‘Oops,’ First Debate, ‘47 Percent’ & More 2012 Election Turning Points

It’s finally over! Mark McKinnon looks back on two years of big moments that changed the 2012 race.

It’s been a long campaign season, at times resembling a spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood. We saw moments that were both good and bad for the presidential candidates, and some rather ugly moments for the country. But as we look back, there were 20 clear turning points in the 2012 election.

20. Mitt and the not-Mitts.

It was always a contest between Gov. Mitt Romney and the not-Mitts. The not-Mitts in the race for the Republican nomination, in case you’ve forgotten or have tried to forget, were: Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, Fred Karger, and Thad McCotter. I think that’s all of the officially recognized national candidates. Then of course there was Buddy Roemer, and Jimmy “The Rent’s Too Damn High” McMillan.

19. What if “she” ran?

What if Sarah Palin ran? Or even Hillary Clinton? Either would have changed the race. Each in a different way. But both, perhaps, would have fractured their parties. And you can’t forget all the others who were once considered in the running: Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rudy Giuliani, John Thune, George Pataki, Michael Bloomberg, Mike Pence, Gen. David Petraeus, Donald Trump even, and Jeb Bush. For many, the time was just not right.

18. “Oops.”

That was the singular utterance few will forget, delivered during a nationally televised presidential-primary debate, after 53 seconds of painful searching for the right answer with millions watching. That moment of eternity inarguably led to the collapse of a campaign most political observers expected to be a top contender. Rick Perry’s paralysis is exhibit A in the proposition that debates matter. It’s a lesson the president should have learned, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

17. Budget battles drew blood.

In the summer of 2011, Democrats and Republicans fought furiously to gain advantage during the debt-ceiling debate. The government was on the brink of a shutdown. A deal was reached, but the problems were not solved. They were merely kicked down the road. The nation’s credit rating was downgraded. And Americans’ trust in government collapsed. We are nearing a “fiscal cliff” at the start of 2013, with mandatory federal spending cuts and huge tax increases looming. Together they threaten to push the economy into a recession. Can Congress reach an agreement by Nov. 23 to avoid going over the cliff? Sure hope so, but I don’t know what has changed.

16. Osama is dead: a legitimate achievement.

The debt-ceiling debate was not the only time blood was spilled. Obama killed Osama. Yes, President Barack Obama gets to crow about the killing of Osama bin Laden. It would have been absurd not to mention it in his campaign, just as it would have been absurd for the Bush campaign not to mention 9/11 in our 2004 reelection launch. All we did in our ads was say we faced some unexpected challenges and showed some images of 9/11. And we were crucified by the Democrats. How dare we exploit the tragedy for political purposes, brayed John Kerry. But it’s history, folks. Both events happened. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore these seminal events in our history.

15. Super PAC doublespeak.

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“We’re not going to play by two sets of rules.” That was the bombshell message Obama delivered in February. And I asked: “Why the hell not?” Rather than fight to change the rules that allow this perversion of the democratic voting process, Obama lowered the standards, giving his blessing to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC backing his reelection. It was the second time he recanted on campaign-finance reforms. (He was against it before he was for it. Where have I heard that before?) While undoubtedly good for his campaign, these decisions were bad for the country.

14. Evolution: the right risk for the president on gay marriage.

I don’t really care how or why Obama got to the right place on gay marriage. I’m just glad he got there. Leaders should do the right thing on big issues and damn the political consequences. True, Obama supported gay marriage as a candidate for state senator, then flip-flopped on the issue as a candidate for president. And the reality is politics drives most decisions. The pressure on this issue from Democratic constituencies has been long and intense. And one gets the sense that the president is relieved finally to have arrived at a public position that squares with his private feelings.

13. Estados Unidos de America: leaving no demographic behind.

Just as Obama’s decision to support gay marriage publicly was right, though late in coming, his decision to enact a “Dream Act lite” should have come earlier in his term. I don’t care if it was political. I’m glad he did the right thing. It is, however, unfortunate that the president did not address both of these issues earlier in his term so they weren’t viewed through the prism of presidential politics. But let’s eliminate the benefit of any doubt and consider that Obama made this move for purely political reasons. In a race in which the headwinds of the economy may just be too strong to navigate directly, by all means tack into the constituent breezes that blow, wherever they may be.

12. A legitimately stupid remark: “war on women” divides, but does it conquer?

I think we can all agree that Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks on rape were legitimately stupid. In defense of his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, Akin asserted: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Legitimate rape? Surely he meant “forcible” rape, a legal distinction. But suggesting women possess a physiological ability to distinguish rape sperm and render it impotent? The fiasco could not have been more poorly timed for Republicans. Just as voters were looking seriously at the Republican ticket, Akin’s stunning ignorance distracted from the discussion on the economy. A “war on women” was being waged by Republicans, Democrats charged. I thought women would flee, to never return to the GOP tent. But I think Democrats may have overplayed their hand. Although Romney will not win the vote of young women, he has closed the gender gap.

11. Tax Cheat. Felon. Murderer. When truth is the victim, America loses.

Tax cheat. Felon. Murderer. Not exactly the inspiring words one would expect to describe the man who seeks to lead a purportedly civilized nation, but those are the incendiary charges thrown at Romney by supporters of Obama. They are ludicrous insinuations on which the administration and Democratic leadership were uniformly and appallingly silent. Politics brings out the ugliest in America, but what is unusual this election season is the extent of the villainy—because there is no price to pay.

10. An empty chair: Dirty Harry went off script, but Tampa changed hearts and minds.

So Clint Eastwood blew it at the Republican National Convention. Wrong message. Bad tone. Stylistically awkward. The Academy Award winner gave a bumbling, even unprofessional, presentation. The GOP hoped for good. Eastwood brought the bad and the ugly. With his track record, who would have expected it? But no matter how crazy it drove critics, Clint showed people it was OK to poke fun at Obama. And the convention succeeded. Because even among the doubters and the not-Mitt fans, Romney became the leader of his party that night. Folks on the right began to realize they could vote for him, not just against Obama.

9. The 47 percent? 100 percent wrong.

“I don’t care about the 47 percent.” Campaigns are a testing ground. Much is revealed. The release of the Romney tape was a moment that certainly revealed something about him. But not what I was hoping for. It exposed a deeply cynical man who sees the country as completely divided, as two completely different sets of people. Ironically, this is the same charge many Republicans make against the president. Now, this election has always been about the economy. Pain in the pocketbook is very personal. But the election is also about trust. Who do voters trust most? Romney was in a hole he dug for himself with this comment. It was 100 percent wrong. And Obama was 100 percent wrong for not directly challenging Romney on it at the first debate.

8: Biden’s debatable performance: About that night …

I’m not sure how to categorize Joe Biden’s debate performance other than interesting. Paul Ryan held serve. And Biden threw his racket and argued with the ref. But both men achieved their goal. Stylistically, Biden was hot, maybe too hot. Ryan was calm and competent, and looked like he could sit in the big chair if necessary. This was the real test of the debate. Had Ryan failed, Romney would have been hurt. Overall, it was an entertaining and informative debate that both sides claim as a win, but it didn’t significantly change the overall equation.

7. Independents’ Day? A growing recognition of the cost of partisanship?

Voters not affiliated with either party may determine who wins. In 2008, Obama won independents by eight percentage points over John McCain. In the 2010 midterm elections, however, Democrats lost independents by 19 percentage points, and Republicans made a historic sweep of seats in Congress. Most recent polls show a tie at the national level, but Romney holds a double-digit lead among independent voters. If Obama does not win enough independents, he must make up for those numbers with a higher turnout in the Democratic base, in some places over his historic 2008 results. Keep your eye on Ohio. Only 18 electoral votes, but this is where indies may swing the national election.

6. Baghdad. Benghazi. Big Bird. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

Al Qaeda is rebuilding in Iraq. An American ambassador is dead. And Iran may be just months away from wiping Israel off the map. Here at home, 23 million Americans are still looking for work. The national debt is more than $16 trillion. And about $5 trillion is owed to the nearly insolvent Social Security Trust Fund and to the federal pension system—the other Snuffleupagus in the room. Yet Obama worried about feathering Big Bird’s nest. Cutting $444 million from Sesame Street won’t end the debt crisis, but the thinking behind it will. Romney posed a serious question. Obama provided a silly answer. And Benghazi may bite him still.

5. A serious choice. Picking Paul Ryan made Mitt the man.

A failure to act is a terrible, stunning legacy for any leader. But far worse when it is the president of the United States. And that’s the point driven home by Romney’s selection of Ryan, who dared to lead when Obama did not. Ryan spoke not only of balancing the budget but also of rescuing entitlement programs through real reform. And it was more than “just words.” Ryan came up with the plans to do so. His reward? To be branded a granny killer. When Romney picked Ryan rather than a boring sidekick, the 2012 race got real. The focus became the economic future of the country. A smart leader surrounds himself with even smarter people. Romney did that. He made the right choice in Ryan.

4. Bill and Hillary. Did they save Obama’s bacon?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. The Clinton machine that Obama took down may be what saves his reelection. Bill Clinton is the most effective surrogate for Obama. Viewers in some states are more likely to see an ad with Bill than with Barack. And Bubba loves the attention. According to Pew, among those who watched the Democratic National Convention, 29 percent said the highlight was President Clinton’s address. Just 16 percent picked Obama’s. And Hillary Clinton may yet be made the final scapegoat for Benghazi. She was first to accept responsibility for the breakdown in intelligence and security in Libya that preceded what the administration now acknowledges was a terrorist attack. By stepping forward at a critical moment, Obama’s one-time bitter rival may well have saved his bacon.

3. The moment: Oct. 3, 2012. The first debate changed the race.

The first debate was Obama’s “Oops” moment. It changed everything, with 72 percent saying Romney won, the highest margin ever recorded. He was perceived as a stronger leader than Obama. He even led by double digits on who would be best to handle the economy. The Obama who showed up to debate did not look as if he wanted to be there. And more than 70 million viewers noticed. The president came across as tired, confused, and unprepared. He looked older than the man 14 years his senior standing to his right. Though Obama spoke for four minutes longer than the challenger, he said less. And whether it was the thin air of Denver’s high altitude or the president’s thin skin, his face betrayed a peevishness even as he refused to look directly at Romney when challenged. Romney took command—of the stage, of the debate, and of the evening. He looked and acted presidential. The nation was surprised. The Romney who showed up did not look like the caricature painted of him by Democrats. If Obama loses, this is where it happened.

2. Superstorm Sandy: did it put the brakes on Mitt’s momentum?

It’s been an epic strategic game of Risk. After years of offensive and defensive board game moves, the generals feel powerless. It is now up to the troops on the ground. Turnout matters. Victory is but a dice roll away Tuesday for Obama or Romney. Who will win? Sandy, the “storm of the century,” may have a vote. With the lingering impact of the superstorm still being felt with flooding damage and power outages, voter turnout in New Jersey and New York may be down. Team Obama pinned its hopes on early voters. Team Romney is banking on high turnouts Tuesday. But Sandy, like any gathering storm in the Middle East or overseas, is nonpartisan. We may not know the impact until well after the votes are counted.

1. Nov. 6, 2012: will the winner be known?

Will we know the winner Tuesday evening? Or will the battle move to the courts in a repeat of the painful days of the election in 2000, with dimpled chads, hanging chads, and pregnant chads? Having barely lived through that along with the rest of the country, I pray that the popular vote and electoral vote totals align. And that the win is decisive. If you have not voted Tuesday, do so. Believe me, every vote counts. You could be the next turning point in the election.