In sports, it’s called stealing a victory. The team that was supposed to lose finds a way to win. Barack Obama stole a victory in the presidential election.
The odds were stacked heavily against him at the start of the campaign. The economy was slowly struggling back from the Great Recession with unemployment tortuously declining from a 10 percent high.
Voters normally are totally unforgiving of a bad economy. Even though presidential action is only one of a number of factors affecting the economic climate; nevertheless, the citizenry blames bad times entirely on the chief executive. He gets scapegoated. Things are bad. Out you go, Mr. President.
No president had been elected with the high unemployment numbers facing Obama since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Then, too, Obama faced the problem of seeking re-election as an African-American president. According to the Boston Globe (10/28/12), “51 percent of those surveyed expressed explicit racial attitudes toward black people, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.” All that “birther” nonsense about where Obama was born was likely a dog whistle for hostile feelings about having a black American president. “Obama doesn’t deserve to be President. It isn’t right.”
In addition, the Supreme Court made the infamous Citizens United decision ruling that money is equivalent to free speech; therefore citizens and corporations could give as much money to political campaigns as they want. This judgment gave an overwhelming advantage to Republicans whose donor base is far wealthier than that of Democrats. Millions of dollars poured into GOP party coffers from the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers.
What did Democrats do to offset the GOP financial advantage? They turned to an old and economical alternative – grassroots politicking – knocking on doors, making telephone calls and just plain talking to other people.
In addition, early on in the campaign, Democrats spent scarce campaign cash defining Mitt Romney before he could do it himself through his words and actions. A picture emerged of Romney as a wealthy plutocrat with little sympathy for or understanding of the lives of average people.
A tug of war developed. Romney wanted ever so much to keep the focus on his strong suit – the weak American economy. The Democrats wanted to deflect attention elsewhere, and Romney kept obliging by making gaffes that caught the media’s attention.
Romney made a disastrous foreign policy trip to England, Poland and Israel, in the process insulting the British and implying that Palestinians were culturally inferior to Israelis. A videotape caught Romney saying to wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans were lazy moochers who felt that the government owed them a living. And his flip-flops were frequent and legendary – on abortion, gun safety, health care, global warming, the war in Iraq, and stem cell research for starters.
The Democratic strategy worked until the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 when 67 million viewers discovered, perhaps for the first time, that Romney didn’t have horns and a tail. Romney momentum developed and he cut into Obama’s lead.
Obama was startled by this turn of events and awoke from his first debate slumbers to assertively confront Romney in the second and third debates, winning both. According to polls, Romney’s momentum ended on Oct. 12.
Then came an October surprise. October surprises are the stuff of legends in politics. This surprise wasn’t man made; it was created by Mother Nature – Hurricane Sandy.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t end Romney’s momentum; it had come to a halt some time earlier. But the hurricane captured media attention for a week, bringing Romney’s campaign to a virtual halt.
Meanwhile, Obama’s grassroots campaign organization just kept chugging along. I saw this campaign from the inside as an occasional canvasser and telephone caller. Political machines are greatly overrated. Unpaid, minimally trained volunteers are hardly the stuff of which invincible political machines are made. When I telephoned, more often than not, I got recording machines or wrong numbers or no answers or annoyed people who didn’t want yet another political call.
When I knocked on doors, most often I was greeted by barking dogs inside the house. No one was home. If Lassie was running for president, I have no doubt she would be elected by these canines, but they were of little help to Barack Obama.
But these volunteer efforts were like panning for gold in a stream that contains very little. If you do it persistently and for a long enough time, eventually it will pay off. You will find some gold. And the collective and prolonged efforts of countless Obama volunteers throughout the nation, eventually paid off, boosting his vote totals.
And what about all that Republican campaign cash? What good did it do? After a point, it suffered from diminishing returns. Enough money is needed to give a candidate name recognition and to get that person’s message across to the public. But, beyond that, an unremitting flood of political advertisements on television becomes annoying to the point where it is largely ignored.
And so, surprisingly, Obama won. If nothing else, politics is unpredictable.