6:07am

Tue August 6, 2013
Author Interviews

2012 Election Was 'Collision' Between Two Americas

Originally published on Tue August 6, 2013 4:05 pm

Dan Balz, one of the nation's most respected political reporters, has written his review of the last presidential election — what happened and why.

It's called Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America.

The chief correspondent for The Washington Post, Balz is the author of several books, including one on President Obama's first election — The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election — written with Haynes Johnson.

Balz talked to Morning Edition co-host Linda Wertheimer about his new book, Collision 2012, which offers an insider's account of the forces that shaped the political strategies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and the flaws and misfires that led to Romney's ultimate defeat.


Interview Highlights

On how he came up with the book's title

"I thought that this was, in a sense, a collision between the America that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and made him president and the America that swept Republicans into the House in 2010, and I thought that the 2012 campaign was going to be, and was, a collision between those two Americas."

On the outcome of the 2012 election — and what, if anything, it resolved

"No, that's the interesting thing, I mean after billions of dollars were spent and millions of television ads seem to be rained down on people in the battleground states, that we ended up with kind of a status quo election and beyond that, you know, we used to think that elections resolved big debates in the country, that they could be turning points in that you would have an argument between two candidates and the public would signal a direction the way they wanted to go. In this case, I don't think that happened. We did not get an outcome that resolved the disputes that we had had; we're as polarized today as we were going into the election and maybe even a little more."

On the shape of the 2012 Republican presidential primary

"There were a number of people who, had they run for the nomination, might have given Gov. Romney a stronger race than the people who ultimately did run. Mitch Daniels, Gov. Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, but yes, and in the end, he was left with a relatively weak field. In fact Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, joked long after his campaign had collapsed, he said, 'I ran against the weakest field that the Republicans had ever run and they kicked my behind.' "

On Mitt Romney's awkward fit as the Republican primary front-runner

"I don't think anybody doubted that Gov. Romney was at least a nominal front-runner, but he was not a dominant front-runner as we've seen in some past campaigns, and as he said he wasn't sure that he was the perfect fit for the party that came out of 2010. Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist often said to him: 'This is a Southern-based party, you're a Northerner; this is an evangelical-based party, you're a Mormon; this is a very conservative party, particularly the electorate in the primaries, and you're a more moderate conservative ... and a former governor of Massachusetts.' So it was always going be a struggle for him to get there."

On the role of technology in the 2012 campaign

"[The Obama] 2008 campaign went beyond what we had experienced prior to that but I think that the gap between 2008 to 2012 was even bigger in terms of the advances they were able to make. I mean they had this advantage: They had an enormous amount of money, and they had an enormous amount of time to do this. In essence, they did it over a four-year period. They never stopped working at preparing for the re-election campaign. You know, smartphones were not as significant in 2008 as they were in 2012. Twitter was not a factor in the 2008 campaign, it was 2012. The Obama campaign invested more in technology software. They created tools all designed to put people on the streets with better information about the voters they were contacting."

On the role of technology in future campaigns

"[We've] already seen the Republican National Committee push very hard to bring the Republican Party up to speed on this. Linda, you know this, this is something that ebbs and flows. One party gets an advantage, and then the other party catches up and sometimes goes beyond. We will see a lot of that. There is a question of ultimately how decisive all of this is. I mean I think it works at the margins in these races ... so in a very close election it can make a difference. Overall, did it decide the race? I don't think so ... but everybody will be replicating what the Obama campaign did on that front ...

"[Hillary Clinton's] 2008 campaign was hampered because they were not as up to date or up to speed on some of these things as the Obama campaign. I think it will be a challenge for Secretary Clinton, if she decides to run, to make sure that she's got the people around her who can do this."

On the prospective 2016 Republican presidential field

"You could argue that this is an election in which it would be beneficial to them to have a relatively big field of strong candidates. The Republicans were a generation away in 2012 in being able to field some of the brighter stars in their party. In 2016, a lot of those people will be ready: Gov. Christie or Gov. Walker, Gov. Jindal, Sen. Rubio, Sen. Rand Paul, maybe Sen. Cruz. I mean there are a lot of people who are looking at this who, on paper at least, look like they could be strong candidates. They are likely to have a debate about what the future of the Republican Party ought to be ...

"The list is long, but obviously Congressman Ryan, if he decides to run — and I think there are some questions among people in Washington about whether he wants or will — but if he does, given that he was the vice presidential nominee, he'd be in the top tier definitely."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Dan Balz has written his review of the last election, what happened and why. It's called "Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America." Balz has covered many elections for The Washington Post, where he is chief correspondent. And he's written other books, including one on President Obama's first election, "The Battle for America," written with the late Haynes Johnson.

The name of the new book, Balz says, reflects the current state of politics.

DAN BALZ: I thought that this was, in a sense, a collision between the America that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and made him president and the America that swept Republicans into the House in 2010. And I thought that the 2012 campaign was going to be and was a collision between those two Americas.

WERTHEIMER: Which didn't necessarily resolve anything.

BALZ: No. That's the interesting thing. I mean after billions of dollars were spent and millions of television ads seemed to be rained down on people in the battleground states, that we ended up with kind of a status quo election. And beyond that, you know, we used to think that elections resolved big debates in the country, that they could be turning points and that you would have an argument between two candidates and the public would signal a direction, the way they wanted to go.

In this case I don't think that happened. We did not get an outcome that resolved the disputes that we had had. We're as polarized today as we were going into the election and maybe even a little more.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Republican primaries and the earlier prelims in 2011 was a process which seemed to weed out, for various reasons, most of the candidates who might have traditionally been considered presidential prospects, except for Mr. Romney. Governors just went by the wayside and suddenly there we were with some very strange choices that the American people seemed unlikely to make, and Mitt Romney.

BALZ: There were a number of people who, had they run for the nomination, might have given Governor Romney a stronger race than the people who ultimately did run. Mitch Daniels...

WERTHEIMER: Governor Chris Christie, Governor Mitch Daniels...

BALZ: Governor Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Hayley Barber. But yes, and in the end he was left with a relatively weak field. In fact, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, joked long after his campaign had collapsed, he said I ran against the weakest field that the Republicans had ever run and they kicked my behind.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Mr. Romney, obviously he had great qualifications, you know, barring a tendency to every once in a while say something which got him into trouble. Why do you think that the selection of candidates was so peculiar in that election?

BALZ: I don't think anybody doubted that Governor Romney was at least a nominal frontrunner, but he was not a dominant frontrunner as we've seen in some past campaigns. And as he said, he wasn't sure that he was a perfect fit for the party that came out of 2010. He said Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist, often said to him, this is a Southern-based party, you're a Northerner. This is an evangelical based party, you're a Mormon.

This is a very conservative party, particularly the electorate in the primaries, and you're a more moderate conservative, and so....

WERTHEIMER: And the former governor of Massachusetts.

BALZ: And a former governor of Massachusetts. So that it was always going to be a struggle for him to get there.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, while this very colorful campaign was going on with their zillions of debates and just sort of one extraordinary event after the next, the Obama campaign was, behind the scenes, building an enormous get out the vote campaign of a sort which had never been seen before in American politics. I mean we have seen campaigns that were computerized, but this went way beyond.

BALZ: It did. Their 2008 campaign went beyond what we had experienced prior to that. But I think the gap between 2008 and 2012 was even bigger in terms of the advances they were able to make. I mean they had this advantage. They had an enormous amount of money and they had an enormous amount time to do this. In essence they did it over a four-year period.

They never stopped working at preparing for the reelection campaign. You know, smartphones were not as significant in 2008 as they were in 2012. Twitter was not a factor in the 2008 campaign. It was in 2012. The Obama campaign invested more in technology software. They created tools all designed to put people on the streets with better information about the voters they were contacting.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what do you suppose the parties will take forward from this? Do you think that both parties will scramble to recreate this president's high tech campaign, which presumably will have to be reinvented because in computer years it will be ancient by the time we get to 2016?

BALZ: Well, they will and we've already seen the Republican National Committee push very hard to bring the Republican Party up to speed on this. Linda, you know this. This is something that ebbs and flows. One party gets an advantage and then the other party catches up and sometimes goes beyond. We will see a lot of that.

There is a question of ultimately how decisive all of this is. I mean I think it works at the margins in these races.

WERTHEIMER: So in a close election it works.

BALZ: In a very close election it can make a difference. Overall, did it decide the race? I don't think so. I think some bigger factors. But everybody will be replicating what the Obama campaign did on that front.

WERTHEIMER: You know, the Democrats' leading candidate at the moment is probably Hillary Clinton, who doesn't strike me as a high tech guy.

BALZ: No. And her 2008 campaign was hampered because they were not as up to date or up to speed on some of these things as the Obama campaign. I think it will be a challenge for Secretary Clinton if she decides to run to make sure that she's got the people around her who can do this.

WERTHEIMER: What about the Republicans? Will the Republicans figure out some way to come together so they don't have another one of these cast of thousands primaries that so depleted Mr. Romney's reputation and his resources?

BALZ: You could argue that this is an election in which it would be beneficial to them to have a relatively big field of strong candidates. The Republicans were a generation away in 2012 from being able to field some of the brighter stars in their party. In 2016, a lot of those people will be ready. Governor Christie or Governor Walker, Governor Jindal, Senator Rubio, Senator Rand Paul, maybe Senator Cruz.

I mean there are a lot of people who are looking at this who, on paper at least, look like they could be strong candidates. They are likely to have a debate about what the future of the Republican Party ought to be.

WERTHEIMER: I'm interested that you didn't mention Congressman Paul Ryan, who...

BALZ: That was on oversight. The list is long, but obviously Congressman Ryan, if he decides to run, and I think there are some questions among people in Washington about whether he wants to run or will, but if he does, given that he was the vice-presidential nominee, he'd be in the top tier, certainly.

WERTHEIMER: Dan Balz's book is called "Collision 2012." Dan, thank you very much for coming in.

BALZ: Linda, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.