The Romney loss revisited

It is easy to say that the Republicans lost the presidential election in 2012 because their nominee Mitt Romney was a lousy candidate. And he likely was. But I think that we pay too much attention to the personality of the candidates and not enough to the structural features of campaigns, and it is the latter that I want to focus on.

In my post last week, I described how the Romney camp’s own sense of their chances of winning were so badly off. There is a lot of incidental evidence that they were not merely putting on a good face for an impending loss. For example, they spent a huge amount of money on the transition team to take over from the Obama administration. Furthermore the plutocrats who backed him also seemed sure that he would win.

It has become clear that the Romney camp’s unfounded optimism about their chances in the 2012 election was due to their sense that this was to be a low-enthusiasm election and that only the very likely voters would go to the polls. If that happened, then analyses by both Republican and Democratic statisticians agreed that Romney would win.

The problem might have been that rather than taking their chances that enthusiasm was low and that fewer people would go to the polls, the Republican party pushed aggressively to help their prophecy come true, vigorously pursuing voter suppression efforts (such new voter ID laws, purging of rolls, misleading information, reduced early voting hours and locations), especially in swing states so that only those who were highly determined would go to the polls.

This turns out to have been a bad miscalculation. People seemed to be so outraged at these attempts that it may have produced the reverse effect, making people more determined to vote than before. Indeed election day saw long lines of people in minority dominated areas expressing their determination to wait as long as necessary to vote. Voting rates for Obama among African Americans, Latinos, young people, and Catholics met or exceeded 2008 levels.

There were some other factors. It is clear that we are now in an age of micro-targeting of voters where campaigns can collect so much data about you personally that they can predict with high probability how most people will vote, sometimes before the people themselves have consciously decided. This leads to less emphasis on changing people’s minds (what we normally think of as the purpose of campaigns) and more on keeping ‘your’ voters in your camp (by giving them information that solidifies their tendencies) and then getting them out to vote.

For example, I got no presidential election literature this past election from either camp and that is likely because both parties likely knew from all the data they had on me that there was no chance in hell that I would vote for Romney and that I would very likely vote for Obama. So why waste any time and money on me?

Sasha Issenberg explained to Stephen Colbert on how campaigns use data mining to identify their supporters and ‘shaming’ to goad them to voting.

(This clip aired on November 5, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

As a result, the emphasis has shifted to sophisticated get out the vote operations on election day. The Obama operation’s system called Narwhale seemed to have been carefully checked and performed exceedingly well on election day while the highly touted Romney campaign’s Orca was a debacle of mammoth proportions. (See also here, here, here, and here for more on how Orca went terribly wrong.)

I think this data mining ability, which is only going to get even more sophisticated, is going to change the nature of campaigns significantly by narrowing the targeted population to a tiny fraction. We already know that campaigns write off entire states even before the election starts. Now they will be writing off almost all the electorate even in the states they compete for. We will have campaigns where most of us are bystanders, except for the act of voting. The nature of the candidates is likely to become even more of an incidental factor than it is now.

So while Romney the candidate was less than charismatic (to put it mildly), I think it is fair to conclude that the Romney loss could largely be blamed on their mishandling of the voter enthusiasm issue and weaker get-out-the-vote system.

Now that the Supreme court has pretty much gutted the Voting Rights Act, the Republican party sees a clear path to implementing even more drastic voter suppression efforts. It will be interesting to see if this will backfire on them again like it did in 2012.


  1. machintelligence says

    All of these tactics, both legal and illegal, work only where the numbers are close. For the last few election cycles they have been, but that could change. The Republicans are looking at structural and demographic trends that they have no notion of how to counteract. Barring major changes, I don’t see them winning the presidency any time soon. They will continue to have limited success at the state and local level.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Barring major changes, I don’t see them winning the presidency any time soon. They will continue to have limited success at the state and local level.

    Hence the movement in some of the red states to award electoral votes based on individual gerrymandered Congressional districts.

  3. says

    I wound up sharing a car to the airport with a republican appointee who thoroughly expected that Romney would win. She spoke about it with the same level of confidence I’d expect to hear when someone was talking about the sun rising on the morrow. And I was asking her over and over, “are you kidding?”

    It seemed to me that the election was pretty much of a done deal early on, but that the media played along with the overall horse-race because there weren’t enough hollywood breakup stories that were more worth running.

  4. raven says

    In my area, Romney signs outnumbered Obama signs by about 10 to 1.

    Romney got 35% of the vote. This is about the same percentage if the GOP had run a rat, chicken, or UFO alien for president.

    While Romney supporters were glassy eyed fanatics, there weren’t very many of them.

  5. says

    One thing I remember from the 2012 election was Team Obama folks on foot in my neighborhood several times in the weeks leading up to the election, asking questions and offering help in voting and just talking to people and being friendly in the neighborhood. This was a lower-class mostly black neighborhood, with enough older folks in it who were proud to vote for Obama and to encourage their neighbors to do the same.

    In 2008 I lived in a upper-middle class mostly white neighborhood with plenty of older folks. I talked to a Team Obama person there too, never saw anyone from McCain’s campaign. Obama’s campaign worked harder for every possible vote both times, the Republicans not so much.

  6. Chiroptera says

    One thing I noticed in my red state area: there were a few more Obama signs this time around than Kerry signs in ’04, and A LOT fewer Romney signs than Bush.

  7. Cathy W says

    On Election Night, I happened to be watching Fox News when they called Ohio for Obama and got to see Karl Rove react, live and un-commentated. That was absolutely genuine. He was shaken. I think Karl Rove had believed down to the core of his being that Romney was going to win Ohio.

    My inner cynic has a kind of uncharitable theory about why he believed that…

  8. Corvus illustris says

    … there was no chance in hell that I would vote for Romney and that I would very likely vote for Obama. So why waste any time and money on me?

    Depends on how close the odds look in Ohio. Unless there are data that (e.g.) exclude a Jill Stein vote for you, it might have rewarded the Romney camp to push you in her direction. The analogue may have happened in Florida 2000.

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