By Jeff Mason
CHICAGO (Reuters) - On the day after the 2010 midterm election that swept Republicans into control of the House of Representatives and decreased Democrats' majority in the Senate, senior White House adviser David Axelrod had a message for President Barack Obama.
"I think they just planted the seeds of your re-election," he told his boss.
"The most strident voices had seized control of the Republican Party and you knew that the nominee who would emerge either would come from that Tea Party base or would have to yield to it in order to be the nominee," Axelrod told Reuters.
That nominee ended up being former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Obama's campaign went on to exploit his ties to the conservative wing of his party and outmaneuver him to victory in the November 6 general election.
Axelrod, who left the White House to oversee strategy for the president's 2012 campaign, and fellow Democrats attribute Obama's decisive win on Tuesday to Obama and to a consistent strategy that sidelined Romney in key swing states.
An early and effective effort to define the former private equity executive as unfriendly to the middle class, a superior ground operation to get out the vote, and a deft response to missteps by Romney and his allies helped Obama overcome his own perceived weaknesses in presiding over a slow economic recovery.
"They successfully made this a choice election as opposed to a referendum on the president and the economy," said Michael Feldman, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Vice President Al Gore. "They also used the critical months between the end of the (Republican) primary and the general election to better define Mitt Romney than the Romney campaign did."
That defining process turned out to be key.
In the spring and summer, Obama's campaign used a massive advertising package to highlight concerns about Romney's tenure as the head of Bain Capital and pounded the multi-millionaire executive for refusing to release several years of his personal tax returns.
The Romney campaign's slow response to that onslaught and failure to neutralize the criticism over his tax returns baffled Obama's Chicago team.
"Their inability to respond to attacks that they knew were coming, I think, was a major mistake on their part," said one Obama campaign official. "If they had made a decision they weren't going to release his taxes, they should have had a plan around how to deal with that."
MESSAGING, POLICY, GROUND GAME
Obama's campaign made mistakes, too. The president's first debate performance was widely panned and would have been blamed by many for his defeat if he had lost to Romney on Tuesday. Democrats' slow acceptance of the financial influence of outside groups known as Super PACs was also cited earlier in the year as a strategic misstep.
But Obama's strength on the ground and effective messages - which Republicans viewed as particularly negative - made up for those weaknesses.
"They had a ground game that they worked on for five years," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist who advised Romney.
"It's unusual for an incumbent president to run such a negative, divisive campaign, but they pulled it off."
Axelrod cited Romney's secretly taped comment that 47 percent of Americans were reliant on government, conservative policy positions on immigration and taxes, and his selection of budget hawk Paul Ryan as a running mate as key factors that tied him to the right and turned off mainstream voters.
"I think it was a mistake," Axelrod said of Wisconsin Representative Ryan's selection. "I think it was a way for (Romney) to coalesce his base and get through his convention."
In an election that was determined by the fight over swing states such as Ohio, where jobs tied to the auto industry are critical, Obama's team also deftly highlighted Romney's opposition to Obama's auto bailout and his published opinion piece that suggested Detroit, Michigan-based companies should be allowed to fail.
"Whoever decided that they should use the phraseology 'Let Detroit Go Bankrupt' should probably not get employed as a political consultant again," said an Obama campaign worker. "It definitely has haunted them in Ohio in a big way."
Obama ended up winning Ohio and most of the battleground states that he and Romney both coveted, granting him another four-year term.
(Editing by Claudia Parsons; and Jackie Frank)