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USC Unruh Institute Hosts Panel Of Top Obama And Romney Advisers

Michael Juliani |
November 15, 2012 | 9:30 p.m. PST

Assistant News Editor

Scene from an Unruh "Road to the White House" event at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism during the campaign.  (Flickr Creative Commons)
Scene from an Unruh "Road to the White House" event at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism during the campaign. (Flickr Creative Commons)

The USC Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics held a panel Thursday night on the USC campus with top advisers from the Obama and Romney campaigns along with the presidents of the USC Trojans for Obama and Romney groups. 

Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute, asked questions related to the 2012 election, with both campaign advisers marveling at how the 100 people in attendance were still interested in hearing about it a week after it ended.  Dinner was served at six o'clock, and throughout the event the sound of clinking silverware joined the ambience of the backlit stage where the panelists talked.

Larry Grisolano, a senior adviser for the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, and Bob Wickers, one of Romney's senior advisers, showed that the minds behind the campaigns prove to be more thoughtful, fair and gracious than facades might suggest. 

Wickers spoke a number of times about the smart strategy of the Obama campaign, and Grisolano urged the audience to transcend the narrative that the Romney campaign had fallen apart by Election Day.   

Grisolano and Wickers were joined by Kaya Masler, president of the USC Trojans for Barack Obama, and Alex Yebri, president of USC Trojans for Mitt Romney.  Yebri worked as a communications intern on the Romney campaign. 

Both campaigns knew that the economy would be the key issue of the campaign.  Grisolano said that the Obama ad campaign focused first on positively showing that Obama would be the better candidate to move the middle class out of the abuse it had taken "for three decades."  Their negative ads, he said, then posed the question to voters: "Who should take on this project of installing middle class security?"

Wickers didn't join the Romney campaign full-time until Romney had won the Republican primary, but Wickers said he knew that Romney would be the best Republican candidate on the economy issue.  Masler pointed out that during the debates, Obama focused on the faults of "the last decade" while Romney tried to hoist the blame on the last four years.    

Wickers contended that the Obama camp "excellently" handled the issue of the economy, forcing the blame of the recession on George W. Bush--so much so that exit polls on Election Day showed that 54 percent of voters felt that the economy was Bush's fault.  Grisolano credited the charts that the campaign put out showing the rise in jobs during Obama's first four years: "So people went, 'Holy shit, I've forgotten how bad things were when he took office,'" he said. 

Hearing from the two advisers illuminated the behind-the-scenes doings of the campaigns, especially relating to the crucial strength Obama had over Romney in ability to identify target voters.  Yebri focused on the strength of the "Obama ground game" that was able to pinpoint issue voters in swing states, particularly the auto workers in Ohio and the black vote in Virginia, which turned out at 15 percent of the state's electorate.

But Grisolano was quick to refute the claim that the grassroots work provoked issue voters into showing up on Election Day.  Obama's incumbency proved to be a greater advantage, he said, because records from 2008 grassroots efforts were still in the campaign's hands, so they knew where to target their advertising early on.  Wickers guaranteed that this data helped Obama win the working class married white women vote in the election.

Looking towards 2016, the panelists agreed that a change will come with the Republican Party, with Yebri saying that the party will have to win over the Latino vote by easing conservative policy on illegal immigration. 

Latinos, he said, are conservative voters, both socially and fiscally, because of their belief in the American Dream.  He predicted that promising candidates like Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio will have to become more fiscally conservative, since the moderate view of Romney and John McCain failed to win the last two elections.  All this, he said, makes him very optimistic about the future of the Republican Party.

Wickers stressed that American politics focus on the candidate and not the party.  He said that it'll be hard for the next Democratic candidate to hold the coalition that rallied specifically for Barack Obama.  "It'll be hard for Hillary Clinton or even Joe Biden to carry that," he said.

As an adviser on Mike Huckabee's run for governor of Arkansas, Wickers saw how a Republican candidate could carry 40 percent of the black vote like Huckabee did by going to black Baptist churches and preaching.  A 2016 Republican candidate will have to figure a way to win the "non-white vote," he said.

Masler agreed that there will be a "heartfelt adjustment" by the Republican Party, and that Obama will have to make major strides to deliver on his supporter's "dreams" for this country.  Grisolano agreed, adding that the minority vote might not be won by a Democrat in the future. 

At the end of the night, Schnur asked Grisolano and Wickers what their biggest takeaways are from the 2012 election.

Grisolano said that he saw that voters are "hungry for real answers: What's the plan?  What's your vision?"  The fact that Obama won, he said, showed that voters are more receptive of a thoughtful, idea-based candidate now than ever before.

Wickers said that the role of Twitter in the election "fascinated" him, especially that social media proved to be more effective than the role of SuperPACs.

Schnur concluded the night by praising the young audience, especially those who had been attending the Unruh Institute's "Road to the White House" events, which drew "twice and four times" the crowd that the 2008 election events did.  He said that he tells older people elsewhere to "come to USC to see young people" who are engaged in politics, and congratulated the crowd for being the "most engaged young people" in political history. 

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the 2012 presidential election here.

Reach Assistant News Editor Michael Juliani here.



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