Adding to the discomfort was Romney’s inability to persuade one of his most valued advisers to join the team. Mike Murphy, who had engineered Romney’s successful race for governor of Massachusetts, understood Romney like few others. While Murphy said he was flattered by Romney’s overture, he decided to remain in California, where he was working as a screenwriter and part-time political commentator. So Romney eventually picked as his strategist a man with whom Murphy had repeatedly clashed, Stuart Stevens.
Stevens had helped guide the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, but he was equally well known as an author and screenwriter. He had scripted episodes of “Northern Exposure” and told remarkable stories about himself, such as when he wrote in Outside magazine about taking “some of the banned performance-enhancing drugs that are often abused in the endurance sports I participate in, like cycling and cross-country skiing.” He seemed like an unusual match for the strait-laced Romney, but some felt that was precisely what the candidate needed.
Stevens had clashed over the years with other campaign consultants, and sniping about his work from the outside came quickly. He had worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign, but had to share power with other advisers, an unworkable arrangement. This time, Romney promised Stevens and partner Russ Schriefer full control.
Stevens wanted to keep the focus on Obama’s handling of the economy and what Romney would do to fix it. A candidate’s biography was of lesser importance. “When you come into a job interview, you don’t start showing family pictures,” Stevens said in a postelection interview.
Family members kept pushing for a film or series of advertisements that would show how Romney had helped average people in personal ways, based on Tagg’s list of 12 people, along with clips about how Romney raised his family. The film project was to be overseen by documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley, a longtime family friend who had been allowed to film portions of Romney’s 2008 campaign. But the plan was rejected, leading some in the family to blame Stevens.
Stevens said he did not kill the documentary. But he said he did have a strategic vision that went another way, one he grounded in four questions he put to voters in focus groups.
“There [were] different areas that you could go into,” Stevens said. “Talk about Mitt’s business record, Mitt‘s personal story, what Mitt would do as president . . . and why Barack Obama is bad. We tested all four equally. We were open to doing any combination, and the one that tested far and away the best, people wanted to know what Mitt Romney would do as president.”
Romney made the final call: This was Stevens’ campaign to win or lose. And the outlook seemed bright. The veteran GOP pollster Romney hired, Neil Newhouse, found that only 20 percent of those surveyed thought the country was on the right track.
It was, Newhouse said, “extraordinarily negative. We figured those numbers probably wouldn’t hold, but if they were anything near that, we were probably in very good shape.”
President Obama’s strategy had very different roots.
His national field director, Jeremy Bird, drew his inspiration from the time around 2001 when he witnessed, as a young Harvard Divinity student, a group of African-American students in a Roxbury church, pressing their case for school funding with members of the Boston City Council.
It was a model, in miniature, of grass-roots engagement that would shape Bird’s career in politics and attract him to Obama, who had himself been a community organizer.
Bird was confident that Obama would commit massive resources to building an organization that zeroed in on individual voters. It would be like that Roxbury church encounter, multiplied a thousand times.
“I had watched a group of young people come together; I watched them organize at local level,” Bird said.
And Bird had learned another lesson. He lived in Massachusetts when Romney was elected governor, had studied him and voted against him, and was determined to do everything possible to prevent him from becoming president.
So it was that Bird and his colleagues drew up plans to expand the electorate into one that could reelect Obama. In Ohio, for example, a “barber shop and beauty salon” strategy was designed to get likely Obama supporters, particularly African-Americans, to register to vote when they went for a haircut. “Faith captains” were assigned to churches to encourage parishioners to turn out for Obama. “Condo captains” were told to know every potential Obama voter in their building. The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics: Each Obama worker would be responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney’s team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference.Continued...