Election Post-Mortem

David Axelrod Surprised by Romney Campaign’s Missed Opportunities

David Axelrod tells a Chicago audience he was surprised by the Romney team’s missed opportunities. By James Warren.

Robert Kozloff, Courtesy of The University of Chicago / AP Photo

President Obama’s top reelection strategist conceded surprise Monday that Republican super PACS didn’t attack Obama far earlier, Mitt Romney didn’t invest much more in ground operations, and that the Republican nominee played narrowly to the party base in picking Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate.

Offering a lengthy dissection of the campaign, David Axelrod told a Chicago audience that he was “a bit surprised that super PACS, which spent an unbelievable amount of money,” didn’t hit television and radio with anti-Obama ads until May.

“Our air defenses weren’t ready,” he said, alluding to his side’s early lack of resources. “They gave us a pass, for whatever reason.”

At the same time, he was surprised that a plausible, distinctly positive image of Romney as successful businessman was not central to Romney’s media strategy until late fall. In part he ascribed that to Romney’s “Faustian bargain” to get the Republican nomination and tacking far to the right while also unleashing a barrage of mostly negative ads against GOP primary rivals.

The Obama camp assumed that after Romney sewed up the nomination, he would offer that more upbeat aura in his ads. “They never did that,” Axelrod said at the evening gathering at the University of Chicago.

As for Ryan, Axelrod personally figured former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be the choice, possibly Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. His doubts about Ryan were a function of tough-minded views on privatizing Social Security and making significant changes in Medicare.

And as for the Republicans’ field operation, their comparatively small investment played into the Democrats’ hands and was not forecast by Axelrod, either.

Axelrod’s comments to a large audience amounted to a postmortem on his final political campaign and a segue to his career’s next chapter, overseeing the university’s new Institute of Politics.

He conceived the notion of a future rival to Harvard’s Kennedy School, among other institutions, with an accent on undergraduate education; pitched the concept to Chicago and Northwestern University; cut a deal with his alma mater, and has assembled a solid staff to execute the initial vision, including fellowship and internship programs. For example, this past campaign’s plethora of polling, some both erroneous and influential, will be an early topic of examination, he revealed Monday.

The session itself touched a wide variety of topics, mostly involving the campaign and the state of American politics. It had its languid spots and one moment in which Axelrod came off as somewhat defensive, namely when asked about political consultants and negative ads “degrading the system,” as one student questioner put it.

While agreeing that the two campaigns were beneficiaries of ads that degraded the political process, he cited just one, by a pro-Obama PAC and not approved by the campaign, as an example. Other anti-Romney ads that some observers felt were unfair were not mentioned.

“This was a very tough election,” he said. “And we had to make a case as well.”

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He asserted that the earliest Obama ads in battleground states were distinctly positive. But it became clear that “if we allowed Romney to be the hazy, local Chamber of Commerce president” in his ads, “that was not in our interest.” A barrage of harsh anti-Romney ads ensued early and, many observers contend, did irreparable damage to Romney even before he officially was the GOP nominee.

As for the dramatic increase in super PAC dollars, Axelrod noted that Obama has underscored his own disagreement with the Supreme Court decision, known as Citizens United, which opened the floodgates. At the same time, “I would not advise the Democratic Party to lay down arms and get mowed over in the next campaign” by eschewing such support.

Axelrod was his frequent droll and insightful self at times, including when discussing his return to the White House one Saturday after he’d left his West Wing position. His purpose was to assist in writing jokes for Obama’s speech that evening at a Washington dinner.

One line he’d written made fun of Pawlenty by claiming his middle name was bin Laden. “That’s so hackneyed,” he recalled Obama saying. “That’s so yesterday.” Axelrod didn’t think what replaced his line was especially funny.

Little did he know that the poker-faced Obama had just approved the raid that would result in the killing of Osama bin Laden in a few hours. His boss didn’t think a bin Laden joke was appropriate. Thus, said Axelrod, “Obama knew he had ordered the mission. And if that hadn’t gone well, his political career was probably over.”

One subject of curiosity Monday was the president’s poor performance in the first presidential debate. Axelrod was asked by moderator Steve Edwards, a respected Chicago journalist now with the institute, as to his true feelings immediately after, and before he spoke to media at the debate.

“I was thinking, ‘Can’t somebody else do this?’”

But, as uninspired as Obama might have been, Axelrod was taken aback by “our friends in the media,” meaning the reaction of obvious ideological allies in the press.

“MSNBC was relentless that night. And Andrew Sullivan [whose blog, The Dish, is on The Daily Beast] was on a suicide watch after that debate,” said Axelrod.

By and large, the Axelrod on display before his new constituency, students and academics, was the fellow long known to friends, colleagues and even professional rivals: a distinctly likable, self-questioning journalist turned political operative who has often led with his heart and will go down in history as perhaps the most important figure in Obama’s decision to run for president in 2008.

“He thought big in the same way Obama did; he had something to prove in the same way Obama did,” is how Obama biographer David Maraniss puts it. “They both had holes in their lives in different personal ways. Axe was able to connect him to power in a way that previous consultants could not, and they shared a sensibility of being outsiders who could play the inside game.”

The bond with Obama was ever clear Monday, as Axelrod reverently recited a litany of what he considers historic achievements that, in some cases (notably the auto industry bailouts and his health-care legislation), were acts that ran contrary to Axelrod polling on what he should do. As he’s said before, he was often glad Obama didn’t take his advice.

And, now, after once-unimaginable opportunities have come his way, including shepherding the rise of the first black president, meeting world leaders, and doing well financially while doing good professionally, he will change course, targeting students, not prospective voters. He’ll settle down at his alma mater and try to make a famously cerebral enclave a more high-profile and influential player in the contentious world of politics and policy he deems central to a democracy.