Obama and Romney: Ups and downs of their campaigns

This is the Election Day. We can look back at the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.


1. What would you describe as the highlights and what about the most problematic moments of both candidates during the campagin? Was it anything what you would consider as a real surprise?

2. Of course, the real measurement of success of the campaigns will be the result of the election but in general, how effective or infective were Obama and Romney during the course of their campaigns?


Richard Benedetto, Adjunct Professor of Journalism, School of Communication, American University

1. The highlight of the Romney campaign was his clearly better performance than President Obama in the first debate. It changed the media narrative of the race from “This race is nearly over and Obama is going to win easily” to “Romney has earned himself a second look and maybe Obama isn’t the person we thought he was.” That narrative has held to the point that this is not a close race that is going down to the finish line neck and neck.

Romney’s two biggest problems: Overcoming the notion that he is wealthy and out of touch with the American people, and a generally unfriendly news media.

If there is a highlight for the Obama campaign, it would be, if he wins, his chance to show presidential leadership during the recent Hurricane Sandy. In other words, his victory will have been built on a tragedy. It might have slowed the Romney momentum and given the president a second look. The other highlight for the Obama campaign was a much better-organized and staged convention than Romney. His surrogate speakers – Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama really stole the show and helped him overcome what many thought was a lackluster acceptance speech from the president himself.

Another highlight of the Obama campaign was his much better treatment by the media than that received by Romney. For some reason, the media like him better, and it shows in their coverage.

And one more highlight, or maybe it is a lowlight: Despite continuing questions about the Obama Administration’s response to the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September, neither the American media nor the American voting public seem to be too concerned about, at least not so concerned that it poses a major election problem for the president. It should be an issue, but it is not.

2.Both campaigns had plenty of money to get their message out and heard. Both relied heavily on negative ads to paint their opponent as a bad guy. the decision American voters had to make was whether Obama’s four years in managing the economy were effective and on the right path, or could someone else do a better job? Romney tried to make the argument that his business experience and plans to change the economic course of the government were better than Obama’s.

James Campbell, Distinguished Professor, Department of Political Science, University at Buffalo, SUNY

1. I think that there have been four, possibly five, key points in the campaign.

1. Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate in mid-August. It gave Governor Romney a good boost in the polls.

2. Former President Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National convention in early September gave President Obama a good convention bump in the polls.

3. The release of the “47 percent” video in mid-September hurt Romney’s standing with the public.

4. Romney’s first debate performance was much stronger than President Obama’s.

and possibly 5. Hurricane Sandy helped President Obama appear more presidential, though this may be a fleeting boost for him.

2. Overall, I thought that the Romney campaign got off to a very rocky start, but has improved down the stretch. Given President Obama’s very weak economic record, his campaign has done about as well as anyone could have expected.

Cary Covington, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Iowa

1. The highlight for Romney was his performance in the first debate. If he had done poorly, the voters would have most likely concluded he was not an acceptable candidate. His confidence and assertiveness led voters to reconsider him and helped him rise in the polls. Obama’s most important (if not a highlight) performance came in the 2nd and 3rd debates. The first debate created many doubts about him, which he erased with his later performances. They didn’t win a lot of voters back to him, but they stopped his slide in support. The most problematic moment for Romney was the release of his comments about “the 47%” of Americans who didn’t take responsibility for themselves. Since it was a confidential speech that was not supposed to be public, it revealed a side of Romney that made him look bad to the independent and moderate voters he was trying to persuade. Obama’s most problematic moment was his performance in the first debate. If he had performed in the first debate like he did in the 2nd two, this race would probably be over. He seemed tired, listless, uninterested, and that led voters to give Romney a second look.

2. You can only get to the pinnacle of American electoral politics if you are an extremely effective politician. Just like you don’t find amateur athletes in the top professional sports leagues, so you don’t find amateur politicians running as one of the two main parties’ candidates for president. So both candidates were very effective. Their mistakes were few and far between, but were damaging anyway. The media picks up on their mistakes and makes sure the voters know about them. Again, like announcers at a sporting event, when they dissect a player’s misplay, and show it over and over again in replay, so too does the new media dissect the mistakes of presidential candidates. But the main point is, that they are very good politicians who are very effective in making their arguments to the voters.

Martin Johnson, Associate Professor & Chair, Dept. of Political Science, University of California, Riverside

1. Highlights and problematic moments.

For Gov. Romney I think the most problematic moment of his campaign are his private comments about government assistance and the people who receive the benefit of government programs — comments which were recorded at a campaign fundraising event asserting that 47% of Americans are dependent on government, think of themselves as victims who are entitled to government social services.

For President Obama, the most problematic moment of his campaign still seems to be his weak performance and apparent lack of preparation for the first presidential debate.

As for highlights, President Obama enjoyed a very strong convention for his re-nomination with stirring support from former President Bill Clinton and others.

The highlight of the Romney campaign is probably his strong performance in the first presidential debate.

2. As for the effectiveness of candidates, I think both presidential candidates were partially effective but had their ineffective moments.

President Obama struggled early with a strong defense of his first term and had a very difficult time highlighting his own accomplishments as well as the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. He was more effective as the campaign went on, but still often seems more professorial than might be most effective for a candidate for president. That said, I think President Obama is generally easier for most Americans to relate to than Gov. Romney, who has a very difficult time connecting with individual voters.

Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

1. The most problematic moment for President Obama was the first television debate. He performed terribly and let Romney reinvent himself as a moderate Republican. Obama did much better in the last two debates and this really helped him come back in the polls. Hurricane Sandy has turned into a real political plus for Obama because it allowed him to demonstrate leadership and keep Romney out of the news for 3-4 days over the last week of the campaign. As opposed to the end focusing on the bad economy or Obama’s deficiencies, the country saw the president performing well and helping people in need.

2. Obama did well during the summer in framing the election around the theme of fairness. By pointing out problems with Romney’s background at Bain Capital, having Swiss bank accounts, and not releasing tax returns, Obama turned Romney into a rich guy who didn’t understand the problems of the American middle class. Romney temporarily disrupted that narrative in early October with his strong debate performance, but Obama was able to revive those concerns at the end of the campaign. Romney did well in reinventing himself during the Fall general election. He has put himself in position for a close finish even if he ultimately falls a little short of victory.

Eric Ostermeier, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, University of Minnesota

Given the still sluggish state of the U.S. economy, the rising national debt concerns, and lingering foreign policy entanglements and wars, it is little surprise that Barack Obama is facing a competitive race for reelection – with the popular vote likely to be decided by less than two or three points.

Out of fear of losing the Tea Party / conservative vote, Mitt Romney made the decision to run to the right of several of his previous positions during the Republican primary. This helped him win the nomination, but it caused him two problems when running against Obama: it cemented his reputation as a “flip-flopper” (a candidate who will say anything to win), and it made it more difficult for Romney to appeal to independents and moderates in the general election campaign (constituencies who may have supported Obama in 2008, but were willing to give a serious look at the Republican candidate in 2012).

The (negative) turning point for the Obama campaign was clearly the first presidential debate, which he lost by historic numbers, according to public opinion polls. This gave Romney new momentum in the last month of the campaign and although Obama was viewed to have performed better during the next two debates, the impact of the first debate was much stronger which made the race very tight nationally.

Even though Barack Obama will likely not perform as well in 2012 as in 2008, this should not be interpreted as him running a poorer campaign. The evidence of Obama’s strong campaign in 2012 is that he is running very competitively despite all of the nation’s problems with the economy and debt mention above (and an unpopular health care law to go into effect in 2013).

In 2008, Obama was simply able to coast on slogans because that was enough to sway the electorate. Now that he has a record, Obama had to run a more strategic campaign to cast his four years in office as a ‘success’ even though significant problems in the country remain.

Lawrence Jacobs, Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota

Big story of the election is how little it has changed despite all the drama of the campaign.  Romney fought Obama to a tie in the national support by May and then after the conventions in early September.  There have been small shifts but that story line of a razor close race has remained.

On the other hand, Obama leads where it counts — state polls that make up the Electoral College that selects the president.  Obama’s leads in the most competitive states is close (2-4 points) but they have been consistent.

The 2 biggest moments — much better Democratic national convention as compared to Republican convention in late August/early September and Romney’s very strong performance in the first debate — helped one candidate and offset each other.  Hurricane Sandy has had no clear effect; Romney’s supporters talk a lot about momentum but there is no support in the pool of polls and appears to be merely a public relations talking point.

Bottom line: the national vote will be very close but Obama may win a lion’s share of the Electoral College votes that decides the presidency.  The story of 2012 may be how little the race has changed despite all of the gyrations of the campaign.


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