The first time I got Joel Benenson on the phone Tuesday night, we got interrupted a little. Joel is Barack Obama’s chief pollster, and it was 10:12 p.m. Chicago time.
I know that, because that’s when the screaming began.
“I have time to talk,” Joel had been saying into the phone. And then there was this shrieking and shouting and roaring in the background that can only come from people who thought they were too tired to shout that loud but found out they weren’t.
“They just called it for us!” Joel yelled into the phone. “We’re over the top! I’ll call you back!”
I looked at the TV. NBC had just projected Obama with enough electoral votes to win re-election to the presidency.
Not that Joel had been worried. (I call him Joel and not Benenson because that would be too weird. I have known Joel and his brother for decades now and consider them both friends.)
Joel’s polling had not shown the spikes and valleys that the media narrative had said existed. There were good moments — the Democratic convention and Mitt Romney’s remarks about how 47 percent of Americans thought they were victims who were entitled to such luxury items as food, housing and health care — but there were also bad moments like the first presidential debate.
“But it wasn’t volatile no matter what the (public) polls and chatter said,” Joel said when I reached him backstage at McCormick Place before Obama made his victory speech. “The old model that says the undecideds will break for the challenger is no longer true. We knew we would get our share.”
And Obama did not have swings of mood. He didn’t need to, but he probably wouldn’t have had them anyway. It was the same “no drama” Obama, the same guy who maintained his composure no matter what.
“That’s the guy I know,” Joel said. “He stays focused on the mission. I never saw him any other way. We had a lead, we had an edge, and we never relinquished it.”
Obama’s polling showed him with an aggregate 3-4 percentage point lead in the battleground states, and so election night contained excitement, but not a lot of mystery for Team Obama.
But why? Why did Obama win considering how bad the economy was and considering that his opponent could match him dollar for dollar and then some?
“We went through the second and third debate with the same winning, rational message, and it was economic,” Joel said. “Who would fight for middle-class Americans? People didn’t trust Romney, they didn’t think he was on their side, and they didn’t think he would fight for their interest.”
And something else, though this might not show up in polls, and I’m not sure Joel agrees with me. But at Obama speech after Obama speech, the same thing would happen.
“We love you!” somebody would shout from the crowd.
“I love you back,” Obama would say.
Did people shout, “I love you,” to Mitt Romney? Maybe. But I don’t think it happened a lot.
I read Joel a passage from Bill O’Reilly’s appearance on Fox News Tuesday night. It was hours before Obama won, but O’Reilly could read the writing on the wall.
“People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” O’Reilly said. “The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
If you can shrug over a telephone, Joel shrugged. “It’s not some new notion that the demographics of America are changing,” he said. “And it has not been sudden. Since the early ’90s, we have seen those changes.
“The population changes. The Republican vote model imagined that it would be 2004 again (when George W. Bush won re-election.) But 2004 was eight years ago, and America doesn’t stand still. And it’s not all about demographics. It’s about who makes my life and my family’s life better.”
And that is where Barack Obama won. A majority of voters trusted and believed in him. Or maybe it was a plurality. As Joel and I talked, it still wasn’t clear whether Obama would get to 50 percent in the popular vote, though Joel believed he would.
“You know, the last Democrat to get 50 percent in two elections in a row?” Joel asked. “Franklin Roosevelt. And you know the last president to get 50 percent in two elections in a row? Ronald Reagan.”
And then he had to go.