Caitriona Palmer: A feat of political genius unlike any seen before
Published 26/12/2012 | 05:00
The mood in the tiny room at the University of Denver was buoyant until 10 minutes into the first presidential debate, when Obama's staffers quit smiling and began to realise that their boss was in serious trouble.
An election victory that had practically seemed in the bag was, all of a sudden, impossibly – unbelievably – in jeopardy.
Riding back to his hotel room that night, the president checked the early reviews on his iPad and made a call to his closest advisor, kingmaker David Axelrod.
"I guess the consensus is that we didn't have a very good night," the president said to Mr Axelrod.
"That is the consensus," came the grim reply.
October 3, 2012 will be remembered by the Obama campaign staff as the day that their boss woke up from his day dream and finally found his electoral back bone.
Obama's shoddy debate performance in Denver forced the president to acknowledge his vulnerabilities and to reign in a campaign that had grown a little too big for its boots. It also forced him – to the delight of many Democrats – to finally go on the attack.
Despite the happy hormonal surge that had lasted well after his historic 2008 victory, Obama had entered 2012 on shaky ground. With an economy in cardiac arrest, a rabid opposition riding high on Tea Party hysteria, and a disgruntled public falling out of love with the man of Hope and Change, the president knew he had a tough battle on his hands.
But Obama's extraordinary level of disdain for his opponent led him to drastically underestimate Mitt Romney, blinding the president to his rival's strengths in debating and his extraordinary ability to bend the truth.
It was a miscalculation that, following the first presidential debate, left Obama scrambling to regain his momentum in the final month of the campaign.
So how did Obama manage to turn things around and sweep to victory with a margin that left even the most seasoned political pundits surprised?
With a little help from the auto industry bail out in Ohio and some nerdy computer geeks, it turns out.
Not until November 4, when the Obama campaign allowed a select group of journalists in on the secret, was the outside world aware of the sophisticated data mining operation put in place by the campaign. This secret project measured voter instincts and amassed an electoral database the likes of which has never before been seen in politics.
Headed by campaign boss Jim Messina who hired an analytics department five times larger than the 2008 campaign, the covert operation was led by a "chief scientist" who conducted data projects with Bond-esque code names like "dream-catcher."
The Obama campaign was so keen to keep the operation under the radar that the tech wizards worked out of a windowless room set away from the rest of the campaign staff.
The data that the "scientists" assembled helped Obama raise a massive $1bn (€760m) and allowed the campaign to predict the whims and desires of voters in all the crucial swing states, allowing them to better target these voters with phone calls and appeals through social media sites like Facebook.
"They connected people in a way that had never been done before with Facebook. If they knew I was an undecided voter, they also knew I was in the Marine Corps, and they'd have a retired gunnery sergeant call me to get me to vote," said former Bill Clinton staffer, James Carville. "It was way far above anything that's ever been tried in politics before. Political scientists will mine this data forever."
Obama's victory in 2012 also was largely due to the fact that he never stopped running for president after 2008, effectively keeping his campaign offices open in the battleground states and building a get-out-the-vote organisation that over the past three years has made calls, knocked on doors and on November 6 drove supporters to the polls.
"We had a good organisation in 2008," Obama senior adviser David Plouffe said. "This organisation is light-years ahead of that."
The Obama campaign was also given a gift in the form of Mitt Romney, a man so tortured by his own political inconsistencies that he persisted in flip-flopping throughout the campaign, tacking to the right on issues like immigration, a stance that would be the nail in his political coffin when over 70pc of Hispanic voters backed Obama.
Romney's off-the-record, off-the-cuff comment about the lackadaisical 47pc of the electorate feeding off the excesses of government like parasites depicted the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch venture capitalist.
While Obama's secret tech wizards and behavioural scientists hunched over their database of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters in Chicago, Romney's aides were providing their man with data that was so skewed that the Republican candidate was convinced that the White House was his – even up until late in the evening of election-day.
So convinced was Romney that he had it in the bag, that he had only one speech in his pocket that night – an acceptance speech. Even as late as 11.30pm aides were urging him to stay the course and to contest the more narrowly divided states.
But as his wife Ann sat crying silently nearby, a few minutes later Mitt made the final call. "It's not going to happen," he said.