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El País, Spain

Obama and His Surprises


By Moisés Naím

Translated By Krystal Miller

10 November 2012

Edited by Kyrstie Lane


Spain - El País - Original Article (Spanish)

The reelection of President Barack Obama surprised many people. And with good reason. According to surveys, neither the president nor Romney enjoyed a definitive advantage. And this is the main surprise. How is it possible that Obama, who only four years ago sparked passionate support in all regions, social classes, races, religions, generations, and economic sectors, was now pleading for votes and fighting door-to-door for reelection? Only five of the 44 U.S. presidents have been defeated in their attempts for reelection. There were moments when Obama appeared to be on the verge of joining this group. Obviously, the terrible economic situation made him vulnerable. However, the president’s reluctance to defend his administration best explains the limitations that prevented him from doing more, and his unwillingness to remind the electorate of the disaster he inherited from George W. Bush was also a surprise. Naturally, Romney took advantage of these flaws.

But Obama won. And his victory contains interesting surprises. Perhaps the most important is the irrelevance of money. The twisted decision of the Supreme Court opened the doors to major economic interests that could finance electoral initiatives without limit. And by doing so, it transformed this election into the most expensive in history. But ultimately, the only beneficiaries were the media, which profited thanks to political advertising, and specialized businesses that sold their services to electoral campaigns. Money did not change the results of the election since both candidates responded immediately, gearing up in their ability to collect funds. The downside of this is that this practice will make it more difficult for candidates without any means to have any opportunity, and it also gives people and organizations with money a disproportionate influence.

On the other hand, there is more awareness of the urgent need to change the misguided decision of the Supreme Court. I must also admit that it was fun to see how some figures wasted hundreds of millions of dollars financing lost causes.

But if money did not determine the results, technology had an enormous effect. “Big Data” was the most powerful weapon, and in this field Obama and his administration had a clear superiority. Their ability to gather specific facts about voters, their tastes, their complaints, their hopes, and their points of view, and to transform this landslide of information into concrete actions that led people to vote was extraordinary. I transcribed the text of a revealing email that a university student sent me days before the election: “It’s very easy, and if you want you can do it in Spanish and from your cellphone. You only need to go to www.barackobama.com and open an account as a volunteer. It will give you a list of names and telephone numbers, as well as very specific information about each person who you will be calling. You can call any city in the United States from any country (they will tell you what time is best to call) and have a direct impact. I just convinced a lady in Virginia to take her parents to vote and my friend, sitting here in the cafeteria with me, just spoke to an undecided voter in Pennsylvania and persuaded her to vote for Obama.” Another volunteer who went door-to-door in Ohio explained to me that she did not randomly choose which door to knock. She knew exactly where to go, the name of the person for whom she was searching, and the message that she should use in each case. The majority was not undecided or supporters of the Republican party, but supporters of Obama. The goal was to show them how important it was that they vote, and it was all based on arguments that were known to be relevant for that specific voter. From here on out, it will be difficult to win an election if one does not get used to these techniques.

But finally, what was most important in determining the result was neither money nor technology, but the personality and policies that Obama and Romney represent. And as mentioned above, in order to win national elections, the Republican Party must reflect and look for a new way to position itself before the voters. To do so, it must limit the influence of the extremists in its midst as the elite who controls the party and the still living opposition. For Fox News or radio entrepreneur Rush Limbaugh, for example, the status quo of the Republican Party is very advantageous. For them, the defeat does not require any major reflection. And this should be a surprise for the Republicans with a calling to govern.
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