Campaign Strategies and Developments
The Republican Strategy
Republican strategy focused on the slow recovery that the economy was making from the Great Recession of 2008-2009, repeatedly criticizing Obama for poorly managing the economy. Romney argued that his successful business career showed that he knew how to create jobs, something that President Obama did not. Additionally, Romney argued that Obama favored too much government spending — which produced large budget deficits — which in turn impeded economic growth. The GOP prescription for a faster economic recovery was less government spending, lower taxes, and smaller budget deficits. The president's chief legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, also was the target of Republican attacks as another big government program. Romney promised to repeal the act if he became president.
The Democratic strategy
Democratic strategy aimed at Romney's personal characteristics. Democrats painted Romney as a rich businessman who had little concern for workers and less understanding of the problems facing ordinary people, charges that had earlier been made by Romney's opponents for the Republican nomination. The Obama campaign also attacked Romney's integrity in two ways. First, Democrats argued that Romney was too willing to tell voters whatever they wanted to hear, citing his shifts in positions on a number of issues from when he was governor to when he was a candidate for the GOP nomination and then from the nomination season to the general election. Second, they raised questions about Romney's financial practices, including whether he paid his fair share of taxes. The Obama campaign also criticized Romney for his conservative positions on issues. In particular, Democrats argued that he would reduce taxes on the rich while cutting government programs that would benefit those who were in need.
Some of Romney's statements and actions throughout 2012 seemed to lend credence to the Democratic attacks. He released only the past two years of his income tax returns, thus encouraging speculation that he had something damaging in his earlier returns. A number of statements that he made enhanced the belief that he had little sympathy for the economic concerns of ordinary people. The most significant of these were comments made at a private fund-raising event, which were secretly taped and then released in mid-September. At that event, Romney stated that 47 percent of the American people were individuals who would never vote for him because they were dependent on the government and thought that the government had a responsibility to take care of them (Spitzer 2013, 66). These comments generated considerable criticism of Romney as a person who thought that citizens who received such things as social security or Medicare benefits were failing to take responsibility for their own economic situation.
As the general election unfolded, Romney began to moderate some of his positions. While he still maintained that he would repeal Obamacare, he added that he would keep many of the provisions of that law — which seemed to respond to the fact that many aspects of the law were popular. Romney also continued to support reducing overall tax rates, but he argued that he would eliminate many deductions that wealthy individuals enjoyed, and the result would be that the rich would pay as high a share of total taxes as they currently did. While this moderation undercut Democratic arguments that Romney was too conservative, it supported claims that Romney had few sincere convictions and was too willing to take whatever position seemed more popular with voters.
Another important campaign development was a small but significant improvement in the economy. Unemployment, which was at 8.3 percent in January, dropped to 7.8 percent prior to the election (Prysby 2013). The fact that the national economy was improving, both in the national statistics and in the eyes of many voters, supported Obama's argument that his economic policies were on the right track and undermined Romney's charges that Obama was poorly managing the economy.
Obama began the general election campaign with a small lead over Romney, helped in part by a successful Democratic convention that gave him a boost and by a Republican convention that failed to provide Romney with a similar boost. During September, Obama added to his lead, and by the end of the month, it was clear that Romney needed to perform well in the debates to make the election competitive. Romney did exactly that in the first debate, held on October 3, by combining an effective and aggressive attack with an uninspired performance by Obama to score a decisive victory, according to media pundits and post-debate polls. Following the debate, polls showed the race to be extremely close, with Romney perhaps gaining a slight advantage (Schier and Box-Steffensmeier 2013, 81-82).
The remaining debates were more favorable to the Democrats. Vice president Joe Biden was about even with Ryan in the sole vice presidential debate. More importantly, Biden advanced the Democratic argument that the Republican ticket would cut benefits needed by ordinary citizens by focusing on some of the policies advocated by Ryan, such as gradually changing Medicare into a program in which recipients received a voucher that they could use to purchase health care insurance. Obama bounced back in the next two presidential debates, and post-debate polls showed him the winner of both (Hetherington 2014, 56).
In all of the debates, Obama criticized the conservative positions that Romney had taken — such as opposing the federal help that Democrats had provided to domestic auto manufacturers in 2009, wanting to lower taxes for wealthy individuals, and proposing to cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Romney responded that Obama was distorting his policy proposals. Romney continued to attack Obama for poorly managing the economy, driving up the budget deficit, and supporting more "big government."
The election remained close throughout October, but the combination of better debate performances by the Democratic ticket and the slowly improving economy allowed Obama to be at least even with Romney by the end of the month (New York Times 2012). One week before the election, an unusually large and powerful tropical storm, Superstorm Sandy, hit the Northeastern states, especially New Jersey and New York. This event appeared to benefit Obama by focusing news attention on the storm, rather than on the presidential election, and allowing the president to appear "presidential," leading a federal government emergency response effort, while the Republican candidate could do little to capture the attention of the news media.
Obama benefitted from a strong and effective national organization that employed a sophisticated strategy for targeting and turning out likely Democratic voters (Steger 2013). Obama had built an organization in 2008 to capture the Democratic nomination and win the general election, and he was able to reconstruct that organization in 2012. Romney had a less extensive and less sophisticated grassroots campaign effort, although the Republican campaign and its allies did slightly outspend the Democratic campaign, if independent expenditures are included on both sides: the Republican presidential candidate, national party, and outside spending totaled around $1.2 billion, compared to about $1.1 billion for the Democrats (Currinder 2014, 135).