‘Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America’ by Dan Balz

August 2, 2013

Howell Raines, a former executive editor of the New York Times, is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

Dan Balz’s history of the 2012 campaign ends with an astonishing scene from a post-election interview with Mitt Romney. When the reporter brings up his infamous “47 percent” remark, Romney blurts, “Actually I didn’t say that.” He then retrieves his iPad and leads Balz, line by line, through an excruciatingly delusional exegesis of the speech that crippled his campaign.

Balz, a fair-minded reporter in the tradition of his Washington Post mentor, the late David Broder, resists the temptation to belabor the obvious. The Republican nominee just didn’t understand, then or now, what happened last fall, particularly voters’ mystifying insistence on verbal precision. Like his father, George, whose Republican presidential candidacy in 1968 flamed out when he said he had been “ ‘brainwashed’ by the generals and others about the Vietnam War,” Mitt Romney is a master of the self-immolating quote. The Republican Party, if it’s lucky, will not see his like again.

Balz argues that the 2012 “collision” between President Obama and Romney set the pattern for future contests in several ways, starting with a nation hatefully and equally divided along socioeconomic and party lines. Moreover, the technological mastery of the Obama team, which caught its opponents flat-footed, has created a radically elevated standard for campaign management that neither party can ignore. Balz also shows how wrong the Republicans are to believe that the problem is not their message. He argues that their veneration of austerity has severed the GOP’s connection with swing voters in the middle class. This suggests that if the party sticks to its balance sheets, the Democrats may achieve a hegemony similar to the Republican ascendancy ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide. All these points are arranged around the unifying theme that the new American demographics mean disaster for an insistently white party with its base in the Deep South and the Rocky Mountains.

This book is old-fashioned in a good sense. The author likes the close-focus reportage of the “Boys on the Bus” era. But he adds a sure, up-to-date grasp of how new technologies and social media have disrupted the old order. Specific without being tedious, “Collision 2012” is short on windy analysis and long on attributed quotes and statistics.


“Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America,” by Dan Balz. (Viking Adult)

Speaking of statistics, no book can be expected to fully explain how a data-driven executive like Romney lost his faith in market research. Balz points out that the uber-message of “the public polls of the overall national vote and in the battleground states” consistently pointed to an Obama victory. If Romney was the candidate of managerial expertise, how could he believe that only his pollsters in Boston and those feeding Fox News were reliable?

By his own account, Romney trusted independent poll numbers less than he trusted his feeling that he had turned the race around with his debate performance in Denver. “The campaign had changed,” Romney said, “from being clinical to being emotional. And that was very promising.” At a final rally in New Hampshire the night before the election, he sensed that voters had discovered a “passionate” devotion to him personally. “I mean, this was not just ‘Hey, we’re happy with our nominee,’ ” Romney recalled. “These people were saying, ‘We love this. This is great.’ ”

Again, the reader is not beaten over the head with the counter-reality. The GOP twisted itself into knots to avoid nominating Romney. Primary voters were desperate enough to flirt with the zany Herman Cain and the madcap Newt Gingrich. The richest Republicans in Manhattan enlisted Henry Kissinger to lobby New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run when Romney looked inevitable to them.

Christie gets a lot of attention from Balz, and rightly so. If Romney had picked him for his running mate instead of Rep. Paul Ryan, he might have won. Balz reports that at one point Romney said, “Governor, are you prepared to resign to be my running mate?,” leading Christie to believe, embarrassingly, that he had the nod. But that was before Romney and Ryan conceived what aides called a “bromance,” in which two budget nerds fell into each other’s arms. It was folie a deux, as Balz tells it. The theory was that Ryan was such a good salesman, he could make sacking Medicare look like a reasoned response to debt apocalypse.

For inside-baseball readers, there’s plenty to chew on. The tale of how a man worth more than $200 millionlet his campaign go dead in the summer because he could not match Obama’s $150 million in attack ads on Bain Capital, Romney’s former financial roost, is too good to summarize.Then there are the Monty Python moments. Balz informs us that when Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, saw Clint Eastwood on live television at the Republican National Convention speaking off-script to an imaginary Obama in an empty chair, “he walked out of the room and threw up.”

Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic conventiongets deservedly heroic treatment. By any measure, his 50-minute defense of Obama’s economic record earns him a place alongside FDR and JFK in the annals of presidential political oratory. Spellbinding and politically crafty, the address exacted a high emotional cost from its author, according to Clinton buddy Terry McAuliffe. “He was obsessed,” McAuliffe said. “He knew how important this was.” The subtext, of course, is that Clinton does not really like Obama, but there is always the health of the party and Hillary’s future to consider.

This stands as an election in which only one side understood that the message and the messenger have to adjust to the world as it is, what Balz calls the “New America.” The lesson was wasted on Romney, who as of January could still “believe the American people would line up with the Republican Party on the major issues of the day.” That explains his takeaway from the election night returns: “Well, now, what’s the country going to do?” he said to aides. “This is scary. This is a bad thing for the country.”

It’s pleasant to read a calmer recounting of the dramatic moments of 2012: Bain Capital, the 47 percent, Clinton’s speech. Romney has said he would add Hurricane Sandy to his list of afflictions. But the overriding lesson for future candidates lies in Obama’s computer-driven voter-mobilization machine. His Chicago-based ground operation combined digital weaponry and an army of foot soldiers. This book explains how the Obama technical model will be standard operating procedure for both sides in 2016 — and how in 2012, the Romney team never knew what hit it.

Howell Raines, a former executive editor of the New York Times, is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

COLLISION 2012

Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America

By Dan Balz

Viking. 381 pp. $32.95

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