This was a great election year, and every political writer in the country was one way or another in the fray. “South Carolina just may go Santorum,” they’d say, or “From the turnout at the rallies it looks like Gingrich has a good chance.” Columnists, bloggers—they’re all trying to understand what’s happening pretty much in real time. In this space we’ve tended less toward specific predictions than to trying to sense what might be unfolding and what it means. But you can make mistakes there, too. So, a quick look at some of the things we got right and wrong in 2012. Bonus lesson at the end.
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Early on it was clear that the best candidates on the GOP side gave shape to the entire election . . . by not showing up. We hoped for Mitch Daniels. He, John Thune, Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush didn’t get in, leaving the way for Mitt Romney, who we assumed would be the nominee. We got South Carolina wrong after spending time there asking Republicans what they were seeing and who they were for. Romney, Romney, we heard. Newt Gingrich crushed him. But we didn’t see a big future for the “angry little attack muffin.”
A few months into an increasingly bruising primary season, we worried about Republican prospects. “We all know politics ain’t beanbag, but it’s not supposed to be a clown-car Indy 500 with cars hitting the wall and guys in wigs littering the track.” We saw Mr. Obama’s campaign veering between listlessness and brutality. On the stump he was the former. His ads tearing down Mr. Romney were the latter.
Mr. Romney meanwhile couldn’t seem to gain his footing. In July we noted the strange nature of the race. We were in the midst of “a crisis election” and yet such elections tend to “bring drama—a broad sense of excitement and passion” among the people. That wasn’t discernible on either side. The reason: Voters know America right now needs to be led by “a kind of political genius” and “they know neither of the candidates is a political genius.” Mr. Romney couldn’t articulate a way forward, and nobody knew what his presidency would look like. Mr. Obama seemed “to view politics as his weary duty, something he had to do on his way to greatness.” Both men seemed “largely impenetrable.”
That still seems true.
That same month we made the most wrongheaded criticism of the year. The thing I denigrated not only turned out to be important—it was probably the most important single element in the entire 2012 campaign.
In writing about what struck as the president’s essential aloofness, I said there were echoes of it even in his organization. I referred to a recent hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. “It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’ “
This struck me as “high tech and bloodless.” I didn’t quite say it, but it all struck me as inhuman, unlike any politics I’d ever seen.
It was unlike any politics I’d ever seen. And it won the 2012 campaign. Those “Martians” were reinventing how national campaigns are done. They didn’t just write a new political chapter with their Internet outreach, vote-tracking data-mining and voter engagement, especially in the battleground states. They wrote a whole new book. And it was a masterpiece.
Hats off. In some presidential elections, something big changes, and if you’re watching close you can learn a lesson. This was mine: The national game itself has changed. And it’s probably going to be a while before national Republicans can duplicate or better what the Democrats have done.
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We saw the Republican convention as solid, but the nominee’s speech as a missed opportunity. And there was a strange flatness on the floor. People weren’t standing and cheering. The speakers were good but often spoke too much about themselves. The Democrats in comparison seemed happy, and though there were some sinister undertones beneath, overall the Democrats successfully portrayed a sense of community.
I didn’t mention something that occurred to me a few weeks later: The party conventions revealed something essential about each party’s nature. The Republicans are all for individualism and entrepreneurship, for freedom, but some of their speakers were too entrepreneurial—they were in business for themselves. They told their own stories, lauded their own history—a whole lot of I, I, I. They didn’t speak enough about Mr. Romney or the party, which seems as an institution to garner little loyalty even from its stars. The Democrats, on the other hand, were more communal. There was a lot of “us” and “we”—we are together, we are part of something, we are united, we are Democrats.
The “we-ness” of the Democrats would seem more attractive to a lot of voters in modern, broken-up America. I wish I’d noted that here.
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We were right, and early, about the significance of the first presidential debate. We signaled in advance that it might be a bad night for Mr. Obama because four years in, presidents are no longer used to being challenged. They don’t like it when they are, and they often respond poorly.
In September we launched a spirited critique of the Romney campaign, saying it was unimaginative, unserious and incompetently managed. We saw the race as “slipping out of Romney’s hands” and called for party elders to make “an intervention.” We summed up the campaign with two words: “rolling calamity.”
In retrospect this holds up nicely, though maybe we were too soft.
Finally, our wrong call on the election’s outcome. Normally if you want to make a political prediction you make it about something months or years away, so if you’re wrong no one will remember, and if you’re right you can modestly remind them. But such circumspection is for the timid.
On Nov. 5 we said we thought Mr. Romney was sneaking up on Mr. Obama, that we had a feeling he would win. We were all focusing on data, but maybe a surprising outcome was quietly unfurling around us: the building rallies, a steadied campaign, an improved candidate, the air of momentum . . .
It turns out, and I’m sure you’ve noticed this, that the numbers, the data—at least the data Democrats had—was right. What was it somebody said? “I’ll be smiling soon as the swelling goes down.”
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Lesson? For writers it’s always the same. Do your best, call it as you see it, keep the past in mind but keep your eyes open for the new things of the future. And say what you’re saying with as much verve as you can. Life shouldn’t be tepid and dull. It’s interesting—try to reflect the aliveness in your work. If you’re right about something, good. If you’re wrong, try to see what you misjudged and figure out why. And, always, “Wait ‘til next year.”