How Obama Prevailed in 2012

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI, New York Times, June 2, 2013

THE CENTER HOLDs, Obama and His Enemies By Jonathan Alter, Illustrated. 428 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

Excerpt

“The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” is … a chronicle of the president’s fight to win re-election and his continuing battles with an obstructionist Republican party.

…What this book does do is provide context for the Obama White House’s current woes. Mr. Alter gives us a lucid picture of the toxic, highly partisan political environment in which today’s controversies are occurring. It is an environment in which anti-government conservatives have faced off against the administration over health care reform, taxes and a host of other issues, and in which Mr. Obama’s adversaries (ranging from the Republican leadership opposed to his legislative agenda to right-wing groups like the birthers, who suffer from what Mr. Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome”) have demonstrated an eagerness to block the president any way they can.

…Obama White House has been too insular, that it has often done a poor job of selling its agenda

Mr. Alter’s thesis is that the 2012 election was possibly “the most consequential” in recent times and “a hinge of history” — “a titanic ideological struggle” that put the “social contract established during the New Deal era” on the line. He readily acknowledges that he thinks the United States “dodged a bullet in 2012,” and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans’ “extremist” views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially “centrist nation.”

exception, Mr. Alter adds… line in reacting to criticism, he would hand his enemies a weapon: “ ‘See, he’s like all the rest of them.’ It was better for him to be perceived as ‘different,’ with all the challenges that brought.” This “stifling of himself,” this “inability to swing at certain pitches,” made him, according to one aide, about “5 percent more aloof than he had been before coming to the presidency.” … The only sections that substantially add to our understanding of the campaign are those chronicling, in minute detail, the Obama team’s creation of a sophisticated operation for reaching out to potential supporters and getting out the vote — an operation that combined impressive ground troops with the digital analysis of huge amounts of data… After the election, Mr. Alter says, the Obama for America campaign was reincarnated as a group called Organizing for Action. With more than 20 million e-mail addresses in its database, Organizing for Action “would try to make the 2012 Chicago machine a permanent force in American politics, applying money, analytics, door-knocking, and the rest of the magic formula to advancing the president’s agenda.”

Full text

Jonathan Alter’s revealing 2010 book, “The Promise,” provided a detailed look at President Obama’s first year in office, tracing his decision-making process on issues like health care reform and the Afghanistan war. Mr. Alter’s highly informed, energetically reported but often tiresomely familiar new book, “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” is less a sequel than a chronicle of the president’s fight to win re-election and his continuing battles with an obstructionist Republican party.

Mr. Alter does not offer a real assessment of Mr. Obama’s handling of important second-term issues like immigration reform and gun control. And while the book mentions in passing the debate surrounding the attacks on the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, it went to press too early to grapple with the two other controversies swirling around the White House: that is, revelations that the Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny and that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of journalists at The Associated Press.

Indeed, the problems with “The Center Holds” — which draws upon interviews with more than 200 people — underscore the difficulties faced by even the most astute reporters writing what the author calls “contemporary history.” Especially at a time when there is wall-to-wall, 24/7 news coverage online and on TV, and when one narrative — concerning, say, Mr. Obama’s resounding victory in last fall’s election — can so quickly give way to another one of gridlock and dysfunction.

Read today, much of the material here feels like reheated news. Once again, we hear about the “clown car” antics that dominated the Republican primary process as candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry vied to become their party’s front-runner. Once again, we hear about disarray within the Mitt Romney campaign and its failure to blunt his image as a wealthy businessman out of touch with everyday middle-class concerns. And once again, we hear about the rise of the Tea Party and the president’s clashes with Republicans in Congress over the budget, the debt ceiling and sequestration.

What this book does do is provide context for the Obama White House’s current woes. Mr. Alter gives us a lucid picture of the toxic, highly partisan political environment in which today’s controversies are occurring. It is an environment in which anti-government conservatives have faced off against the administration over health care reform, taxes and a host of other issues, and in which Mr. Obama’s adversaries (ranging from the Republican leadership opposed to his legislative agenda to right-wing groups like the birthers, who suffer from what Mr. Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome”) have demonstrated an eagerness to block the president any way they can.

This book also provides a close analysis of what Mr. Alter sees as the administration’s missteps, focused around the author’s conviction that the president’s “detached and self-contained nature had hampered his presidency.” Mr. Alter contends that what he calls Mr. Obama’s lack of “the schmooze gene” (“standard equipment for people in politics”) and his reticence in cultivating relationships with members of Congress and other politicians left him with “one less way to leverage his authority.”

Many of Mr. Alter’s observations echo complaints frequently heard within the Beltway. He argues that the Obama White House has been too insular, that it has often done a poor job of selling its agenda (say, on health care) and that the president has frequently been slow to go on offense: he “developed a habit of letting the dialogue deteriorate until he rode to the rescue like a one-man cavalry, solving all the problems with a big speech, large chunks of which he wrote himself at the last minute.”

One of Mr. Obama’s first big financial supporters said he thought the president, in Mr. Alter’s words, “had been humbled by the opposition’s intransigence”: “he had never failed to bring anyone around before, and it changed him.”

In Mr. Alter’s view, the president’s lack of experience in negotiations hobbled his efforts to cut deals with Republicans, much the way his paucity of earlier political experience “hampered him on management questions.” “Relations with Cabinet-level departments were so tangled that it was often hard to get decisions made,” Mr. Alter writes. “While centralizing the national security apparatus at the White House worked well enough (unless you happened to work at the State Department), domestic agencies had to deal with several competing power sources inside the White House that each got to say, ‘It’s the White House calling.’ ”

Mr. Alter’s thesis is that the 2012 election was possibly “the most consequential” in recent times and “a hinge of history” — “a titanic ideological struggle” that put the “social contract established during the New Deal era” on the line. He readily acknowledges that he thinks the United States “dodged a bullet in 2012,” and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans’ “extremist” views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially “centrist nation.”

Toward the end of this volume, Mr. Alter quotes Mr. Obama telling an aide that if he lost, his presidency would be “a footnote” and that “all of the progress we made in the first four years would be reversed”; if he won, his first-term achievements would be cemented for a generation and he could move ahead on promises sidetracked by the recession.

Whereas there had “famously been ‘two Clintons,’ the brilliant policy analyst” and “the volcanic and self-pitying victim of his own appetites,” Mr. Alter says, President Obama was “pretty much the same calm and self-contained guy inside the bubble as he was in public.” With one exception, Mr. Alter adds: “the intense racial consciousness that he had nurtured in his own mind since childhood was more apparent in private. He knew that if he crossed a certain line in reacting to criticism, he would hand his enemies a weapon: “ ‘See, he’s like all the rest of them.’ It was better for him to be perceived as ‘different,’ with all the challenges that brought.” This “stifling of himself,” this “inability to swing at certain pitches,” made him, according to one aide, about “5 percent more aloof than he had been before coming to the presidency.”

A similar sort of dynamic, in Mr. Alter’s opinion, helps explain the president’s dismal first debate, which jeopardized his re-election: “Obama didn’t trust himself to tangle with Romney. He thought Romney was a liar and an empty suit and would reverse everything worthy he had done as president,” and he had “long worried that his attitude would spill out. Suppressing that was part of what threw him off his game” in that Denver debate.

Such observations help propel the well-worn narrative of the presidential campaign forward, and Mr. Alter scatters some worthwhile nuggets of information along the way.

He reports that Bill Clinton had for many months thought Mr. Romney would win (“the Obama-Christie moment during Hurricane Sandy,” Mr. Alter says, changed the former president’s mind). And he provides some interesting observations on Republican-backed efforts to implement election “reform” around the country (like requiring state-issued photo ID’s and cutting back on early in-person voting) that would hold down “turnout among young people and minorities, who tended to vote Democratic.” Those efforts failed, says Mr. Alter, instead creating a backlash against Republicans as a wave of black voters headed to the polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida, angry at attempts to suppress their votes.

Over all, however, the long passages in this book recounting the 2012 presidential campaign feel like tired television reruns of a not-too-popular show. The only sections that substantially add to our understanding of the campaign are those chronicling, in minute detail, the Obama team’s creation of a sophisticated operation for reaching out to potential supporters and getting out the vote — an operation that combined impressive ground troops with the digital analysis of huge amounts of data.

This big data helped the campaign figure out what worked and what didn’t (for a while, e-mails with yellow backgrounds “generated 10 to 20 percent” more responses than those with white backgrounds) and assess the ever-shifting metrics of the contest. Some 4,000 to 9,000 phone calls a night were placed to voters in battleground states, Mr. Alter says, providing “the campaign high command” with “a 360-degree view of the state of the race.” Facebook was used for “supporter mobilization” and cable television data was employed to help micro-target ad buys. A mobile app, “Quick Donate,” Mr. Alter reports, “raised an extra $75 million by letting supporters give money with one click instead of filling out a form.”

This state-of-the-art campaign machine would help insure that Mr. Obama won a second term. After the election, Mr. Alter says, the Obama for America campaign was reincarnated as a group called Organizing for Action. With more than 20 million e-mail addresses in its database, Organizing for Action “would try to make the 2012 Chicago machine a permanent force in American politics, applying money, analytics, door-knocking, and the rest of the magic formula to advancing the president’s agenda.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/books/the-center-holds-by-jonathan-alter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130603&_r=0

Who Really Won the Election? Campaign Consultants

Money & Politics

by Michael Winship, Bill Moyers and Co., December 12, 2012

Ryan Gosling played a fictional political consultant who becomes disillusioned with the process in 2011′s political thriller The Ides of March.

Candidates come and candidates go but campaign consultants live on, no matter the outcome of the election, continuing to cash in even as they look for their next victims. And with the post-Citizens United explosion of money now available via super PACs and 501c4s (the “social welfare” groups that keep their deep-pocketed donors anonymous), the potential, ongoing profits are more enormous than ever.

For example, Bloomberg News recently reported, “More than five months after Newt Gingrich dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, the founder of the super-political action committee backing him was still drawing a check. In fact, almost half of the $480,000 Rebecca Burkett paid herself as founder of Winning Our Future came after the former House speaker quit the race.”

… While the 2012 election is over, the financial windfall for political consultants and fundraisers spawned by the millions of dollars donated to super-PACs continues — and often with little oversight.

Entrepreneurs who set up super-PACs wrote their own paychecks. The new groups sometimes moved as much money into the pockets of employees as they did into races. And some showed evidence of self-dealing.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, “In 2012, the total spending of outside groups — the super PACs and dark money nonprofits which spend money to influence elections, but do so separately from campaigns — amounted to about $1.3 billion.” As a result, a handful of consultants are making out like bandits.

About a third of that money, more than $482 million, “ultimately passed through just six media companies” — ad production houses Mentzer Media and McCarthy Hennings Media, direct mail company Arena Communications, online advertising firm Targeted Victory, Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads Media LLC, and “a mysterious Democrat-aligned media group” called Waterfront Strategies.

Some of these companies used the money to produce ads, others to purchase the slots where the ads ultimately aired, others to send ad mailers. Industry experts tell CMD that media buyers typically take a 10 to 15 percent commission on ad buys, but consultants involved in ad production or mailers may be paid an even greater percentage.

… the largest outside spenders tended to rely on the same vendors. Many of these media firms often did work for the same candidate campaign accounts that the outside spending groups were supporting, allowing for potential collusion between campaigns and ‘independent’ groups that are required by law to keep their operations separate.

In many ways, Washington is still a small town and the coziness of these companies – many of them owned and operated by close associates of the parties and candidates — approaches the incestuous. Mentzer Media, for example, worked closely with McCarthy Hennings. McCarthy Hennings and online ad agency Targeted Victory worked with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, both of which are affiliated with ad purchasing company Crossroads Media (which had its name nearly a decade before Rove started his groups). Several of them also worked for the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC.

This tangled web of connectivity and the money being made have angered many, including conservatives who believe Romney’s defeat and other losses at the polls this year were in part due to consultants who placed profit over victory. Erick Erickson of RedState.com pointed a finger specifically at the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the capital. It’s the location of several campaign consultancies, including the aforementioned Crossroads Media and Targeted Victory. Restore Our Future is there, too.

Erickson dramatically wrote, “Strip away the candidate and coalition and it is on the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza where the seeds of Mitt Romney’s ruin and the RNC’s get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed — bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots…

Here the top party consultants waged war with conservative activists and here they waged war with the Democrats. On both fronts, they raked in millions along the way with a more fractured, minority party in their wake. And they show no signs of recognizing just how much a part of the problem they are.

Back in early June, The Huffington Post calculated that the top 150 consulting companies – “media, fundraising, digital/social, direct mail and others” – had already grossed $465.76 million in the 2011-12 election cycle. From that, they extrapolated “an eventual take for the consulting industry of as much as $3 billion if, as some expect, total spending on all levels of campaigns tops out at some $8 billion this time (compared with $6 billion in 2007-08 and $4 billion in 2003-4).”

PR Watch contributing writer Will Dooling concludes, “Groups like these may drive funds toward expenditures that maximize their personal commission, even if those expenditures do not make good strategic sense. This may explain the massive emphasis big-spending super PAC’s place on radio and television advertising, rather than door to door campaigning and other get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Fortunes are being made at the expense of retail campaigning and true representative democracy, and with the big money come endless possibilities for corruption and abuse. “These guys spent as much money in Virginia as we used to spend in America,” Democratic consultant Tad Divine, an ex-Gore and Kerry staffer, told The Washington Post. “That is not an exaggeration. It is beyond anything we would have been able to comprehend.”

http://billmoyers.com/2012/12/12/who-really-won-the-election-campaign-consultants/

Beware the Smart Campaign

By ZEYNEP TUFEKCI, New York Times, November 16, 2012

“I AM not a number. I am a free man!” was the famous cry of prisoner Number Six, who could never escape his Kafkaesque village on the 1960s television show “The Prisoner.” This is a prescient cry for an era when numbers follow us everywhere. Jim Messina, the victorious Obama campaign manager, probably agrees that you are not a number. That’s because you are four numbers.

The Obama campaign assigned all potential swing-state voters one number, on a scale of 1 to 100, that represented the likelihood that they would support Mr. Obama, and another number for the prospect that they would show up at the polls. A third metric evaluated the odds that an Obama supporter who was an inconsistent voter could be nudged to the polls, and a fourth score estimated how persuadable someone was by a conversation on a particular issue (which was, of course, also determined by crunching more numbers).

Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.

For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?

How did Mr. Obama win? The message and the candidate matter, of course; it’s easier to persuade voters if your policies are more popular and your candidate more appealing. But a modern winning campaign requires more. As Mr. Messina explained, his campaign made an “unparalleled” $100 million investment in technology, demanded “data on everything,” “measured everything” and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. In contrast, Mitt Romney’s campaign’s data operations were lagging, buggy and nowhere as sophisticated. A senior Romney aide described the shock he experienced in seeing the Obama campaign turn out “voters they never even knew existed.” And that kind of ability matters: while Mr. Obama did win decisively, the size of his lead in four states that determined the outcome, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, was about 400,000 votes — or about 1.2 percent of the eligible voters.

The confluence of marketing and politics goes back a long way. A blizzard of direct mail engineered by political consultants is credited with defeating President Harry S. Truman’s national health care proposal after World War II. The new methods, however, are not just better direct mail. Noxious TV ads and slick mailers are like machetes compared with the scalpels of social-science-based big-data. The crude methods may still work to soften the ground and drown out other voices, but in the end they are still very big sticks. Sometimes they kill the patient — just ask swing-state voters about the TV ads they were bombarded with.

The scalpels, on the other hand, can be precise and effective in a quiet, un-public way. They take persuasion into a private, invisible realm. Misleading TV ads can be countered and fact-checked. A misleading message sent in just the kind of e-mail you will open or ad you will click on remains hidden from challenge by the other campaign or the media. Or someone who visits evangelical Web sites might be carefully shielded from messages about gay rights, and someone who has hostile views toward environmentalism may receive messages stroking that sentiment even if the broader campaign woos the green vote elsewhere.

What I really worry about, though, is that these new methods are more effective in manipulating people. Social scientists increasingly understand that much of our decision making is irrational and emotional. For example, the Obama campaign used pictures of the president’s family at every opportunity. This was no accident. The campaign field-tested this as early as 2007 through a rigorous randomized experiment, the kind used in clinical trials for medical drugs, and settled on the winning combination of image, message and button placement. I agree that his family is wonderful and his daughters are cute. But an increasing role of “likability” factors, which we now understand better how to manipulate, is not good for democracy.

These methods will also end up empowering better-financed campaigns. The databases are expensive, the algorithms are proprietary, the results of experiments by campaigns are secret, and the analytics require special expertise. The Democrats have an early advantage partly because academics and data analysts tend to be Democrats. Money will solve that problem. This will shift power in both parties even more toward the richer campaigns and may well be the final nail in the coffin of public financing for presidential campaigns.

What is to be done? Campaigns should make public every outreach message so we at least know what they are saying. These messages can be placed in a public database like campaign contributions so the other side can be aware of, and have the right to respond to, false claims. Political access to proprietary databases should be regulated to provide an even playing field.

I’m not claiming that the Obama campaign used these methods to mislead. However, the fact that the winning campaign’s “chief data scientist” was previously employed to “maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions” does not thrill me. You should be worried even if your candidate is — for the moment — better at these methods. Democracy should not just be about how to persuade people to vote for one candidate over another by any means necessary.

Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/opinion/beware-the-big-data-campaign.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121117