Why Romney Never Knew What Hit Him

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 9 2012 9:15 PM

Why Romney Never Saw It Coming

He was the numbers guy. But in the end his numbers were all wrong.

Mitt Romney (C) talks with campaign advisors Stuart Stevens (L) and Eric Fehrnstrom.
Mitt Romney talks with campaign advisors Stuart Stevens (left) and Eric Fehrnstrom on a chartered airplane.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

How did the Romney team get it so wrong? According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents. The Romney campaign thought Obama’s base had lost its affection for its candidate. They believed Obama would win only if he won over independent voters. So Romney focused on independents and the economy, which was their key issue. The Republican ground game was focused on winning those voters. “We thought the only way to win was doing well with independents and we were kicking ass with independents,” says a top aide. One senior adviser bet me that if Obama won Ohio, he would donate $1,000 for every point that Romney won independents to my favorite charity. (That would be a $10,000 hit since Romney lost Ohio but won independents by 10 points). In the end, Romney won independents nationally by five points—and it didn’t matter one bit.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign was openly dismissive of the Obama ground game. Why are they wasting so much money with neighborhood offices, they asked? (In Ohio, for example, Obama had almost 100 more offices than Romney.) In retrospect, the Romney team is in awe and full of praise of the Obama operation. “They spent four years working block by block, person by person to build their coalition,” says a top aide. They now recognize that those offices were created to build personal contacts, the most durable and useful way to gain voters.

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Romney advisers say it was impossible to compete against Obama’s huge war chest. They also envy his ability to leverage the presidency for his campaign. Young voters were told about new provisions for student loans and Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, an issue that appeals to young voters. Hispanic voters were wooed by the president’s plan to waive the deportation of children of illegal immigrants. One Romney aide also included the much-debated changes to welfare requirements as a policy aimed to win over African-American voters. “It was like they had a calendar,” said one Romney aide. With each month, the Obama administration rolled out a new policy for a different segment of their coalition they hoped to attract. 

Though Romney said he was “severely conservative,” it was the Obama team that played its hand conservatively. They, too, planned for fewer Democrats to show up at the polls, but in their case it was so that their campaign organization would work twice as hard. On election night in Ohio, when turnout exceeded their intentionally conservative estimates in some districts, they knew that they’d win the state 45 minutes before the networks called it. 

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio. During the summer, they targeted more than 2 million voters who had not voted in party primaries. Those were the independents they believed would be the key to the race. Since the strategy seemed to be paying off with internal and external polls showing Romney leading among independents, the Romney team felt like they were working their plan. “We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. "We could never see that coming. We thought they'd gotten a lot last time." But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

In the post-election analysis, the Romney ticket’s problems with Hispanic voters are well-known. During the primaries, Romney ran so far to the right on immigration he lost a platform to even woo Hispanic votes. But African-Americans are treated as if they are in a category altogether unaffected by the campaign. They were going to vote for Obama no matter what. There’s a little John Sununu-like thinking in this. The former New Hampshire governor suggested that Colin Powell was supporting Barack Obama because of his race. (When Condoleezza Rice said that the party sent “mixed messages,” that must have been what she was talking about.)  It’s worth noting though, that if you were an African-American voter, there were plenty of other reasons to vote against Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. Donald Trump has loudly championed that idea that Barack Obama is illegitimate. It was a goofy charge, but one that has cultural resonance with a segment of society whose members have often been discriminated against through  the types of disqualification-hunts that Donald Trump engaged in so vigorously. Mitt Romney embraced no other fundraiser with as much public gusto as he did Trump. The energetic attempts by Republicans in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida to limit voting in a way that disproportionately penalizes African-American neighborhoods might also have helped turn out the Democratic base. What role these acts played is not entirely clear, but it certainly didn’t hurt the Obama team’s effort to inspire African-American voters.

If you’re basing your entire campaign on white people, it leaves you little margin of error. That's where Romney’s troubles as a candidate hurt him. An operative in Ohio also admitted that the Obama abortion ads hurt Romney with women in the Columbus area. So too did the "Romney will raise your taxes on the middle class" ads and the ads attacking his tenure at Bain Capital. Romney couldn't afford to lose any of the white vote, and he did. Since the attacks came at a time when he was short of cash, he was not able to respond adequately.

In the final 10 days of the race, a split started to emerge in the two campaigns. The Obama team would shower you with a flurry of data—specific, measurable, and they’d show you the way they did the math. Any request for written proof was immediately filled. They knew their brief so well you could imagine Romney hiring them to work at Bain. The Romney team, by contrast, was much more gauzy, reluctant to share numbers, and relying on talking points rather than data. This could have been a difference in approach, but it suggested a lack of rigor in the Romney camp. 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.  In the end, the numbers guy was deprived of his numbers in more ways than one.

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