How President Obama Won a Second Term

Political strategist James Carville breaks down where the Republicans went wrong – and what it means for the future

obama presidential election illustration
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
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Two weeks after Barack Obama won a second term, political analysts are just beginning to assess the surprising scope of his victory. By routing Mitt Romney by 332 to 206 in the Electoral College, Obama joins FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan as the only presidents of the past century to twice win more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

To unpack the significance of Obama's big win, Rolling Stone turned to one of the shrewdest observers of American politics: James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton's election in 1992. Over the course of an hourlong interview, Carville traced the roots of Romney's collapse to the reactionary posturing required by the GOP primaries, and underscored the strategic blunders that sealed Romney's fate – including the Clint Eastwood debacle. "You can't control what happens in a debate," Carville says. "But you do get to control your convention – and they didn't control that."

Carville marvels that Romney, a businessman whose core sales pitch was competent management, entrusted his campaign to second-rate crony consultants who were so divorced from reality that they had him convinced to the bitter end that victory was all but assured. And looking to the future, Carville predicts that America could face a surprising role reversal in 2016: Democratic voters are likely to behave like the GOP base and fall into line behind a pre-anointed candidate, while Republicans will be forced to embrace a centrist agent of change – a Republican version of Carville's former boss.

In the primaries, Republican voters did their best to avoid picking Romney. Why were they so reluctant to gravitate toward him?
They didn't gravitate to him in 2008, so why would they now?

Republicans tried going with everyone from Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum. Have we ever seen someone like Herman Cain storm out of nowhere and lead the polls for weeks?
Not in my memory. I think we came up with eight different front-runners.

Is that unprecedented?
This was like the most meandering river ever. But every time since 1948, it has always wound up going to the obvious person. Even the sainted Reagan didn't get it in '76. If you are making a model of mathematical certainty based on past results, there was no doubt that Romney was going to get it. It was never not to be.

For Democrats, the good news is, we won the election. And for people who like to be entertained, the really good news is that Marcus Bachmann is coming back as a congressional spouse. He was my favorite character ever. He and Cain's adviser, Mark Block, who is the only person I've ever known in history who was banned by court order from the profession of political consulting. Even Dick Morris couldn't get banned! If you're banned from frickin' political consulting, that's it: You're a dude!

Was there anybody else in the field, a Gingrich or a Santorum, who could have done a better job against Obama in this race?
I really don't think so. It's the Republican brand more than it's Mitt Romney. And the Republican brand made him jump through a lot of hoops that he wouldn't have wanted to or wouldn't have had to.

So Romney's goose was already cooked by the time the primaries were over?
From 1968 to 1988, not counting the freak election after Watergate, the Democrats lost the popular vote. Then Clinton came along and said, "We're going to change things a bit." They moved to shed some of the Sixties without changing the basic function of the party. So from 1992, Republicans have won the popular vote only one time. We went one for six, and now they've gone one for six. You have to ask yourself: Can we declare a trend here?

There's a reason that Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels didn't run: They just couldn't do it. They knew what they had to do, and deep down inside, they didn't have it in them.

You mean to take all those crazy positions demanded by the GOP base?
You had to be against any kind of immigration reform. You had to be not just skeptical of global warming, you had to deny it even exists. You almost weren't even allowed to be for evolution. When you were asked if you'd accept $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending cuts, you couldn't raise your hand. They couldn't do anything.

In 2016, they're going to change, because they have to. It might only be cosmetic, but they're going to want to win. There's going to be a different dynamic – it will be the first time since '48 that there's not an obvious front-runner.

Romney's perfectly adaptable to be whatever the voters wanted him to be. Why didn't he just run as a moderate truth teller, a successful businessman?
He couldn't win the primary if he did that. And he couldn't raise the money he needed to if he did that.

His shift to the right was linked to raising money?
The people the Republicans have to raise money from are as crazy as the people that vote in the primaries. Their contributors are as wacky as their base.

Like who?
Well, Foster Friess, just to name one. Put an aspirin between your knees for birth control?

Friess was the patron of Santorum, just like Sheldon Adelson was the patron of Gingrich. Did all that Super PAC money hurt Romney in a big way?
The way that it hurt him is this: He raised a lot of primary money, but he couldn't save it to spend on the general election. So once he got out of the primary, when he was exhausted and his hands were down, the Obama people just cold-cocked him – the same thing the Bush people did to Kerry in 2004. They got a good definition out on him, and he wasn't able to deal with that until the first debate.

The speculation now is, "Why didn't he just write himself a check after the primaries until his fundraising got up to steam?" He could have just written himself a check on whatever he was short. The man is worth at least $250 million – $50 million ain't going to break him.

So all that Super PAC money helped Obama more than it helped Romney?
Never have so few spent so much to accomplish so little. We all freak out that the money in politics is going to change everything. As it turned out, it really didn't change much.

What was Romney's strategy during the general election? How'd he plan to win?
His plan was to come across as a little more moderate in the first debate. After that, they concluded – and you could just see it – that their base would stay energized against Obama, and the economy would cause enough people to say, "Oh, we just can't give him a second term." In debates two and three, they looked like they were trying not to mess up what they had – just to come across as not too conservative.

Why was the first debate so damaging for Obama? There were no key gaffes, nothing jumped out as terrible.
It's not that it was damaging to Obama, it's that it was helpful to Romney. People looked at him and he was more aggressive and more moderate than people thought. Obama just didn't look like he wanted to be there.

Or be president. Right. I'm dying to read the inside book as to what happened. I do know, almost for certain, that he prepped and he prepped well, and there was some meeting right before he went in. Who knows if they changed the strategy at the last minute, but it was not a good change.

After that debate, Romney started lying flamboyantly. Can you recall a candidate more at ease with twisting the truth?
No – and by the way, neither did the fact-checkers. Of all the Pinocchios given in the campaign to both candidates, Romney got something like 60 percent of them. I don't doubt that he's honest in his dealings with his family, but I don't think the lying even affects him – I don't think he thinks about it. He said, "I'll just say it – who cares?"

Where does that come from? Is it marketing – just going where the market is?
It's all about "We're doing the country a favor – we know how to lead the country. And in politics, everybody's got to say things, so we'll just say whatever we've got to say, and that's the way it is." Deep down in Romney's heart, some inner recesses of whatever, he just doesn't think that truth-telling is a big part of the whole thing.

Does that come from his dad's experience? George got into trouble for telling the truth.
I don't know – that's a different skill set than I have. That's for a psychiatrist somewhere. What I do know is that people would just keep pointing it out, and he'd just keep on going.

Remember, for Obama, there was a great strategic dilemma as to whether to present Romney as a flip-flopper or as someone who is for the rich guy. You had to pick one, and they picked "for the rich guy." If you're going to be successful in politics, you have to pick one. One of the great statements of the Kerry campaign was when they said, "We have a nuanced and layered message." It can't be nuanced and layered and be a message – it just can't.

The best thing Romney did was flip-flop in the first debate. If you flop to where people are, then they like you. Let's say that somebody runs against gay marriage all their life, and you're for gay marriage, and then they come out for it. You don't say, "I don't trust him, he flipped his position." You say, "I like that, he changed his mind." In the research – and I know this because we did a lot of it – if you'd say that Romney was for all these crazy right-wing things, people would say, "He's more moderate than that, he doesn't believe that." They liked the fact that they couldn't trust him.

That's why the Obama campaign decided to focus on his history at Bain.
Yeah. At the end, the message of the Bain stuff was: When he has to choose between you and his friends, he's going to choose his friends. I think that stuck with him pretty good.

Is that why the "47 percent" video was so damaging? The Republicans have been talking about makers and takers for a generation. Why was that moment so pivotal?
Because it sounded like who people thought he was. In politics, the worst thing that can happen is to confirm an existing belief. People who saw the video believed he looked down on them, and they said, "That's the guy I knew he was." That's why the rape comments by Mourdock and Akin hurt him – because they reminded people of who the Republicans are.

Romney had a chance to change the narrative with his vice-presidential pick.
He couldn't do that, because of the donors.

So he picked Ryan for the money?
The same thing – they had to get their money lined up and get the base all happy. Ryan accomplished all that. But in the end, I don't think Ryan got him a vote or cost him a vote. I really don't. If I look at how Obama performed in Wisconsin, it was as expected. I don't know if it would have made a difference if he would have picked Chris Christie or anybody else.

Let's talk about the Obama campaign. How did they manage to sustain their turnout in key states, despite not having people jazzed up like they were in 2008?
They connected people in a way that had never been done before with Facebook. If they knew I was an undecided voter, they also knew I was in the Marine Corps, and they'd have a retired gunnery sergeant call me to get me to vote. It was way far above anything that's ever been tried in politics before. Political scientists will mine this data forever.

The other thing is that the Republican brand tends to get Democrats out, too. The Republicans are not the only people who can be enthusiastic. African-Americans, they were 13 percent of the vote. No one really thought that was going to happen.

How did the Republicans get so outclassed in terms of technology? In 2004, Rove dominated on that front.
The most amazing story of the whole election was how personally shellshocked Romney was that he lost. They completely thought he was going to win. How can a man with a reputation of being data-driven, who does spreadsheets better than anybody in the world, be shocked that he lost? I can't wait to read the book as to what happened to Romney. It's stunning.

Part of it is how inefficiently they spent all the money they had. Conservatives have a point here: You give somebody too many resources, and they don't allocate them very well. The top people in the Romney campaign were paid $134 million in this election. The top consultants in the Obama campaign were paid $6 million. Democrats just spent their money smarter, better and with less nepotism or favoritism. It's stunning that a community organizer would be so much more efficient than a head of one of the largest private equity funds. As the rabbis have been saying for 5,000 years, "Go figure."

Did Hurricane Sandy seal the deal for Obama?
In every election the Republicans lose, the excuses pile up. In '92, it was Perot. In '96, it was the GOP Congress. In 2008, it was McCain botching his reaction to Lehman Brothers. In 2012, it was Sandy. It's a convenient narrative. If you believe that, then you don't have to change anything – it allows you a kind of fantasy.

Even Democrats thought the Republicans would have more success in turning out people who hate Obama. But according to the numbers, Romney's vote may not even match McCain's. Why weren't people fired up and ready to go on the right-wing side?
It looks like the turnout was a little down. What was surprising to me is the model they used for the white vote. The white vote in '08 was 74 percent of the vote, and that's what they were counting on this time. But according to population trends, the white vote should be 72 percent – and it actually came in at 72. And it will be under 70 in 2016. What the Republicans have is some form of a progressive disease, like diabetes – it's just going to keep getting worse until they address it.

The demographics are a creeping cancer for them, in other words.
Yes. Every four years, the white vote goes to minus two – and it's picking up steam. From 1948 to 1992, it went from 91 to 87 percent. From '92 to 2016, it's going to go from 87 to 70.

Combine that with the youth vote. It was 54 percent for Kerry, and it was 66 for Obama in '08. This year it was 60 for Obama. Remember, the greatest predictor of how you're going to vote when you're 54 is how you voted when you're 24.

The Republicans don't have any choice but to deal with this. The question is how they deal with it. Older whites are like bloody marys when you have a hangover – you just have to go back to them, but eventually they're going to catch up with you. You go down to the hotel lobby and say, "I'm shaking – I have to have a bloody mary." The Republicans keep drinking them, and they're very productive in off years, like 2010.

But isn't that what we said when they lost in 2008? I was writing the obituary of the Republican Party after Obama won on the basis of those same demographic trends.
The obituary was correct – but they're going to come back. At some point, there's going to be something like the Democratic Leadership Council that figures out how to obtain conservatism's aims through different language.

If you were giving them advice on how to reform, what would you tell them?
The first thing is that they've got to cut a deal on immigration. They have to find a way to put the issue behind them. They don't have a lot of maneuvering room on things like gay marriage or abortion. The way these congressional districts have been drawn, a lot of Republicans can't make a deal and move forward, because they'll get beat in the primary. That's got them in a box. If you're a Democrat and Obama gives you permission, you can do anything you want. But nobody can give them permission – there's no person there.

I want to get your read on 2016. Who are the top five candidates on either side?
The number-one issue for Republicans in 2016 will be, "Who can win the general election?" Not who is the most conservative, not who is the best they've got, but who can win the general. From a Democratic standpoint, the obsessive question is going to be, "Does Hillary run or not?" If she does, a lot of people are going to say, "We should act like Republicans."

There's going to be a lot of falling in line?
Falling in line, yeah. Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line, but we might be the people who fall in line this time. Someone will run against her, of course, but it will be a tough case to make.

On their side, they need a Republican version of Bill Clinton in 1992, someone who can shed the old image of the party. If Jeb Bush had been named Jeb Smith, he would have changed that brand and been the nominee, and he probably would have won. That's the person I'd be most afraid of – Jeb Smith. Maybe somebody with that kind of skill will emerge.

Somebody like a Chris Christie?
They hate Chris Christie. We have no idea how much they hate Chris Christie right now because of the Sandy stuff.

Do you think that will blow over for him?
Who knows? I've seen my man, President Clinton, leave office, and now there's not a more popular person in the world.

What will be the deciding factor in 2016?
Our party's fate, in a larger sense, is going to be tied up in what happens with the economy. The dominant issue in American politics is how you get the middle class back in the game. If recovery takes hold, the Democrats will be in a pretty commanding position.

Looking forward to the next few years, how does Obama spend his political capital now so he can build on this victory?
The danger is whatever deal he makes to reduce the deficit. Since he doesn't have to run for re-election, he may want to seal his legacy with some sort of grand bargain. The problem is, deficit reduction is popular with the elites, but it's not that popular with the country. If he does this, he's going to have to work hard at telling people why this is good for them.

This story is from the December 6th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1171: December 6, 2012
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