June 14, 2013
Rick Santorum (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Rick Santorum (Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Press file photo via Getty Images)

This seems to be the week for Republican candidates to advance theories for why Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama last year. We have Rick Santorum saying that the problem was that Mitt Romney didn’t play “you didn’t build that” correctly, and Paul Ryan saying that the problem was that it was too hard to run against Obamacare because it just sounded so gosh darn appealing to everyone.

Never mind that it’s a little hard to see how Santorum would have been able to spin “didn’t build that” as a slap at workers, not employers, without actually agreeing with Obama … and never mind that Ryan was saying the opposite during the campaign.

The real point is that electioneering in general, and “message” in particular, virtually never make that much of a difference in presidential elections. The brutal truth is that most of us are partisans who (whether we admit it or not) eventually are going to back our party’s candidate — and those who aren’t partisans tend to pay only marginal attention to the election, and are mainly swayed by general perceptions of such “fundamental” things as peace and prosperity. The bottom line is that most fundamentals-based projection systems predicted a small but solid Obama victory, and that’s what we got.

As John Sides explains in some detail, even things that certainly seem as if they would overwhelm those things, such as major ideological shifts by candidates and parties, just don’t seem to — because a lot of voters don’t even notice things that seem perfectly obvious to those who do pay very close attention to electoral politics.

Of course, one good reason that people give false reasons for election results is that they sincerely, if mistakenly, believe them. Another reason, however, is that they’re trying to sell you something. We see that all the time from winners who claim “mandates” for specific policies that most voters never heard of, or blanket mandates to do whatever the winner wants. But here, it’s members of the losing party offering reasons (perhaps) to construct a stronger case for their 2016 candidacies. It’s certainly their right to do so. But I wouldn’t advise taking explanations from politicians of why the voters did what they did very seriously.