One more time: (Political) life is stupider than fiction

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.

What makes Mitt Romney happy?

In this post I pondered the weirdness of Mitt Romney not planning his taxes in such a way that he could release his returns just like every other candidate and head off the inevitable suggestion that he was hiding something.  How could a smart guy who has been running for political office for 20 years not take care of this?

Now the next stage of the taxes drama is playing out, with Harry Reid suggesting that Romney didn’t pay any taxes at all for the past 10 years.  This is a pretty ballsy move coming from a prominent Democrat; here‘s a pretty funny summary of the state of play.  Is Reid simply lying?  Irresponsibly repeating an unsubstantiated rumor?  Dunno.  But it keeps the issue in play for at least a few more days.  And any politician with half a brain would know that something like this would happen.  Romney can fulminate all he wants about how this is undignified and unfair, but the response is obvious: Release the returns, like everyone else, and prove Reid wrong.

Will this have an effect on the election?  Dunno.  I wouldn’t have expected the Swiftboat attacks against Kerry to have any traction in 2004–and neither did Kerry.  But they did.  And this issue obviously helps the Democrats define Romney, and keeps him on the defensive.  It’s hard to see a downside.

So how did Romney get himself into this fix?  Before, I attributed it to a failure of imagination on Romney’s part.  To take that a little further: It seems to me that what Romney knows, what he is good at, and (most important) what makes him happy is pretty simple: making money.

The political thing–that comes out of a sense of obligation: to his religion, to his family, maybe even to some deeply held principles (although that seems like quite a stretch).  He has been spectacularly successful at making money, but so far has been only moderately successful as a politician.  And that’s because politics calls on a bunch of skills and traits that he doesn’t really possess.  (His recent trip to the UK highlighted some of those problems.)

I spent a long time pondering what makes politicians tick when I was writing Senator.  The best nonfiction book I have read about this is What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, which I devoured when it came out in 1992.  It was a flop at the time, but has apparently managed to become a classic since then. And deservedly so!  Cramer got inside the heads of the people who were running for president in 1988 in a way that I found  engrossing and somehow even thrilling.  What remains with me is the randomness of the motivations that got them to where they were.  In particular, I remember his portrait of Dukakis.  Someone once said that Michael Dukakis was born to be governor of Massachusetts.  But here he was running for president.  Why was he doing that, when he already had the only job he had ever wanted?  It turned out that he didn’t really know himself.  There was a kind of logic to it, as presented to him by his aide John Sasso, that he was simply unable to resist.  The logic brought him the nomination and, if he had been a slightly better campaigner, slightly different from who he really was, it might have brought him the presidency.  But ultimately he didn’t quite have what it took.

Romney is starting to remind me of Dukakis.  There is a logic to his campaign that is going to bring him the nomination, and it might even bring him the presidency.  But if he loses, it will be because he too doesn’t quite have what it takes–as a politician, and as a human being.  Running for president doesn’t come naturally to him, and that’s why he keeps getting tripped up–by his taxes, by his tenure at Bain, by his comments on the London Olympics.  He must find it frustrating–the way Dukakis must have been frustrated by the Willie Horton attacks and the response to his debate response about the death penalty.  But that’s life at the top.