Episode 78, with guests Cindi Leive, Editor-in-Chief of GLAMOUR and John Ekdahl, Florida volunteer for Romney-Ryan 2012

Cindi Leive and John Ekdahl are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: November 15, 2012 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
Polioptics airs regularly on POTUS on Saturdays at 6 am, 12 noon and 6 pm.
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This week: We’re back! After a two-week hiatus at the hands of Post Tropical Cyclone (née Hurricane) Sandy, we return to a world changed and also very much the same. Cindi Leive, the Editor-in-Chief of Glamour Magazine, and John Ekdahl, the Polioptics Web developer who also served as volunteer for Romney for President in Jacksonville, Florida, are our guests as Polioptics comes back on line.

The connective tissue between our two segments with Cindi and John is missed opportunities for Mitt Romney.

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Cindi started with Glamour as an editorial assistant and has served as its editor-in-chief since 2001. You can read about her upward trajectory in this profile in the alumni magazine of Swarthmore College, our shared alma mater.

When George W. Bush was in office, conscious of the fact that the electorate is 51% female and Glamour boasts 12 million readers monthly among that demo, he wisely invited Cindi into the Oval Office for a chat. And during the 2008 campaign, both Senators Obama and McCain took time out of their busy schedules to open themselves up to the magazine.

This time around, back in July, the Obama campaign beckoned again, asking Cindi and her editors to fly to Portland, Oregon for a sit down with the Commander-in-Chief. Notice the polioptic strategery of the image that Glamour used in its pages. To the left, that’s Barack with Cindi. For starters, they’re chatting over coffee. So very cozy of them. And they’re in the Pacific Northwest, Twin Peaks-meets-Starbucks, the region and the non-big-chaininess of the coffee roaster reinforced by the nook’s name emblazoned on the mugs. Just the sort of setting you expect to find your president waiting for you.

You can read the Obama interview here. The fact that Obama would invest time in Glamour elicited some snark from the right. “Can’t wait to see what he thinks of the new fall collection. Next month, the Cosmo interview,” wrote Jim Geraghty in the National Review Online.

The questions Cindi asked, reflective of her readers’ interests, followed a predictable track: general economy and kitchen table issues, with a healthy dose of women’s topics and a little pop culture. In a cycle when Governor Romney had to distance himself, as so many other Republicans did, from statements by Todd Aiken in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, the megaphone Glamour offered Mitt Romney could have been an effective channel to pivot to the center.

Alas, as Cindi wrote in her editor’s note in the November issue:

“This time around, despite repeated requests over several months, Governor Mitt Romney declined to sit down with us, citing scheduling conflicts. Yes, today’s presidential campaigns often include pop culture stops along the way—Governor Romney himself recently told Kelly Ripa he was “kind of a Snooki fan”—but the obvious truth is that the real “women’s issues” in this campaign are neither fashion nor funny; they are the still-high female unemployment rate, the disappearance of many women-dominated public sector jobs, the continuing debates over birth control (used by practically every American woman, of either party), and everything else that affects your life on a daily basis.”

A missed opportunity? Back when Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments surfaced on a six-month old video, I offered plausible polioptics process explanations about how inexperienced candidates can get lulled into a false sense of security when the lights are dim, the audience seems friendly and there are no audio recording devices or, worse, cameras (visibly) present. As others have said, he was talking too much like a consultant and not enough like a leader, but I was willing to chalk it up to a guy collecting large checks from donors who felt compelled to offer his benefactors red meat in return.

Guess what? Even after the election, Romney was still at the barbecue, grilling the ribs. Same kind of set-up: an anonymous-feeling conference call with supporters. Same basic message: Obama’s winning coalition comes from Americans seeking “gifts” from their government. Different result: the Republican governors, who stumped for Romney so vigorously, sent the “gifts” back to sender, undeliverable to addressee. As The Onion wrote this week, the Romney campaign seems to have missed the verdict on election night. The next comparisons are going to be to Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese lieutenant who was still fighting World War II 30 years after the surrender by the Empire of Japan on the U.S.S. Missouri.

Advice to the GOP nominee next time around: sit down with Cindi Leive. However you segment the nation into demos in a campaign’s back office data laboratory, it’s hard to win an election by dissing 47% of the electorate or by giving short shrift to another 51% of the electorate. Cindi and her team flew across America to Portland to grab a few minutes with the president. Surely, some “scheduling conflicts” could have been bridged to allow the Glamour team a half hour last summer by the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Who knows? With a different tone and more statesmanship coming from Boston during the general election, President-elect Romney might have been on stage on Carnegie Hall this past week awarding one of Glamour’s Women of the Year Awards to the gold medal female members of the U.S. Olympic Team, a movement about which I believe Mitt Romney genuinely cares deeply.

In addition to the Olympians, in this year’s class of Women of the Year, which you can read more about in the December issue (yes, I now understand that’s Selena Gomez on the cover), Glamour recognized Gomez, who serves as a Unicef Ambassador; legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz; HBO wunderkind Lena Dunham; architect Zhah Hadid; documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy; Ethel & Rory Kennedy; J Crew’s Jenna Lyons; crusader against child abuse Erin Merryn; and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Against the backdrop of the Glamour gathering at Carnegie Hall, which was covered broadly by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the AP, among all the usual news-entertainment outlets, it wasn’t easy to put on this year’s event or, for that matter, do much of anything New Yorkers have been used to doing in the run-up to Black Friday.

One well-known casualty: the New York Marathon, in which Leive had intended to run, was cancelled.

Within a few miles of midtown — in Staten Island, Queens, the coast of Long Island and along the New Jersey shore — many citizens were (and are) still finding recovery from Sandy an uphill struggle, far worse than my wife and kids and I fared following a week without power in Greenwich Village. In response, Glamour and L’Oreal brought three food trucks to the Rockaways and Staten Island, donating a free meal for every guest seated in Carnegie Hall, also volunteering in the cleanup efforts during the weekend preceding the Women of the Year Awards.

To express kinship with those still in distress and to honor those who have responded, Glamour asked Newark Mayor Cory Booker to introduce nearly two dozen women who distinguished themselves in the storm’s immediate aftermath. “They held us together when Sandy tried to blow us apart,” Booker said. During the event, Leive tweeted that she was “moved to tears.” You can watch some of Mayor Booker’s remarks, along with other hightlights of the show, below:


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In Part 2 of our post-election Polioptics episode on missed opportunities, we turn to the ground game, with a very unique perspective from John Ekdahl. Wait. John who?

Okay, so you’ve been listening to Polioptics on SiriusXM for a while, and you’ve read the Story of Polioptics on this blog. You know where I stand. I put a lot of stock on the visual, the theater of politics, the image on the top of the fold of the newspapers or the video on the evening news that accompanies the anchor’s voice-overs. The imagery. The stagecraft. The raised walkways, backdrop messages, waving flags and cheering crowds. This stuff is catnip for the pundit class. It moves emotions. It drives opinions. But does it get people to the polls? And when the easy votes are in the bag, does it snuff out the harder-to-reach undecideds and get them to cast a vote in a swing state?

Over the last year, I’ve tried to be honest. I said that Mitt Romney’s campaign was playing the Polioptics game better, a lot better, than three of the past four GOP nominees: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain. There were a lot of reasons for that, but not enough time here and now to document. Maybe later. But I give a lot of credit to folks like Adam Belmar, Will Ritter, Charlie Pearce, Garrett Jackson and others in the Romney Camp who really got this stuff and gave their candidate a great stage on which to walk. The candidate was still his stiff self in public, but his manufactured stagecraft was excellent.

But I recognize that Polioptics is only the visible part of a winning effort. I’m very mindful of the data-driven skunkworks of modern campaigns that achieved prominence with Joe Trippi and the 2004 Howard Dean Campaign and came of age in 2008 with David Plouffe and Obama for America. It’s not my area of expertise, but I respect it enormously and its why, when the Polioptics of 2012 seemed to reach parity between Romney and Obama (“Oh, my word, have you seen Mitt’s crowds!?”), and many of my friends gnashed their fingers thinking that the 45th President would be sworn-in in 2013 instead of 2017, I reassured them, based on what I knew, that they shouldn’t be worried (Yes, Tom Baer, Mike Lufrano and Robert Wells, that’s you).

One of the best long-form pieces of Campaign 2012 came courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green, who was a guest of ours on Polioptics episode 60 on June 16. Josh’s story, “Obama’s CEO:  Jim Messina Has a President to Sell”, was a must-read for anyone interested in communications or politics.  Green “geeked out” with Kevin Sullivan and me when discussing the “snowflake model” of organizing information. The one thing that seemed just a little too shrewd to me was Chicago’s discovery through data mining that embracing L.A. and New York icons like George Clooney, Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker and the appeals to “have dinner with Barack” would not only be good for fundraising, but for message projection as well. In retrospect, I’m sure Cindi Leive could have put my mind to ease about that.

In the weeks since the election ended, there have been a flurry of excellent articles, including one in Time by Michael Scherer and The Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal, which have filled in the gaps in Green’s original reporting and offered an expanded behind-the-scenes look at the nerds in the backroom in Chicago who have proven the power of the ground game, supercharged by data-mining, once and for all. If David Plouffe has more to add in a sequel to The Audacity to Win or Halperin and Heilemann have more nuance in their next Game Change book, I can’t wait to read it.

But one of the reasons that the contrast might be so vivid between what Chicago and Boston put into the ground game could be thanks to John Ekdahl, a Web developer and volunteer in Jacksonville, Florida for Romney for President.

I knew John for about three years before his name began to pop up, slowly at first, in Twitter, and then a range of mainstream news articles examining the failure of the Romney get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort on November 6. It was his post on the Ace of Spades blog, “The Unmitigated Disaster of Project Orca” that started a wave of Thursday morning quarterbacking about a game plan gone awry.

To read John’s Twitter feed from November 8 onward is to see not only how one sample of an army of Romney volunteers felt undercut by their headquarters operation in the 24 hours before Election Day, but also how news metastasizes in the U.S., starting with a blog post, eventually making its way to the Drudge Report and beyond. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The funny thing is, for me, a guy who considers himself pretty plugged in, on Election Night, John Ekdahl would have been the last guy I’d ever think to ask. In fact, I had no idea of his political affiliation.

To give you some context, this goes back to the founding of Polioptics back in 2009. Eleven years after leaving the White House, I was struggling to figure out how to share all that I had learned about visual communications and the theater of politics.

I decided to develop a lecture. But first, I needed a name. In a conference room during a meeting on some other topic, I started scribbling mashups of descriptive words, hoping to find an original construct. The Xerox for campaign imagery. Combine politics and optics, the nexus of what politicians do out in public and how the media covers them, and you have Poli-Optics.

I wasn’t entirely original in this sort of obsession on the fringe of a major cultural subject. A guy named Paul Lukas, a past guest on our show, had built a brand around UniWatch, the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics. Equipment, uniforms, insignia, typography, stitching – everything about the theater of sports except that athletic contest itself. I’m a sports fan, but also a fan of how sports are presented and marketed. If there is a Glamour for sports accessorizing, UniWatch is it.

Paul’s writing, and website, are infective. For Polioptics, I had to have one like it. So I mined the site forensically and learned that Paul’s web developer was a firm called JettyWeb solutions, based in New Jersey. After some back and forth, I found myself in touch with JettyWeb’s John Ekdahl. We talked, and a few weeks later, Polioptics.com was born.

John and I have remained is in mostly electronic contact in the years that followed. I learned he had moved to Florida (for lower taxes, he told me, and I didn’t give it a second thought). All I knew was that when I needed a cosmetic fix to the site or to have another show put online, John would eventually get around to it. He built me a simple, sturdy site on a strict budget. Those of you who’ve visited know what I mean. John’s politics? I had no idea.

So imagine my surprise on November 8, as I was trolling around reading stories offering opinions why Obama won and why Romney lost, that John Ekdahl’s name kept popping up in posts, tweets and stories by major reporters and pundits. John Ekdahl – spelled E-K-D-A-H-L — the name is not common. I know this guy, I thought. He’s a Web developer, my Web developer. Two years working together, we never once talked politics. Why, for goodness sake, is he in these stories?

John, it turns out, was a dedicated volunteer in Jacksonville for Romney for President. If the race was going to be close, Jacksonville and Orlando, along with Toledo and Cincinnati, might be ground zero. John’s assignment on Election Day? He’s going to be manning one of the precincts in Jacksonville using a Romney special weapon called Orca.

The Narwhal

On the National Geographic Websites, we learn that a narwhal is a a pale-colored porpoise found in Arctic coastal waters and rivers. With a prominent tooth that grows into a swordlike, spiral tusk up to 8.8 feet long, it’s known as the unicorn of the sea. The narwhal’s main predator is the orca, or Killer Whale, that forms in pods and uses cooperative hunting techniques that some liken to the behavior of wolf packs. It’s ironic that in a campaign that largely ignored issues related to global warming and climate change, two noble sea creatures came to embody the competing GOTV technologies of President Obama and Governor Romney.

The narwhal is the unicorn of the sea, These legendary animals have two teeth. In males, the more prominent tooth grows into a swordlike, spiral tusk up to 8.8 feet (2.7 meters) long. The ivory tusk tooth grows right through the narwhal’s upper lip. Scientists are not certain of the tusk’s purpose, but some believe it is prominent in mating rituals, perhaps used to impress females or to battle rival suitors. Females sometimes grow a small tusk of their own, but it does not become as prominent as the male’s.

In nature, in the inevitable confrontation between narwhal and orca, orca wins. In politics, the narwhal won. There will be books written about their not-so-epic battle on November 6, 2012.

I’ve just finished Evan Thomas’ excellent new book — Ike’s Bluff — about Eisenhower’s leadership during the Cold War (Evan was a past guest on Polioptics, talking about his eBook with POLITICO’s Mike Allen on the first phase of Campaign 2012).

The Orca

One part of Ike’s Bluff centers on how the President pushed his scientists to develop an orbital reconnaissance platform to avoid the risk of having a U.S. U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet airspace, which happened eventually on May 1, 1960, when Francis Gary Powers parachuted into Sverdlovsk after being hit by a S-75 surface-to-air missile. The program the scientists were rushing to complete was Corona, which initially suffered a string of setbacks on the launch pad. The thing couldn’t get off the ground.

As I read John Ekdahl’s account of Project Orca, and how it manifested itself in Jacksonville, I kept coming back to images of Corona launch vehicles partway down the Florida Coast, at Cape Canaveral, more than a half century before. A momentous countdown, a fiery ignition, a missile inching off the launch pad, achieving an altitude of a few feet and, then, a catastrophic explosion. Eventually, Corona achieved great success in helping to win the Cold War, but it didn’t happen on Day One. And yet, Orca only had to succeed on Day One.

The Obama team in Chicago, with its competing technology, Narwhal, also endured a string of setbacks when they tried to deploy it. As Alexis Madrigal recounts in The Atlantic this week in his piece, “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” everything seemed to fail at once.

“Josh Thayer, the lead engineer of Narwhal, had just been informed that they’d lost another one of the services powering their software. That was bad: Narwhal was the code name for the data platform that underpinned the campaign and let it track voters and volunteers. If it broke, so would everything else.

“They were talking with people at Amazon Web Services, but all they knew was that they had packet loss. Earlier that day, they lost their databases, their East Coast servers, and their memcache clusters. Thayer was ready to kill Nick Hatch, a DevOps engineer who was the official bearer of bad news. Another of their vendors, PalominoDB, was fixing databases, but needed to rebuild the replicas. It was going to take time, Hatch said. They didn’t have time.

“They’d been working 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, trying to reelect the president, and now everything had been broken at just the wrong time. It was like someone had written a Murphy’s Law algorithm and deployed it at scale.”

As Madrigal reveals, this “Game Day,” this Day One, was actually October 21, 17 days before Election Day. By November 6, most of the issues were ironed out and the Obama Ground Game was deployed in force.

We’ll have to wait months, maybe years, before we know exactly what happened to Project Orca. And maybe we’ll never know. For some initial after-action assessments of Project Orca, read this from ABC News, this from the Boston Globe, this from POLITICO, this from ArsTechnica and this from Forbes. Google “Orca and Romney,” and you’ll find enough to keep you reading all night. Much of the commentary and analysis began on November 8 with John Ekdahl’s account on Ace of Spades.

From one volunteer trying to do his part to run the ground game, a Romney partisan, we already know the story. Listen to our conversation with John on Episode 78 of Polioptics for his personal narrative about how Project Orca actually worked, or didn’t, on Election Day, a missed opportunity, to be sure.

It’s good to be back.

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