Soon after Obama For America opened its campaign headquarters at One Prudential Plaza in Chicago in the spring of 2011, journalists from most major news outlets were invited in to look around. What they saw was a (mostly) empty sixth floor office space; what they heard was more important — a hint at how the campaign planned to attack the man they’d eventually have as an opponent, Governor Mitt Romney.
“Last year, at tax time, we were having conversations with reporters — ‘When are you going to ask him if he’s going to release his tax returns?’” recalls a senior campaign official in Chicago. “It took a sustained amount of conversation and continuous sort of drumbeat of ‘You gotta ask him what’s in there, you gotta ask him what’s in there.’
The media — and members of the political class — finally did. Romney spent the evening of Friday, July 13th, doing hastily-scheduled interviews with all five networks, answering questions about his tax returns and the timeline of his work at Bain Capital.
Obama officials, watching TV at headquarters, claimed a temporary victory.
“What we were doing [that night] was analyzing his responses,” said an Obama staffer about Romney’s prime-time splash."And he gave a response on CBS that would be totally incomprehensible to most Americans." Within minutes of the interviews airing, the Obama campaign issued a gleefully-subject-lined statement: “Ah, That Clears Things Up,” quoting Romney as saying, in part: “I was the owner of an entity which was a management entity…that entity was one which I had ownership of…”
Worse for the Romney camp, the interviews did little to kill the story. His team was likely hoping the press blitz would produce some catchy, persuasive talking points that allies could use to push back against demands for more financial transparency on Romney's part, or help him come across as a forthright man hounded unfairly by underhanded opponents and a gotcha-obsessed media. Far from it: the number of Republicans and Democrats alike calling on Romney to release his tax returns only increased throughout the next week.
The Friday night spectacle was not an accident, but the result of the deliberate effort of a campaign whose obvious goal has become to turn Mitt Romney's entire career in business into a toxic liability. It's the culmination of about $100 million of ad buys (the majority negative), negative Twitter hashtags, negative stories pushed to reporters, and negative attacks each week from Obama spokespeople and senior campaign leadership.
The attacks have accused Romney of possibly committing a “felony” (Stephanie Cutter, head of Obama’s communications team); behaving like a “Bond villain in the next James Bond film” (Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the DNC) to suggesting, repeatedly, that there's something untoward about the way he does his taxes (“he's taken advantage of every single conceivable tax shelter and loophole that we can see,” per senior campaign advisor David Axelrod).
The bombardment is intended to associate Romney with the Wall Street banksters who drove the economy into the ground. “You can see in the numbers for his character traits that there’s been some damage to him,” claims a senior Obama official. “On the top-line question — on, you know, who would do better on the economy—he’s had some real damage done to him. He used to beat us on that in double digits. And now, you know, in the latest poll, we lead.” According to The Hill, a poll by the Purple Strategies firm found that recent revelations about Romney's finances made four out of every ten voters think of the ex-governor less favorably than they had before.
While the latest Gallup polls show, at least nationally, a neck-and-neck race that has barely shifted in months, the lesson that the Obama team has taken is that their strategy is working. And so they’re going to stick to it. “This is going to sound self-serving, but what surprises me the most is that we haven’t had to rip up the playbook yet,” says an Obama advisor who worked on the 2008 campaign as well. “Part of it is we’re the incumbent, we’ve done this before. Part of it is that we figured we were going to be up against Romney, and we were, and we knew we’d be focusing on his business record.”
Obama’s rhetoric about rejecting "say-anything, do-anything divise politics" are at odds with a strategy that relies on calling his opponent a crook, but this kind of thing is nothing new for campaign honcho Axelrod. “Axelrod’s strategy is always to run unopposed, literally if possible,” says a Democratic insider in Chicago. “He wants to take the opponent out—there’s a long tradition in Illinois of trying to force your opponent off the ballot—and if that doesn’t work, literally, then do whatever needs to be done to destroy him figuratively.”
(The two most well-known examples involve the divorce records of Obama’s foes during his 2004 Senate race. Pushed by media outlets like the Chicago Tribune — where "Axe," as he's known, once worked — courts released documents that revealed allegations of wife-beating and sex-club patronship aimed at Blair Hull and Jack Ryan, respectively. And, last summer, it was Axe who floated the idea of Romney's "weirdness" by, in the way of true political jiujitsui, saying that anyone who mentioned Romney's "weirdness" would be fired. In March, Axe accidentally Tweeted, then deleted, a weird story about Mormon women and menstruation.)
Although the Republicans endured a long and occasionally exciting primary, Team Obama kept its primary focus away from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and on Romney’s character, career, and yes, his tax returns, according to campaign officials. Chicago spent its research efforts digging up every last detail of the governor’s years in business, from SEC documents to old stories in the Boston Globe.
Said another Obama official: “Our meetings were always focused on Romney. You know, there were small possibilities that somebody else could’ve emerged, but we always thought it likely that it was Romney and his economic records and economic philosophies and agendas.”
In the Republican primaries, the campaign focused the attacks on Romney’s flip-flopping, tagging him in the fall with the #whichmitt hashtag, with the DNC throwing in a memorable spot last November called "Mitt Versus Mitt." Bain and taxes were mainly left to his primary opponents. After Romney released tax information from 2010 and 2011, "a reporter asked me if we were worried that the tax issue was off the table, and if it inoculated him," says one Obama advisor. "I said I didn't think so — [but] Gingrich and the others were the wrong messenger [for the attacks to stick]. It just seemed opportunistic."
Since January 1, 2012, the Obama campaign has put out 103 online and television advertisements, by BuzzFeed's count. Of those ads, 64 were negative and almost all directed at Romney. The top ten most active Twitter accounts on the campaign have also pushed out 11 hashtags, from #whichmitt (23 mentions among top Obama people from October 2011 to February 2012) to #whatsromneyhiding (25 mentions from May 2012-June 2012). Obama advisors have referred to Romney as a politician with "no core," a kind of harsher version of the flip-flopper line. But the aggressive no core/flip-flop narrative had its drawback, according to campaign officials: independents could wind up thinking that Romney was just as likely to do what they believed, and perhaps govern moderately like he did in Massachusetts.
Then, after the “gift,” as one official put of Eric Fernstrom’s “Etch-A-Sketch comment,” the campaign has trained almost all of its fire on Romney’s business record and finances, from outsourcing to tax evasion to offshore bank accounts. In keeping this focus, campaign officials say they’ve been lucky to be in Chicago, away from the buffeting of the Acela New York-DC elite. After Corey Booker criticized the campaign for attacking Bain, many in the media (and within the Democratic establishment) took Booker’s side, and wondered why the campaign was being so tough on the Newark mayor.
The reason: Bain, and business, was a huge part of the game plan. But rather than cave to the pressure and change course, Obama 2012 escalated its attacks. “There was that moment of doubt among the Washington press corps, but there never was here,” says one of the many extremely confident staffers in Chicago.
In May, the campaign had one of its biggest ad hits — an advertisement about the GST Steel Mill, a plant which was shut down by Bain Capital. Romney's spokesperson denied he had anything to do with layoffs because he'd left Bain in 1999 — stepping into what now looks like a setup, as documents indicating otherwise would re-emerge two months later. "We knew there was a paper trail," recalls an Obama official involved in the messaging. "And we would not have gone out the door with something like GST Steel without knowing that we were on very solid ground."
In mid-June, campaign officials conceived of the ad that would cap off the successful weeks of dominating the news cycle. In January, staffers had seen a clip of Romney singing "America the Beautiful" at a Florida event — “it was ridiculous,” says one — and filed it away as a fodder for an ad. In early July, they released the spot, which intercut Romney's singing with clips from press reports about the sinister foreign tinge of his personal finances and business record.
Then the Boston Globe story calling into question whether Romney had really left Bain Capital in 1999 hit. In what was either good timing or good planning, the ad aired the day after the Friday night interviews. And, says on Obama official, “Unlike the Daisy ad, which aired only once” — referring to the famously devastating spot LBJ launched at Barry Goldwater — “this one is going up on air.”
Over the past week, the campaign has started to make other long-term decisions about where they're headed in the fall. Don't expect any radical change, according to campaign insiders, but more ammunition aimed at Romney's economic record.
"At this point, the campaigns are trying define who there opponents are,” says Rodell Mollineau of the Obama-aligned Superpac American Bridge. “The Obama campaign and his allies are doing a better job than Romney and his allies. Mitt Romney has a narrative—I’m a successful businessman. It’s being picked apart. The question is, how long does this definition period go on for?”
With the economy sluggish and unemployment over eight percent, the 2012 election still looks to most like a tight race. But the success of the recent attacks have given the Obama team in Chicago a boost to their usual swagger. When BuzzFeed asked one official a question about the campaign's next strategic steps, he responded that he would only answer after the election. "We'll tell you on a moderated panel," he said.