The Romney campaign’s own polls showed it would lose

October 8, 2013

Mitt and Ann Romney after his concession speech on election night. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Immediately after the November election, all of the reporting suggested that the Romney camp was in total shock.  “Shell-shocked,” said one news report.  It quoted a Romney senior adviser saying, “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”

Well, that wasn’t true — even within the Romney campaign.  In “The Gamble,” Lynn Vavreck’s and my new book on the 2012 presidential race, we report that the Romney campaign’s own internal data showed that it would lose. We write:

One senior Romney strategist told us that his simulations based on the campaign’s internal polls gave Romney an 18% chance of winning by the end.

This same strategist told us that these simulations never showed Romney being more likely to win than Obama, even after the first debate when the polls narrowed.

This is a very different story than what emerged after the race.  Then, the story was that the Romney campaign and the Republican party had bad polls:

Sources familiar with Romney’s polling say that it underestimated the Democrats’ 6-point voter identification edge, nationally, and put far too much stock in what one Republican operative called “false signs of Republican enthusiasm.” Multiple Republican pollsters also acknowledged that they misjudged how many young people and minorities would show up to vote.

And maybe Romney’s polling did underestimate how well Obama would do.  But it didn’t forecast that Romney would win.

The bigger problem within the campaign seemed to be that some strategists put folklore and instincts before their own data.  Another passage from “The Gamble”:

“We’re picking up steam,” a tired but enthusiastic Romney campaign staffer told Vavreck in September. “The rallies seem really energized. People love him. We’re going to win this thing!”According to a top Romney strategist, staff who traveled to battleground-state rallies from the campaign’s Boston headquarters came back and said the same thing as Election Day approached. One staff member who attended a rally in Philadelphia said, “That is not what a losing campaign looks like.”

Of course, there was no reason for the Romney campaign to say publicly that it was losing.  Losing campaigns always put on a brave face.  But after losing, the surprise and dismay within the Romney campaign seemed to stem less a failure of its own polls and more from a failure to let those polls take precedence over instinct and subjective judgment.

You can buy “The Gamble” here, and read more about it here.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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John Sides | October 8, 2013