Q: The Obama campaign had so much going for it, including deep data, targeted ads, tons of opposition research, groundbreaking field work, a huge staff and a billion dollars. Did it need all that to defeat Mitt Romney?
DB: They believed that they were going to be in a real struggle. They came to the conclusion that Romney was a bad fit for the moment, but they didn’t know that for sure at the beginning. But they had so much money they were going to run this kind of campaign even if their opponent was Herman Cain.
Q: You reveal that the Obama campaign collected data on what individuals were watching on cable TV based on their channel clicking gathered from set-top boxes. Isn’t that pretty invasive?
DB: When I learned about it, I was, ‘Wait, you know what I’m clicking on?’ And they said, ‘We don’t know what Dan Balz is doing, there is a firewall that keeps individual identities private.” But it gave (the Obama campaign) an advantage. They had a better sense of the kinds of people who watched this or that, and this allowed them to advertise on many more cable shows.
Q: Both Obama and Romney opted out of public financing in the general election, a system that was supposed to stop the raising and spending of obscene amounts of money. You blame this on Obama, who opted out in 2008, writing that he was ‘choosing political advantage over principle.’
DB: Obama didn’t create the problem. Whoever has an advantage (in fundraising) has taken that advantage to destroy the public finance system.
Q: Isn’t that a bad thing?
DB: Bad? I don’t know the answer. On one hand, if you get millions of ordinary people to give relatively small amounts to campaigns, that is healthy. It is not (business tycoon) Sheldon Adelson giving $5 million to a super PAC. But could you run an effective and efficient campaign for half the money? Yes. You would have fewer ads and employ fewer people. David Axelrod says no campaign wins with ads that are run after Labor Day, yet the Obama campaign ran thousands of ads after Labor Day. You don’t want to take the chance.
Q: To slightly alter Michelle Obama’s memorable line, ‘Running for president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.’ True or false?
DB: It’s basically right. It is such a long and public process that the public does get to know the candidates and the essence of who they are. The mystery to me was Mitt Romney, why his campaign was never able to present the Romney that people who know Romney revealed: smart, successful, a man of faith, with a lot of positive attributes. For whatever reason they weren’t able to highlight that.
The biggest difference was the way the two candidates spoke to voters: Romney spoke to job creators, businesses large and small. Obama spoke to people who worked for businesses. As (Romney spokesman) Kevin Madden said, “We were doing economics, and he was doing love songs.”
Q: You write that even after it was clear Romney was not going to win, ‘the media’s hunger for a compelling story down to the last day of the campaign affected the broad sweep of the reporting and analysis.’ And reporters began doing ‘Romney comeback’ stories that had little or no basis in fact. That’s a pretty damning indictment of the press, isn’t it?
DB: (laughs) I thought it was an understatement. One of the elements of current campaign coverage is that it is much more shaped by polling than ever before. Obama’s polling was very accurate. There were no peaks or valleys during the entire campaign. There was a dip for Romney after his 47 percent remarks, and after the first debate his numbers came back up. But Obama’s numbers didn’t change.
Q: Will Chris Christie run for president in 2016?
DB: I assume he will run in 2016.
Q: There are some signs that people on both sides would like to get past the gridlock in this country.
DB: Maybe that will happen over time. This is a very divided country and not a particularly happy country, and it is a country that has lost confidence in Washington.
Q: Can anybody change how presidential campaigns are run?
DB: It’s hard. I don’t think voters can or will be able to change how campaigns are run. The voters will have to endure them.
Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.