CHICAGO – On its final official day of operation, Obama for America headquarters had a last-day-of-school feel as young staffers traded Gmails and hugs during the “offboarding” process of checking out and returning their gear. Then, they walked one last time past the lobby banner: “Respect. Empower. Include. Win.” David Axelrod , the weight of the world off his shoulders after six years on the national stage, had his feet up on his desk. “It’s like the end of M*A*S*H,” he said. “We went through the war together, we had a good time, and now it’s time for us all to go back to civilian life.”
The night before, 800 state and national campaign staffers and significant others had jammed a ballroom at the nearby Fairmont Chicago hotel, a favorite of the Obama traveling press corps. Campaign manager Jim Messina gave one final pep talk. In a private bet on Election Day, the ever-cautious Messina had gone slightly under on President’s Obama’s final electoral-vote count of 332. The ever-optimistic Axelrod was over by North Carolina, which went to Mitt Romney. And the ever-metrics-obsessed White House senior adviser David Plouffe had nailed the total.
Axelrod, who has known Obama since 1992 and was an architect of his rise, sat down with us in his nearly bare office, with nothing left on the shelves but a “Fox News Sunday” mug. Framed mementoes leaned against a wall: a 50-year-old Cubs pennant; an Illinois delegation sign from the Charlotte convention; a big convention logo; a photo of Axelrod (earphones in) and Obama at a steel mill in South Chicago, filming a commercial for his U.S. Senate race; Max Weinberg’s drumhead from a campaign Springsteen concert; and a bumper sticker from the 1968 JFK campaign. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
POLITICO: People say this campaign was small. You think it was big. Why?
AXELROD : “When Obama and I started talking about this, I said to him, ‘You know, it would be great to revive a sense of idealism.’ He was too young, but I was a teenager in the ’60s, and the Kennedy campaign in 1968, McCarthy, the sense of investment of young people — that we can change the world. So, if we could really rekindle that spirit, that would be a tremendous achievement. I really think he has, and that was very evident to me last night with all these kids. … I actually think this campaign was about big things. I think that the President and Governor Romney had distinct — they both love this country — had distinctly different views about where we needed to go. And I think that through all the noise, those views became clear to people. When you cut through all the noise and the furor and tactics, it was a good debate about how we proceed. And that’s not small, that’s big.”
POLITICO: How was it different from ’08?
AXELROD: “We were just recognizing at the end of the last campaign the depth of the crisis we were about to live through … [T]hose struggles defined the contours of this race, and so it was a little less — I don’t want to say ‘airy,’ because that demeans the last campaign in ways I don’t mean to. But it was grittier than the last campaign. On election night, to me it was at least, maybe more satisfying because of the hard road we had to travel. All of a sudden, the last one seemed really easy to me and this one was hard.”
POLITICO: How was it hard?
AXELROD : “When you think about where we were even a year ago: tremendous amount of skepticism within the media, within the political community, within our own party about our ability to prevail. People would say, ‘Well, no one’s ever won when unemployment was over 7.2 percent.’ Everybody was throwing these sort of historical markers at me, and my response was always, ‘Every election is different, and you can’t judge based on these precedents.’ People would view where we are through the prism of where we’ve been, and where we were in 2009 was a place we hadn’t seen since the Great Depression. So people understood that. But, nonetheless, there was a great deal of cynicism and skepticism about our ability to win this race.”
POLITICO: When did you become convinced that you would win?
AXELROD: “Anyone who’s talked to me over the course of the last year and a half knows that this is the case: I always had confidence we were going to win. … I said to the President the day after the midterm elections: I thought that the seeds of his re-election had been planted by that election. No Republican candidate was going to be able to get through that process without bowing to the force of the Tea Party and the social conservatives. And a number of very formidable candidates took a pass, in part because they recognized that.”
POLITICO: But when did the DATA tell you that you were going to win?
AXELROD: “What’s been interesting to watch is that our data has been remarkably consistent really from last spring forward, and our battleground polls really didn’t fluctuate much. There were times when it would dip to where we had a 2-point lead in the battleground states. There’s one poll over the course that we had a 1-point lead. By and large, we’ve been 3 and 4 points ahead in the battleground polls.”
POLITICO: There were two dramatic departures: the 47-percent video, and Debate 1.
AXELROD: “Yes. Well, I think we got a little bit of a boost after the convention, … but he dropped after the conventions and then the 47 percent tape was a devastating blow to them – what we saw were Republican-leaning independents falling away from Romney. We always, always, always anticipated that this was going to be a 2- or 3-point race. [After the hidden-video surfaced,] we went from a 4-point lead in our data to like a 6- [and] at its peak a 7-point lead. But it never was us gaining, particularly. It was always Romney losing. We went maybe from 50-46 to 51-44.”
POLITICO: How much did Debate 1 worry you?
AXELROD: “It was uncomfortable because there was a panic. There are certain things that are predictable in this business: The wheel turns. I always worried about that first debate, because the history of presidents in those first debates is it is like a very, very treacherous pass, and the odds that you’re going to have a little bit of a problem are very high, and we did. … I remember in 1984, when Walter Mondale had a good first debate against Ronald Reagan and people were doubting Reagan: ‘Has he lost it?’ ‘Is it over?’ He dropped like 10 points. He had a huge lead, and the lead closed. So I kind of knew we were in for an uncomfortable period there. But in our data what happened was we went — that 7-point lead went to like 3 or 4 points, and it was almost entirely because Romney gained. Romney got all that Republican-leaning independent vote back, and obviously it increased enthusiasm among his people.
“Even if we had performed better in that first debate, all the upside was for Romney, because this was the first time that the American people really got a chance to — 70 million people saw him, and just be performing well, he was going to gain. And, obviously, we helped. But what was interesting about the polling after the debate was we did not lose vote, we did not lose favorability, we did not lose approval. If anything, it ticked up a little. It’s just that he made big gains and his numbers which had been under water, almost for months, became more positive.”
POLITICO: Given the debate history for first-term presidents, why wasn’t the President ready?
AXELROD : “I don’t blame him so much. I think every single one of us in the group will, for the rest of their lives, do soul-searching about what we should have done differently. One thing for sure, we never anticipated just how dramatic the sort of repositioning Romney was going to do would be. We thought there might be a little of that, but it was really audacious. We should have, because if you looked at the tape of his earlier debates, in the Republican primaries, he had a habit of sort of walking away from — sort of shedding booster rockets, shedding skin without even a hint or a trace of embarrassment. Someone once told me that he was a great pitch man at Bain because he always wanted to know what he needed to say to get the deal. Every debate was a fresh opportunity, and he said what he needed to say. …
“Ron Klain [a leader of debate prep] is as good as anybody there is , and he did a magnificent job for us. We had a great team. I take responsibility for it. But I think this is true of all presidents: Sometimes you need that first debate to kind of shake yourself up. It’s like you need to get hit, just so you can sort of get used to the exercise … You don’t have someone standing six feet away from you slugging you when you’re president. We went through 25 or 28 debates with Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden and Dodd and Edwards — these were good debaters. You spar with Hillary for a year, you’ve been with a champion. And so he was in game shape in 2008. He just wasn’t in 2012.
POLITICO: The President basically said, “I’ve got this.”
AXELROD: “I can’t evaluate what was going through his head. I will say this: He worked hard. He read voluminously. He would read these big, thick briefing books on Romney, and he’d send back a memo with 40 questions, which reflected the degree of his review. He got very granular. So it wasn’t as if he was throwing the books away and putting his feet up on his desk and watching ESPN. He was working at it. … I suspect, to some degree he succumbed to the same kind of trap that I would say most presidents do. … He kind of showed up for a discussion, and Romney showed for a debate. The President was answering questions as if he was on ‘Meet the Press,’ and Romney was delivering his material, and he was going to deliver his material no matter what happened. There is a performance element to these debates. It may seem contrived, it may be awkward, but it’s just what it calls for. It’s not ‘Meet the Press.'”