CAMBRIDGE, MA — Demoralized Republicans arrived in Boston Wednesday night for a rare moment in American politics: They came to learn from Democrats.
Barack Obama’s campaign schooled Mitt Romney’s in November, something of which the Republicans who gathered at the quadrennial, off-the-record Harvard Institute of Politics Campaign Managers Conference were intensely aware. And while the proceedings of the event are under embargo until the institute releases audio transcripts of the proceedings, some participants shared their reactions.
“We got our butts kicked, so I’m going to school,” said the manager of one 2012 Republican presidential campaign on his way into the sessions on Thursday morning, held in a cozy university conference space.
One Romney aide tried to convince Obama digital director Teddy Goff to join forces with Zac Moffatt, who ran Romney’s digital efforts.
The evening-and-a-day conference is the 10th in a 40-year tradition of analyzing winning and losing campaigns. It is, the Institute says, convened “in an effort to allow future candidates, managers, journalists and scholars to better understand the nature of modern presidential campaigns. This year, the line between students and teachers is clear. The Obama team spent much of the morning at the Charles Hotel and skipped the session at which Romney aides and their Republican primary opponents discussed the bitter nominating process, trading strategies and regrets.
When it was the Obama team’s turn to discuss their strategy, the room was packed with Republicans.
Rarely has it been as obvious as it was in 2012 that one side has fallen badly behind on the technology and techniques of politics. From the basic communications tool of mass e-mail to the vital new frontier of big political data, the Obama campaign’s strategy and tactics have drawn a level of excitement that is, among political professionals at least, notably greater than the excitement around the candidate’s message or his hard-won victory.
Romney’s entire team gathered for the early-morning session at Harvard, even those who weren’t on the panel, in what appeared to be a deliberate effort to keep poisonous post-mortem finger-pointing to a minimum. Romney’s campaign chairman and frequent campaign trail sidekick Bob White, and Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser and the campaign’s mascot, sat opposite to the other Romney aides away from the tables arranged in a rectangle.
But the hot ticket at Harvard was the late-morning session in the same — now packed-to-the-brim — conference room, to hear seven top Obama aides to revisit their winning efforts.
The sages around the table: top strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager Jim Messina, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, Goff, field director Jeremy Bird, opinion research director David Simas, and ad man Jim Margolis. Every aspect of their effort has already been the subject of tens of thousands of words, and they have for weeks been fanning out across the country telling the story of their campaign’s success, but their rivals were still eager to learn.
Republican operatives from Rick Perry’s data-driven strategist Dave Carney, to Mark Block, Herman Cain’s chain-smoking campaign manager, filled the room, many visibly taking notes. Also listening were the super PAC kings: Carl Forti, Charlie Spies, and Steven Law, whose efforts on TV were solidly negated by the Obama campaign’s field operation.
The final panel pitted the Obama and Romney aides against each other in a raw autopsy of the general election. Guests were undeterred by a blackout, as the lights went out while Obama senior adviser David Axelrod was beginning to explain the president’s terrible first debate performance — a coincidence quickly tweeted out by some in attendance. (The blackout canceled the final, public panel in which the top two strategists on both sides were set to face the cameras on stage.)
When it was finally over, more than one Republican walked out shaking his head.
“We weren’t even running in the same race,” one downtrodden Romney aide told BuzzFeed after hearing the details of the Obama operation. “They were just amazing.”
And over chicken potpie and mashed sweet potatoes in the wood-paneled dining room of the Harvard Kennedy School conference center, one Republican operative noted that Romney himself was reliving the election over lunch with President Obama.
“Maybe [Mitt] can ask him what we need to do better next time,” the operative quipped.