Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Election Roundtable: Obama and Romney at End of the Road

Election Roundtable: Obama and Romney at End of the Road

Photograph via meltybuzz

Editor’s note: At climactic moments during Election 2012, we gathered our political writers for roundtable discussions. This is the final one. Tomorrow we will update with predictions. (UPDATE: We now have predictions!)


Anthony Resnick: I’m going to say President Obama takes both the popular vote (50-49) and the Electoral College (281-257). I’m pessimistic enough to give Romney the toss-ups in Colorado and Virginia, but optimistic enough to think that the president’s upper-Midwest firewall of Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin is going to hold.

Ben Hoffman: Obama wins the EC 440-98 and then forcibly implants microchips in us (hey, he’d have a mandate!). Oh wait, never mind, that was Jim Cramer’s Electoral College prediction, only slightly less insane than predictions that Obamacare includes microchip implants (I knew they should have read the bill before they passed it!). Other insane predictions: George Will and Michael Barone both say Romney will prevail by about 100 EC votes. Being a nervous wimpy superstitious liberal, I’m tempted to jump on that train in a desperate attempt at a reverse jinx, but I’ll make some honest predictions: Romney wins North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado. Obama takes Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (which will be the closest state). Obama wins 294-244. Dems hold the Senate 53-47. Conservatives are angry/blame the hurricane.

Josh Lawson: Shock and awe.

Ian Cheney: See here.

Stephen Kurczy: For the first time in its history, Dixville Notch’s presidential picks end in a tie—five for Barack Obama, five for Mitt Romney—echoing what national polling has found: this election is too close to call.

Question 1: On net, how much did Super PACs matter?

Josh Lawson: Outside orgs spent just over $1.2B during this election cycle (all races), about half of which came from Super PACs. The other half came from unions, corporations, individuals, and the political parties. Why so much? Someone must think there is a solid return on investment to be gleaned from our exercise in American democracy (only Congress can blow a billion without thought to results). Those “returns” are not always financial—they can be ideological, and solid issue advocacy is about as democratic as democracy gets. Still, I’m one of those irked by ”return on investment” and “democracy” cropping up in the same sentence. I’m also among those for whom Citizens United was a dishearteningly naïve decision. So I try and keep a watchful eye on Super PACs.

But those who share my sentiments were probably surprised (in a great way) that the debates played such a central roll. In this era of trademarked letters—“O” and “R”—it is refreshing that many took advantage of the debates as a chance to size-up each candidate in real-time. Net effect of S-PAC money on the presidential race? There’s no way of knowing for certain until access/accountability orgs run some regressions based on Tuesday’s returns. My early sense is that outside spending was most effective at framing the issues covered by the candidates (to the exclusion of a great many others), less effective as a hit-machine, and least effective making a positive case for either candidate.

Anthony Resnick: This may be the result of being embedded in the solidly blue state of California, but I’d almost forgotten about the Super PACs. My sense is that they were much more important in the primaries, given how little money all the candidates but Romney had at that stage of the race. With Romney and Obama both able to raise ungodly sums of money themselves, there was little room for the Super PACs to control the narrative. Other than a weeklong story about whether Mitt Romney was being accused of murder, there was nothing in this cycle particularly impactful or memorable from the Super PACs, certainly nothing on the level of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Ian Cheney: Agreed on both answers. We can’t really know, but it’s probably not as much as we feared. Both candidates spent so much money, and the two camps were already so divisive, that S-PACs probably did more to rally a base than effectively tear down an opponent. In the primaries, where the differences between candidates were much more nuanced, all voters were of the same party, and there was less “honest” money in play, the S-PAC machines could spout their half-truths (perhaps overestimated) and have more of an impact the polls than they did in the flush general election.

Ben Hoffman: Pretty much what everyone said. Given that presidential candidates have the ability to raise insane sums of money, I wonder if Super PACs will have more of an effect on smaller races: Senate or House races where candidates’ campaign banks are much smaller and thus less able to counter the effects of outside money. See here.

Stephen Kurczy: I can’t believe what I’m hearing from you guys! Super PACs would like us to believe that their influence fell short of aims, as the Wall Street Journal has wrongly claimed. But their role cannot be understated when they spent $623 million in the 2012 election, nearly as much as all political parties and other groups combined. Here’s what Jane Meyer had to say about Super PACs: “A pool of only twenty-one hundred people has given a total of two hundred million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 percent of donors is exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom eighty-six per cent. And this accounts only for publicly disclosed donations: much of the money raised during this election cycle consists of secret gifts to “nonprofit public-welfare” groups that claim to have no overt political agenda.” One clear influence was in the primaries, when Super PAC money helped Romney fend off surges from Gingrich and Santorum. The only reason Super PACs may appear inconsequential now is because pro-Romney and pro-Obama groups nearly cancelled each other out. Going forward, you won’t be a contender without a billionaire in your back pocket, or pulling your strings.

Question 2: If Ian Cheney is right and Romney wins the popular vote and Obama wins the Electoral College, what sort of reaction can we expect from the right?

Ian Cheney: (Um, how about when Ian Cheney is right?) If I am right, and Mitt Romney wins the popular vote but loses the election, I expect fury from the right that dwarfs the left’s fury from 2000. In 2000, the left had not yet had the time to truly despise George W. Bush. They did not have a full term of policies with which they vehemently disagreed. Conservatives have seen four years of an Obama Administration and therefore feel much more passionately about his defeat than Dems did toward Governor Bush 12 years ago. Moreover, let’s remember that the modern Republican Party is grounded in a “small government, gun in every house” mentality. That type of base is much more adverse to being told that the “will of the people” is being ignored as Washington D.C. hands you a big-government leader due to what some might construe as the small print that is the Electoral College.

Ben Hoffman: (Um, first, has Ian Cheney ever been wrong?) Second, one important clarification: in 2000 the left was not primarily angry about an electoral-popular split. The left was angry because we believed that, absent Sunshine State shenanigans and Supreme Court-halted recounts, there would not have been an electoral-popular split. Gore would have won both! Third, as Ian notes, yes, the far right is more prone to, um, insanity. Remember that some conservatives believe Barack Obama used voter fraud to steal the 2008 election, which he won by 10 million votes. Fourth, as I’ve written before, consider that many would consider even a legitimate Obama victory illegitimate because it was only earned by giving free handouts to all those takers. (Although it won’t happen, nothing would be funnier than Obama winning the electoral college while gaining exactly 47% of the popular vote – can you even imagine?!) Finally, you should really read Jane Mayer’s entire New Yorker piece on the myth of voter fraud, but for now skip directly to the last paragraph where conservatives try to hide their glee at the thought of initiating multiple recounts and lawsuits if Obama ekes out a close win.

Stephen Kurczy: We can at least expect Clint Eastwood to produce, direct, and star in a movie about it, al la Hollywood’s “Recount” about the Florida debacle in 2000. But I’ll leave further prognostications to a real member of the right, Mr. Lawson . . .

Josh Lawson: I have a rather significant bet with my wife about this. So I almost didn’t even answer the question (who wants to tempt fates?). But if the unthinkable does occur, it will mean that four of the past six presidential elections advanced a candidate who most voters opposed (Clinton ’92, Clinton ’96, Bush ’00, Obama ’12). I expect conservatives would still stick to their guns regarding the Electoral College—support for the current model is deeply integrated into the federalism fabric. However, I’m honestly more interested to see what the left would do. Take it from a Republican whose candidate won because our system effectively allows acres to vote: it’s tough being the democratic winner by counter-majoritarian means.

Anthony Resnick: I’m going to take this opportunity to (partially) preemptively defend my liberal brethren from charges of hypocrisy if this scenario does in fact play out: a Barack Obama popular vote loss/electoral vote win would be less unfair than George Bush’s 2000 victory, and not just because of shenanigans in Florida. The biggest inequity in the Electoral College is that it gives every state, regardless of size, two extra votes because of its two senators (or, in the case of the District of Columbia, because of pity for not having any senators at all). California has about 66 times as many people as Wyoming but only about 18 times the number of electoral votes. (Another way of running the numbers—California has roughly the same population as the 20 least populous states + D.C. One group of 36 million people has 55 electoral votes, the other has 89). Take away two electoral votes from every state, and Al Gore wins the 2000 election. But, if the election is close, President Obama is almost certain to win fewer states than Governor Romney, so taking away two votes from every state would only increase his Electoral College margin. So, Obama will have won in spite of, not because of, the biggest flaw in the Electoral College. That said, the Electoral College in any form is a bad idea, and if this scenario does happen and there is outrage from conservatives, liberals would be smart to try to capitalize on that and move quickly to abolish the Electoral College. It wouldn’t happen, but it would make for some interesting contortions on both sides.

Question 3: If Romney wins, where should Nate Silver go to hide from the irate liberals who have been duped into a false sense of security?

Anthony Resnick: In the few days since I first suggested this question, it’s become apparent that Nate Silver has as much or more to fear from gloatingold-school“ pundits as from jilted liberals if Romney wins. It’s interesting, while I shouldn’t try to speak for conservatives, my occasional jaunts to The Corner suggest that liberal confidence and conservative confidence heading into Tuesday are of a very different character (to the extent either side is confident at all). While there’s certainly a “Romney? Really? That guy?!?” component to liberals feeling good about our chances (despite Josh’s well-argued case for Romney’s appeal), our confidence is based mostly on reading Nate Silver, looking at swing state polls, looking at the map, and counting to 270. For many conservatives, confidence in a Romney win is more an article of faith. President Obama is so evidently a failure as a president that any poll that shows him winning must be wrong and, even if the polls are right for how things currently stand, by Election Day voters will realize that the emperor has no clothes.

Ian Cheney: I don’t know, but I hope he has room for one more. Silver, who truly seems to take an objective look at the numbers rather than see the numbers his ideology wants to see, has two possible fates after this election. If he nails the prediction for the second straight election, he’ll achieve a sort of “Gospel of Nate” celebrity status in 2016. Many will read his numbers and absolutely think what he says goes; many people will also think that the best way to break down an election is to ignore ideology and rely solely on the data. If, however, he’s wrong and falls to a pedestrian 1 for 2 in predictions, his 2016 numbers will be scoffed at by half the country. His 2012 predictions will have failed to perceive Romney’s true support. Moreover, his strategy as a whole will lose credibility. What remains after the hard numbers is our gut and anecdotal evidence. Anyone has that. Silver would take a huge hit as he’s relegated to the league of ordinary pundits.

Ben Hoffman: Burn him at the stake! Just kidding. The whole brouhaha makes complete sense: GOP water-carriers again trying to eradicate that barrier we call reality; traditional political journalists clinging to their racehorse notions of campaigns; all sorts of people fearing what they don’t understand. What Ian says is true—if Silver’s wrong, he’ll be scoffed at in 2016 by many—but consider how crazy that is. As Salon’s Alex Pareene pointed out, there are literally zero consequences for traditional pundits who are frequently wrong. It’s also worth pointing out that what Silver does is a really smart, informed averaging of polls. But others do that, and do it fairly well. So I’ll second what Slate’s Matt Yglesias says, and imagine a possible future for Silver if his predictions go astray on Tuesday: he’d be even more valuable if he turned his statistical skills to bear on another realm besides politics.

Stephen Kurczy: Sicily? That’s where Michael Corleone hid, at least. Watch out for the car bombs.

Question 4: Where does the loser go from here?

Stephen Kurczy: Private consulting, which is way more lucrative and way less hard than being president.

Josh Lawson: Not so much, Kurczy. During my lifetime (and yours), the list of major party losers transitioning to consulting in any substantial way starts with Ford and ends with Dole—2 out of 9. Whoever loses on Tuesday isn’t likely to join the ranks. Romney is 65 and has more money than God any major party loser, ever. And Obama is eager to prove he in fact earned that Nobel Peace Prize. So I’d wager the paths for each candidate would differ substantially, with Obama likely to be a very active post-pres, and Romney likely to fund a lineup of solid Republican candidates (a few of whom may call him dad).

Anthony Resnick: Obama will embrace his inner nerd and move back to Chicago to write books and teach. Romney will return to Boston, recharge, reboot, and re-emerge in 2018 to run for the Senate as the liberal alternative to Elizabeth Warren. (Sorry, Stephen, if I infringed on any trademarks.)

Ian Cheney: Okay, I’ll say it. More than any defeated president since, well, Grover Cleveland, President Obama has a chance to pull a Grover Cleveland. His ego is certainly big enough. Only two components remain: first, a serious conversation with the Clintons. If Hillary wants another shot, Barack has to hang it up. They’ve done too much for him to go down that road again. If they sign off, though, only one component remains: a Romney Administration that struggles and an economy that re-recedes. If so, Obama runs again in four years and probably, like Cleveland, wins, with Romney playing the roll of Benjamin Harrison.

If Romney loses, I’m with Steve. He’s going to go make buckets of money with private consulting. His political career is over. There’s a word for people who are defeated too often.

Ben Hoffman: I’ve seen a few suggest Obama might run again in 2016, but he doesn’t really seem to be enjoying running this time around, does he? We’ve heard he’s an introvert, he’s got a writer’s spirituality, etc., etc. So I’m with Anthony. I think he teaches and writers and comes out of the woodwork every once in awhile to campaign for Democrats. If he recharges enough, way down the road, perhaps mayor of Chicago? As for Romney, the #1 rule of rich people is there’s always more money to be made. (And seriously, more Olympics to be saved—I could totally see Romney running another U.S. Olympics.)

Question 5: How might this campaign change the way future campaigns will be covered?

Ben Hoffman: Perhaps more hope than prediction, but I think the next presidential campaign will see the beginning of the end of false equivalence journalism. And while news organizations have rightly upped their focus on fact checking during this campaign, it seems clear that the idea of fact-checkers, as they’re currently constituted, are almost already outdated. Fact-checkers being ignored and explicitly derided by campaigns, fact-checkers checking things that are not facts. Fact-checking needs to exist not as a distinct concept practiced only by the fact-checkers, it needs to be integrated into every aspect of campaign coverage (traditional reporting, headline writing, maybe live fact-checking during debates a la Candy Crowley?) Two other predictions: Going back to question #3, how accurate Nate Silver and the polls and models and other such wizardry prove to be will play a huge role, of course, in how trusted they are in 2016. Second, you’ll see Twitter assuming an even greater role in the arguments, accusations, and spin wars waged among campaign surrogates and partisan media members.

Stephen Kurczy: The candidates and the media must pay more attention to Twitter. The social networking site helped define the narrative of each presidential debate as new records were set for tweets per minute and some stations (CNN, for one) actually flashed tweets live across the TV screen. The viral spread of comments (“Fire Big Bird!”) and conclusions (“Obama is losing this debate”) underscored that Americans won’t wait for post-debate punditry, much less the next day’s newspaper. Campaigns must find ways to either limit or control the social network, especially as the number of Twitterers (148 million) now outnumbers the number of voters (138 million in 2008).

Josh Lawson: Since the others focused on the journalism side of things, I’d like to throw a slightly different gloss on the question. For a long time, campaign management and traditional PR firms developed along distinct tracks. They are different things after all. Try managing Apple’s brand if Tim Cook decided to take a position on every controversial policy topic while still caring that people like his family and pre-order iPads. The differences between corporate branding and campaign development were just different for a long while, with top campaigners often rolling into substantial governance positions way above the pay-grade of PR buffs.

The two worlds collided in 2000, when both parties for the first time deployed voter profiling software using the same credit card, magazine subscription, and car purchase data relied upon by corporations targeting consumers (no, your neighbors don’t get the same voter mail . . . ). Micro-targeting evolved further in ‘08, along with the “logo” presidency (replete with the trademarked “O“ and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope“ poster). It was worlds away from Al Gore personally sketching his logo in 2000. But this cycle took things to a whole new level of corporate/campaign imaging overlap.

Perhaps most notable was Obama campaign manager’s intensive training by chiefs from Apple, Facebook, Google, DreamWorks, and other corporate powerhouses hoping to ready their candidate for the new brand management landscape. This is new—very new. And I don’t honestly think it’s necessarily great or terrible. But it’s likely here to stay.

Anthony Resnick: I hope Ben is correct about the end of false equivalence journalism, but I think it depends largely on how the way this campaign (and other recent campaigns) was covered changes the way candidates campaign. If Romney’s “not dictated by fact checkers” campaign is seen as a model for future campaigns, then I think the media will have little choice but to adapt. I would also combine this in a way with the Nate Silver discussion. If fact checkers can be gamed and statistical models are superior to pundits in covering the horse race, perhaps the press will see that pundits are most useful at covering the substance of the campaign, what each candidate is truly proposing to do and what the consequences of victory for each candidate are. I would expect the media to be quite resistant to this kind of change, but there are some signs in this campaign that that may be where we’re headed.

Ian Cheney: Not at all. I get the sense that the ratings are great, the networks are flush, and everyone involved is having a good time covering it. More importantly, I expect many more websites to switch to a Construction-model for their political coverage. Five writers, five days; both perspectives; the numbers and a creative, Kurczyesque anchor to cap off the week on jovial Fridays. That’s political coverage done right!