In 'Collision 2012,' an Outside-In Look at Wider Forces That Shaped the Election

Months after the re-election of President Barack Obama, Dan Balz of the Washington Post examines the 2012 election and aftermath in his new book "Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America." Balz joins Gwen Ifill to discuss significant moments in each campaign and why it may shape elections to come.


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GWEN IFILL: The 2012 presidential election lasted nearly two years, cost billions of dollars, and featured any number of twists and turns. But how will it shape elections to come?

I sat down recently with Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz, who tackles that question in his new book, "Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America."

Welcome, Dan.

DAN BALZ, author: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So, you said you chose to tell this book from the outside in, rather than the inside out. We're all used to election recaps which tell us all the granular, little inside details. Why from the outside in?

DAN BALZ: I thought that this book deserved that because I thought that this campaign was somewhat different.

There's inside detail in this book, as there are in all campaign books. But I thought this was a campaign in which larger forces were as important as the decisions of the candidates, and particularly the operatives.

This is a changing country. We're divided red and blue. And I think that those forces, along with the economy, were as decisive or more decisive than anything the candidates or their staffs did.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that you write about is that Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, that his family didn't really want him to run a second time. This was going to be his second shot at this.

DAN BALZ: Right.

It was one of the fascinating and, to me, one of the more surprising things. We always assume that people who run for president have that incredible fire in the belly, as we say. But there was a family meeting around Christmastime in 2010, that the whole Romney family fathered, and they took a vote, should he run for president a second time?

Now, when they did this four years ago, the vote was unanimous, yes, he should run for president. This time, the vote was 10-2 against running. And among those who voted against it was Mitt Romney himself.

Now, I don't think that he was ever not going to run. All the machinery was moving forward. He was doing all the things a prospective candidate would do. But it tells you that there was some element of doubt. When we talked about it in the interview, a couple of things came out.

One was he felt that there were others in the party who might be better suited, who might have a better chance of beating Barack Obama in the election. And he mentioned Jeb Bush by name. The other is, I think he felt that the party that came out of the 2010 election wasn't exactly the Mitt Romney party, a heavy Tea Party element, an evangelical party. He was Mormon. A Southern-based party. He's a Northerner. A very conservative party. He's more of a moderate.

And I think he had this -- at least some element of doubt that he was exactly the right fit.

GWEN IFILL: If there was one actually one thing that seemed to run through the book, through all these candidates and some of the players who weren't necessarily candidates, was this credibility question, whether you were credible in the money you put into a campaign, whether you were credible seeking reelection, whether you were credible, in Mitt Romney's case, as a rich guy, rather than a man of the people.

DAN BALZ: I asked Romney -- I did a long interview with him in late January, about a week after the inauguration of the president.

And I said -- we had talked about the 47 percent comment, and he recognized how damaging that was, though he felt that it was misinterpreted. But I said, do you think this was a moment in which, given where the country was, in shorthand, that a lot of people thought the rich were doing very well, and that the average person was getting left behind, that someone with his profile would have enormously difficult time winning?

And he said there's no question that there was some element of that, but he said, I thought I could overcome it. And he clearly couldn't.

GWEN IFILL: Did he really think about dropping out at some point early on?

DAN BALZ: Well, he had a moment. He was due to give a speech about health care, because he knew that there was a serious doubt among a lot of Republicans about what he had done in Massachusetts with health care, and how much that paralleled what President Obama had done with his health care plan.

The Wall Street Journal clobbered him one day in an editorial. And he woke up and he called his oldest son, Tagg, and he said, I'm not going to run. I can't do it. If I can't convince the most conservative editorial page in the country that I am worthy of this nomination, I'm not going to be able to make it.

And he was due to have a conference call with his staff shortly thereafter. This was a very early-morning call. And he got on the conference call. And it was to talk about the editorial and kind of how to respond. And basically the staff said, look, don't take this that seriously. These things happen. You will be able to get through it.

He never shared with them that sort of gut feeling that he had gotten up with that morning, but Tagg Romney said he felt that up until the moment he actually formally announced, he was looking for a way not to run.

GWEN IFILL: There are so many characters throughout this election, people who were supposed to be a big deal and turned out not to be, Rick Perry, people who had their brief moments in moments in the sun, like Michele Bachmann, but -- we haven't got time to get to them all.

But I do want to ask you something more broadly, I guess, about this idea of the Obama campaign, and what it seized on to, and what was different in 2012 from 2008. Was it all technology, or was it that they had a vision that somehow superseded the Republican vision?

DAN BALZ: It wasn't all technology.

Certainly, they did extraordinary things with technology. The effort that they put into it, the amount of money they invested in it, and the sophistication of what they were trying to do was well beyond what they did in 2008, and we all thought in 2008 they had kind of broken the mold. Technology was an important factor in it.

I think another was that they did an enormous amount of research about what the right message was. And part of that was to try to get a better understanding of kind of where voters were, what were their hopes and dreams, what were their anxieties. And they came out with this idea that if this campaign was fought on the question of Barack Obama's handling of the economy, then he was going to have a very difficult time winning.

If they could, in fact, leapfrog beyond that to force a debate about, as you look into the future, which of these candidates is going to be better for you as a middle-class parent or family? And they came up with that frame which he unveiled really at the speech he did at the end of 2011 in Osawatomie, Kansas, and that was a very important part of what they were able to do.

GWEN IFILL: And, at the same time, they were speaking to a different demographic model than the Republicans were at the end of this election.

DAN BALZ: Well, I mean, one of the -- one of the great failings, if you will, of the Romney campaign was an inability to recognize what the shape of the electorate was likely to be like.

I mean, one of the things we have seen election by election by election is that the white share of the electorate in a presidential election has gone down steadily as the country has become more diverse. And the Romney campaign, I think, believed or wanted to believe that that might be at least reversed or even held steady.

And, in fact, the Obama campaign -- I mean, I sat down with Jim Messina, the campaign manager, in the spring. And he said, here's the demographics on Election Day. And he was exactly right.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Dan, you have covered a lot of elections, not to age you or date you in any way.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: But does this one -- did this one feel different for you in terms of what it will -- how it will set the stage for elections to come?

DAN BALZ: It felt different.

I don't think I have seen -- everything changes from one cycle to another. I don't think I have seen as many changes in one cycle as we saw between 2008 and 2012. I mean, we have talked about technology, and particularly the rise of social media, and, specifically, the importance of Twitter in the way it affects communications in politics.

The role of the debates. Debates have always been important, but they took on an outsized importance in this election. The Citizens United decision and the aftermath of that in creating super PACs and...

GWEN IFILL: Super individuals.

DAN BALZ: Super individuals who, in the primary races, had the capacity or the ability to keep alive candidacies that otherwise might have been forced to the sidelines for lack of money.

I think all of those are harbingers of where we're heading, unless something significant happens. There will be new changes in 2016, but I think everybody is kind of going to school on what happened in 2012 as they look to 2016 and get ready.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Balz, we will talk more about this online. Thank you for joining us.

The name of the book is "Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America."

Not too big a topic.

(LAUGHTER)

DAN BALZ: No.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.