On the Cusp of History
It ended where it began. On the evening of November 5, 2012, twenty thousand people lined the streets of the East Village section of downtown Des Moines. The golden dome atop the Iowa Capitol building stood in the background, brilliantly illuminated against the black sky. From the Capitol to the Des Moines River, the streets were cordoned off and had been for days, awaiting the president’s arrival. Behind the stage sat the old headquarters from the first campaign—a squat one-story building that was now a church. For many in the traveling party, including the president, it was still familiar ground. Some of them could recall exactly where people sat four years earlier as they made the final phone calls to supporters during the caucuses in 2008. They remembered too their nervousness as they awaited the returns from precincts across the state and their elation when finally he had won on that frigid January night. It had all happened so fast, and now, even more quickly, they were at the end. The verdict would come the next day from the voters.
The whole team was there: David Axelrod, David Plouffe, and Robert Gibbs, the trio of advisers who led the first campaign; speechwriter Jon Favreau and his 2008 writing partner Ben Rhodes, now deputy national security adviser. Friends Marty Nesbitt and Mike Ramos were along for the ride. So too was Valerie Jarrett, the president’s White House confidante and one of his and the First Lady’s closest friends. Reggie Love, the president’s irrepressible body man who was now off on other pursuits, had come back too. Jen Psaki, who had logged almost every mile with Obama in 2008 and spent time in the White House, was back as traveling campaign spokeswoman. Jay Carney had seen the 2008 campaign from the outside as Time’s Washington bureau chief. Now he too was in the staff cabin on Air Force One as White House press secretary. Trip director Marvin Nicholson, who was also the president’s golfing buddy, tried to keep the operation moving to schedule. It was like the end of a long-running television series in which all the characters from previous seasons had come back to make cameo appearances, Axelrod said. The whole family was back together one last time.
It was easy to forget how far Obama had come in such a short time, and how dramatic the ascent had been. He had been on the national stage barely eight years, beginning with that night in Boston in 2004 when as a little-known Illinois state senator he gave a keynote address that electrified the Democratic convention of John Kerry. Soon he became a vessel for the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans, who had rallied behind him as he began an improbable quest for the White House. That first election made history and brought almost two million people to the Washington Mall for his historic inauguration day. He came to office amid great expectations and facing enormous problems. His presidency had been rocky—his aides called it a roller-coaster ride, which was a charitable way to put it—as he dealt with the deepest recession since the Great Depression, battled a Republican Party unified in its opposition to almost everything he proposed, and suffered a historic midterm election defeat just two years after he stood in Chicago’s Grant Park to claim the presidency. He was confident as he approached election day 2012—he was never one to lack for self-confidence about anything. But those around him could also sense the weight of the moment bearing down on him. He had told someone that he believed that everything—everything—about his presidency was on the line with this election: how he would be viewed by history, his legacy, his accomplishments, and the future of the country. He wasn’t nervous so much as he was clear-eyed about the enormity of the moment and the consequences of defeat.
The final swing had begun on Sunday, November 4, when he left the White House for a flight to New Hampshire. Bill Clinton joined him. The president and former president, tense rivals during those 2008 primaries between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, were now allies. They had campaigned together the night before in Virginia and were to do one last joint rally before splitting off in separate directions for the final day and a half of campaigning. On the half-hour ride from the Manchester airport to Concord, Plouffe and Axelrod joined them in the president’s limousine. Clinton was delighted to be back in the state that had saved his candidacy during the primaries in 1992 and resurrected his wife’s ultimately failed candidacy in 2008. “I love New Hampshire,” he exclaimed. New Hampshire summoned different memories for Obama’s team. They all remembered the pain of losing the primary there to Hillary Clinton when everyone believed Obama was a sure winner. Plouffe wouldn’t say he exactly hated the state, so he said, “We like New Hampshire, but we like Iowa a little bit more.” From New Hampshire, Obama had flown south to Florida and then back to the most contested of all the battlegrounds, Ohio, for an evening rally with Stevie Wonder at the University of Cincinnati. Hecklers interrupted him, one of them an anti-abortion demonstrator who gripped the railing of the balcony as police took him away. After the rally, the traveling press corps broke off from the presidential party and flew on to Madison, Wisconsin. But Obama had one more stop, a late-night rally in Aurora, Colorado. By the time he got to his hotel in Madison, it was after 3 a.m.
If Sunday was a grueling march across the country and back, Monday was a day of nostalgia and emotions, for the president and all those with him. Racing through the president’s mind, Axelrod believed, was the improbable journey he had been on and the finality of knowing that whatever came the next day, this chapter was ending. On one flight during the day, Obama said to Axelrod, Plouffe, and Gibbs, Listen, I remember the night of [the 2008 primary in] New Hampshire, you three knocking on my door and pulling me out of dinner with my wife to tell me that we had lost. If you show up at my door tomorrow night, just remember I’m still going to be president for two more months. Everybody had a good laugh at that, and Axelrod said, “No problem, Mr. President, we already talked about this. If someone is knocking, it’s going to be [campaign manager Jim] Messina.”
Bruce Springsteen was also with him that day. On the trip from Madison to the president’s second stop of the day in Columbus, Ohio, Springsteen rode on Air Force One. During the flight, the president placed a call to New Jersey’s Chris Christie. The Republican governor and the Democratic president had bonded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that had devastated parts of the East Coast a week earlier. Republicans were dismayed by what they saw as Christie’s excessive praise for the president, given the closeness of the election. Christie was a huge fan of Springsteen, but it was an unrequited love. Obama decided to have some fun with his new friend the governor. Aboard Air Force One, Obama’s companions thought Christie didn’t recognize Springsteen’s voice. Nonsense, Christie said later—he instantly knew who Obama had on the line. “[Obama] says to me, ‘You know, in a crisis like we’re going through, you know the only thing that’s better than one guy from Jersey?’ I said, ‘No.’ He goes, ‘Two guys from Jersey.’ Then I hear, ‘Hey, Gov, we meet in the wildest places, don’t we?’ I said to him, ‘Are you on Air Force One?’ He said to me, ‘It is unbelievable, it is unbelievable, yes, I’m on Air Force One,’ and you could just tell that Springsteen was, like, beside himself happy that he was on Air Force One, just thrilled.”
Before his rally in Columbus, Obama did a round of satellite television interviews into other battleground states, his eye cocked at times to a screen where he could see Springsteen and Jay-Z performing in the arena. After his speech, he and his team had dinner together and told stories. Before leaving Columbus, Obama stopped by one of the campaign offices to greet the volunteers. One of the field organizers asked for a photo with the president. “We’re gonna do pictures with everybody,” Obama said, in a tone that suggested he thought the staffer was thinking too much about himself. “You’re a field organizer. You gotta be looking out for your volunteers.” Then they were off to Iowa for the last rally he would ever do as a candidate for office.
Air Force One landed at the Des Moines airport at 8:58 p.m., central time. The First Lady’s plane arrived moments later. As her aircraft taxied to a stop, the president’s motorcade pulled up alongside. Obama got out of his limousine and waited at the bottom of the stairs to greet her. He had told her during the final stretch that if he got a second term, he was determined to get out of Washington more. It was, he told her, good for his soul. Together they rode the short distance into town and before going onstage toured the old campaign offices. It was a cold night—forty degrees—but felt colder, and the president wore his signature black jacket over a sweater. He seemed impervious to the night air. It was the last time he would ask anyone to vote for him, and he was in no hurry. He had prepared his riffs, including the story of his “Fired up, ready to go!” call-and-response chant from 2008. His staff had invited Edith Childs, the Greenwood County, South Carolina, councilwoman who had given birth to “Fired up, ready to go!” to join him onstage for the last rally. No, she said, I have too many doors to knock on in North Carolina to take time out for a trip to Iowa. That’s what this is all about, he told those on the flight. She didn’t want to ride on Air Force One. She didn’t want to come to a rally. She’s busy trying to get out the vote in North Carolina. It reinforced for Obama everything he believed his campaign should be about.
Springsteen played “No Surrender” and joked about Obama’s musical aspirations. The president had crooned a couple of bars of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a January 2012 fund-raiser, and the video quickly went viral. Then Springsteen turned serious. He said he had spent his life measuring the distance between the American dream and American reality. “Our vote tomorrow is the one undeniable way we get to determine the distance in that equation,” he said. He introduced Michelle Obama, who spoke briefly about what was at stake, and then it was the president’s moment. “I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote,” he said. “I came back to ask you to help us finish what we’ve started. Because this is where our movement for change began. Right here. Right here.” He mentioned the headquarters behind him. “This was where some of the first young people who joined our campaign set up shop, willing to work for little pay and less sleep because they believed that people who love their country can change it. This was where so many of you who shared that belief came to help. When the heat didn’t work for the first week or so, some of you brought hats and gloves for the staff. These poor kids, they weren’t prepared. When the walls inside were bare, one of you painted a mural to lift everybody’s spirits. When we had a steak fry to march to, when we had a J-J Dinner [Jefferson-Jackson Dinner] to fire up”—the Iowans began to applaud at the memory of those touchstones of the first campaign—“you brought your neighbors and you made homemade signs. When we had calls to make, teachers and nurses showed up after work—already bone tired but staying anyway, late into the night.” And then his voice grew huskier and there was a catch in his throat and his eyes began to glisten slightly. Washington Post photographer Nikki Kahn could see it and moved for a better angle. The famously cool president, the unflappable, no-drama politician, was overcome by the moment. He gently wiped the corner of his left eye. “And you welcomed me and Michelle into your homes. And you picked us up when we needed a lift. And your faces gave me new hope for this country’s future, and your stories filled me with resolve to fight for you every single day I set foot in the Oval Office. You inspired us.” A tear had rolled down his cheek and he wiped his eye again. “You took this campaign and you made it your own. And you organized yourselves, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, county by county, starting a movement that spread across the country”—the crowd began to applaud—“a movement made up of young and old, and rich and poor, and black and white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, Democrats, Republicans, who believe we’ve got something to contribute, that we all deserve a shot at our own American dream.” His voice was strong now, but his eyes gave away the emotions inside him and he wiped away a tear once more. “And when the cynics said we couldn’t, we said, ‘Yes we can!’” Deafening applause erupted on the streets of Des Moines.
When he finished speaking, it was after 10:30 p.m. and he was exhausted, but he lingered. He worked the rope line for another thirty minutes, back and forth three times by the count of one of his advisers, who remembered because it was so unusual. On the short flight back to Chicago, Obama called Jim Messina, the campaign manager, who was at headquarters. “I’m proud of what you built,” he said, prompting Messina to break down. Messina thought the candidate sounded at peace. Air Force One was back in Chicago in less than an hour, and by 1 a.m. the president was at his home in Hyde Park, now to wait as he looked to election day rituals to pass the time. The first votes had already been recorded in New Hampshire: Tiny Dixville Notch’s ten voters had split five-five. In nearby Hart’s Location, Obama had won by twenty-three to just nine for Romney.
Contrary to Obama’s 2004 convention speech in Boston, there were two Americas that day, as there had been throughout Obama’s presidency and back before that. Red and blue America lived in different worlds and saw events through separate prisms and got their information from separate sources. Though Obama and Mitt Romney were crisscrossing through the same states, they were cocooned in these separate compartments. If anything, the enthusiasm in Romney’s world was even greater at that moment than in Obama’s. Romney’s schedule called for him to end his campaign in New Hampshire, the site of his announcement speech and the first big victory of the 2012 race. He was returning to friendly ground for his final rally, just as the president had for his. The two rivals were operating on the same clock. Moments after Obama landed in Des Moines on election eve, Romney’s charter touched down in Manchester. At least twelve thousand people waited for him inside the Verizon Wireless Arena, packed together from the stadium floor to the upper-tier seats. They were wild with enthusiasm, giddy at the prospect of turning Obama into a one-term president. They got an extra energy shot from Kid Rock, whose song “Born Free” had become the Romney campaign anthem. Mitt and Ann Romney were supposed to wait in a holding room during Kid Rock’s short set but insisted they wanted to see it like everyone else. They were taken to one of the suites and found a perch on a balcony from which to watch. The rapper-rocker put on a dazzling laser light show, which ended with him singing from atop a piano adorned with a bumper sticker that read, “Bad Ass.” No one found anything incongruous about the juxtaposition of the bawdy musician and the straitlaced candidate.
The crowd was in a raucous mood as Romney walked onstage. He pointed with both arms to the other end of the arena to acknowledge Kid Rock. The deafening noise continued to crash over him. They chanted, “Mitt! Mitt!” After almost a minute of applause, he began to speak, but they wouldn’t let him. He tried again, but it kept coming. He stepped away and laughed, throwing his head back. The ovation continued for another minute and the audience broke into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” He tried to yank the microphone loose, thinking he wasn’t close enough to be heard. But it wasn’t the microphone; it was the crowd that was drowning out almost everything he was saying. Finally, after almost three minutes of nonstop sound, the audience quieted enough for him to begin.
His last two days had begun Sunday morning in Des Moines, where the size and enthusiasm of the crowd caught him and the staff by surprise. On this morning the room was filled to overflowing, and as Romney worked the rope line, his traveling aide, Garrett Jackson, kept tugging on him. Gov, he said, we’ve got to go. The schedule was incredibly tight, and time lost would be difficult to make up. From there he was on to Ohio—always Ohio. Mike Leavitt, the former governor of Utah and former Health and Human Services secretary, was aboard that morning. Romney had put him in charge of transition planning. As the charter headed east from Des Moines, Romney slid into the seat next to Leavitt, and for the rest of the flight the two were in deep conversation about the new government that Romney hoped—believed—he would be putting in place starting in three days. Along the way that day, Katie Packer Gage, the deputy campaign manager, asked Romney how he felt: “He said, ‘I’m excited,’ and I said, ‘Why, do you think we’re going to win?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to win, but if we do win I’m excited because I know exactly what it’s going to take to turn this thing around and I can’t wait to get started.’ He said, ‘If we don’t win I have a great life, I have a great family, I have a great wife, and I get to just spend more time with them, and I haven’t had enough of that in the last year and so I’m excited for that. So whatever comes on Wednesday, I’m excited for the outcome.’”
Pennsylvania was a late addition to Romney’s Sunday itinerary. His advisers saw something in the polls that made them think it was worth sending the candidate in for a rally outside of Philadelphia, which long had been a killing ground for Republican presidential candidates. By the time they arrived in Philadelphia, they were more than an hour behind schedule because of a fire at the airport. Romney hated to be late to anything. Once he was coming into New York from the airport for a meeting and got caught in Midtown traffic. He paid the driver, hopped out of the taxi, and with luggage in tow ran ten blocks in the summer heat to his meeting. Thirty thousand or more people were waiting for him when he finally arrived in Morrisville. It was a cold day—so cold, someone said, that you couldn’t feel your feet after an hour standing on the grass. People had waited three, four, five hours for the candidate. But it was like this everywhere Romney was going in the final days. Big crowds at many stops and an outpouring of emotion and enthusiasm the candidate had never experienced. Then he was on to Virginia, arriving in Newport News at 9:30 p.m.—still way behind schedule. He had phoned in to the rally before leaving Philadelphia to tell them he was running late but would be there soon. The crowd cheered wildly simply at the sound of his voice. He ended the day just after 1 a.m. after a last flight to Orlando. He was on the move again seven and a half hours later.
Florida was a battleground state Romney had to win if he hoped to become president, and he was confident he would. Backstage before his morning rally in Orlando, he joked and laughed with Jeb Bush and others. At one point, the crowd interrupted and began to chant, “One more day! One more day!” He made eye contact with Garrett Jackson, who had been his constant companion on the road for three years and was standing in the buffer area. It was as if to say, “Can you believe it? One more day!” Next stop was Lynchburg, Virginia, and then he was on to northern Virginia, which was Obama territory. As the motorcade arrived at George Mason University, Romney’s team could see streams of people walking to the event, so many that the fire marshal had to close the doors. Thousands were directed to an overflow area, and the Romneys spoke to them from a makeshift public address system after the main rally.
Then it was back to Ohio one last time for a rally at the Columbus airport. The advance team had commandeered a hangar in the general aviation area, and it too was packed when Romney’s charter touched down at 6:38 p.m. The plan called for a dramatic entry, with the plane supposed to pull its nose inside the hangar just near the back of the stage. It took the pilot several tries to line it up properly, and then, as the plane stopped, the flight attendant could not make the door open. Romney was impatient to get out there—“champing at the bit,” an aide recalled—as the flight crew struggled with the door. Finally it popped open and there was a huge roar from the crowd. Everyone had come for this one. The Marshall Tucker Band provided the warm-up act. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, a native of Columbus, spoke. Governor John Kasich was there too, as was Senator Rob Portman, who had become one of the campaign’s most valuable assets—a vice presidential finalist and the person who masterfully played President Obama in Romney’s debate preparations. And then finally he was in New Hampshire to close his day as Obama was ending his. “This is where the campaign began,” he said. “You got this campaign started a year and a half ago. Tomorrow your votes and your work here in New Hampshire will help me become the next president of the United States.”