate because Pawlenty refused to repeat the catchy phrase he had coined about Romney on health care.
But at least one adviser has second thoughts about the early dropout.
"Had we looked at the situation under slightly lower-level, post-debates duress, with the financial realities of the campaign crashing, the decision, I think, would have been to obviously stay in," said Phil Musser, senior strategist for Pawlenty.
"It's pretty clear. The lesson is clear that if you hung around, you would have time in the sun. And if Tim had his shot in the sun, if we were the alternative to Romney in the end, ... we would have been in a favorable position."
Musser was referring to the fact that nearly all of the presidential contenders -- Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich -- experienced a surge that shot them to front-runner status at some point during the long GOP primary slog. If Pawlenty had been less gun-shy, his turn might have come.
6. The Ames Straw Poll is relevant.
Campaigns seemed to universally come to the conclusion that the Ames Straw Poll -- once seen as a nonbinding snapshot of the candidates' organizational skills -- has run its course. Conducted the summer before election year, candidates complain that it saps time and money and doesn't come close to reflecting the Iowa or national electorate. In 2011, Bachmann won the poll -- then proceeded to sink like a stone.
"It's not a caucus. It's a joke," Musser said.
"It's a fundraiser," said Bachmann strategist Keith Nahigian. "It's a not a real thing. You're drawing from a circle just a couple hundred miles, not the whole state."
The strategists aren't the only ones calling for the poll's demise. Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has also said the poll has "outlived its usefulness" and floated alternatives.
7. If you don't see your rival's staff canvassing in Ohio, you can assume they aren't there.
"We didn't see them out [knocking] on doors in the places where we were," Romney adviser Rich Beeson said of Obama's much-heralded ground game in Ohio -- and in every battleground state.
But Beeson said the GOP was concentrating on undecided independents and people they knew to be supporters but who didn't turn out at the polls regularly.
"All I heard about was how many staff and how many offices they had," Beeson added.
"Yet in our internals, we saw the number of contacts were roughly equal. So they were talking to different people. We said if we could win independents in Ohio, we can win Ohio. They took a different route and that's why it's so perplexing to me."
The Obama campaign had 130 field offices in Ohio, compared with Romney's 40, as well as tens of thousands of volunteers.
They concentrated on registering new voters and then on motivating minorities, women and young voters to get to the polls. One big success that made the difference in Ohio: The African-American share of the vote spiked there from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012.
That made all the difference.
8. Twenty debates helps the front-runner.
There was a clear divide on the question of whether the 20 debates endured by the GOP primary field in 2012 were necessary. Advisers to the lesser-known candidates relished them as an opportunity to get attention -- but the Romney folks saw them as a burden. Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said debates "take away your ability to run a campaign." Stevens said they were conducted like "American Idol" and degrading to the candidates.
But listen to the also-rans. Linda Hansen, deputy chief of staff for Herman Cain -- who won the first debate -- said their campaign found the debates "profitable" because they introduced Cain to voters without spending money on ads.
Bachmann's debate adviser, Brett O'Donnell -- who later coached Romney -- maintained the debates had "huge a impact on the primaries and the general election."
"The airways were so crowded this time that voters really used the debates to make a lot of decisions about the candidates," O'Donnell said. "The Gingrich campaign came back twice on the back of debates. Our campaign was put on the map because of two debates."
And Gingrich campaign chief Vince Haley said they had no complaints either since Gingrich proved to be a stronger performer. "It's a very authentic reality seeing the debates instead of 30-second attack ads," he said.
But back to Romney. Stevens said large media organizations shouldn't be sponsoring debates and added that he found it "very, very difficult dealing" with them. He said the debates were not presented as serious discussions but as entertainment.
Just about everyone agreed that perhaps the debate glut should be examined before 2016. But few thought there would be any change. "The establishment candidate is not going to want to do debates -- the front-runner -- and everyone who has no money wants to get on for 12 minutes because it's their shot," said Carney, whose candidate definitely didn't end up profiting from the debates.
9. The best debate strategy is to not engage.
All the president's men were not eager to explain Obama's poor performance during the first debate with Romney.
"We had a strategy of limited engagement that we took it to an illogical extreme," Axelrod quipped.
On a serious note, the adviser said that they did indeed go into the debate with a strategy not to mention Romney's controversial comment that he didn't care about "47 percent" of the population. They also planned to steer clear of Romney's career at Bain Capital, on which Democrats had hammered Romney for months.
"We decided to stay out of it. ... What we assumed was that these guys practiced as long and hard as they had, they would have an answer prepared. But we felt that it would lead to a vituperative exchange."
That said, Axelrod acknowledged that "there were a lot of opportunities where we could have responded. There were answers but they would have been personal in nature. I think if there was a preparation problem, it was on that strategic level."
The Denver debate was just about the only time in the fall when Romney had a breakthrough and managed to gain momentum, even jumping ahead of Obama in some of the national polls. But it was short-lived.
10. Super PACS are overrated.
It's hard to second-guess success, but Messina did reveal one regret from early on in the campaign: not understanding that Obama would need the help of super PACS from the get-go, given the amount of money Republican-allied super PACs were spending to defeat the president.
"One mistake we made -- and we made it for the right reasons, but we waited too long to jump into the super PAC world. It looked like a complete flip-flop. It was hard."
He noted that the Democratic super PAC run by two ex-White House aides that the president ultimately sanctioned, Priorities USA Action, "was out there trying to raise money without us, and that was hard for them."
"We underestimated how much the other side was raising. I don't think that we thought there would be a half-billion in super PAC ads."
Priorities ended up one of the most effective -- and controversial -- super PACS when it ran ads portraying Romney as a cold, corporate raider and even suggesting the Republican was responsible for a woman's death because her husband lost health insurance when he was laid off from a Bain-related company.