Lots of stories have started to come out delving into Romney’s defeat. One of the most interesting is this CBS article reporting that Romney and his senior advisers had no inkling that they were going to lose:
“We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” said one senior adviser. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”
I always believed that the Romney strategists were just blowing smoke when they talked about momentum and expanding the playing field and whatnot. They were telling a story for Fox News and Limbaugh and the rubes, so that no one would give up hope. Create the illusion of momentum, and maybe the illusion becomes reality. They must have understood that the Nate Silvers and public polls of the world weren’t wrong, that Obama had multiple paths to victory and Romney almost none. That’s the way I’d set it up in a political novel; in Senator, the campaign manager and the pollster are the ones who see through the fog of the campaign war and understand exactly what has to be done to win. Here’s an article by Steve Benen from six weeks before the election that makes the case that this had to be what was going on inside the Romney campaign.
Indeed, if internal Republican polling, which presumably wouldn’t be part of the larger conspiracy, showed Romney with a consistent lead, he and his campaign wouldn’t feel the need to constantly reboot itself with new messages. Just the opposite is true — if they were confident they’re winning, Team Romney wouldn’t see the need to change course at all.
But apparently Steve Benen and I got it wrong; Republicans, even at the highest levels of the campaign, believed their own message, and they mentally “unskewed” the data so that it fit their narrative.
As a result, they believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn’t reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.
Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.
The mistakes they made in their assumptions were obvious even to me, who just follows politics as a sideline. For example, the fact that Romney was winning independents simply meant that more Republican were calling themselves independents nowadays; therefore, there was no reason to think the polls were undersampling Republicans.
There is a natural tendency in an election race to want to believe in your own cause, as Matthew Yglesias points out. But these strategists are presumably paid to have a clear-eyed view of reality. Did they fail because they just weren’t very good strategists? Or did they fall prey to what Benen and others refer to the “epistemic closure” of modern Republicanism, in which people seem to “unskew” reality so it aligns with their own deeply held beliefs, constantly reinforced by Fox News and talk radio. Tax cuts raise revenue. Voting fraud is rampant in America. Obama is an America-hating socialist.
If the strategists at the top can’t get it right, what hope does the Republican party have?
Anyway, the next time I write a political novel, I’m clearly going to have to dumb down my characters; these people just aren’t as smart as I thought.