Journalist Jonathan Alter sees the 2012 presidential contest as the most consequential election of recent times. In his new book, The Center Holds, Alter argues that President Obama's re-election prevented the country from veering sharply to the right.
Alter, who has covered eight previous presidential elections for publications such as Newsweek and The Atlantic, dissects the campaign and the events that led up to it in his book. He finds that the Obama campaign made effective use of young data geeks to microtarget voters and raise money online. And he says Republican Mitt Romney's campaign relied on Madison Avenue-style advertisers to craft a message that too often missed the mark.
By focusing on the numbers game, Alter says, the Obama campaign revolutionized more than just politics.
"There are lessons in all this that not just political campaigns but businesses are racing to learn from," Alter tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "In the past, it went the other way: Politics learned from business ... Madison Avenue values went into politics. This time, some of these techniques that are being used in politics will be increasingly used by businesses to increase sales."
The book also fills in some inside details of the frenetic campaign — from the efforts of conservative media figures to get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the race to the backstory of the Florida bartender who secretly taped Romney's infamous "47 percent" remarks at a fundraiser.
Alter is now a columnist for Bloomberg View and an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.
On "the cave" at the Obama campaign headquarters
"They had a secret annex off of the main floor of the Chicago headquarters that they called 'the cave.' They had a group of analytics experts, most of them in their 20s, [and] not just data scientists, but they had a child prodigy, they had a biophysicist, they had three professional poker players that had all been hired on the basis of extremely difficult online exams where they solved various analytical problems. And then they took their models and their algorithms, and they applied them to the workaday problems of the Obama campaign in field organizing and fundraising."
On the Obama campaign's fundraising tests
"Every appeal for money was tested endlessly — 20 times — so that they found that 'hey' worked as a salutation. They found for a while that a yellow background worked better than a white background. They found that if they had Anna Wintour in some email appeals it worked to some groups but not to other groups. [Tactics were] endlessly tested, reduced almost to a science, even though politics has always been as much art as science."
On the Romney campaign's "Monster.com" approach
"They made a decision early on that, as Stuart Stevens — [Romney's] chief strategist — told me, 'Obama thinks this is an eHarmony campaign — you know, a campaign where you have to like the person above all. We think it's a Monster.com campaign,' meaning that people will vote based on who they think is more likely to get them a job. So they focused relentlessly on Romney as a job creator and somebody whose business experience equipped him to improve the economy. This was, in retrospect, a real mistake because people need to like the person if they're going to vote for him for president."
On the "47 percent" video
"This was one of the more pivotal external events in recent campaign history, and it really begins five years earlier on a pitch-black night in the Florida Everglades, when a woman in a car plunges to the bottom of a canal, and a man working at a motorcycle dealership nearby hears the screams. He goes to the canal. He dives in. He finally gets the door open, but she's trapped in her seat belt. He gets ... a knife. He cuts the seat belt, saves the woman, is decorated as a hero. And then this man — whose name is Scott Prouty — five years later is a bartender at a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton. And I think listeners know what happens next, but what interested me was his motivation for why he basically lost his job and knew that his life would change, and it went back to his night in the Everglades. And he told me as part of many hours of conversations that what he learned from that experience was if you can jump in, you must jump in — you have an obligation to jump in. And he felt with that 68-minute video of Mitt Romney that he had an obligation in his mind to prevent that man from becoming president of the United States, and he acted on that sense of obligation."
On Obama missing the "schmooze gene"
"[Bill Clinton] feels that Obama's political skills are not what they need to be, and he is leaving a tool in the toolbox when it comes to personal relationships. And there's a lot of people in Washington who agree with Bill Clinton on that — that the president has not reached out enough. He's been too insular. Does that leave the Republicans off the hook for their obstruction? No, but it suggests that in his relationships, not just with Republicans but with the other Democrats, the president [could] do much more, because when you run into trouble the way he is now, you need to fall back on those personal relationships. ...
"Some of it has to do with the fact that [Obama is] not fundamentally built like a lot of these other politicians. He's not as needy as they are because of his particular background and temperament, and so their neediness — their need to be stroked and massaged and get the perks and everything — is a bit of an abstraction to him. And so he says, 'They have two pictures of me already. Do they really need a third picture of me with them?' And the answer, as one of his top aides told me, is, 'Yes. They do need that picture,' and he needs to do more to give them that stroking that they need."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, journalist Jonathan Alter, regards the 2012 presidential contest as the most consequential election of recent times. In his new book "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies," Alter argues that Barack Obama's re-election prevented the country from veering sharply to the right. Alter dissects the campaign and the events leading up to it.
He finds the Obama campaign made effect use of young data geeks to micro-target voters and raise money online, and he says the Romney campaign relied on Madison Avenue-style ad men to craft a message that too often missed the mark. The book also fills in some inside details of the frenetic campaign, from the efforts of conservative media figures to get Chris Christie into the race to the back story of the Florida bartender who secretly taped Romney's remarks at a fundraiser about the 47 percent.
Jonathan Alter was a columnist for Newsweek, where he worked for 28 years. He's now a columnist for Bloomberg View and an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Jonathan Alter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you write that an irony of this campaign was that Mitt Romney, who was the numbers guy who ran Bain Capital, kind of ran a "Mad Men" type campaign, you know, kind of big messaging ideas, in some respect out-of-touch messaging ideas, at least as you see it, but it was the Obama team that really understood data and voter analytics and used that with great effect.
Do you want to talk a little bit about this crew of geeks that you described, the cave?
JONATHAN ALTER: Well, there was this, what I call a geek gap between Boston, the Romney campaign, and Chicago, the Obama campaign. And Romney was this self-described numbers guy, but by Stuart Stevens' own description, they ran what Stevens called a "Mad Men" campaign, they assembled ad guys who had worked, not in the 1960s, in 1984 for Ronald Reagan.
And they ran a very 20th-century campaign. They rejected a proposal to have a big data project. And in Chicago, by contrast, they ran the first true digital campaign of the 21st century. And I think listeners know that Obama had an advantage in this area. I wanted to explain how he had that advantage. And it turns out it was a very colorful story that had a secret annex off of the main floor of the Chicago headquarters called the cave.
They had a group of analytics experts, most of them in their 20s, not just data scientists, but they had a child prodigy, they had a biophysicist, they had three professional poker players who had all been hired on the basis of extremely difficult online exams where they solved various analytical problems.
Then they took their models and their algorithms, and they applied them to the workaday problems of the Obama campaign in field organizing and fundraising and so forth. So, the hundreds of thousands of Obama volunteers out there who were really at the heart of my story, because they did change history, their tasks were greatly enhanced by technology.
So Obama was able to marry technology and old-fashioned shoe leather in door-to-door canvassing, in a totally new way that made even 2008 look primitive by comparison.
DAVIES: Yeah, give us an example of how they used, what, Facebook information to target people.
ALTER: Yeah, so they had a Facebook app, targeted sharing app, that they designed, they customized in Chicago. And what it allowed them to do was if you opted in, if you were an Obama supporter and you gave the campaign access to your Facebook friends, the campaign would then not send something to all, you know, 800 of your Facebook friends but find which of your good Facebook friends, the ones you've been in touch with frequently, who lived in battleground states and hadn't completed certain tasks.
And then they would send you six to 10 of those friends and say, you know, Susie Smith(ph) in Virginia hasn't filled out her absentee ballot application, can you ask her to, and Bobby Jones(ph) in Ohio hasn't registered, and the registration deadline is September 17th. And then when their friend asked them to do something, to complete a task, it was much more effective than a stranger calling them cold or seeing an ad on television in terms of voter persuasion.
And they found that 600,000 Obama supporters were able to make contact with three million of their friends, and more than one million of those friends took some kind of action - registering, giving money, voting - as a result of that friend-to-friend or in this case Facebook-friend-to-Facebook-friend contact.
DAVIES: So the idea here was, you know, people have used field organizations in the past, they have voter lists, lists of registered voters, and you go out, but it's hard to known on more than a few dozen voters, you know, even in a long day or evening. But the idea here was that with all of this data, carefully sifted, you could really make the best use of your bodies on the street and go to people with specific appeals who were in a position to do something different.
DAVIES: They even used consumer data, people's consumer data? Is that true? How did they get that stuff?
ALTER: The consumer data, contrary to popular belief, was the least important data in their models. So it was less important to know whether somebody drove a Volvo or listened to NPR than it was to know that in 2002 they had volunteered for a Democrat in a state Senate race in Ohio. That was much more valuable information to them, and that came from a lot of different sources.
But they built what they called support scores, one to 100, with - if you were an 88, it meant you had an 88 percent chance for voting for Obama, that included a lot of this data. And what it did on the street was exactly what you described. So if you were an Obama volunteer, and you were going and canvassing on a block, rather than going to every house on the block, which is the way anybody who worked in campaigns in past would do in a Democratic neighborhood, you'd go to one address where Mrs. Johnson(ph) hadn't returned her application for an absentee ballot and another place where Mr. Anderson(ph) needed a ride to the polls, and you had this information that you could then use to greatly improve the efficiency of the canvassing.
And this also applied to Democrats who were living in red areas. So in the past if you were living in a, you know, red area, it wouldn't be likely that somebody would knock on your door, but now they knew that you were there, and they knew how to find you and see if they could either persuade you by using one of what they called their, you know, persuasion models or get you to vote if you hadn't in 2010 using their propensity models, if you were what they called a sporadic voter.
And they re-engineered American politics. Now there are lessons in all this that not just political campaigns, but businesses are racing to learn from. In the past, it went the other way. Politics learned from business. Remember Madison Avenue went into politics. This time some of these techniques that are being used in politics will be increasingly used by businesses to increase sales.
DAVIES: In addition to all of the use of data to make field work more effective, there was the fundraising. And a lot of people grew irritated with the Obama campaign's incessant appeals for fundraising. You write that actually a key to the victory was overcoming the human desire not to be irritating. Explain this.
ALTER: Yeah, OK, so in 2011, Teddy Goff, also 28 years old like the guy running the cave, he believed that every email that they sent out had to be clever. And so he had a big staff of people, you know, coming up with clever ideas. And what they found was that their gut was worthless, that all that mattered was what the testing showed. And the testing showed that the more emails you sent out, the more money came in and that the unsubscribed rate was lower than the money that they were amassing from these emails.
And they managed to dramatically improve their yield. So just about a year ago, in June of 2012, Jim Messina, the campaign manager, walked into Teddy Goff's office, this 28-year-old running the digital department, and said we're only raising $15 million a month online. If we don't get that up to $70 million a month online, we are not going to have enough money to win this election.
And they managed to go from $15 million a month to $150 million a month, a 10-fold increase, in part because of external things that were happening in the campaign, and people started to what they called drunk donate when Obama would run into trouble in the first debate or on other days. They had a one-click from your smartphone where you could give money immediately, which dramatically increased fundraising. But they tested everything.
DAVIES: I've got to stop you: drunk donate, the idea...?
ALTER: Drunk donating, that's what they called it.
DAVIES: The impulsive punch because...
ALTER: Remember, you know, drunk texting right. So what they called drunk donating was when people watched Obama blow the debate in Denver, had a few beers and thought we can't have Romney as president, and with one click suddenly they'd given more money. And there was a lot of that.
And so - but every appeal for money was tested endlessly, 20 times, so that they found that hey worked as a salutation. They found for a while that a yellow background worked better than a white background. They found that if they had Anna Wintour, in some email appeals it worked to some groups but not to other groups, endlessly tested, reduced almost to a science, even though politics has always been as much art as science.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonathan Alter. His new book about the 2012 campaign is called "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is political journalist Jonathan Alter. He has a new book about the 2012 political campaign and the events that led up to it. It's called "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies." When you wrote a lot about kind of how effectively the Obama campaign used data and data analysis, by contrast, you say that the Romney campaign really relied much more on traditional messaging.
And a critical decision was made early on whether to try to make Mitt Romney more human and likeable, kind of blunt the image of him as this, you know, as the private equity guy. How did the Romney people consider that issue?
ALTER: Well, they made a decision early on that as Stuart Stevens the chief strategist told, Obama thinks this is an eHarmony campaign, you know, a campaign where you have to like the person above all. We think it's a monster.com campaign, meaning that people will vote based on who they think is more likely to get them a job.
And so they focused relentlessly on Romney as a job creator and somebody who's business experience equipped him to improve the economy. This in retrospect was a real mistake because people need to like the person if they're going to vote for him for president. So this was a strategic miscalculation.
It really wasn't until the convention, the Republican convention, that they started to try to warm up his image, and it gave the Obama campaign an opening to rip what David Axelrod called Romney's calling card, his heading of Bain Capital and what happened in those years. So that's why we heard so much about Bain, because it was Obama taking a leaf actually from Karl Rove's strategic ideas and going after his opponent's strengths, which in this case was supposed to be his business experience.
DAVIES: Now you also write about how the Obama campaign regarded, you know, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the superPACs and other independent expenditure were spending on the campaign, didn't think so much of them.
ALTER: No, the Romney campaign was concerned about these superPAC ads. They thought they were of poor quality, not persuasive and that they didn't have any control over them because they would be fined, you know, it was illegal to coordinate, and they had to take that seriously.
So one of them compared it to, like, having a drunk in a bar that you can't control, and they also felt that whatever the superPACs said in their ads, even if Romney didn't come on at the end and say I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message that voters thought that all of it came from Romney.
And you could argue that in some ways it did because these superPACs were in several cases run by people who had worked for Romney in the past. So it wasn't as if there was all that much separation between the campaign and the superPACs. But it was stunning how they managed to blow several hundred million dollars without really moving the needle.
DAVIES: And you write that there was some bad blood between the Koch brothers, who spent a fortune on Americans for Prosperity, and then Karl Rove, who was associated with the Crossroads groups. What were - what was the animosity about there?
ALTER: Well, some of it was the Koch brothers just thinking that Karl Rove had lost his fastball, and they wanted to do it their way, which was more - to work more on the grass roots. They didn't think much of Romney. Rupert Murdoch didn't think that much of Romney. He told me at one point that Romney had not impressed when he'd been in his office recently, and they were looking for another candidate.
Roger Ailes had a meeting at his house with Rush Limbaugh and Chris Christie, where Chris Christie said only half-jokingly that he wanted to keep going to Burger King and wasn't going to run for president, which really disappointed them. So the Kochs and the others who had money and influence in the Republican Party were always lukewarm on Romney, and they felt that, that Rove was out of his depth.
You know, Rove was a direct mail guy. He never really was a TV advertising guy and certainly not much of a grassroots guy. So there were these tensions on the right that made the story more textured. As it turned out, their money, the Koch brothers' money, and that of a lot of other very wealthy individuals, Sheldon Adelson alone gave $100 million to the Republicans, it didn't work on the ground for a simple reason.
If you go and known on the door, and you're paid, you're a paid canvasser for Restore Our Future or for, you know, one of these organizations that nobody's ever heard of, and you say I'm here for Restore Our Future, and you're kind of reading from a script, and it's clear that your heart's not really into it, and you're just being paid, it doesn't really do anything.
If you're a bright-eyed, young Obama volunteer, or old Obama volunteer, really passionate, enthusiastic for the president, and it's your neighbor, you're on what they call a neighborhood team, much more influential. So one of the fascinating things about this campaign is that even though in the end Obama raised more money, $1.2 billion, mostly because of these online appeals, the Romney money went much less far and especially in terms of their TV advertising.
They grossly overspent. And again, the geeks in the cave where able to design something called The Optimizer in Chicago that made their ad buys much more efficient. So basically at every digital technological level, Romney, the self-described numbers guy, got whipped.
DAVIES: You know, you said that an enthusiastic and idealistic Obama volunteer is going to be more effective than someone who is paid, you know, by a conservative organization. Surely there was some, you know, truly committed conservatives who were out there knocking on doors, too.
ALTER: Absolutely, and for the committed Romney volunteer, the committed conservative activist, this was a disheartening election. You know, they thought going in that the country was with them. Romney, who didn't even prepare a concession speech, and Paul Ryan, who the night before the election was most concerned about whether he would have to resign his House seat when he became vice president-elect, that's how sure he was he was going win, in fact on the day of the election, their system, which was called Orca, their poll-watching system, completely collapsed.
And they went well into the evening without much of a heads-up that they were going to lose.
DAVIES: You know, one of the pivotal moments in the campaign was when Romney was caught on a grainy, was it video or audio, at a fundraiser saying that, you know, 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes. And this became a huge deal. And you have an interesting story in the book about the guy who actually shot the video and what motivated him. Do you want to tell us that?
ALTER: The story of the 47-percent video, which was very influential in this campaign because it gave Obama a cushion, a seven-point cushion going into that first debate, which if he had not had that 47-percent video behind him and had slipped behind Romney after that first debate, it might have been very hard for him to catch up.
So this was one of the more pivotal external events in recent campaign history, and it really begins five years earlier on a pitch black night in the Florida Everglades, when a woman in a car plunges to the bottom of a canal, and a man working at a motorcycle dealership nearby hears the screams. He goes to the canal, he dives in, he finally gets the door open, but she's trapped in her seat belt.
He gets out, he gets a knife, he cuts the seatbelt, saves the woman, is decorated as a hero. And then this man, his name is Scott Purdy, five years later is a bartender at a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton. And I think listeners know what happened next.
But what interested me was his motivation for why he basically lost his job, and he knew that his life would change. And it went back to that night in the Everglades, and he told me as part of many hours of conversations that what he learned from that experience was if you can jump in, you must jump in. You have an obligation to jump in.
And he felt with that 68-minute video of Mitt Romney that he had an obligation in his mind to prevent that man from becoming president of the United States, and he acted on that sense of obligation.
GROSS: Jonathan Alter will be back with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Alter's new book is called "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with political journalist Jonathan Alter, author of the new book "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies." It's about how President Obama won his re-election campaign against Mitt Romney. Alter's previous book, "The Promise," was about Obama's first year in the White House. Alter is a columnist for Bloomberg View and an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting to me, you know, if one holds to the axiom that, you know, the economy is the most important factor in whether an incumbent president, you know, is re-elected, Obama had a very, very tough hand. I mean yes, I mean the financial crash occurred before he took office. But, you know, four years later, times were still hard, unemployment was still high. In some respects and sort of what's remarkable to me that he kept it competitive and he won.
ALTER: I agree.
DAVIES: And I'm wondering how had the Republicans reacted to this? I mean you're seeing, for example, in Congress now, Republicans, you know, moving to the center on immigration. Is there a view among Republicans that they need to readjust their thinking? And is there a chance for less gridlock in Washington?
ALTER: There's a split among Republicans. There are some - like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who is up for re-election in South Carolina - who believe that if the Republicans don't pass some kind of immigration reform, they will doom themselves as a political party. Because with the changing demographics they must do better than 29 percent with Latinos or they can't win a presidential election. And I think they're right about that. But they're up against elements of the conservative base who take a different view. So this is something where you can say that elections have real consequences. If Obama had only gotten, say, 60 percent of Latino votes instead of 71 percent they wouldn't be under nearly the kind of pressure that they are now to try to upgrade their party.
Bob Dole said they should have a closed for repairs sign on the outside of the Republican headquarters. It's not clear that enough Republicans understand that. So I, you know, my book has quite a bit of criticism of President Obama in various respects, but I do reserve more such criticism for what's happened to the Grand Old Party. And I think it's regrettable because we should have a strong two-party system.
DAVIES: You know, you write about President Clinton and his views of and conversations with President Obama. You say that he found Obama was really good at some of the hard stuff - some of these tough foreign policy matters, for example, but not so good at the easy stuff - making 10 people in a room like you. What was his view of the president?
ALTER: Well, they had a - and continue to have - a very complex relationship that has gone from bitterness in 2008, to a kind of a wariness in 2009, '10, '11, to by 2012, it was more of a mutually beneficial relationship where obviously Bill Clinton was a star at the Democratic Convention and helped explain Obama better than Obama explains himself. But he never fully understood what they were doing in Chicago - these new techniques that they had devised. And after the election, he called up Mitt Romney and said, I thought you were going to win until Hurricane Sandy.
ALTER: And it's not clear that Clinton necessarily knew that - believed that. Maybe he was just blowing smoke at Romney because he just lost. But he feels that Obama's political skills are not what they need to be and that he is leaving a tool in the toolbox when it comes to personal relationships. And there's a lot of people in Washington who agree with Bill Clinton on that, that the president has not reached out enough. He's been too insular. Does that mean - does that let the Republicans off the hook for their obstruction? No. But it suggests that in his relationships - not just with Republicans, but with other Democrats - the president could do much more, because when you run into trouble the way he is now, you need to fall back on those personal relationships.
And I try to offer some theories as to why the president is missing the schmooze gene, as I put it, and, you know, some of it has to do with the fact that he's not fundamentally built like a lot of these other politicians. He's not as needy as they are because of his particular background and temperament. And so their neediness, their need to be stroked and massaged and get the perks and everything is a bit of an abstraction to him. So he says, they have two pictures of me, all right? Do they really need a third picture of me with them? And the answer is, you know, one of his top aides told me is yes, they do need that picture and he needs to do more to give them that stroking that they need.
DAVIES: Before I let you go, I mean the Obama administration has, you know, suffered some rough days in the last few months. I mean there was the revelation about the IRS targeting some Tea Party groups, although it's, you know, recently been revealed progressive groups also were denied non-profit status. But, you know, they were seizing the phone records of the AP reporters. There were the questions some about, you know, surveillance. Does any of this fundamentally alter your view of the president?
ALTER: Well, I'm very troubled by the AP story and the apparent effort to at least consider criminalizing the investigative reporting of the Fox News reporter. This is undemocratic. It's contrary to the ideals that our nation was founded on. And I think it would be a real shame if it was part of Barack Obama's legacy. He's recently said that he was troubled by this as well. And we'll see how he does going forward on these issues of press freedom. And I say that not just as a reporter but as a citizen.
The IRS story honestly doesn't trouble me that much because I think a lot of people have missed the real story. Yes, there should have been more of the liberal groups also investigated like the Tea Party groups. But the truth is that almost none of these groups deserved a tax exemption and when they tried to claim one, they invited investigations.
So for instance, in 2010, Karl Rove made a filing to the IRS in which he said that his superPAC (c)(4) Crossroads GPS was quote, "not primarily engaged in trying to influence elections." That was materially false and should have invited an investigation by the IRS. He went on to spend $70 million trying to influence the election. So on the IRS, there needs to be more investigation, not less.
Now on the NSA story - just very briefly - to my mind, we need this program to - we need this program to protect us from terrorists but we very much needed to know about the program and in that sense, these revelations are very much in the public interest. If it's easy for the government to learn about us, it should be easier for us to learn about the government. And I think that should be the lesson moving forward. More transparency. More accountability for the secret FISA court. More public knowledge about what's being done in our name to protect us.
DAVIES: Well Jonathan Alter, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ALTER: My pleasure. I enjoyed it.
GROSS: Jonathan Alter spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. You can read an excerpt of Alter's new book, "The Center Holds," our website, FRESH AIR.npr.org.
Coming up, we pay tribute to James Gandolfini with our TV critic David Bianculli, and we'll listen back to clips of what people who worked with Gandolfini had to say about him.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.