Election 2012

Campaigns and the Human Condition

An image from "Mitt," taken at the moment when Mitt Romney realized he had lost the 2012 election.

Over the weekend I watched the Netflix documentary "Mitt," and true to its billing, it humanized Mitt Romney to an extraordinary degree. That's not all that surprising, given that the film was directed by a filmmaker who is friendly with the Romney family and obviously sought to give a behind-the-scenes view of the campaigns (it covered both the 2008 and 2012 races) that portrayed Romney in the best possible light. But in humanizing Romney, it did an excellent job of illuminating just how artificial all campaigns necessarily are.

The Mythical Monolith

AP Photo

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New Documentary Threatens to Make You Like Mitt Romney

A scene from the Netflix documentary "Mitt."

During the 2012 campaign, I, like every liberal writer whose job it is to comment on politics every day, wrote many unkind things about Mitt Romney. Much of the time I found him more sad than despicable; politicians who nearly reach the pinnacle of their profession while being manifestly awful at politics are a rare and curious breed. Like Al Gore before him, Romney's discomfort with the requirements of campaigning was so close to the surface that he couldn't help but inspire a kind of pity. That isn't to say that I didn't find plenty of his statements and policy positions contemptible, because I certainly did, and said so without hesitation. But in the end, Romney wasn't as easy to hate as some other politicians might be.

So a year after he joined that small, melancholy club of presidential losers, it's time that even those of us who thought it would be a terrible thing if he became president can see Romney as a human being. In January, Netflix will be releasing a behind-the-scenes documentary called "Mitt," and the preview is surprisingly endearing:

Conservative Billionaires Selflessly Provide Economic Stimulus

Don't worry - they still have plenty left.

It's sometimes said that you can stimulate the economy by burying a bunch of money, then paying people to go dig it up. It may not be all that productive or useful in the long run, but it'll get the job done. You might think that's what the conservative billionaires who funded the outside campaigns to defeat Barack Obama and other Democrats in 2012 were up to when they poured millions upon millions of dollars into an ultimately futile campaign. And now we're finally getting an idea of just how much money there was.

"Double Down" Was Written for Morning Joe—Not Posterity

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

The week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom—watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it.

Double Down to Dullsville

I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.

I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.

Coverage of 2012 Campaign Disappointingly Unbiased

Fox News shows its blatant pro-Obama bias.

Everybody thinks the media are biased against their side, and conservatives are particularly likely to believe it. They themselves would say "That's because it's true!", but the real reason is that the complaint of liberal bias is one that conservatives hear all the time from all of their media sources. That isn't to say there aren't some issues on which the conservative side doesn't get equally favorable coverage, because there may well be a few, just as there are issues on which liberals get the short end of the media stick. But on some you can make a case that there are legitimate reasons. For instance, I wouldn't be surprised if a systematic analysis revealed that coverage of the gay marriage issue was friendlier to the pro side. That might be because one side is arguing for equality and the other side is arguing for discrimination, and portraying the two as equally morally valid is itself problematic.

Anyhow, if there's ever a topic about which coverage should be emphatically even-handed, it's an electoral campaign. You've got two sides trying to achieve the same objective, both of whom represent large portions of the public. Aha, conservatives would say—but coverage of elections is totally biased against Republicans! And when you ask them to support this claim, their evidence usually comes in two forms. One is, "Here's an example of a story that was totally mean to our candidate!"—in other words, an anecdote. The other is, "If you can't see it, then you're hopeless." Which of course is no evidence at all.

But what happens when you actually try to analyze news coverage of campaigns in a systematic way? The results usually look like these, which come from John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's new book about the 2012 election, The Gamble:

The Wendy Davis Scouting Report

AP Images/Nick Wass

The 2014 political season is just beginning to ramp up, and for fans and the professionals, it’s time to start gauging which races to watch—and guessing which candidates can go all the way. Thursday will mark the emergence of one of the hottest Democratic prospects to come out of Texas in more than a decade: State Senator Wendy Davis, who’s set to announce her candidacy for governor. But hold on to your hats, sports fans, ‘cause this one is gonna get messy. Davis garnered national attention this summer when she successfully filibustered an abortion ban that was passed in a later special session of the state legislature. Over 100,000 people watched a livefeed, and in Texas thousands stormed the capitol in a show of support unprecedented in recent memory. By all accounts, today Davis will tell the world that she’ll be the standard bearer for a team with that’s lost more than 100 consecutive races statewide: the Texas Democratic Party.

Upper East Side Snubs de Blasio

The most impressive aspect of Bill de Blasio’s victory in yesterday’s Democratic primary for the post of New York’s mayor is its breadth.  He ran first in all the boroughs, carried parts of the city ‘s most African American neighborhoods in Harlem and Brooklyn, despite the presence of a prominent African American candidate in the race (William Thompson, who may yet squeak into a run-off depending on the count of the outstanding ballots), and romped through such white liberal strongholds as Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and Park Slope.

Exporting America's Campaigner-in-Chief

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama's 2012 campaign was without question the most complex and technologically sophisticated in history. That's true simply because the tools available to campaigns grow more advanced each year; the president's most recent campaign was able to understand and appeal to voters in more granular ways than the 2008 campaign did, and the 2008 campaign in turn did things the 2004 campaigns barely dreamt of. But it's also because the people who ran the Obama effort were better at their extremely difficult jobs than their Republican counterparts, just as they had been four years before (having a more skilled candidate didn't hurt, either).

So it wasn't a surprise to hear that Jim Messina, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign, has been hired to consult on the next British election, which won't take place until 2015. What did surprise some was that he'll be working for the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron.

So does this make Messina a cynical mercenary devoid of any true beliefs? Does it subvert the image of Barack Obama and those who work for him as a group of idealists, bringing that hopey-changey to America? Or was that never true in the first place?

The Fire in Mitt's Belly

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

On an episode of The Office from a few years ago, the desperately insecure character of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) hits upon a strategy to ingratiate himself with people, called "personality mirroring." He begins not only repeating what people say to him, but adopting the precise manner and mood of whoever he's talking to. This is pretty much how Mitt Romney went about running for president. A man deeply unsuited to the gladhanding required of a politician made himself into one, through a titanic act of will. And just like when Andy Bernard did it, it was incredibly awkward and off-putting. As the old saying has it, sincerity is the most important thing—if you can fake that, you've got it made. Trouble was, Mitt just couldn't, hard though he might have tried.

And it turns out, Mitt didn't even want to run for president a second time. Veteran reporter Dan Balz is coming out with a book about the 2012 campaign, and he learned of the internal Romney family deliberations. They took a vote, and 10 out of 12 Romneys, including Mitt himself, said he shouldn't run. Here's an excerpt:

Dear 2016 Democratic Upstart

AP Images/Charles Dharapak

Since you have time to read an unsolicited memo with such a provocative subject line, it is safe to assume that your name is not Hillary or Joe.

Can Obama's Organizing Army Take Texas?

This piece is the second in our Solid South series. Read the opening essay by Bob Moser here, Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm's North Carolina reporting here, and Jamelle Bouie on Virginia here

Republicans Have Actual Good Idea to Improve Presidential Primaries

This couldn't get much worse.

During the 2012 presidential primaries, many conservatives complained about the media figures who moderated the 800 or so debates that the Republican candidates had to suffer through. Their beef was that these journalists, being journalists, were obviously in the tank for Barack Obama and could not be trusted to treat Republicans fairly. That wasn't really the problem, though. The problem was that most of the journalists who moderate presidential debates ask terrible questions, meant more to put candidates on the spot or produce a "gaffe" than to actually illuminate anything useful about them. I don't know how many times they have to ask inane questions like "What's your favorite Bible verse?" or whether the candidates prefer Elvis to Johnny Cash or deep dish to thin crust (yes, those were actually the topic of debate questions) before they start turning inward and wondering if they might be more substantive, but apparently the answer is never.

So the Republican National Committee is wondering whether it might take control of these things away from the media, both to reduce their number and to choose their own moderators, according to a story in the Daily Caller. Your first response might be, "Well, they just want their candidates to avoid the tough questions," but the truth is that this is a great idea.

Voter Turnout in 2012: Meh

Flickr/zzazazz

Thanks to Michael McDonald at George Mason University, we have the final turnout statistics for the 2012 presidential election, and the verdict is ... eh. Not too bad, not too great. A total of 129,058,169 votes were counted, out of an eligible population of 221,925,820, for a turnout figure of 58.2 percent. How does that compare to previous years, you ask? Or rather, can you show me a chart comparing that to previous years? Why yes. Yes I can.

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