The Re-Election of Barack Obama
President Obama faced an uphill battle heading into the 2012 election cycle. The economy was still in a slump with many families struggling, Obamacare was proving to be a hotbed for criticism and no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had won re-election with unemployment at more than 7.8 percent. By all conventional indicators, President Obama had the odds stacked against his re-election.
Benenson Strategy Group, which had been lead pollster since the 2008 election, led nationwide polling and messaging for the 2012 campaign, advising the president and his staff on how best to connect with the American voter, define the terms of the election, develop a winning positioning against a well-funded opponent and secure a second term.
From the outset, we understood that to win, President Obama’s campaign message needed to define his approach and policies in a way that aligned with the core values of the American electorate. While Republicans and their nominee Mitt Romney sought to make the campaign a referendum on where the economy stood, the president’s campaign sought to make the election a forward-looking choice built on a contrast of economic vision and values.
President Obama’s campaign succeeded because it was rooted squarely in an understanding of the true mindset of the American people. While the Romney campaign focused considerable attention on painting the recession and sluggish recovery as a failure of the president’s economic policies during his first term, the American public had a much broader view of the nation’s economic situation. Our polls showed that nearly three -quarters of voters saw the financial crisis as an historic challenge, one which the president was not responsible for; the majority understood it was unlikely to have been solved during a single term, under any president. Understanding this broader context, we worked to communicate to voters that the president’s policies would build a more stable, durable economy that would grow from the middle out, not the top down, while our opponent’s approach championed the same policies that had helped put the economy out of balance in the first place. We aimed to present voters with a clear choice between two competing sets of economic values: one rooted in fairness that put the middle class first versus another that had been tried and failed, only exacerbating the struggles of ordinary Americans.
Throughout our battleground polling and near-daily message testing, we regularly challenged our assumptions about the electorate, always pushing for a better understanding of the underlying attitudes and values that were influencing the American voter’s choice for president and for the words and arguments that connected to it. This iterative process, which combined qualitative and quantitative studies, built on the learning from each new stage of research, generated a detailed and three-dimensional picture of the American electorate and its core values: fairness, accountability, hard work and opportunity. Their choice would come down to who was a more credible defender of these values and interests.
President Obama’s forward-looking approach resonated strongly with American voters. He secured a second term in oﬀice with 51 percent of the popular vote, the only Democrat to win more than 50 percent since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the only president to win two elections with more than 50 percent since Ronald Reagan. We led the field in predictive polling, estimating the final election results to within one-tenth of a point, while other researchers were oﬀ by at least a full point.
The Obama 2012 campaign was viewed universally as a triumph of messaging and we were awarded the 2013 Ogilvy Award for Government as a result of our work on the “Obama for America” campaign.