These 10 Articles Have the Best Insights into the 2012 Elections

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 21 2012 7:45 AM

Ten Articles To Help You Explain This Election to Your Relatives

Want to be the most informed person at the table and convert your in-laws?

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President Barack Obama and his family head back to Washington, D.C., from Chicago the day after Obama's re-election.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

One of the unwelcome perks of political reporting is the widespread belief among your peers that you want to spend more time talking about politics. Any trip home, like the one I’m going to make on Thursday, becomes a tour of friends and family who want me to explain the inside story of the election one more time. I end up pointing these people to good articles by other people, by insiders and investigative reporters, and this usually gives me enough time to run away.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

You can try it, too. This may have felt like a dull election at times, but it was one of the most pointed clashes of ideologies and strategies in decades. Your own family might want to quote back Saturday Night Live or Daily Show segments; you can impress them by diving much deeper into the real story of the race. These are some of this election’s must-read articles:

Jim Messina, Obama’s Enforcer
Ari Berman, The Nation

Sometimes you write a story with a thesis that gets blown to pieces—and a lot of bread crumbs leading to the actual truth. Ari Berman’s 2011 profile of Barack Obama’s campaign manager revealed just how little love Messina could expect from progressives. The new guy, a veteran of Sen. Max Baucus’ office, would run a “cautious, controlling, top-down in structure” campaign, pouring acid on the grassroots. Luckily for Obama, it didn’t happen, and the article now looks like a smorgasboard of foreshadowing.

After the 2010 election, Messina spoke at the winter meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy progressive funders. He gave two PowerPoint presentations, including one on the administration’s accomplishments—the stimulus, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, healthcare and financial reform. The other was on what was still to come—immigration reform, the START treaty, repealing DADT. “Jim, you’re missing a word,” one donor told him during the Q&A.

“What word?” Messina responded.

“The word ‘jobs,’” the donor said.

The smartass donor sounds right, but he doesn’t see how Messina will use those box-checked accomplishments to excite the Democratic base, and he doesn’t foresee a future in which the jobs picture might be good enough to save Obama.

The Romney Economy
Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York

Long before the Obama campaign or the super PACs launched their attacks on Bain Capital, Wallace-Wells decided to tell the company’s history. The result took something previously relegated to gross campaign ads and revealed that … well, it would be hard to defend even without those gross campaign ads.

Private equity seemed to provide an early warning of broader changes. In three years during the early nineties, the Princeton economist Henry Farber has found, roughly 10 percent of American white-collar male managers lost their jobs. For the first time, according to data collected through the General Social Survey, white-collar workers were nearly as worried about losing their jobs as blue-collar workers. Those white-collar workers who kept their jobs worked harder, and the compensation that had once been spread through the broader middle ranks of corporations now collected at the top. In 1980, a CEO had earned about 35 times the wages of an average worker; by 1990, it was about 80; and by 2000, it was about 300.

A good companion piece: Robert Draper’s look at Priorities USA, the at-first-derided pro-Obama duper PAC that focused like a UAW shop laser on Bain and drove up Romney’s negatives.

Pity the poor “embedded” reporter. Her news organization spends at least $1,000 per day, usually more, to follow a presidential candidate. She gets on the plane, gets off the plane, gets on the plane, gets off the plane, maybe catches some time with campaign aides, almost never gets any time with the candidate. (I really felt for these embeds every time a big news network would bigfoot in and talk to Romney. They weren’t schlepping from Marriott to Marriott for the privilege.) But the great reporters took their opportunities when they arrived. My favorite example: Reston hassling the people entering a high-dollar Romney fundraiser and finding out what they think.

"I don't think the common person is getting it," she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. "Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.

“We've got the message," she added. "But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies—everybody who's got the right to vote—they don't understand what's going on. I just think if you're lower income—one, you're not as educated, two, they don't understand how it works, they don't understand how the systems work, they don't understand the impact."

Coal Miner’s Donor
Alec MacGillis, New Republic

One of the best, least-bubbled reporters who covered the race, MacGillis made a series of reporting trips to Ohio that made him an early debunker of baseless “Romney surge” hype. He also broke plenty of news about how relaxed campaign finance laws were cracking open the dam for Republican campaigns. Robert Murray of Murray Energy, a coal magnate backer of Romney, helped inflate the size of the candidate’s pro-coal crowds and donors.

Internal Murray documents show just how upset Murray becomes when employees fail to join the giving. In missives, he cajoles employees to attend fund-raisers and scolds them when they or their subordinates do not. In cases of low participation, reminders from his lieutenants have included tables or spreadsheets showing how each of the eleven Murray subsidiaries was performing. And at least one note came with a list of names of employees who had not yet given. “What is so difficult about asking a well-paid, salaried employee to give us three hours of his/her time every two months?” Murray writes in a March 2012 letter. “We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts.” He concludes: “I do not recall ever seeing the attached list of employees … at one of our fund-raisers.”

 Plenty of reporters went to an Ohio rally for Romney where these workers were used as props. They mostly just took filtered Instagrams of them and hopped back on the plane. MacGillis followed the pay stubs.

The campaign’s most consistently wrong pundits, like the New Republic’s Bill Galston, eschewed reporting for stereotypes. How could anyone explain Obama’s strong poll numbers in Ohio? Wasn’t he bleeding white voters? Ball, one of the great middle-to-long-form writers on the campaign, headed to Belmont County in southeastern Ohio and actually interviewed those mysterious creatures. On their lawns!

"I think Obama's more for the regular working class people, and Romney's for the big business and the well-to-do," said Eric Burkhead, the road and cemetery superintendent for Kirkwood Township, working on a truck in the gravel driveway of the local garage. The 66-year-old didn't like what he saw happening with coal and wasn't wild about Obamacare, but he planned to vote for Obama.

On Election Day, Belmont did turn red and broke for Romney by eight points. But only 30,717 voters turned out, down nearly 2,000 from four years earlier—which sort of proved Ball’s point. The Real American surge to Romney just wasn’t there.

Before it was conventional wisdom, Smith poked a few holes in the fundraiser curtains. Did mega-donors make it easier for Mitt Romney to catch up with Barack Obama? Yes. Did they know what they were doing? Not really. But strategists knew how to create that fantasy and get paid for it.

What the SuperPACs are using to fill that gap is hardly the laser-focused, hard-hitting stuff of textbook campaigns. Instead it’s a welter of mixed messages. One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages: American Crossroads was attacking Obama over the deficit; Americans for Prosperity was dwelling on a failed solar energy company, Solyndra; and Restore Our Future was talking about jobs.

The Romney campaign tried and tried to convince reporters that a surge of unpollable momentum was going to tip the election their way. Their final evidence: Huge crowds in swing states, led by a crowd of as many as 30,000 people in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester. (I was at that rally and met a decent number of out-of-staters who just wanted to see Romney.) Standing alone in a corner, with a stack of old Life and Time pieces about older doomed campaigns, was Robert Mann.

All the boasting and exaggerations of campaign flacks, and the creative work of Photoshop artists, should give political reporters pause. Many of them live in a protective bubble supplied by the candidate, so it’s understandable that they will occasionally be susceptible to the spin. But that makes it all the more important to be careful and resist the urge to read too much into the size of campaign crowds in the waning days of a presidential campaign. Even losing campaigns, it seems, are adept at turning out huge crowds as Election Day approaches.

The best and most consistently correct reporter on voter turnout models was my colleague at this magazine. He published one book (The Victory Lab) and a series of pieces that effectively predicted how strong the Obama-Biden ground game would be. His final pre-election take explained it all, slicing through a bunch of puffy spin about the GOP campaigns and explaining why OFA’s data were so dominating.

McCain’s Last Laugh
Robert Costa, National Review

It’s hard to pick just one article by Robert Costa, an insanely industrious campaign reporter. Pick any key moment from the primary or the general or Wisconsin’s two-year Ragnarok, and Costa was probably there, with solid inside sources. (See his story on Romney’s debate win, filed five or six minutes after Denver.) This piece demonstrates just how haphazard and confident the Romney campaign was, while giving us, simultaneously, a glimpse at Mitt Romney’s future and at the future awaiting Barack Obama when ever-more-embittered Republicans welcome him back.

“It’s like the old horse that draws the milk wagon,” McCain tells me, when I pull him aside near the Legion’s noisy bar. “I feel at home here and places like it. It’s very nostalgic in some ways, especially today.” Of course, he’ll always have some regrets about his presidential campaign, but to him, bitterness is a choice. “I’ve watched other defeated candidates, for the presidency and other offices, and you almost feel sad,” he says. “They go into a shell and get angry. But you know what? Life is too short. I mean, my gosh, you can’t just stay angry.”

The great lasting irony of the 2012 might be this: Republican governors who passed voting rights restrictions can’t claim credit for flipping any election results, and that will make it easier for them to keep on passing restrictions. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is already talking about restricting same-day voter registration, even though there’s zero proof it caused any problems or restricted fraudulent votes. Piles, who advised the Obama campaign on legal issues, does a good, hands-off job of explaining just how harebrained laws and incompetent officials ruin our elections.

[P]oll workers now have to apply state election law for regular voters, the federal Help America Vote Act for those who are going to cast provisional ballots, and absentee-ballot laws for in-person absentee voting. Each category of voting has its own distinct set of rules to be mastered. Every additional layer of complexity creates more capacity to confuse poll workers and slow down the voting process, even if the law, such as the Help America Vote Act, is well intentioned. We have to assess the costs and benefits of these laws more fully.

Absent a crisis, absent anybody talking about it, we probably won’t. Here’s a good way to fix that: Bring it up when you’re trying to impress your wife’s irritable Republican aunt. Make a convert. “Why can’t those dumb Floridians vote?” shouldn’t be the story. “Why does anyone have to wait four hours to vote” is the story.