Why the Romney campaign got it wrong

Puzzles intrigue me, whatever form they take. This is to explain why I am revisiting what might seem to be a dead issue: the question of how it could be that the Romney campaign could have been taken by surprise by their loss in 2012. How it could be that they seemed so confident right up until election night that they were going to win? Romney later said that the first sign he had that he was in trouble was late on election night when Florida’s result took a long time coming. He had thought he would win that state easily. But how could that be since even casual observers like me realized well in advance that things looked bad for them?

It is possible that they all knew that they were going to lose and were simply lying in order to boost the morale of their supporters and keep the campaign contributions flowing. This was a popular theory but I was not convinced. It is usually the case that staffers leak the truth after the election. Within a couple of weeks after the 2008 election being over, McCain campaign insiders were saying that they had long known that the game was lost. So I waited for a while but now eight months later, there have been no such revelations from the Romney campaign, persuading me that they seemed to have truly believed what they were saying publicly and been genuinely shocked by the outcome. So what could have led even the polling professionals within their campaign to misread the situation?

Although the TV talking heads could yak all they wanted to about what they predicted from the number of lawn signs and the like, it is always the case that the campaigns have statisticians, reality-based numbers people, who are not seduced by vacuous talk of the political pundit class and whose role it is to tell the candidates the unvarnished truth. The poll numbers seemed pretty clear for quite a while before the election that he was going to lose and the statisticians within his campaign surely must have known this.

It turns out that, as is often the case, it was not the raw numbers that are the problem but the models that are used to analyze them. Statisticians use auxiliary data to create various ‘screens’ to analyze the raw polling data to see who are the people who will actually vote on election day, which is what counts. You could use ‘registered voters’ (a straightforward but not a particularly reliable guide since many registered voters do not vote), ‘likely voters’, or ‘very likely voters’ (both based on what respondents say about their intentions and their past voting histories). It appears to have been the case that while the results of applying the first two screens favored Obama, the ‘very likely’ screen favored Romney. And in that analysis, they agreed with internal Democratic analyses

Democrats had argued for months before the election that Republican polling was screening out voters who would ultimately turn up to support Obama. In fact, Obama advisers said, if you applied a tighter likely voter screen to Democratic polling — counting only the very likeliest voters as part of the electorate — you could come up with results similar to what the GOP was looking at.

But the Republicans were wrong in their model that this was an election in which enthusiasm was low and hence the third screen was the best predictor. Why did they think this? They felt that the 2008 election that swept Barack Obama into office was driven by enthusiasm for a young, charismatic candidate that attracted young and minority voters in huge numbers and that this would not be repeated in 2012 because by now Obama would be seen as just another politicians who had not delivered on many of the hope and change promises.

They felt that there was a marked drop in enthusiasm for Obama since 2008 since he had disappointed blacks with not really improving the economy or creating jobs, Hispanics with not pushing for immigration reform, and liberals and progressives and young people with his poor record on civil liberties and human rights and war. Furthermore the significance and novelty of electing the nation’s first black president had worn off, leading to further lack of enthusiasm. Hence they thought that only the very likely voters would turn out on election day.

But what went wrong for them was that minority voter turnout was at historically high levels in 2012, confounding expectations. This seemed to have taken the Romney campaign totally by surprise.

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio. During the summer, they targeted more than 2 million voters who had not voted in party primaries. Those were the independents they believed would be the key to the race. Since the strategy seemed to be paying off with internal and external polls showing Romney leading among independents, the Romney team felt like they were working their plan. “We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. “We could never see that coming. We thought they’d gotten a lot last time.” But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

So what happened to cause them to go so badly astray? This issue of the minority vote and how the Republicans deal with it is going to be the big divisive issue within the Republican party for the next election, as I will discuss in an upcoming post.


  1. atheist says

    It may be true that the strength of the black vote took them by surprise in 2012. I’m afraid that the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act may aid the GOP in squelching it again. We’ll see.

  2. A Hermit says

    This tells us why the Republicans are so happy about that Supreme Court decision; fewer people voting is better for them.

  3. Chiroptera says

    It’s probably true that the tradional base of the Democratic Party was very, very unenthused over Obama. Then the Republicans decided to run a nationwide campaign based on chaotic evil, and that fired up the enthusiasm pretty well!

  4. says

    In other words, it’s not the Democrats voting for Obama that the Republicans didn’t take into account, but the Democrats voting against Romney?

  5. tubi says

    I think that’s a huge part of it. I was really that enthused with Obama heading into 2012. i probably still would have voted for him, but was apathetic about it. Many others would likely have stayed home, or abstained, as I did in 1996 for Clinton-I voted for the House and Senate and local races, but left the President/VP fields blank.

    Then the GOP belched up a primary slate of absolute lunatics, who seemed to be competing to see who could say the craziest, most divisive thing each morning. Once Romney came out as the nominee, I thought, are they effing kidding me? This guy’s not fit to be dogcatcher. And I started making calls on behalf of Obama, writing letters to the local paper, etc.

    The amendments on the Minnesota ballot had an effect here as well. Progressives came out in force to defeat both and that certainly helped Obama, although he probably would have won the state either way.

  6. Corvus illustris says

    It turns out that, as is often the case, it was not the raw numbers that are the problem but the models that are used to analyze them.

    The aggregators who got very good odds for Obama–Nate Silver and a couple other, less-well-known people–operated by combining the results of many polls, by looking at the polls’ track records, and by running simulations. This approach kept them relatively independent of choice of model. It is possible that the Reps were just wedded to a single model, but I would bet on their problem having been pure hubris: the aggregators’ results were out there on the internet–early on–for everybody to read, but the Romney gang Truly Believed that their anointed-of-the-lord couldn’t possibly be doing that badly. They made their own reality, with the usual results.

  7. says

    it is always the case that the campaigns have statisticians, reality-based numbers people, who are not seduced by vacuous talk of the political pundit class and whose role it is to tell the candidates the unvarnished truth.

    Maybe, but this premise could be questioned here. Romney had a reputation for being a real-world numbers guy, but do we really know that he wasn’t just a CEO rewarding people who told him what he wanted to hear?

  8. Stephen Emge says

    Also the Republicans have gone a long way towards disenchanting even their own voter base by appearing too connected with big businesses and banks which people feel gave us our the financial predicament we’re in now. Who would want more of that?

  9. Corvus illustris says

    Romney had a reputation for being a real-world numbers guy, but do we really know that he wasn’t just a CEO rewarding people who told him what he wanted to hear?

    The Reps’ track record with “real numbers guys” has been poor from St Ronald onward: Stockman had to be silenced (of course, he’s totally off the wall now) for exhibiting even moderate competence, and more recently we’ve had the MBA GWB’s tax cuts combined with wars (2 of them!) on credit, as well as the innumerate Paul Ryan. Romney is IMO much better explained by his asserted belief in his own superiority, combined with a need for stroking to quiet persisting underlying insecurity.

  10. lcforevah says

    Why is it that everyone has forgotten Anonymous’ claim to have rescued Ohio’s results from the machinations of Karl Rove? I agree that Obama saw numbers that no one expected, but if Ohio would have given the electoral votes to Romney, things would be very different today. Given Rove’s reaction on Fox News, I think we can all agree that something DID happen, and Romney’s personal confidence may have been based on what he was promised; that Ohio would be his. In short, his confidence wasn’t on the numbers, it was on the expected chicanery.

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