For at least the past year, I have believed that this election would be a repeat of 2004 except in the other direction, and for the most part all year that has played out. Never has that been more evident than the initial post-election analysis, where we see that the Obama team utilized their ground game to perfection to do what everyone believed impossible – pull in new voters and similar numbers of blacks and youths as 2008.
In 2004, it was Karl Rove who was the master, able to rework an electorate in key battleground states like Ohio and Florida, to pull off a victory in the face of heavy disenchantment with the war in Iraq and in the fact of a 2000 election in which, not only did President Bush lose the popular vote, but many believed he would have lost Florida without the intervention of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.
It is with equal irony that one of the goats of the 2012 campaign was the same Karl Rove who somehow managed to spent $400 million without any apparent effect in a number of critical races. He was a believer until the end that Mitt Romney would win.
This to the point where, following Fox News’ (correct) call of Ohio for President Obama, Karl Rove on air confronted the network’s voting analyst team.
“What role was Karl Rove playing when he heatedly contradicted Fox News?” the New York Times asks. “Was he acting as the man who oversaw the most expensive advertising assault on a sitting president in history, unable to face his own wounded pride? The fund-raiser who had persuaded wealthy conservatives to give hundreds of millions of dollars and now had a lot of explaining to do? Or the former political strategist for George W. Bush, who saw firsthand how a botched network call could alter the course of a presidential contest?”
While Mr. Rove insisted that it was 2000 that prompted his act, “I had a concern about premature calls, and in this instance, the concern was shared by my Fox colleague Joe Trippi.”
The problem was he should have stopped to do some math before embarrassing his own network. A reasonable analysis of Ohio at one point by other networks suggested a huge discrepancy in uncounted votes between areas supporting Obama and areas supporting Romney.
Moreover, even if the networks were wrong on Ohio, Nevada and Colorado would have pushed President Obama to 270 and he was ahead in Virginia and Florida. In other words, it would have taken something like an inside straight flush on five states to save Mitt Romney – even if Ohio were wrongly called (again, a simple analysis showed it was not), it wouldn’t have mattered.
This was the problem, though, with Karl Rove – he was wearing too many different hats to be objective and detached.
The apparent fall of Karl Rove completed what had been an embarrassing display for the former anointed one.
Mr. Rove oversaw about $400 million in campaign spending, through outside groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, toward the presidential race and toward numerous Senate and House races.
The Huffington Post quoted an unnamed Republican operative who said: “The billionaire donors I hear are livid… There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do … I don’t know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing.”
Karl Rove, however, is hardly alone. A lot of Republicans were parroting the analysis by Dick Morris, who pronounced that there would be a landslide for Mitt Romney.
His basis for such a bold claim about a week out – that the polls were wrong. For instance, he cited polls in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, in which each of them showed a very slight lead for Obama, but each of them showed a wider partisan split with a 7 to 9 point advantage for Democratic self-identifiers over Republicans.
Mr. Morris argued that this somehow meant they were off by a “factor” of 8, suggesting that there was a 7 point disadvantage for Republicans in a state that normally gave them a one point advantage.
Now, usually one uses the term “factor” to indicate “multiplication” rather than “addition.”
Moreover, he curiously solved for that problem by simply adding eight points to Romney’s total and concluding that really means he is up 7 rather than down one.
Even if you really believed the polls were off, you could not use addition to fix them. As a long-time political consultant, Dick Morris should have known that – which suggests that he was not just mistaken, but spinning – or perhaps a word beginning with the letter “L” would be more appropriate.
No one critically called him on this at the time, but these pronouncements certainly created a false sense of optimism amongst Republican partisans.
To his credit, Mr. Morris acknowledged he blew it. He said, “The key reason for my bum prediction is that I mistakenly believed that the 2008 surge in black, Latino, and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to ‘normal’ levels. Didn’t happen. These high levels of minority and young voter participation are here to stay. And, with them, a permanent reshaping of our nation’s politics.”
What we have learned is that the pollsters pretty much got it right, their techniques were correct and any effort to have made assumptions about party ID – such as Rasmussen did – was bound to actually skew the results.
Conservatives would hang their hats on Rasmussen’s polls, but once again they were among the least accurate in the country, in part because they attempted to weight party ID and missed the mark, and in part because they are the only ones left who do not poll cell phone-only users.
Rasmussen was off by three nationally, by five in Virginia, seven in Iowa, seven in Wisconsin, seven in Colorado, and two in Ohio.
Rasmussen consistently had more Republicans in their samples than Democrats, and exit polls suggested that Democrats in the end outnumbered Republicans by six points.
As one report noted, one huge factor is that many former Republicans now identify themselves as independents. The other pollsters’ methodology enabled them to capture this dynamic, but by weighting the polls by ID, Rasmussen could not.
Clearly, Rasmussen is going to have to make some changes in their polling.
One of the things the polls were perhaps starting to capture was also the ability of the Obama team to do what Karl Rove had done eight years previously – remake the electorate.
“The GOP was blindsided Tuesday, but also revealed. The Democrats’ ground organization was beyond anything they’d imagined, pulling in new voters with stunning effectiveness,” the Huffington Post reported on Wednesday.
“I don’t think anyone on our side understood or comprehended how good their turnout was going to be,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican committee man from Mississippi. “The Democrats do voter registration like a factory, like a business, and Republicans tend to leave it to the blue hairs.”
But there is a bigger problem – the Republican party could not connect with ethnic voters. Blacks came out in even larger numbers than they did in 2008 and, predictably, went heavily for the President. Hispanics not only set new records for turnout, but voted for the President by a 70-30 margin.
And perhaps just as surprising was the fact that 72% of Asian voters voted for the President.
“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla).
And conservative blogger Erick Erickson nailed it, calling Mitt Romney’s approach to Hispanic voters “atrocious” and stating, “Frankly, the fastest-growing demographic in America isn’t going to vote for a party that sounds like that party hates brown people.”
Despite all of that, what I don’t get most is why Karl Rove forgot his own lessons from 2004 and waged a $400 million air war rather than a ground war. Karl Rove is probably too smart to fade into the background, but possibly he was never as smart as he thought he was.
—David M. Greenwald reporting