Posted by: Chris | November 11, 2012

Romney Had No Idea

At least according to CBSNews:

Romney and his campaign had gone into the evening confident they had a good path to victory, for emotional and intellectual reasons. The huge and enthusiastic crowds in swing state after swing state in recent weeks – not only for Romney but also for Paul Ryan – bolstered what they believed intellectually: that Obama would not get the kind of turnout he had in 2008.

They thought intensity and enthusiasm were on their side this time – poll after poll showed Republicans were more motivated to vote than Democrats – and that would translate into votes for Romney.

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 Romney camp had lined up a fireworks display to celebrate the victory and even prematurely launched a transition website.  The candidate himself truly did only write a victory speech, as he had bragged to reporters, and was forced to scribble out his concession speech around midnight.

Apparently, they were under three misimpressions, all of which had been debunked by the combination of political scientists, pollsters, and statisticians commenting on the election:

1. They misread turnout. They expected it to be between 2004 and 2008 levels, with a plus-2 or plus-3 Democratic electorate, instead of plus-7 as it was in 2008. Their assumptions were wrong on both sides: The president’s base turned out and Romney’s did not. More African-Americans voted in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida than in 2008. And fewer Republicans did: Romney got just over 2 million fewer votes than John McCain.

2. Independents. State polls showed Romney winning big among independents. Historically, any candidate polling that well among independents wins. But as it turned out, many of those independents were former Republicans who now self-identify as independents. The state polls weren’t oversampling Democrats and undersampling Republicans – there just weren’t as many Republicans this time because they were calling themselves independents.

3. Undecided voters. The perception is they always break for the challenger, since people know the incumbent and would have decided already if they were backing him. Romney was counting on that trend to continue. Instead, exit polls show Mr. Obama won among people who made up their minds on Election Day and in the few days before the election. So maybe Romney, after running for six years, was in the same position as the incumbent.

In truth, undecided voters do not consistently break towards challengers (late deciders went for Obama in 2008 and Bush in 2004).  Independents are not synonymous with swing voters.  Instead, they are an amorphous category that has swelled with disaffected Republicans since 2008 (indeed Republican-leaning independents are more conservative than Republicans).  Most damning, pollsters are agnostic to a priori turnout models: they simply let the likely voter screen guide their projection of the breakdown of the electorate, which turns out to be much more accurate.  In fact, the only pollsters assuming a specific turnout result were Rasmussen and the Romney internal team, both of whom badly misread the election:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate.

All of this belies the image Romney, at his most persuasive, tried to portray to the American people: that of a competent manager and a sophisticated consumer of data who would be able to cut through the bullshit and turn the country around.  Instead, he commissioned faulty polls and isolated himself in a bubble of misinformation.  Rather than invest early in infrastructure and field offices, they stockpiled their funds for a last-minute push that made little difference in the polls.  When they did spend, the campaign did so recklessly, waiting for the last minute to buy TV ads at a hefty premium, for instance, which allowed the Obama campaign parity in advertising despite the disparity in funds.  Their ground game was predicated on software that was never field-tested or explained to volunteers and was rolled out on the day of the election (and promptly crashed):

 On Election Day, the whole Romney ground-game flopped apart. ORCA, the much touted- computer system for tracking voters on Election Day, collapsed. It was supposed to be a high-tech approach to poll-watching, a system by which campaign workers would be able to track who voted. Those who had not yet voted could therefore be identified and then have volunteers tasked to finding them and getting them to the polls. ORCA was supposed to streamline the process, but it was never stress-tested. Field operatives never saw a beta version. They asked to see it, but were told it would be ready on Election Day. When they rolled it out Tuesday, it was a mess. People couldn’t log on and when they did, the fields that were supposed to be full of data were empty. “I saw a zero and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be seeing a zero,” said one campaign worker. A war room had been set up in the Boston Garden to monitor ORCA’s results, but in the end Romney and Ryan had to watch CNN to find out how their campaign was doing.

By contrast, the Obama camp planned months ahead and invested deeply in data-gathering, modeling, and analytics to guide the campaign’s actions:

Obama for America made what Messina called an “unparalleled” $100 million investment in technology. The reelect, said Messina, would be different than 2008 — a time when the iPhone was in its first iteration, when Facebook was one-tenth of its current size, and when the Obama campaign sent just one tweet on all of Election Day (“We thought it was a stupid technology that would never go anywhere,” said Messina).

Under Messina — the metrics-obsessed brain behind the operation — the campaign once defined by ideals and hope and change, became all about the data.

“We were going to demand data on everything, we were going to measure everything,” he said during the panel. “We were going to put an analytics team inside of us to study us the entire time to make sure we were being smart about things.”

Every night, Obama’s analytics team would run the campaign 66,000 times on a computer simulation. “And every morning,” said Messina, “we would come in and spend our money based on those simulations.”

Their models ultimately predicted Florida results within 0.2%, and Ohio within 0.4%. The only state they got wrong, noted Messina, was Colorado, “where we got one more point than we thought we would.”

The Obama campaign was able to do that, he said, because it turned away from mainstream polling from shops like Gallup, which he called “wrong the entire election” — specifically, in their prediction that fewer minorities and young people would turn out to vote.

“We spent a whole bunch of time figuring out that American polling is broken,” said Messina. “We never did a national poll. We only did local and state polls.”

The Romney campaign, by contrast, put heavy stock in the national tracking polls.  The New York Times reported a similar gap between the campaigns capabilities:

In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night.

That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla. “It’s one thing to say you are going to do it; it’s another thing to actually get out there and do it,” said Brian Jones, a senior adviser.

Ultimately, the picture emerges of two campaigns: one a metric-obsessed business with its eye constantly on the bottom-line; the other a inefficient and insular bureaucracy, making decisions based on anecdotes and good vibes.  Its only fitting that the former won.



  1. Nice summary. The Orca debacle made me cringe (as a programmer)

    Pedantic note – “Its only fitting that the former one.” – s/one/won

  2. Good catch. Will fix.

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