The View from One Prudential Plaza: Why the Obama Campaign Is So Confident About Beating Romney

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama pauses while speaking at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5, 2012


Barack Obama’s decision to base his re-election campaign outside of Washington seems to be working pretty darn well. The campaign’s massive, high-rise headquarters in Chicago’s Loop achieves a fine balance between 2008’s hip-casual dorm room (there’s a Ping-Pong table and cheeky homemade signage) and 2012’s systematized Death Star (there are more employees than I have ever seen in a political campaign, with work stations subdivided as ever more employees are added). The place hums from early morning until late at night, designed for maximum efficiency and manifest focus.

For the 20- and 30-somethings who make up the bulk of the Obama-Biden workforce, the vibrant, stylish Chicago headquarters is, by design, removed from the distracting and distorting aspects of the Beltway. At the same time, for those who voluntarily uprooted themselves from the nation’s capital, some surrendering big-time Administration jobs, it was a de facto litmus test: just how badly did they want to help the President get four more years?

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In a series of interviews with campaign officials in Chicago, it is clear that the entire re-elect operation likes its odds of winning a second term. The informal slogan is essentially “Be confident, but take nothing for granted.” Presidential senior adviser David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager now overseeing the enterprise from his perch steps away from the Oval Office, Jim Messina, Plouffe’s 2012 titular successor in Chicago, and their deputies in both cities believe that, despite the dangers of high unemployment and gas prices, Mitt Romney faces four major barriers to winning the big prize.

First, in the view of the Obamans, Romney is still a weak candidate. His stump skills continue to be uneven at best, with speeches plagued by awkward jargon and passionless rhetoric. They believe his tenure as head of Bain Capital and his term as governor of Massachusetts conceal vulnerabilities yet to be unveiled. “No one’s ever looked at Romney’s record, and there’s a lot there,” said one senior campaign official. “He developed this set of values at Bain about what the economy is all about … Whatever it took to make money … He took that same philosophy to Massachusetts [as governor].” Obama’s team is sitting on a multimedia treasure trove of research about both phases of Romney’s career and expects to launch powerful missiles at key moments throughout the campaign, discombobulating the Republican each time.

Second, they maintain, their research suggests Romney has exactly one rhetorical path to victory, as a can-do businessman able to fix what’s broken. Chicago intends to focus as much of its formidable firepower as necessary to dismantle Romney on that front and prevent the election from becoming a referendum on the President’s economic tenure.

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Third, the Obama team argues, Romney has taken many positions to the right of public opinion. The President’s team plans to throw two years’ worth of provocative statements in Romney’s face, using sophisticated micro-targeting to impacted demographics. On an unrelenting messaging loop, Hispanics will hear about Romney’s ties to the country’s most controversial anti-illegal immigration leaders and laws. Senior citizens dependent on Medicare will be told again and again about Romney’s backing of Paul Ryan’s House budget plan. Women will be warned about the threat to reproductive freedom. And on and on.

Fourth and finally, presidential politics, in the end, is all about the Electoral College. The Obama campaign’s analysis, matching recent media number crunching, indicates that Romney has a paper-thin margin of error to get to the magical 270. The map is littered with states the Republicans must take from the 2008 Democratic column in order to win, and in many of them, such as Ohio and Virginia, they are behind.

Nevertheless, the Obamans are quite aware of challenges bred by three years of incumbency. Among voters, disappointment has replaced hope; change has been as rare as good economic news. Those job and fuel numbers are especially toxic. Game-changing events from Europe and the Middle East have been anxiously anticipated at every turn in Chicago, and will continue to be straight through November.

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And Romney is not without advantages of his own. The one uniformly cited by the President’s team: the hundreds of millions of dollars in super-PAC money expected to flow from the checkbooks of fed-up conservative billionaires and millionaires. The funds will make a brief stop in the bank accounts of vehicles like Crossroads GPS and then will be shuttled onto balance sheets of television stations and channels targeted at battleground states across the country. Such spending is uncharted territory, and this potent new variable is stressing out Democratic political pros. Of course, the re-elect will have plenty of money too, and by most metrics, his operation for producing on-the-shelf, rapid-response and well-researched TV spots is also unmatched in political history. Any right-wing plutocrat who exercises a First Amendment right to try to stop another Obama term will have his or her ties to Big Oil, Wall Street or some similarly well-heeled bogeyman filleted in a reply ad.

Romney also has the luxury of an open schedule. Although without the gilded mantle of the presidency, he can spend every waking hour as a full-time candidate, while the President is required to do his day job. But Obama’s team expects one-upmanship and fireworks when their magnetic, fired-up leader hits the road, including some planned spring and summer battleground bus trips.

Because Chicago has expanded its electoral-map targets by exactly one McCain 2008 state – Arizona – and because the popular vote is expected to be closer than it was four years ago, the Obama team is not being coy when it admits this will be a close election. But as of the first week of May, it is not a close election any of the team’s members expects to lose.

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