All The Right Moves…and Some Wrong Ones

Obama's smart moves and big errors

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney, campaigns in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Nov. 3, 2012

Obama’s Smart Moves
Defining Romney early
Well before the former Massachusetts governor won the GOP nomination, White House officials assumed they would face him in the general election and moved aggressively to define him as an out-of-touch, vacillating plutocrat. Throughout 2011 and the first half of 2012, as Mitt Romney’s Republican competitors were lining up to take down the front runner from Massachusetts, the Obama campaign was equally busy driving up Romney’s unfavorable ratings with voters in key states. Casting Romney and his work at Bain Capital as an orgy of outsourcing and layoffs struck a chord in the anti–Wall Street, populist terrain of Ohio and the upper Midwest. And by keeping its opponent front and center in the news, the incumbent’s team quietly transformed an election that might have been a referendum on President Obama’s record into a choice between two candidates.

(MORE: The Obama Victory: The Secret Strategy That Put Him Over the Top)

Careful targeting
With the same discipline that characterized their 2008 bid, Obama campaign officials recognized months ago that it had to concentrate all its energies on a handful of swing states—and within those states, the precise demographic slices that could get the President above 50%. In Western, Eastern and Southern states, that meant pursuing Hispanics, African Americans and young and female voters. In the critical Midwestern battlegrounds, special efforts were made to appeal to working-class whites on economic issues.

Obama’s Big Errors
What agenda?
Focus groups assembled by the parties and private organizations found voters completely unable to divine what Obama would do with four more years. And polls late in the campaign suggested Americans overwhelmingly wanted the President to take things in a different direction if re-elected. Yet in his Charlotte convention speech, the debates and his closing arguments, he relied far more on gauzy generalities about champions and character, plus vague references to college tuition costs and manufacturing expansion—mixed with relentless attacks on Romney and George W. Bush—than on any fresh specifics about the future.

Tanking in Denver
If Obama had been even passably good in his first televised debate with Romney, he likely would have put the election away. Instead he turned in a performance that was lethargic, distracted, ungracious and irritable. The President assumed his rival would not be too formidable on the stage, and Obama aides let the boss get away with scaling back debate-preparation sessions in favor of White House duties.

(MORE: Republicans Regain Control of the House)

Romney’s Smart Moves
Keeping his eye on the economy
Despite getting sidetracked by secondary issues at times, Romney and his team moved into contention by talking directly to voters in speeches and advertisements about jobs, health care, the debt and deficits. Romney framed the race by highlighting his record as a data-driven turnaround artist who best understood how to reverse the U.S.’s sluggish economic growth and high unemployment rate. And Romney closed strong, starting with the Great Debate, giving the best speeches of his career, avoiding major gaffes, enjoying a surge in the polls and unveiling a potent message: Why should the country expect anything to be different with four more years of the same President and the same policies?

Romney’s Big Errors
Getting on the wrong side of the auto bailout
Back on Nov. 18, 2008, Romney wrote an opinion article for the New York Times that carried the headline let detroit go bankrupt. His campaign team argued that the newspaper, not Romney, came up with the headline, but that was mostly beside the point. The White House repeatedly made its opponent pay a price for opposing the government rescue of the most iconic U.S. industry, keeping Romney from effectively competing in Michigan (where his father had been a governor and an auto executive), crippling his Ohio campaign by neutralizing all of Romney’s economic arguments with that one trump card and making things more difficult in Wisconsin and Iowa—four states he might have otherwise captured.

Losing too many news cycles
In a general election that lasted five months, Romney and his advisers simply made too many unforced errors. Among them: his secret tax returns; his botched overseas trip and London Olympics insults; his mysterious foreign investments and bank accounts; an unfocused, sterile Tampa convention; his hasty, ill-considered initial reaction to the deaths of Americans in Benghazi, Libya; and an utter failure to stifle attacks on his record at Bain Capital. Romney’s advisers seemed to believe that the overriding narrative about the economy would more than neutralize the impact of these trouble spots, but they were wrong. The Democrats saw an opportunity and made Romney pay a heavy price.

MORE: Election 2012: Photos from the Finish Line