Selected Topics

2012 Election

The president and vice president share a laugh before a campaign rally together in Portsmouth, N.H.

President Obama and Vice President Biden share a laugh before a campaign rally together in Portsmouth, N.H. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

President Obama won reelection in 2012 against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the first Mormon to receive a major party’s nomination. Following the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision that allowed for increased political contributions, the 2012 campaign was estimated to have cost about $6 billion, making it the most expensive election to date.

As the incumbent president, Obama faced no intra-party challenges while Romney fought off a number of Republican challengers in the primary, including former Libertarian nominee Ron Paul, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as well as businessman Herman Cain, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Representative Michele Bachmann.

While Mitt Romney appeared the likely nominee early on, he was considered too moderate for conservatives who preferred other candidates. For the first time in modern Republican Party history, three different candidates won the first three state contests in January: Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, and Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. Santorum and Gringrich stayed in the race for a few more months, but Romney secured more than half of the delegates allocated in March. He was officially named the party’s presidential nominee during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, from August 27 to 30, 2012, which featured notable appearances by Chris Christie and Clint Eastwood. He chose Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as a running mate, probably to assuage the conservative wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement.

Amid a struggling economy, major issues during the general election campaign included taxes and the federal deficit, the Affordable Care Act and how to pay for Social Security, as well as climate change and immigration, the sanctions against Iran, and the phase-out of the Iraq War. Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital and his refusal to release his tax returns placed him on the defensive and so did a video of Romney at a private fundraising event in which he asserted that the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes believe that they are “victims” and that “government has a responsibility to care for them." The Obama campaign depicted him as a wealthy man out of touch with working Americans. Romney tried to capitalize on Obama’s phrase "you didn't build that" during a speech in Roanoke and ran many campaign ads that were rated as false by fact-checking agencies.

Although Vice President Joe Biden summarized Obama’s first term with “bin Laden Dead, General Motors Alive,” the president’s campaign suffered from a high unemployment rate and the sluggish economy as well as the anger toward the Affordable Care Act. He did not perform well in the first debates, but had a strong showing in the last two, appearing more assertive while Romney was criticized for his “binders full of women” remark and his erroneous statement that Obama had not called the Benghazi attacks an act of terror. Obama’s reaction to Hurricane Sandy earned him praise, and he benefited from a reduction of unemployment to 7.8 percent in September 2012, the lowest since he took office.

Obama's campaign was highly effective in raising money and getting out the vote. The 2012 campaign was marked by a sharp rise in fundraising, including from new nominally independent Super PACs. It was also the first real social media election, with a high number of memes.

On November 6, 2012, most major television networks called Ohio for Obama, projecting him the winner of the election, around 11:15 p.m. EST. Around 1 a.m. EST on November 7, Romney conceded the election to Obama. While the president did obtain 332 of the electoral votes, 62 more than the 270 needed to win, he won the popular vote by a relatively small margin with 51.1 percent and a turnout of 55 percent with two fewer states than in his 2008 victory.

The 2010 midterm elections broke records: the most expensive to date ($3.7 billion) with the lowest voter turnout since 1942. The elections saw sweeping gains by the Republican Party in the Senate, House, and in numerous gubernatorial, state, and local races.

Rather's Coverage of the 2012 Election

Rather reported live from the New Hampshire primary, explaining that “For all the chatter about polls and political gamesmanship, it’s always reassuring that real people have to show up and cast real votes for real names on real ballots,” He added “I’ve covered New Hampshire primaries more than a dozen times, because nothing gets this reporter as fired up as a good campaign.” He hosted live coverage of the Florida primary and Super Tuesday on April 10, 2012.

Leading up to the November election, Rather did a number of stories, including one on voting machines and voter discrimination in Ohio. On November 7, 2012, he anchored an election night special, live from Washington, D.C., with some very special guests: Republican guru Mike Murphy, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Democratic strategist Kiki McLean, Republican strategist Todd Harris, Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick, National Journal daily editor Matt Cooper, pollster Dr. David Hill, and policy expert Alan Philp. He was also joined from Los Angeles by Bill Maher. Over the course of the broadcast, Rather and his guests took viewer questions via Twitter and Facebook

2016 Election

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona, October 4, 2016. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

After an acrimonious campaign, the populist Donald Trump, who ran as a Republican, lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes on November 8, 2016. However, he won thirty states and a decisive electoral college with 304 electoral votes to Clinton’s 227 and thus became the forty-fifth president of the United States. The unexpected victory of an outsider with no political job experience was a stunning upset and marked a dramatic shift in American politics.

As the primary started in 2015, the GOP was in strong position as many voters were unhappy with the slow recovery after the 2008 economic meltdown and with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” In the largest presidential primary field for any political party in American history, seventeen major candidates entered the race. By September 2015, the field stabilized around the following six candidates: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Florida, businesswoman Carly Fiorina of Virginia, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, and businessman Donald Trump of New York.

Mired in insults and invective, the Trump campaign incited violence at its rallies, and the candidate insulted Mexican immigrants, called for a ban in Muslim immigration, and displayed outright sexism and misogyny. His abrasive tactics and repeated insults of the national news media (whom he called “among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met”) led to press opposition and the building of a “Never Trumper” coalition. In July 2017, the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was characterized by lackluster staging and signs of disunity: prominent Republicans did not attend, Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump, and Melania Trump was accused of plagiarizing part of her speech from Michelle Obama. Donald Trump nevertheless won the nomination of the Republican Party and selected Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state for four years under Obama, enjoyed the early support of the Democratic establishment. She faced, however, a surprising challenge from Bernie Sanders. A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, the Independent Vermont senator developed a strong grassroots organization and energized young voters. Both candidates won a number of primaries and caucuses and Sanders, who stayed in the race until the convention, pushed Clinton to adopt more progressive policies. By the end of the primaries and caucuses, Clinton won 2,204 pledged delegates (54 percent of the total), while Sanders had won 1,847 (46 percent). Clinton also received endorsements from 560 (78 percent), while Sanders received 47 (7 percent) out of the 714 unpledged delegates or "superdelegates" who were set to vote at the convention in July.

Three days before the convention, nearly twenty thousand leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee were published by WikiLeaks. Some emails indicated that party official, supposed to be neutral, favored Clinton over Bernie Sanders, angering his supporters. DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and three top aides resigned. At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, former president Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and both Obamas gave well-received addresses. After the Muslim parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq criticized Trump, the Republican candidate spent days attacking them on Twitter. Clinton chose Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.

The 2016 campaign was one of the most negative ones in the history of U.S. elections with the least popular candidates in recent history, with personal disapproval ratings on election day of 54 percent for Clinton and 61 percent for Trump. In addition to the Muslim family of a fallen soldier, Trump attacked a judge, a Miss Universe, and a Fox News anchor. He refused to release his tax returns and to answer questions surrounding his charitable foundation. The Republican candidate took right-wing populist positions and used “Make American Great Again” as his campaign slogan. In a 2005 video released on October 7, 2016, Trump was heard making lewd comments about women. More than a dozen women came forward and accused him of sexual assault.

Hillary Clinton had her share of issues during the campaign. She was castigated as condescending after telling a fundraising audience, “You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call a basket of deplorables. . . . Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” Her collapse (due to illness) when she left a September 11 memorial in New York was used by Trump to demonstrate that she was not fit to be president. In addition to the emails leaked in July 2016, nearly fifty thousand e-mails from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, were leaked in October. Most damaging to Clinton’s campaign was the longstanding controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of state. The FBI investigation resulted in FBI Director James Comey declaring that while Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of national security information, he lacked proof of any criminal intent by Clinton or her team. Eleven days before the election, Comey wrote a letter to Congress announcing that the FBI was reopening the server matter after having found new, “pertinent,” e-mails. They came from a laptop belonging to the estranged husband of one of Clinton's closest advisers, Huma Abedin, as police investigated whether he sent explicit text messages to a fifteen-year-old girl. Two days before election day, James Comey said it had found no evidence of criminality in the emails and again closed the case. Although it is hard to quantify the impact of Comey’s letter, polls shows that Clinton’s six-point lead over Trump eroded to just three after the episode.

While Clinton had a better funded and organized campaign, Trump’s anti-Washington establishment, anti-immigration, anti-globalization message appealed to white working class in key states and played a major role in his victory. In addition, Clinton supporters blamed Comey, Russian computer hacking, “fake news,” and the undemocratic nature of the electoral college for her defeat. Seventeen heads of U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that Russia had engaged in a systematic effort to influence the election in Trump’s favor, including the hacking incidents and the dissemination of “fake news.” The revelations prompted demands for an investigation by the new Congress in 2017.

Rather's Coverage of the 2016 Election

When campaign 2016 started, Rather made few uses of his Facebook account, with less than a million followers, announcing upcoming interviews or relinking newspaper articles he found interesting. Following the advice of his longtime producers Elliot Kirschner and Wayne Nelson, Rather decided to write what was on his mind about this unusual election year. While the advice was to limit himself to two paragraphs or less, or people will run away and never come back, Rather knew he needed a bit more space.

With five hundred words or more, his postings took a more personal tone, where he shared his passion for politics, laid out his worries and hopes about the future of the country and the state of the journalism which he saw under attack. He drew on his sixty years of experience as a reporter, providing context and points of reference to what was happening. As people struggled to make sense of this vitriolic campaign, they turned to Rather, who, unbound by any networks or commercial commitments, was (finally) able to speak his mind.

Covering the primaries, he analyzed the debates and talked about the "chasm between the base and the establishment" of both the GOP and the Democratic Party. He was revolted by how Trump encouraged violence during his rallies and his "fusillade against the press," a topic he came back to again and again. In an unprecedented move, the Republican candidate denied or revoked press credentials from several outlets, including the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Beast, the Des Moines Register, the New Hampshire Union Leader, Univision, and NPR, setting a dangerous precedent. Rather reported live from both conventions, celebrating sixty years of convention coverage, and pondered already in July 2016 if Trump was psychologically fit to be president. Rather correctly recognized that Trump's ability to dominate almost every news cycle gave him the edge in the election.

Most importantly, Rather warned about the dangerous rhetoric Trump used and the amount of falsehoods and lies he uttered. Although he regularly criticized the media for not doing a proper job of focusing on the issues, Rather remained a staunch defender of journalists, especially in light of Trump's attacks. As he repeated several times, freedom of the press is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the press plays a vital role in democracy, keeping politicians in check.

At eighty-five years old, Rather enjoyed a new notoriety and was invited to CNN and MSNBC. The Daily Beast called him “the only good newsman on Facebook.” He continues to report and comment on the Trump administration and the affairs of the country. In the summer of 2017, Rather's Facebook account reached 2.5 million followers.