Axelrod Sees Patrick’s Massachusetts Success as Obama Prototype

Senior Advisor David Axelrod
David Axelrod, senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama Client . Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s victory in November may be a model for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said David Axelrod, the White House chief strategist.

The Democrat campaigned on the “tough decisions” he made to “build a better future” for the state, said Axelrod, who will soon start mapping the president’s re-election drive. Patrick, 54, overcame voter disapproval as unemployment reached a 34-year high last January and beat back a Tea Party-fed conservative surge that sent a Massachusetts Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time in three decades.

“How the governor approached that race is a prototype in a way for us,” said Axelrod, 55, in a telephone interview last month. “I was very heartened not just because he’s the president’s friend but because he won in the right way and he won the kind of race I think we can run and win.”

While the political landscape in Massachusetts differs sharply from the nation as a whole, the approach Patrick took offers lessons to strategists preparing Obama’s 2012 campaign. Massachusetts has been dubbed “The Bluest State” in a book by local television commentator Jon Keller because of its pervasive liberalism. Obama also has the war in Afghanistan to manage and his health-care overhaul to defend at home, while the economy’s rebound from the longest recession since the Great Depression has sputtered and unemployment remains at close to 10 percent.

Drawing Lessons

“You can draw some lessons but you don’t want to take it too far,” said John Sasso, a strategist who worked on presidential campaigns for U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and the state’s former governor, Michael S. Dukakis, both Democrats.

“Whether it’s a blue state or a red state, there’s something about speaking to an entire country that’s different than campaigning in one state,” Sasso said yesterday by telephone from his Boston office.

Axelrod, an architect of Obama’s historic 2008 win, said Patrick “was able to take those different strands of things that he had been working on and weave it together into a story about how we’re going to build a better future.”

“He had a very coherent argument,” Axelrod said. “We’re going to be in that same position.”

Axelrod is planning to leave the White House sometime after the president gives his State of the Union speech, set for Jan. 25, returning to Chicago where he will begin crafting the 2012 re-election drive. Joining Axelrod will be Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, and Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff, both of whom also will soon quit the administration.

Seeking a Rebound

The president is seeking to rebound from his first two years in office, when the global credit crisis and the recession overshadowed his accomplishments, such as his health-care overhaul that will extend coverage to 32 million Americans. Obama, 49, accepted blame for the “shellacking” Democrats got in congressional midterm elections in November, when Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Obama’s job-approval rating has rebounded, touching 50 percent this month from a 2010 low of 41 percent in October as the economy recovered, according to Gallup Inc. poll data. Lawmakers in the closing days of the last Congress in December passed a host of the president’s priorities, including a nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia and ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning homosexuals in the military.

Axelrod advised Patrick’s successful 2006 campaign, making him the second black American to be elected governor in U.S. history. Patrick’s themes would be echoed two years later in Obama’s campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The governor’s 2006 slogan was “Together We Can.” Obama used “Change We Can Believe In.”

Philosophical Kinship

“There’s a kinship between them that’s philosophical,” said Axelrod of the connection between the governor and president, which dates back to at least 2004 when Obama ran for U.S. Senate from Illinois. “They both have a strong sense of how to build a better future and both have been willing to spend their political capital to do that.”

Patrick was the first Democrat to claim the Massachusetts governor’s office since Dukakis was re-elected in 1986. While the majority of the state’s registered voters aren’t members of any party, 85 percent of its lawmakers are Democrats. Senator Scott Brown, the Tea Party-backed Republican, is the only member of his party elected to statewide office.

“You can’t take ideological cues, but if someone runs a smart campaign, it’s worth studying,” Paul Begala, a White House strategist for Bill Clinton, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Washington.

Strategic Insights

“A good campaign is a good campaign wherever it’s run,” Begala said. “Americans in all states are angry, so if Governor Patrick is able to win re-election, it shows that he ran a good campaign.”

Axelrod “knows what he’s doing,” Begala said. “I’m sure there were strategic insights he got from that. That’s nothing but smart.”

Patrick sought an “honest conversation” with voters last year, said John Walsh, the state Democratic Party chairman. The campaign used televised advertisements featuring the governor talking about his accomplishments, such as preserving education spending and health-care coverage amid the fiscal crisis while spurring the state’s economic recovery.

“I believe in Massachusetts and I believe in you,” Patrick said in his final TV ad before the Nov. 2 vote, after dismissing Republican attacks linking him to government unions and blaming him for job losses. AKPD Message & Media LLC, a Chicago company Axelrod started, produced the ads.

Staying On Message

“In forum after forum, in place after place, in small towns and big cities, the repetition and discipline the governor has is pretty amazing,” said Rob Gray, chief strategist to Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate, in a post-election panel discussion about the campaign. “He is an excellent communicator. He is extremely consistent.”

The governor won with less than a majority at 48 percent to 42 percent for Baker, a former chief executive officer of nonprofit insurer Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare Inc. Tim Cahill, the outgoing state Treasurer and a former Democrat, picked up 8 percent running as an independent.

Patrick succeeded even after signing into law a 25 percent increase in the state sales tax, to 6.25 percent, in 2009 as the jobless rate rose. “I am not interested in what’s easy,” he said at his victory party. “I am interested in what’s right.”

Stressed Bright Spots

During the campaign, the governor stressed data showing the state’s economy improving. Unemployment fell to 8.1 percent in October from 9.5 percent in January, and home foreclosures declined, while jobs and economic growth increased. Patrick touted his support for the Cape Wind offshore energy project and passage of laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Patrick’s job-approval rating had fallen to 35 percent in July 2009, according to a University of New Hampshire poll, before the president arrived in Boston for an October 2009 fundraiser. Patrick met him at the airport and as they drove into Boston together Obama asked him how the campaign was going.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m looking forward to the campaign but there are two things I don’t like,’” Patrick said. “‘I don’t like the bragging and I don’t like asking people for money.’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘get over it.’”

About three months later, Patrick stood next to Martha Coakley, a Democrat and the state’s attorney general, as she conceded the special senate election to Brown, a state senator who pledged to rein in federal spending and cut the deficit.

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment

In February, 60 percent of registered voters said someone else should get the governor’s job, according to a Suffolk University poll. By September, while 52 percent still said the post should go to a new person, a Suffolk survey showed 35 percent said Patrick would “do the best” at improving the economy. Baker trailed at 30 percent.

“He had the trifecta of bad news at the beginning of his campaign,” said David Paleologos, Suffolk’s chief pollster, in Boston. “People didn’t like him, they didn’t think he deserved to be re-elected and people disapproved of his job performance.”

The campaign let Patrick “put his tenure into perspective,” contrasting his leadership against his rivals, Axelrod said. He said Patrick re-energized “people at the grassroots level,” who supported him in 2006, overcoming dissent within the Democratic Party and fueling voter turnout.

The lessons Patrick offers Obama are projecting an image of independence while working well with legislators and tempering an optimistic outlook during difficult times, said Sasso in Boston.

“You have to have the proper balance,” Sasso said. “Governor Patrick did that beautifully in the last campaign.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE