Axelrod Shares His Romney Campaign Surprises

Photograph by Robert Kozloff/Courtesy of The University of Chicago via AP

David Axelrod, senior strategist for President Obama's re-election campaign, reflects on the 2012 contest during a public forum at the University of Chicago on Nov. 26, 2012.

David Axelrod didn’t have much praise for Mitt Romney’s campaign when asked last night what the Republican challenger and his aides did well in the 2012 presidential race.

“They raised money well,” said Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s longtime political strategist. “Seriously, they did that very well.”

The assessment was one of several Axelrod offered during a campaign retrospective at the University of Chicago, where he’ll lead a new Institute of Politics starting in January.

Axelrod said Obama’s campaign made a strategic decision to spend more heavily from May through August, with the belief that campaign ads become less effective closer to elections.

“By September, people are disregarding ads,” he said. “They back-loaded. We front-loaded.”

One of the Obama campaign’s biggest fears, Axelrod said, was that super political action committees supporting Romney would unleash an assault on the incumbent president early in 2012, before the Democrats’ “air defenses” were ready.

That didn’t happen. Axelrod said he was also surprised Romney’s campaign didn’t do more to introduce its candidate in a more positive light after securing the Republican nomination in late spring.

“That, of course, left an opening for him to become defined,” Axelrod said.

The political strategist said he was surprised Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. Axelrod said he figured Romney would pick former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whom he called a “very good surrogate” for the Republican nominee.

Axelrod said he thought Pawlenty made sense because he had experienced a “taste of the national stage” through his own earlier presidential bid and would be ready for the high-profile role.

Much has been written about the quality of the data the Obama campaign had on its supporters. Axelrod said that information was also enhanced by “several hundred” focus groups conducted to test messaging and other matters.

Axelrod said he was “confident throughout” that Obama would be re-elected, especially after Romney was forced to take more extreme positions to win his party’s nomination.

“In each of those steps, he made it harder for him to win a general election,” he said of Romney. “With each step, I think he made himself more vulnerable.”

Axelrod said he expects super-PACs to continue to play a role in national elections.

“I could not advise the Democratic Party to, as a matter of principle, to just lay down arms and get mowed down in the next election,” he said.

Axelrod, who attended the University of Chicago in the 1970s, said he’s looking forward to working with the institute in a city with a “rich tradition” of politics, while also noting its history of political corruption and a “tradition of politicians trying to get rich.”

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