Part 1: What Didn’t Cause Mitt Romney to Lose
Last week, I posed three big questions about why advocates of free markets and limited government don’t seem to be able to gain support among the young, racial minorities, and city dwellers. I’m going to get to my own answers soon. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who posted comments on the article at TracinskiLetter.com giving some interesting suggestions. I promised to weigh in on the comments myself, then promptly came down with the flu that’s going around at my kids’ school. I will finally be getting back to that in the next day or so.
Also, my apologies to a few people who tried to post but were blocked. It’s possible this is a side-effect of the filter I had to put on the comments field to prevent an influx of (literally) thousands of comments informing me and my readers about how we can make money working from home or buy discount medications without a prescription. The filter blocks the spam-bots, but it may also be blocking some readers.
Before I get to my own answers on those issues, I would first like to clear the way by returning to the question of why Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. The two questions are obviously separate—Mitt Romney’s prospects and the prospects for free markets and limited government are not one and the same.
Now is a good time to revisit the election loss—and then put it behind us—because there is more information available, and because there are also a few dubious popular explanations that have sprung up that need to be dispelled.
First I want to warn you against what happens every time your side loses an election. Every faction in the party comes forward to declare that if only the rest of the party had followed their agenda more consistently, then our candidate would have won. Given my own persuasion, I heard a lot of this sort of thing from my Facebook friends, who argued that if only Republicans had given up their “Medieval” religious agenda, or dropped opposition to immigration, or embraced legalization of marijuana, then we would have won the election. While I am predisposed to like these arguments, both in the ideological sense and in the Facebook sense, I have to douse them with the cold water of reality.
As a matter of actual electoral calculations, there are two basic fallacies here. The first is to look only at the voters you believe will switch to your party if you change course on these issues—and to ignore those who will abandon your party if you change course on these issues. A pro-choice Republican candidate, for example, might pick up the votes of more young, single women, but how many Catholics and Evangelical Christians would he lose? Dropping opposition to immigration might pick up some of the Latino vote, but how many in the traditionalist, nativist wing of the party would storm out in protest? Legalizing weed would pick up some smoke-wreathed libertarians but lose some of the primmer Republican moralists.
The other fallacy is to assume that voters who care about these issues choose their party loyalties based only on those issues—for example, that single, young women vote Democratic only because of abortion. Imagine a voter who is pro-choice, secular, pro-immigration, and opposed to the War on Drugs. Aside from few hundred thousand libertarians and Objectivists, most of the people who fit this description are also ideologically committed to the welfare state. Then remember that in this election the economy, the size of government, and the future of the welfare state were the big central issues, while everything else was secondary. So I doubt enough of these voters would have switched sides—certainly not enough to offset the corresponding defections from the Republican “base.”
So while all of these things are good policies, and we can advocate them on their merits, it’s harder to support them with the opportunistic, pragmatic argument that they will make a big difference in winning elections. Especially because the moderate, me-too, establishment Republicans are busy trying to do the same thing, pinning blame for the election loss on all of those crazy, far-out conservatives who forced Romney to “move too far to the right” in the primaries.
Another big misconception about the election is the role of “big data.” This silliest part of this is the emerging cult of Nate Silver, the number-cruncher for the New York Times who successfully predicted that Obama would win and whose book sales shot up after the election. Yes, but a lot of other quantitative models made the same prediction, and more to the point, you would have gotten the same result just by going with the state-by-state poll averages at RealClearPolitics—which were just plain old regular averages, with no fancy statistical calculations applied. These state polls are the actual raw data that everyone else’s models were working from, and we knew all along that if the state polls were accurate, then Obama would win. This is all Silver fed back to us out of his black box calculations, except that he added to them a pseudo-scientific gloss of false precision, declaring at one point an “85.1% chance” that Obama would win.
A more substantial version of this appeal to “big data” is something that was revealed only after the election: the Obama campaign’s successful effort to take data mining techniques pioneered by online retailers and use them to identify supporters, raise money from them, and get them out to the polls. The Romney campaign’s efforts in this regard, by contrast, were primitive and poorly tested and ended up crashing on the morning of Election Day. The Obama campaign was understandably quiet about this during the election, because they didn’t want to give away any secrets, but they eagerly chased after the press to tell the story when it was all over.
That eagerness should encourage us to take this story with a little grain of salt. The folks who developed these systems are understandably trying to take all of the credit for the election victory because they now want to sell their services to the next round of congressional campaigns and to the next Democratic presidential campaign. But this was clearly a real advantage and future Republican campaigns are going to have to figure out how to play catch-up, especially because they won’t be able to attract the same number of pathetic bearded hipster gnomes from Silicon Valley.
And yet, Barack Obama got fewer votes than he did in 2008, when he had less data and his efforts to mine it were less sophisticated. So “big data” was used to stanch his losses, not to build his support. He is, in fact, the first president to be re-elected with fewer popular votes and fewer Electoral College votes than when he was elected. Usually, a politician’s re-election is an affirmation of his success in office, and he ends up winning over voters who were skeptical the first time around. Reagan in 1984 was a big example, and his landslide that year cemented voters’ long-term shift to the right.
No, the notable feature of this election is not Obama’s improved turnout, but Mitt Romney’s un-improved turnout—his failure to improve on the vote totals for John McCain four years ago, at a historic low ebb for Republicans. Put simply, there were millions of voters who turned away from Barack Obama but who didn’t turn toward Romney, and millions of Republicans who stayed home rather than vote for McCain four years ago, who stayed home again this year. And all of this despite the expectation, after the rise of the Tea Party movement, of greater Republican enthusiasm.
And with that poor turnout, we are reaching the hard piece of data that gives us the real answer to how Romney lost the election, which will allow us to figure out how to revive the electoral prospects of the free-market cause.
The best analogy I have heard for the election is that it was Bizarro 2004.
This article will be concluded in the next edition of The Tracinski Letter.