21 Reasons for Obama's Victory and Romney's Defeat

By Tom Bevan and Carl M. Cannon - November 7, 2012

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The public and the punditry were in agreement this time: Romney had cleaned Obama’s clock. In hindsight, Obama wasn’t really that bad, and Romney wasn’t that outstanding. Part of the president’s problem was that his summer blitzkrieg had done its job too well. When Americans saw Romney for the first time (and some 70 million watched on TV), he looked and sounded smart, committed, and decent. Suddenly the race was a dead heat again.

18. The Other Debates: Galvanized out of complacency, Joe Biden (Oct. 11), Obama (Oct. 16), and Obama again (Oct. 22) set about trying to “win” the next three debates, which according to the instant polls and most of the commentary is what happened. And though Biden’s histrionics and occasional rudeness during his debate with Paul Ryan opened the vice president up to criticism, it also served its purpose inside the campaign: It lit a fire under Obama.

“You don’t need to bring a baseball bat,” one aide told the president. “But these are debates, not policy forums. You need to get after the guy.” Obama didn’t really need to be told. In the next two debates he was aggressive and relentless. Gone were any doubts about whether he really wanted a second term or was taking the competition too lightly.

And in a campaign where both sides had essentially said to hell with fact-checkers, the incumbent seized the advantage mainly by being quicker on his feet that the challenger.

19. September Surprise: Obama had righted his ship and pulled back to where he’d been most of the summer -- nearly neck-and-neck with Romney, who could never quite catch up either in the national polling average or the battleground state polling.

Then, on Sept. 11, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, riots broke out at the U.S Embassy in Cairo and at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Not knowing quite what was going on, the Romney campaign issued a press release chiding the administration for its supposedly obsequious response to the Cairo rioters. When it was clear that four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, were murdered in Benghazi, the president deflected any second-guessing of his actions with a preemptive attack on Romney for allegedly politicizing a tragedy.

This became a talking point for Obama, who used it to parry virtually any question about the administration’s policies in Libya, which is exactly what he did to Romney during the second debate at Hofstra University. It was perhaps the single moment in the debates that helped the president most. The exchange went this way:

CNN’s Candy Crowley, moderating a town-hall format debate, called on a man named Kerry Ladka, who asked the president: “We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?”

In response, Obama launched into a filibuster that was mostly an attack on Romney for holding a press conference on the subject -- a press conference, incidentally, during which he was lambasted by the attending reporters.

Taken aback by Obama's answer, Romney gave a long-winded reply of his own, culminating in the assertion that it took 14 days for the president to call the Libya violence a terrorist attack. This was untrue, and Crowley corrected him. Conservatives fumed afterward that she had decided rather late in the game to be an activist moderator. They wondered why she didn’t demand that the president answer the question about protecting the diplomats, a query that has still gone unaddressed at the White House.

But here, it might be said that the “Michael Dukakis rule” was kicking in: You can’t help a candidate who won’t help himself. Certainly there was nothing preventing Romney from saying that he’d like the man’s question answered -- and that any president who thinks he only has to answer tough questions after the election is a pretty sketchy commander-in-chief. But Romney said nothing of the sort, and it might have been his last chance to dent Obama’s armor.

20. October-November Surprise: Tropical storms washed away the outdoor portion of the Democrats’ Charlotte soiree and the first day of the Republican convention in Tampa -- so that was a draw. But Mother Nature hadn’t delivered her last word on the 2012 campaign season.

At 11 a.m. on Oct. 22, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin inauspiciously headlined, “Tropical Depression Eighteen.” It began this way: “Satellite images and surface observations indicate that the low pressure system over the southwestern Caribbean Sea has acquired sufficient organization to be classified as a tropical depression.”

In the next 10 days, that system would become Tropical Storm Sandy, Hurricane Sandy, and Superstorm Sandy. She was, in combination with a weather system that came down from Canada, the “perfect storm,” residents on the East Coast were told. What she really turned into was a dragon that threatened Americans from Florida to New England, closed transit systems, and workplaces all along the Eastern seaboard, then slammed into New Jersey and New York with enough forces to kill dozens and destroy whole towns.

The crisis temporarily stopped the campaign in its tracks, along with any residual momentum Romney still had. It also afforded Obama the opportunity of acting like a president, which he did effectively, just as the electorate realized how sick and tired it had grown with attack ads and empty rhetoric. On Election Day, some 40 percent of Americans told exit pollsters that Obama’s response to the storm was an important factor in their vote -- and most of those who said so pulled the lever for the incumbent.

21. Aftermath: After calling the president to congratulate him, a spent and disappointed -- but nevertheless smiling -- Mitt Romney made a brief speech to his supporters in Boston. Afterward, numerous pundits noted that  his remarks were uncommonly gracious. But Democratic consultant Paul Begala and former Republican White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also found the speech notable for what was not in it:

There was no list of issues and causes that he’ll fight for in the future, no real discussion of the specifics choices Americans will have to make in the future. It was simply not, Fleischer and Begala observed, a concession speech from a movement leader.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Romney’s critics on both the right and the left often accused him of lacking “a core,” but those who are close him believe this misses the essence of the man utterly. “Core” values to Romney are his church and family, and to them he is a consistently devoted servant.

Mark McKinnon, a confidant of George W. Bush, describes Romney as a good man whose values run deep, but whose politics are “transactional.” That’s hardly a sin, given that the two party’s politics are transactional as well. Democratic officeholders recently opposed to gay marriage now favor it. Not coincidentally, so do a plurality of the voters. In 2002, Romneycare was considered a conservative market-based solution to coerce Americans into purchasing private health insurance. By 2012, Obamacare is a socialist scheme designed as the first step of a government takeover of the nation’s health care system.

To liberal writer Ezra Klein, Romney’s problem -- in terms of how he’s perceived -- is that what he most values is empirical data, which he thinks complement his natural management skills.

“A lifetime of data has proven to him that he’s extraordinarily, even uniquely, good at managing and leading organizations, projects and people,” Klein writes. “It’s those skills, rather than specific policy ideas, that he sees as his unique contribution. That has been the case everywhere else he has worked, and he assumes it will be the case in the White House, too.”

But he won’t get the chance to prove that theory now. The American people, albeit by the narrowest of margins, didn’t choose a manager. For better or worse, they chose a leader, and it’s a measure of Romney’s core that when he said he’d be praying for him to succeed, the people who know him best believe him. 

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Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor for RealClearPolitics.

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