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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Reporting from the U.S. Politics: Election Experts Analyze the Results Conference
Amanda Esteves, Carmen Germaine, Emmanuelle Libelule Wiley, Scott Mullen, Victoria Murray, Ann Schmidt
La Pietra Dialogues
November 17, 2012

“This is post election, so in that spirit I’m wearing red and Kevin Madden’s wearing blue,” Robert Shrum, Senior Fellow at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service and former Democratic Strategist, said to open the first session of La Pietra Dialogues’ U.S. Politics: Election Experts Analyze the Results conference that took place at NYU Florence’s Villa La Pietra on November 16 and 17.

The conference, which included dialogues on the Romney primary campaign, the Obama campaign before the Democratic National Convention, the debates and the general election, polling and social media, and campaign financing, kicked off early on Friday morning with a discussion among top political figures about Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign leading up to the Republican National Convention. The panel, which was moderated by Shrum, included Nicole Bacharan, a French historian, political analyst, and radio and television consultant; Mario Calvo-Platero, an Italian political journalist; Bill Carrick, a Democratic media strategist; Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and public affairs consultant; and Madden, Senior Adviser for the 2012 Romney Campaign.

In a dialogue that ranged from humorous to slightly heated and confrontational, the experts took a look at the way the Romney campaign made it through the primaries and how that affected the outcome of the election as a whole.

“Romney didn’t win the primary, he survived the primary,” Bacharan said, during a debate about Romney’s strategy in the primaries.

The panelists almost universally agreed that in order to win the primaries, Romney portrayed his political ideology as being more conservative than that of his opponents, which hurt him in the general election. In addition, the fact that he had to compete in primaries to begin with put him at a disadvantage.

“While Republicans were fighting small, tactical battles, the other side was developing a larger strategy,” Calvo-Platero said.

Many of the other panelists, representing both parties, agreed.

“Obama had no challengers from within his own party, which was a tremendous advantage,” Carrick said.

The experts did not agree, however, on all that was said. There was debate among those present about what the Romney camp was able to do for themselves and how they portrayed themselves before the general election, but this only increased the first panel’s success in opening up a forum for political discourse that continued throughout the day and into the next.

The second panel was devoted to President Obama’s campaign. In 2008 the Obama campaign changed the game for elections and in 2012 it "once again, broke the mold" according to top political strategist Michael Donilon. Many political observers doubted that Obama could repeat what he had done four years before, believing that he did not have the support to generate the enthusiasm he had in 2008. But, they severely underestimated the superiority of Obama´s ground game. Unlike the Romney campaign, the Obama campaign utilized many forms of social media. It concentrated money into "door to door" campaigning.

As Republican strategist Alex Castellanos put it "we [Republicans] were still doing phone calls while these guys [Democrats] were doing community building." The Democrats capitalized on the fact that America was rapidly changing and they changed their campaign along with it. Obama´s ground game was not the only factor that led to the campaign´s success. Bill Clinton´s speech at the Democratic Nation Convention "gave the Obama campaign rationale" and "triggered optimism" within the Democratic Party according to Castellanos. Clinton´s speech helped the campaign gain momentum going into the final months of the elections and characterized President Obama as a strong leader.

Romney, on the other hand, did not fare so well. At the end of the Republican National Convention Romney was not viewed as a potential president. It wasn´t until the first presidential debates that people began to view Romney as a leader, but by that time the damage had already been done. The Obama campaign saw the lack of support for Romney coming out of the convention and was "very good at defining Romney before he could define himself," claimed Michael Donilon. The Democrats painted Romney as a man who was out of touch with the middle class and Obama as a man they could trust.

According to the general consensus of the panel, Romney ran a very negative campaign not only through his many attack adds but also with the idea that the economy has not and will not be getting better. Obama took his campaign in the opposite direction, emphasizing the parts of the economy that were improving instead of deteriorating. He encouraged Americans that they were doing better and that all their hard work was paying off. The American people responded better to Obama´s positive message than Romney´s negative one, which also contributed to the success of President Obama´s campaign.

"When you go into a campaign you never assume that you´re going to win, you just make every effort to win," Obama´s pollster and political strategist Joel Benenson said when talking about the President’s campaign. He also pointed out that was exactly what the Obama campaign did; they did everything in their power to inform voters of their ideals and persuade them to go out and vote.

Benenson summed it up: President Obama did not win this election because Mitt Romney ran a bad campaign; President Obama won this election because he ran a better one.

The panelists then turned their attention to the debates. According to Kevin Madden, “When you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Romney spent much of the presidential debates doing just that.

As result of the now infamous 47% scandal, in which, at a closed fundraising breakfast, Romney told supporters, "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them... My job is not to worry about those people. I´ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives", he was held accountable for his very compromising remarks. “It hurt and was a defining moment. It really set up the first debate,” Robert Shrum, Democratic Political Consultant explained.

Despite this assumed advantage, President Obama surprised viewers during the first debate when many, according to Madden, “expected an aggressive president.” Obama was much more reserved, having an “off day” as put by Italian Journalist Bepe Severgnini. Despite this bump, Democratic Strategic and Media Consultant, Bill Carrick explained that ultimately the President’s disappointing performance did not truly harm his campaign. This proved true in light of the following debates, during which the tables turned. Madden explained that during the debates, the focus remained on the “larger issue... the economy.”

The economic policies advocated during the debates were alienating and unappealing to many Americans, as Republican campaign strategist Steve Schmidt clearly spelled out: “What is in the [ice presidential nominee] Ryan plan that anyone who is of middle income in this country could possibly find appealing?” According to some of the panelists, Romney spent most of the debates pressing economic policies, yet he remained extremely conservative on social issues that were key to many voters: marriage equality and women’s reproductive and health rights.

Obama’s pollster and political strategist explained, “These issues are not just social issues, they are issues that go to the core for people.” The Republicans promoted economic policies and extreme conservatism that threatened what Benenson called the “fundamental American value of tolerance.”

As the first day drew to a close, the panel on polling and social media” was a controversial and igniting discussion among the experts in the field. This dialogue started off with a presentation by NYU Professor Joshua Tucker that highlighted the main polls taken during the 2012 elections and the many differences among them, with some polls seen as incredibly accurate and others off the mark.

Benenson affirmed that “when it comes to campaigns there is a human dimension. People matter. They don’t always follow a scientific model.” He also said that the “problem with public polls is that they’re not strategic and they promote their own brand”, furthering the idea that the overwhelming amount of different polls available are often more confusing than helpful to a great part of voters. Finally, Obama’s pollster and strategist suggested that “everybody ought to take a big step back and let candidates run their own polls and campaigns”.

Moderator Steve McMahon, Democratic strategist and public affairs consultant, led the discussion through this controversy – as well as the issue of campaigns’ use of social media – to an attention-gripping moment when Republican strategist and public affairs consultant, Alex Castellanos stated: “We [the Republicans] need to evolve.”

Indeed the general consensus among all speakers was that the Republicans had not quite kept up with the innovations of social media and the modern ideas of many Americans. Michael Donilon, consultant to the Obama campaign and advisor to Vice President Biden, suggested that the use of social media is an “interesting way to engage people on multiple layers” but European speakers added that countries such as France and Italy were not quite ready to use social media in their campaigns.

Other panelists were Mario Calvo-Platero, journalist and U.S. editor Il Sole 24 Ore, Dominique Simonnet, writer and former senior editor of L’Express, and Nicole Bacharan, historian, political analyst and radio and television consultant.

Finally, on Saturday morning, early in the panel on super pacs and money, political strategist Steve Schmidt addressed the danger of the driving force of money in an election. “Campaign committees have the smallest voice during a campaign,” he said. Instead of candidates having the control, those who pay for their campaigns are the ones with power. “That’s unhealthy,” Schmidt added.

The floor then was turned to NYU Professor Robert Shrum, who warned against the unforeseen impacts of the increase in spending. He claimed, “The flood of money, on occasion, is potentially going to kill its own cause.” Schmidt confirmed this warning with his own. He foresees the possibility of a major scandal in the use of campaign money and super pacs.

Nicole Bacharan then gave her insight into the use of money in European elections. As opposed to the United States where there is a lot of money spent and there are a lot of regulations, in Europe the conditions are different. “Campaigns are shorter, territory is smaller,” she said and continued explaining that there are no regulations or political ads, and campaigns are publicly financed. This method, she feels, is not adequate, but America needs a lot of reform as well. She reminded the panel and audience that citizens need to be the top priority. “In the democracy, which voices are we hearing?” she asked.

To follow up on the humanity of a campaign, Marylouise Oates, author and political activist, spoke on the importance of simply asking the people for money. She spoke about the feeling that people have after donating even a small amount. She described it as being on a team, and putting forth the commitment to vote for their candidate and their campaign. They are no longer objectively seeing the campaign; they’re a part of it. So, even though the increased use of money can be harmful to the true purpose of politics, if it is worked properly, as Obama’s campaign was this election, there is still a light of hope for society. 

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