In the days leading up to the 2012 presidential election, while pollsters were predicting that Florida would be a relatively easy win for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, those inside the Romney campaign were seeing different indicators, the candidate’s senior advisor in Florida said.
Brett Doster, founder and president of the public relations firm Front Line Strategies, said that the Romney campaign’s own polling showed that the race in Florida was tightening. “So we had a lot of optimism in the press shop and in the political shop a lot of nervousness about where we were the last two or three days,” said Doster, who was one of five panelists offering reflections on the campaign on Wednesday at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “I thought we were going to win, but I knew it was going to be a total nail biter.”
Doster joined Ashley Walker, the 2012 Florida state director for Obama for America, as well as journalists Adam Smith, Helen Aguirre Ferré and George Bennett, on a panel moderated by former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux. The dialogue, “Insights into the 2012 Presidential Election and the 2014 Election Cycle,” was held in the Lassiter Rotunda of the Warren Library and was the third event hosted by The LeMieux Center for Public Policy at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Established in in 2012, The LeMieux Center provides students with opportunities to engage with state and national officials, journalists, authors, academics and other notable thought leaders on issues important to Florida, the United States and the world. The center’s previous speakers were former presidential adviser David Gergen and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.
Early in the dialogue, Sen. LeMieux asked Walker, who now works with the public relations firm Mercury Florida, about recent news reports revealing how President Obama’s campaign collected and used data in a highly customized way to communicate with voters.
Walker said that data has been a traditional part of campaigns for many years, but the Obama campaign used it in nontraditional ways. “We implemented a data system across the board … every one of our departments had numerical goals that they were expected to meet. And when they came to a director or went to (the headquarters in) Chicago with ideas, the first sell on your idea was how do you quantify whether or not it was going to work. And that is something that is relatively new to campaigns,” she said.
Walker said that another thing that was critical to the President Obama’s re-election was “investing early in the ground game” and recruiting large numbers of young people to work on the campaign.
“A lot of you that were in this room, the staff on our team looked a lot like you,” she said, referring to the PBA students in the audience. “I’m 34 years old and I was the old woman in the room at all times,” she said.
Inside the Romney campaign, data also was being used, Doster said. But in order to develop the same type of “Obama machine,” first of all “you have to have a product that people want to interact with,” he said. “Speaking candidly, Barak Obama is a really cool guy individually … he has this essence of cool that a lot of our Republican candidates don’t have.”
Doster said that if the president were to walk into the room, even if the majority of people disliked him “he would somehow convince 40 percent of us that he’s a good guy.”
Sen. LeMieux also asked whether the “empathy factor” was a challenge for Romney.
“It was easier to get to know him as a primary candidate because he was really trying to sell himself,” said Aguirre Ferré, a journalist with Univision Radio.
Going into the general election, he seemed to be more guarded, and as a result “he didn’t come across as having an authentic voice,” she said.
Aguirre Ferré noted that Hispanics tend to be socially conservative but more liberal when it comes to economic issues, which appeared to play a role in the outcome of the election.
She also discussed an incident in which she attempted to secure an interview with vice presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and was told that the congressman “doesn’t do specialty media” like Univision. As a result, “I think there were votes that were left on the table,” she said.
In addition to the presidential race, Florida journalists also were focused on the U.S. House race between Republican incumbent Allen West and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, Sen. LeMieux said. In addition to being one of the most expensive races in the country, it resulted in the Democratic candidate winning in a district that voted for Romney.
“The thing that makes (West) so popular … is his fiery conservative rhetoric, but that also worked against him,” said Bennett, a political reporter for the Palm Beach Post. “I think a lot of Republicans in Martin County especially were not comfortable with that hard-core conservative rhetoric.”
Looking ahead to the 2014 election cycle, Bennett said he thinks that “how Obamacare plays out is going to be big,” but it is too soon to make a definitive prediction.
Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith said that Obama’s flagging popularity could be a problem for Democratic candidates such as Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist. Additionally, the most interesting story going forward will be the Republican Party and its future, he said.
The 90-minute discussion was of great interest to students in the audience, including Student Government President A.J. Titus.
“I thought the event tonight was a behind-the-scenes look at how politics are driven,” Titus said. “There is a ton of work that goes vastly unnoticed by the majority of voters. This was a great opportunity for PBA students to hear from two people who were monumental in the success of their respective candidates.”
“For me, it was nice to have a discussion about politics and elections without the vitriol,” said Peter Copan, a cross-cultural studies major who recently was chosen for The LeMieux Center Fellows Program. “And as always, events like these offer a singular opportunity for students to get insider perspectives on the goings-on in the political sphere. I look forward to more discussions like this.”