One of Thursday's most attention-grabbing news stories was the slightly-sensational piece from CBS's Jan Crawford, that got unnamed campaign insiders to claim that Mitt Romney was "shellshocked" by losing the election on Tuesday.
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.This was a popular story in the liberal blogosphere, if only for its schadenfreude-tastic nature, but also because it seems to confirm the most fundamental stereotypes about Republicans: they believe their own B.S.; they live in a closed ideological bubble; they're so anti-science it extends to all forms of being anti-evidence, including the polling concerning the very thing they're trying to win.
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.
However, something doesn't smell right about the story: even with their attempts to unskew their own polling, the Romney camp had to have known they had no better than a bank-shot chance of winning. Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall shared some of my skepticism when he discussed the article, though he didn't connect the final dot. His contention:
Just too ridiculous. I can maybe believe that the Romney camp thought they had a fighting chance in Ohio — after all the final result was pretty close. I simply cannot believe that they thought they were in such a strong position that they were going to try for a decisive electoral college win.What's the final dot? The fact that we got a look under the hood at the Romney camp's pre-election internals, if ever so briefly. Remember the leaked Romney internals on Monday afternoon before the election? To start out, set aside the lack of specificity of the internals (no topline numbers, just vague descriptions of the margin in some states), and the unusual place it was leaked to (the Daily Mail, one of the UK's right-wing scandal sheets, though not a Rupert Murdoch property); also, forget for a moment that leaked internals are leaked selectively and leaked for a reason, and often reflect an absolute best-case scenario rather than the most likely state of play for a race.
What those internals said was that North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia were already "baked." They had Romney up 3 points in New Hampshire, 2 points in Iowa, and most importantly, 1 point in Ohio. No specific number was given for Colorado, though they said they were more bullish on Iowa than on Colorado. They also claimed a "tie" in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (although for all we know, that may have meant a "statistical tie," the ultimate poll-reporting weasel word). Sounds like a Romney slam-dunk, right?
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Well, no. Feed those numbers into an electoral vote calculator. If you give Romney NC, FL, VA, NH, IA, OH, and CO (even though no lead for Colorado was specifically cited), that gets him up to 285. Give him Ohio but not Colorado, he still wins with 276. Give him Colorado but not Ohio, though, and he only gets to 267. The entire house of cards is premised upon winning Ohio, a state where he had only a one-point lead. That could be compensated for by breaking the tie in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, though. So, in other words, the election came down to essentially winning one out of several coin flips, presuming everything else went as planned. It would appear to give him likelier-than-not odds, but not the kind of advantage where a reasonably informed person would be "shellshocked" for it not to happen -- and that's without even taking into consideration that virtually everyone else in the polling business was describing those coins as being weighted against him.
And then something else happened... on Tuesday morning, some other anonymous Romney staffer reached out to Politico's Glenn Thrush and walked the leak back. Thrush's two tweets on the matter read:
The Romney campaign now saying internals attributed to their pollster Neil Newhouse showing Mitt up in Ohio, tied in WI, PA "are incorrect"
Romney spox, just now in an email: "The numbers attributed to [Neil Newhouse] are incorrect, hence, not his."They didn't walk back the leak in order to substitute better polls -- better than the previous ones which indicated only a coin-flip chance of winning -- which is what a confident campaign would do. They simply withdrew the polls. Unless the subsequent walkback was a very strange way of messing with our heads, though, it was an open admission that they didn't have any actual polling that optimistic. The leaked polls had been a mirage, probably whipped up for a last-minute boost of reassurance to get their likely voters to the polls the next day. And since the alleged polls weren't that optimistic in the first place -- merely indicating that Romney had a puncher's chance in Ohio and a potential alternate route through Wisconsin -- to those capable of reading between the lines, the walkback seemed like a confession that they got nothin', and were about to lose.
In addition, factor in the stories that emerged on Thursday about the Romney GOTV operation, based around linking volunteers' smartphones with a centralized computer. Code-named ORCA, it spent most of Thursday afternoon stuck on the beach, having crashed repeatedly. Politico's Alex Burns and Maggie Haberman, in describing the level of fail, cited multiple people calling it "flying blind." Even if you were feeling confident going into Tuesday thanks to your polls, you would not feel confident coming out of Tuesday while having no idea how your GOTV operation performed -- any more than a pilot would feel confident landing his plane with a shorted-out instrument panel despite having had a perfectly level flight.
So why on earth would Team Romney, in CYA-mode following the election, start flogging the story to credulous media enablers that they were "shellshocked" by the results? It boils down to two alternatives for Romney's camp, neither of them good, both of which would be the basis for claims of political malpractice. Option A: admit that you were operating in a bubble, that your pollsters were making faulty assumptions, and that despite the fact that your pollsters were coming up with numbers that didn't look like anyone else's, you were so reliant on gut feelings about voter enthusiasm that you didn't bother to seek a second opinion. (That's the CBS article, in a nutshell.)
Or Option B: admit that your data looked much like everyone else's and that you're smart enough to know that all along that you were losing, but that the rules of the game prevented you from publicly admitting that. That's partially because, via the 'bandwagon effect,' it might depress turnout, but mostly because it would depress contributions from big money donors who don't want to waste their money -- thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because you then wouldn't have the money you'd need to even have a shot at winning.
Team Romney might be falling on its sword here and choosing Option A -- even though it has the effect of demolishing what remained of his pragmatic numbers-driven wonk brand, making him look like a self-absorbed fool selectively listening only to yes men -- because Option B would be even more unthinkable, in terms of Republican hopes for future races.
Do you think that the Sheldon Adelsons of the world would be willing to open up their checkbooks for future races, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, when they find out that they've simply been lied to about Republican chances in order to keep the dollars flowing? Remember, these are guys who've been promised that they were getting the unvarnished truth about the campaign -- the platinum-club insider access -- and now they're finding out that they're getting grifted, just as standard campaign operating practice. (As you no doubt know, Karl Rove is having parallel problems with his American Crossroads donors.)
As much as we'd like to think so, Mitt Romney isn't dumb, and he's a good Republican soldier. He isn't running for anything else, so he can afford to feign ignorance and act like this was a one-time convergence of bad polling and self-delusion on his part. It's better for the overall Republican brand for Romney to briefly make himself look ridiculous one last time, than to admit to the billionaire donor class that they just threw hundreds of millions of dollars down a rathole while being kept in the dark about their actual odds, and that it's just as likely to happen to them again in 2016.