11/13/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

The Most Astounding Thing About This Election

The astounding 2012 presidential election ended four days late Saturday when President Obama was finally declared the winner of Florida's 29 electoral votes, raising his total to 332 against Mitt Romney's 206 and assuring him a margin of more than three million popular ballots. As astonishing as Obama's victory and big electoral vote margin were, considering the still-sick state of the economy, the most astounding thing about this contest was neither of those things.

It was, to me, the fact that on election night Romney was "shellshocked" by his loss, as one unnamed adviser told CBS News. The New York Times confirmed Romney's complete surprise, reporting that he behaved "as if trying to make sense of a defeat that seemed to genuinely startle him," according to people who attended a breakfast with the loser the morning after. The man who once boasted of "wallowing" in data adding: "I love data ... I want to see all the data," totally ignored the mountain of data to the contrary, and really thought he was going to win.

Incredibly, his top advisers did too. "It was like a sucker punch," one told CBS News. "We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory," said another. "I don't think there was one person who saw this coming."

It is hard to imagine how that is possible, given the fact that out of a dozen national polls taken the day before election, eight of them showed Obama winning the popular vote by anywhere between one and four points, two were tied, and only two showed Romney winning, both by just one point.

Moreover, 26 day-before-election polls in ten potential battleground states (including Michigan and Pennsylvania, which most observers had long conceded to Obama) showed the president overwhelmingly ahead: Obama winning Ohio, a state universally deemed essential to a Romney victory, in four out of five polls (the fifth, reliably Republican Rasmussen showed a tie); Obama taking Virginia in two out of three polls (with only Rasmussen dissenting); and two out of three polls showing Florida, another state deemed essential to a Romney victory, tied, with the third showing him ahead by but a single point.

Furthermore, four leading poll aggregators, Nate Silver, Fred Wang, Andrew Tanenbaum and Josh Putnam all predicted large electoral vote victories for Obama. Their average forecast was 312 electoral votes for Obama vs. 219 for Romney, which, as it turned out, was too generous to the loser. On election day, Silver, the best known of them, rated Romney's chances of victory at less than 10 per cent.

How could anyone who reads the newspapers, much less a self-acknowledged data-driven candidate and his whole staff, ignore such a mountain of data? CBS News reporter Jan Crawford explained it this way:

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...

Crawford says the Romney campaign miscalculated by 1) misreading turnout: "The president's base turned out and Romney's did not;" 2) failing to understand that many voters who told pollsters they were independents were, in fact, former Republicans, so "state polls weren't oversampling Democrats and undersampling Republicans" there just weren't as many Republicans because they were calling themselves independents, and (3) anticipating winning the undecided vote, which ended up going to Obama.

Whatever the reasons, this is only the latest example of human beings' incredible capacity to fool themselves when they desperately want to. And still another reminder that today's Republicans, from the data-driven on down, live on a different planet from the rest of us, with dangerously little regard for facts.

That point was further illustrated by the number of Republican pundits who predicted a Romney victory, including George Will, Peggy Noonan, Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Barone and Dick Morris. Will, Gingrich, Limbaugh, Barone and Morris went much further, forecasting a Romney landslide that turned reality on its head by reversing Obama's and Romney's electoral vote totals.

Unfortunately, it's long since become a habit for Republicans to ignore reality. Sometimes they even boast about it. Remember when an unnamed "senior adviser" to President George W. Bush (my guess is it was Mark McKinnon) told reporter Ron Suskind back in 2004 that:

... guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued... when we act, we create our own reality."

Not this time.

UPDATE: I contacted Mark McKinnon after posting this blog and he emphatically denies that he was the source of the above quote. I guessed wrong. Sorry about that.