Event Reports

Transfer from Politics to the Public: Content and Methods

A Transatlantic Dialog Program with Elected Officials and Political Strategists

German elected officials and political strategists met with campaign officials and experts in the Washington, DC, region and Boston, Massachusetts to discuss and observe the November 6 elections.

A group of German elected officials and political strategists recently visited the Washington, DC, region and Boston, Massachusetts to observe the November 6 elections. During their weeklong program, the delegation met with campaign officials and experts to learn more about the current policy debates in the U.S, the late developments in the elections, and the strategy and tactics used in the campaign.

The group learned how Independent voters make the difference in elections and how each campaign will try to sway them. In 2008, 2/3 of independent voters voted for Barack Obama; in 2010, 2/3 of independents voted Republican, which led to the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in Congress.

To gain the support of independents, Mitt Romney’s campaign has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama’s economic policies. In contrast, the Obama campaign has framed the election as a choice between progress and a return to Bush-era policies. But Obama lacks a compelling message of what his second Administration would hold, said one expert. As one strategist noted, usually “message over mechanism” is the principle that guides campaigns, but this election seemed to be different.

A highlight of the program was a meeting at Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. There, the German delegation received a briefing from senior staff just days before the election, and they had the opportunity to tour the operation. After receiving an overview of the state of the presidential race from the view of the Romney campaign, the group later had the opportunity to attend a rally in Fairfax, Virginia one day before the election.

This allowed the group to see firsthand how the strategy and messaging themes discussed at the headquarters transferred to a rally for supporters in a key swing state. In addition to a stump speech by Romney himself, the rally featured remarks by Ann Romney, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Congressman Frank Wolf and Senate candidate George Allen. Romney’s remarks focused on jobs and the economy, citing his experience in the private sector. The rally also featured a long biographical video about Romney that gave the rally attendees insight into his family, beliefs and personal experiences.

The personal story highlighted in the video is what many experts said the Romney campaign lacked early on, allowing the negative attacks from Obama’s campaign to stick to Romney. The group learned from communications experts that negative ads are usually better and more effective than positive ones. Because Romney only marginally invested his resources in positive ads to define his own candidacy and experiences, Obama’s attacks stuck more easily, allowing Romney to be painted as the rich, out-of-touch Bain Capital executive.

In spite of this success, the Obama campaign was not without problems of its own. The delegation heard that the president seems to have lost some of his appeal. He is no longer a “pop star” as he seemed to be during the 2008 campaign.

Although neither Obama nor Romney had been able to reach 50 percent in the public polls, experts explained how the Electoral College makes it difficult to defeat an incumbent president, which has only happened four times in U.S. history. The election would not be decided in the whole U.S., but rather by a handful of swing states. To defeat President Obama, Republicans would need to break through in the industrial Midwest and win swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin. Both campaigns focused on massive statewide election efforts, including phone calls to voters and door-to-door canvassing, in the swing states.

Before the first presidential debate in Denver, Obama looked like he would cruise to an easy victory. But Obama did not look like an incumbent president in the first debate, according to one expert. His stumble allowed Romney to mount a historic comeback, and Romney was even leading in the polls at times. Normally, the debates have no impact, but this time they did, said one strategist. Another noted that Romney’s victory in the fist debate reenergized his core supporters and motivated them to press on. The group had an opportunity to see the effect of the on-the-ground efforts on Election Day when they observed polling sites in Arlington, Virginia; and Bethesda, Maryland.

In addition to the actual campaign methods and strategies, the delegation learned about the issues being discussed in the presidential election.

The shrinking middle class is a concern, noted an expert on economic policy. The American Dream of being able to drastically improve your economic status during a person’s lifetime has become less likely, the expert noted. As a result, Obama would not be re-elected if the election is a referendum on economic policy.

Additional briefing sessions during the program in Boston allowed the delegation to gain insight into foreign policy issues being discussed on the campaign trail. The group met with representatives from Jewish NGOs and received a detailed presentation of their efforts to expand public support for the strategic relationship with Israel in the face of growing concern over Iranian nuclear enrichment capabilities.

Later, the delegation engaged in an extensive conversation with scholars at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School to continue the debate about the Iranian threat and examine the pivot of the United States toward Asia. While European nations have expressed their concern about this development, it only represents a rational reaction to the region’s growing importance and growing challenges, noted one expert.

As the group watched the election returns come in at viewing events in Washington, DC, they learned that President Obama’s campaign would claim victory, leaving his second Administration the challenge of working through these debates and policy concerns. With the election over, the U.S. will now will turn its political focus to the budget and crisis over the “fiscal cliff”.