There is an old political consultant adage: never run the same political campaign twice and expect the same outcome. The same should hold for prognosticators. Yesterday, for the most part, we got it wrong. We did so because I made some faulty assumptions. President Obama captured reelection by running an entirely different campaign than the one he and his team executed in 2008, and his 2012 strategy fit the needs of the candidate -- and the times -- perfectly.
In late September we wrote a widely-quoted piece saying that Romney emerged from the primaries as a damaged and flawed candidate, a candidate that the Obama campaign beat to a virtual pulp with spring and early summer advertising painting the Governor as an out-of-touch elitist. The ads worked, and Romney stumbled through the convention and early Fall with several rhetorical missteps and his infamous 47 percent comment. At that time we said that only a great first debate could save the GOP nominee. Well that's exactly what happened, and what followed was a surge.
We thought the voting electorate this year would look like it did in 2004. We thought GOP turnout would exceed Democratic turnout. It did not. And the electorate? Well, guess what: it's changed. A lot. The 2004 turnout models didn't work in 2012. Of course we tweaked the models... but they needed a lot more than a tweak. Sandy probably blunted some of Romney's momentum but what really stopped it was Romney's continued inability to obtain a reasonable vote share with key constituent blocks, including black and Hispanic voters, young people and the working class. Quite simply: he failed to gain the trust of those voters. Completely. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters thought Obama "cared more about people like them." You don't win elections when you're losing a core metric like that.
People talk about the "math" being wrong for the GOP. From an empirical perspective, that's true. After 2008 we wrote that Republicans won't be winning too many national elections if they're only getting 30-35 percent of the Hispanic vote. It's hard to believe, but Romney actually did worse with Hispanics than McCain, getting only 27 percent of the vote according to the exit polls. But this isn't a math problem, it is a message problem. Hispanic and black voters simply do not trust Republicans.
Here are some of our flawed assumptions:
- We thought young voters would not turn out at the same level as 2008. They did. In fact, they represented 19 percent of the electorate per exit polls -- as high, if not higher, than four years ago.
- We said that Democrats would not be +6 over Republicans and if they were, Obama would win. Well, they did and he did. Again, exit polls say Democrats were +6. Romney needed the proportion of Republicans and Democrats to be even to win.
- We thought minority turnout would be lower than 2008. It was not. In several important precincts in key states, minorities voted in numbers equal to -- and in some cases better than -- four years ago.
- We thought Romney would win Independents by double digits. He won them, but by just five points.
- We thought Romney would have a huge gender advantage among men; it was only seven points. Meanwhile, the president won women by 12 points.
- We thought Romney would dominate on being "better able to handle the economy." He only beat the President on this issue by a few points. Not enough.
Exit polling data also showed that most people continue to blame George W. Bush for the country's current economic condition. The President's team was masterful in getting that message out over the last four years. Team Obama also used the abortion issue to their advantage (as Republicans have done in the past) and this helped drive up the base vote.
The president's team ran a base election, just like the 2004 Bush campaign. The economy improved just enough and Obama ran a strong campaign with few strategic and tactical errors (other than, of course, that first debate). And, perhaps most importantly, the Obama campaign defined Mitt Romney before he ever had a chance to define himself.
In a sense, Romney won the campaign he ran. He won 59 percent of white voters. He probably won two-thirds of white men. But in this day and age that isn't enough. And it will be a mistake for Republicans to think that the issue is one of simple math. It is the message. It is about how you talk to people. It is about promoting policies that matter. It is about trust.
We will have a more comprehensive post-election analysis next week.
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Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008, but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.