David Axelrod was feeling upbeat. Over an oatmeal breakfast late last month with an old friend at one of his favorite Chicago haunts, the talk was mostly about family and Axelrod’s beloved Bulls. The conversation turned to the campaign. He said he liked the way “the argument was being framed” against Mitt Romney, recalls Chris Sautter, a longtime Democratic strategist, who worked on campaigns with Axelrod in the late ’80s and ’90s. A few days before, The Washington Post had published an explosive story about how, under Romney’s stewardship, Bain Capital had invested in companies that shipped American jobs overseas. It was just what the Obama team needed as it sought to transform Romney’s image from a can-do businessman who would turn around the economy into Gordon Gekko, a rapacious capitalist more interested in profits than creating jobs. Armed with stinging soundbites and a raft of ad copy aimed at painting Romney as an avatar of the 1 percent, the president’s top political strategist left straight from breakfast to hop a flight to Iowa, where he would join Vice President Joe Biden on the trail.
But by nightfall, a little anxiety had crept in. Axelrod had wandered down to the bar of the Waterloo Ramada Inn to have a drink with one of Biden’s top political strategists, Mike Donilon. Peering over Donilon’s shoulder at a large TV set, he watched an ominous cascade of attack ads—the vast majority of them aimed at his boss. The torrent—largely funded by super PACs, the newly minted vehicles for unlimited independent spending born of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—seemed out of season. “Holy smokes! Is this June or mid-October?” Axelrod asked Donilon, astonished by the onslaught this early in the cycle. “The volume of ads was unreal,” Axelrod later said in an interview with Newsweek, “and it’s only going to get worse.”