Forget Sparta and Athens. The 2012 presidential race is shaping up to be a battle between Sparta and Sparta.
If Mitt Romney is able to overcome Tuesday night’s caucus disappointments and win the GOP nod, the Obama/Romney general election match-up will feature two very similar campaign empires—both flush with cash and stacked with their party’s best political operatives—going to battle with the same instincts, same skill sets, and very similar battle plans.
“Both are big, disciplined, ruthlessly efficient enterprises,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “Obama is not very good at being president, but he is relentless at wanting to be president. Romney’s campaign is similarly like a bulldozer. It overwhelms opponents tactically, with money, TV, and power, crushing movable objects with irresistible force.”
The similarities are partly the fruits of imitation. The Obama campaign in 2008 redefined presidential campaigning and organizing for the Internet era, and elements of Romney's campaign (like most this cycle), from his streamlined logo to the one-upsmanship of his online fundraisers, have a touch of homage. People involved in Romney's Internet operation in particular will, when pressed, concede a grudging respect for their counterparts in Chicago.
But there are more straightforward similarities as well. Both operations are located in second cities—Romney’s in Boston, and Obama’s in Chicago—where the campaigns have tried to co-opt the local color to lend their efforts an air of authenticity. (For proof, follow the Twitter feeds of either campaign’s operatives during Bulls or Celtics games.)
And while neither campaign is headquartered in D.C., they’re each loaded with practiced Washington hands. The officials’ experience has eliminated most of the kinks and leaks that dog more amateur operations, and each campaign is run like a kind of soulless machine — devoid of spontaneity, and utterly allergic to anything that takes them off message. Take, for example, the Romney camp's firing of debate coach Brett O’Donnell after he got too much credit in the press for the candidate’s game-changing Florida debate performances.
With former newspaper reporters near the top— former Boston Herald writer Eric Fehrnstrom with Romney, former Chicago Tribune City Hall bureau chief David Axelrod with Obama—the campaigns share a similarly distant, transactional relationship with the press that belies their familiarity with journalistic mischief.
Team Romney’s stingy record of access to the candidate, dubbed the “Mittness Protection Program,” has led Romney to go several days without taking reporters’ questions. Obama, meanwhile, uses technology to avoid the White House press corps. (He’s held just 17 press conferences in his first term, more than President George W. Bush, but less than Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan at similar points in their administrations.
While reporters complain about being shut out, the shared media strategy is relentlessly effective, said Peter Daou, a senior communications staffer on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign.
"The Romney campaign is adept at rolling out endorsements at exactly the right time, trying to step on their opponents' message...and being able to dominate the news cycle or grab it back if they feel like it's time," Daou said. "Clearly, that's something they learned from the Obama campaign."
“Both are corporate campaigns,” said Castellanos. “It is incredibly difficult to build overnight huge, multi-million dollar enterprises, businesses the size of major companies, and make them run efficiently. Both have demonstrated the ability to do that... and both campaigns have built cults around their candidates, seeing them as transformational leaders.”
But for all the campaigns’ similarities, the two candidates at the top couldn’t be more different in their management styles.
Staffers say Romney approaches politics with the same deliberate decision-making that made him a star in the investment consulting world. He crunches the numbers, then confidently makes his best bet supported by the data. To him, running a presidential campaign—like running anything else—comes down to simply math.
Obama, on the other hand, spent much of his adult life in law schools and legislatures, where a premium is put on thorough, nuanced intellectual debate. According to insider White House accounts like Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, Obama likes to spends hours, and even days, debating tough issues with staff before eventually clearing the room and noodling out a decision based on the best arguments he’s heard.
“To make a good movie, my Hollywood friends tell me, you want the hero and villain to be similar as possible, not as different as imaginable, because they are ultimately fighting for the same thing: money, power, or the girl,” Castellanos said. “[Obama and Romney] just come at the same goal from different directions. We are making a very good movie in 2012.”
A Romney/Obama race would certainly depart from 2008, when John McCain’s by-the-seat-of-the-pants campaign kept Chicago—and the American public—guessing at what he’d do each day. Romney, by contrast, would likely never consider McCain’s Sarah Palin gambit: a high-risk, high-reward veep pick would be anathema to his consultant roots.
A preview of the upcoming battle came last week, as the web teams for both campaigns sought to one-up each other with dueling online fundraisers. The Romney campaign launched the “one-term fund” to raise $1 million, which was quickly followed by Obama’s “two-term fund” to raise $2 million. Romney’s team then held up the Obama response as an example that the president is focused on campaigning instead of government — tacitly acknowledging that the Obama fundraising machine had won the day.
In another glimpse of the campaign to come, the candidates' respective messaging gurus, Fehrnstrom and Axelrod, have often taken to Twitter to needle each other for the entire political press to see — and, of course, write about. Take, for instance, this exchange that took place last month, days before the South Carolina primary:
The two went back and forth like this for a while, exchanging barbs and statistics like two students who were trained by the same debate coach. They ended like this:
Daou predicted this type of proxy war to extend through election day—with super PACs and surrogates dealing the toughest blows, while the candidate get to look like they're taking the high road. This approach, he said, is straight out of the Obama 2008 playbook.
"Romney, like Obama, has tried to and succeeded to some degree in being able to be an extremely efficient attack candidate with a smile one his face," he said. "It never seems to come back to him."
With two campaigns marked by striking message discipline—and two candidates who rarely roam off-script—every rare gaffe, no matter how small, will be a cue for the opponent to pounce.
Already, the media is already magnifying even the smallest gaffe by Romney and Obama, and turning them into four-day stories. Take Romney’s “poor people” and “fire people” gaffes, or Obama telling a woman he finds it “interesting” that her engineer husband can’t find a job. What might be mere background noise in another campaign has become central in this race’s back-and-forth.
"I think it will be a real battle," said Daou, looking forward to the general election. "This period has been good for President Obama, but I think once Romney becomes the nominee, it becomes a much tighter, closer, more hard-fought race."
"There's going to be some serious negative campaigning," he said. "But it goes back to the question of can they both keep likability up? Can they both keep a smile on their faces?"