Rarely has a presidential race been so hard to call, said David Gergen ’67, during a talk on Oct. 26 at Harvard Law School Fall Reunions. A former adviser to four presidents, a regular contributor to CNN and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Gergen put the race between fellow HLS graduates Mitt Romney ’75 and President Barack Obama ’91 in historical perspective, analyzed its development, talked about its import—and made some predictions.
Gergen broke the campaign into three stages: The first started “before all the fisticuffs,” when observations on the state of the economy, including studies using economic and political forecasting models which have successfully predicted many past elections, indicated that Obama was going to lose, and in fact be a “45 percent candidate.”
The second stage started, he said, in October 2011 as the campaign got under way, “President Obama forged into the lead and defied expectations and remained steadily in the lead against all comers, including Mitt Romney, for an entire year.” Why was that, Gergen asked? “Simply put, it was that the Obama campaign was a better run campaign.”
After squelching any possibility of a primary opponent—“the most important thing that the Obama folks did,” according to Gergen—the campaign quickly poured money into battleground states, setting up field offices, and by this summer flowing money into negative advertising, painting Romney as a corporate raider. It was extremely effective, says Gergen. Romney’s campaign wasn’t on top of it and didn’t yet have the money to answer those ads that blitzed states like Ohio. “They created an image of Romney that was terribly negative and almost disqualified him. We’ve seen this before. It’s what Bill Clinton did to Bob Dole way back in ’96.”
At the Republican National Convention, Romney had to spend so much time repairing his personal image, said Gergen, that he didn’t have time to put forth his plans for governing. And that left an opening for the Democrats to attack. After the two conventions, not only was the president ahead, according to Gergen, but in a number of the battleground states, polls suggested he was ahead by ten points or more.
“By the end of September, it appeared not only that the president was an inevitable winner, but that he had a real chance to bust it open and go for a massive victory that would bring more Democrats into the Senate … and more importantly would give him a mandate,” said Gergen. “And frankly, there were a lot of Republicans, especially in the Senate, who were prepared to compromise under those circumstances.”
“That was stage 2. It all ended on October 3 at 9:00 at night.” That first presidential debate changed everything, said Gergen, “and turned this into a real horserace. I don’t know what happened with either side.”
Mitt Romney seemed like a different person, said Gergen. “We’d seen the moderation in Massachusetts, but we’d never seen the vitality, the aggressiveness and the poise that he brought to that first debate.”
“I think it was the high point of his life, in terms of a public performance. But it was one of the low points for his opponent,” said Gergen
Gergen said he was as puzzled by Obama’s performance as other commentators, but guessed that it had something to do with the “bubble” that presidents live in. From his own time in the White House, Gergen recalled that “the average conversation among the White House staff in terms of trying to evaluate the man they are working for … ranges from ‘Is this the best president of the United States in the history of the country?’ and then the dissent is ‘No. He’s not the best president in the history of the country. He is merely wonderful.’”
“People come in front of you, and they don’t make the hard arguments. And I think it was a shock to the system for the president to come in and no longer be treated as President Obama but as citizen Obama.”
Presidents usually lose the first debate, but they usually recover in the second, said Gergen. Obama did this “but what is so unusual,” he added, “is that the first debate made such a crushing difference.”
Gergen guessed this may be because some people who thought they might support Obama were really still “shopping,” and after the debate, when they felt more comfortable with Romney, they started trending back his way.
Yet two weeks before the election, when he spoke to his fellow HLS graduates, Gergen said he believed the odds still favored Obama. “The quality of the campaign is going to make a difference in the ground game,” he said, especially in key swing states, like Ohio.
Gergen said that another factor that may contribute to an Obama win is the dissatisfaction of many women with the Republican party’s stances on reproductive rights and on pay equity.
Another factor, he said, which may get in the Republican party’s way is its stance on immigration. “What Republicans now face is that the minority vote, which is growing rapidly, is also becoming more solidly Democratic in this campaign than we’ve seen in the past—especially among Latinos.”
But on Nov. 6, for Obama to win, says Gergen, it’s predicted that he needs 80 percent of the minority vote, and 40 percent of the white vote. Polls show that he has only 38 percent of the white vote.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gergen said, “but what I can tell you … is that both parties are competing for the white vote.”
Taking the long view, Gergen predicts that if Republicans want to be a majority party they have to deal with immigration. “It’s not a good thing for the country to have Republicans getting 90 percent of their votes from whites. … and the Democratic party being much more of a minority related party. It’s not good for our social cohesion.”
But looking just two weeks ahead, he said, when all the votes are counted, he believes we are most likely to see the Democrats retaining control of the Senate and President Obama winning by a very close margin which will mean “tooth and claw politics again.”