Thom Serafin, a communications strategist from Chicago, makes a point during Monmouth College’s post-election forum on Nov. 13. Also pictured are recently retired political reporter Mike Glover and forum moderator Robin Johnson, a political science lecturer at MC. Other panelists were former Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm and Chicago Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson.
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After the billions of dollars that were spent on the 2012 presidential election, panelists at Monmouth College’s post-election forum said the reason for the outcome was simple – President Barack Obama was a more likable candidate than GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
Sponsored by Security Savings Bank of Monmouth, the forum was presented as part of the college’s “Midwest Matters” initiative. Participating panelists included David Wilhelm, manager of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and former chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC); Rick Pearson, political reporter for the Chicago Tribune; Mike Glover, recently retired political reporter for the Associated Press; and communications strategist Thom Serafin, founder and CEO of Serafin & Associates.
“It was like a class president vote in high school,” said Glover, who likened the candidates to those of the 1992 presidential race. In one of those debates, Clinton “felt the pain” of one of the audience members, while President Bush was caught looking at his watch. “It came down to the quality of the candidates. President Obama was more likable and appealing. … Mitt Romney was a rich, white guy who had not been in touch with the people for a long time.”
Wilhelm reported that on several key questions, including “Does the candidate share my values?,” Romney actually outpolled Obama. But on the question, “Does the candidate care about people like me?,” Obama won 85 percent to 15.
“Mitt Romney couldn’t even get in the ballgame on that question,” said Wilhelm.
“That’s the gut check,” agreed Pearson. “It comes down to a personal level. Who would I rather sit down with and talk to? This was knowable in July or August. I think it’s akin to campaign malpractice” that Romney was never promoted as the likable candidate.
The race could still be considered close, with Obama winning the popular vote 50.6 percent to 47.9. What secured Obama’s victory, the panelists agreed, was his campaign team.
“The bottom line is that Obama learned how to put an organization together,” said Pearson. “They never let up off the gas pedal. This president truly overperformed.”
“The organization he assembled around him is responsible for him winning this election,” agreed Serafin, who admitted being impressed that letters mailed to him by the campaign had the unconventional spelling of his first name correct. “I’ve got people in my own house who can’t spell my name right. What Obama’s campaign did is so sophisticated from a data-driven standpoint.”
Serafin also believed that former president Clinton was “the Most Valuable Player” for the Obama campaign and added, “Normally, at least where I’m from in Chicago, it’s not a good idea to complain about inheriting problems. But to blame the bad economy on President Bush, even four years later, was the right thing to do. It worked. … Romney went to a street fight with white gloves on. That’s a losing proposition.”
Wilhelm said it shouldn’t be overlooked that Obama eliminated what may have been his toughest competition years before the election when he appointed Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State. He also pointed to a “draining” primary process for Romney and to Obama’s “major foreign policy success” – the killing of Osama bin Laden.
And, just when it appeared that Romney might have been able to overcome all those obstacles, along came Superstorm Sandy.
“The hurricane played directly into Obama’s sustainable advantage in the race – a feeling of ‘We’re all in this together’ vs. Romney’s ‘You’re on your own,’” said Wilhelm. “The hurricane made that clear, more than any ads could have.”
The panelists agreed on many points, but Glover and Serafin were in conflict on whether a Democrat won because of the party’s organization or because of its candidate.
“I heard a colleague say, ‘We might not see a Republican president in our lifetime,” said Glover. “Obama’s organization is repeatable in future elections. The Republicans only appeal to the white male demographic.”
“I’m going to have respectfully disagree,” said Serafin. “You have to be inspired by the candidate. Obama’s campaign was so good at maximizing the moment in time, wherever he was appearing. I don’t think it’s transferable. It’s about the individual.”
That discussion begged the question from moderator Robin Johnson, “What does the Republican party have to do, specifically, to turn things around?”
“When the discussion got off the economy and went to social issues, that’s where the GOP doesn’t want to go,” said Pearson. “They got branded by the extremes in their party.”
“This is not a short-term problem,” said Glover. “All these young people who have aligned themselves with the Democrats are going to be Democrats for a long time. … The Republicans have to take a good look at their message. It won’t deliver 270 electoral votes in the near future.”
It took a Democrat, Wilhelm, to offer some hope for the Republicans.
“The victory in this election was only by 2.5 points,” he said. “It’s not like any type of revolution occurred. Our party is playing with fire with some of our deficits in demographics, such as white voters and rural voters. There are plenty of things that the Republicans need to figure out, but the Democrats have work to do, too, in closing some of these gaps. We’ll have a tough challenge in the mid-term elections (in 2014).”
Looking ahead to 2016, Wilhelm said the first issue that needs to be decided is whether Hillary Clinton will run for president. While the other three panelists predicted she wouldn’t, Wilhelm didn’t rule it out. For the GOP candidate, Wilhelm proposed two possibilities from his home state of Ohio – Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman.
Other Republican possibilities that were mentioned included current governors Chris Christie (New Jersey), Nikki Haley (South Carolina) and Susana Martinez (New Mexico), former governor Jeb Bush (Florida) and Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. The frontrunner, some thought, is Florida senator Marco Rubio, who would be the type of candidate in 2016 that Romney wasn’t in 2012.
“The Republicans need to ask themselves ‘What are they made of? Who’s running the show?,’” said Serafin. “Clinton knew what he wanted to do, and he went out and did it. Stand up and do something. Who in the Republican Party is willing to do that? If a Republican is going to get back into the White House, that’s what they need.”
As for what the country needs next, Serafin was also passionate in his reply as he spoke about the “fiscal cliff.”
“Speaker of the House Boehner and the President need to sit down and work this out for the entire country. The President is not concerned with re-election. He needs to write his legacy. He needs to reach out and make a small deal, and then another deal and then another. There’s no excuse. He’s got to do this now.”