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10 Behind-The-Scenes Secrets To Obama's 2012 Victory

From dishing to the "Latina Oprah," to nixing a Pawlenty/bin Laden joke on the eve of the terrorist's assassination, here are some of the juiciest tidbits in my new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies.

Posted on June 4, 2013, at 10:17 a.m. ET

1. Obama killed a Tim Pawlenty/bin Laden joke in his White House Correspondents Dinner speech.

Speechwriters who knew nothing of the activity in the Situation Room gave the president a draft of his humorous speech at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. It included a joke: “Poor Tim Pawlenty. He had such promise. Except for that unfortunate middle name: bin Laden.” When the president deleted the line, a puzzled David Axelrod — also in the dark — protested that it was funny. Obama said it wasn’t. Axelrod said it was. The president, betraying nothing, insisted that the joke was “so yesterday.” It was dropped.

Absent a major crisis, the killing of bin Laden stripped the Republicans of a weapon, that Democrats are weak on national security, which they had used to win seven presidential elections of the postwar period.

2. Romney ran a Mad Men campaign.

Stevens assembled a group modeled on Reagan’s famous 1984 “Tuesday Team,” which produced a memorable convention film and legendary spots (“There’s a Bear in the Woods”) that were brilliantly narrated — often while drunk — by the late Hal Riney. Nearly three decades later, Tom Messner, a Tuesday Team member who originated the idea for Reagan’s iconic “Morning in America” ad, was one of Stevens’ Mad Men.

Another was Jim Ferguson. With his long white hair, ever-present Parliaments, and 1970s tattoos, “Fergy” looked like an aging member of Hell’s Angels. When he signed on to Bush’s 2004 reelect campaign he traveled to Kennebunkport, where he told Bush, “Look, if I do this, will I have to worry about pictures of a corkscrew up my ass appearing in some magazine?” Bush laughed and said, “If you got ’em, I’d like to see ’em.” In 2011 Fergy had noticed a news story about an Iowan laid off from his job at a grain elevator who could find only part-time work as a grave digger.

The story made him cry, and Boston thought it would do the same for voters when turned into an ad. It didn’t. The Mad Men weren’t breaking through the clutter with their spots.

3. Applicants had to go through an insanely rigorous process to get on Obama's big data team.

The selection process for “the Cave,” which housed the analytics team in a secret annex to the Chicago headquarters, was especially rigorous. Finalists had to complete a four-hour online exam consisting of seven or eight fiendishly difficult analytical problems. In the final interview, Dan Wagner, the 28-year-old who ran the Cave, informed applicants that starting in mid-2012 the job would be seven days a week until at least midnight every night. “The presidency is on the line and I don’t care about your personal life,” he told them. “We’re not selling popsicles here.” Analytics ended up with a motley crew of mostly under-thirty data scientists and financial analysts, plus a biophysicist, a former child prodigy, and three professional poker players.

Analytics data-mined certain consumer preferences, but this was a small part of the model. The most critical data, obtained from the DNC, were door-to-door voter contact information going back to 1992, much of it from long-forgotten local elections. The voter file assembled over the years was the best resource available, especially when constantly updated with information from the field. It was much more useful for the Cave to learn that a thirty-five-year-old persuadable voter in Zanesville, Ohio, had volunteered in 2000 for the Democratic candidate for state senate than if she drove a Volvo, ate Brie, and listened to NPR.

4. Michelle Obama dished to the "Latina Oprah" — telling her in an unaired segment that she was through having kids.

For the Latino market, the messenger is often more important than the message. The surrogate Chicago chose was Cristina Saralegui, known as “the Latina Oprah.” By coincidence, her signature sign-off line on her Univision show, “Pa’lante!,” translates roughly as “Forward!” Saralegui conducted an “interview” with Michelle Obama in which she pointed to the first lady’s midsection and asked, “Is the factory closed?” Michelle said she and the president were done having kids. That exchange didn’t air, but Saralegui’s ads on Univision and Telemundo were known by almost all Latino voters, and by almost no one in the separate universe of white America.

5. Obama had a socially conscious bartender on his side.

Just as Romney was praising the business opportunities of sweatshop labor, a Secret Service agent wandered near the bar. Prouty placed a bar cloth over the camera, which is visible for a moment on the tape. He figured he had something good, even explosive, and he didn’t want to be asked to turn off the camera. When the agent left, he removed the cloth. He was determined to capture as much as he could and make his escape. “I wish I’d been able to shout at the event, ‘Would you want your wife working there, Mitt?’” Prouty said later.

For weeks before the world learned of the full “47 percent” video, Prouty conducted a guerrilla campaign against Romney. He warmed to the idea of destroying Romney’s campaign. “If I’m going to get in a fight,” he said later, “I’m gonna punch the other guy in the face as hard as I can.”

6. Obama got lucky on the margin of error in the monthly jobs report.

Two days after the Denver debate, which Obama lost badly to Romney, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its much-awaited September jobs numbers. The survey of thousands of employers and households showed 114,000 new jobs and, much more significantly, that the unemployment rate dropped from 8.1 to 7.8 percent, which was where it was when Obama became president.This was serendipitous news for the Obama campaign. The margin of error in the BLS numbers was 100,000 jobs and half a point. Had unemployment spiked to 8.6 percent and job growth fallen below zero — both possible within the margin of error — Obama would most likely have lost the 2012 election right there.

7. Obama cold-cocked Romney on Benghazi.

Had the famous videotape not provided Obama with a cushion, he would have been in much bigger trouble after the disastrous first debate. Obama was much better prepared for Round II. At the Hilton Hotel in Suffolk County, where the president and his team gathered for a final run-through before heading to the debate venue nearby, Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council put the president through one last rehearsal on Benghazi. Romney had made it part of his stump speech that Obama had never called the attacks terrorism. But the transcript of Obama’s remarks in the Rose Garden on September 12, the day after the Benghazi attacks, clearly showed that Obama’s words “acts of terror” applied to Benghazi as well as other terrorist attacks. Now Obama prepared to spring his trap.

8. Al Sharpton helped make voter suppression a civil rights issue and drive up African-American turnout.

Suddenly Al Sharpton was drawing thousands of people when he appeared in Ohio, Florida, or Virginia — the biggest crowds of his career. “Black people vote when they’re proud or angry,” Sharpton said. “They were proud in 2008 and angry in 2012.” He recalled the civil rights leader Wyatt Walker telling him that activists combed the South in the early 1960s looking for a symbol, and they finally found one in Bull Connor, the Birmingham police chief who turned fire hoses and dogs on black children. “Voter suppression was our Bull Connor,” Sharpton said.

To the surprise of everyone except African American politicians and local leaders, black turnout was actually up in battleground states over 2008. In Ohio, where 200,000 more blacks voted than the last time, their percentage of the electorate increased by nearly a third (to 15 percent), in part because many whites stayed home.

9. Chicago mastered Facebook.


By the end of the campaign 600,000 Obama supporters had each used Facebook to contact around half a dozen specific friends identified by Chicago: 3.5 million potential Obama voters in battleground states. Nearly one third of them, one million people, took some action in response, such as registering. This was a staggering response rate and the debut of a digital persuasion and get-out-the-vote tool that would inevitably be adopted by every campaign at every level. As campaign manager Jim Messina had predicted, friend-to-friend was the highest form of voter contact, though it was hardly perfect. A Romney staffer, Matt Lira, was encouraged through targeted sharing to contact his Facebook friend, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, and urge him to vote for Obama.

10. Obama crushed Romney on the ground.

On the road Obama enjoyed spending time with the campaign’s state directors. They all had the same playoff beards and the same approach — humble, hardworking, smart, and almost always willing to give credit first to their troops. The president would say, “Take a picture,” and usually the state director would reply, “No, take one with my team.” Finally, Marty Nesbitt said to Obama, “Everywhere we go, that’s the same dude.” The president agreed and he loved it. He had created a self-reinforcing subculture of young leaders much less self-absorbed than the activists of an earlier era. “They’re better than we were — much better,” he liked to say. On the day before the election, the Romney campaign in Ohio proudly tweeted that it had knocked on 75,000 doors on Sunday, an impressive number. Obama’s Ohio state directors immediately reported that OFA had knocked on 376,000 — five times as many. The word went up the chain to Plouffe, who told the president. “That’s my team,” he responded. On the weekend before the election, 700,000 Obama volunteers in nine battleground states knocked on 5.2 million doors. It gave the president a lot of confidence going into Election Day.

Jonathan Alter's book on the 2012 election, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, goes on sale June 4.

Alter is also the author of the New York Times best-selling book on President Obama The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010). He has written a column for Bloomberg View since 2011, and was previously a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek.

Follow him here on Twitter.

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