The Biggest Surprise of the ’12 Election | | 11.12.12

A day or two before the election, U.S. News opinion editor Robert Schlesinger and I exchanged predictions to the percentage point for both tickets.

Robert is the son of former John F. Kennedy presidential speechwriter and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., so you can imagine his preference, as you can mine. I’m a former Reagan presidential speechwriter. Our prognostications paralleled our hopes. Or you might say that Robert’s forecast reflected great insight and prescience. Mine did not.

I sat in on a phone briefing from Gov. Mitt Romney’s pollster late last week. He conveyed considerable confidence about how things were breaking. Yes, the campaign had concerns about Virginia, something I had also heard a month earlier from another senior Romney aide. But the pollster sounded confident they could deal with it. Other states once thought securely in the president’s corner were in play. So even if Virginia fell to Barack Obama, Romney had back up states. To win, he no longer needed to run the Florida-North Carolina-Virginia-Ohio table. This was going to be a different election than anyone had anticipated.

Well, it sure was that. How many states that could have been Romney’s went to Obama?  I’ll spare you the list. You know the rundown and repeating it will just depress me. Several more surprises emerged from the balloting.

The first had to do with those faulty internal Romney polls. Apparently the campaign had not the slightest suspicion how wrong their data was. As a result, it now appears their late-in-the-game media buys were misplaced, their scheduling of the candidate was mistargeted, and their level of spending was miscalculated. They fumbled their way through the last few weeks even as they faced what now appears to have been, according to Time magazine , the most sophisticated exercise in political targeting and strategic planning in American history.

This brings up Tuesday’s second big surprise, maybe not a surprise for you, but it was for me. It had to do with turnout. Yes, I’ve heard all the talk about groups whose numbers surged. The president enjoyed an enormous and—to everyone except his campaign staff—unexpected turnout of African-Americans, Latinos, and young people. That’s not the surprise I have in mind. Mine is this: given the ballooning of the minority turnout for Obama, how did Romney come within 2.6 percentage points of the president, almost a tie, in the popular vote?  Why wasn’t the popular vote a blowout?

You see, for me the real surprise was the enormous and unexpected drop-off in the overall vote from 2008, about 9 million ballots, most from the president’s backing, though Romney’s total fell nearly one million short of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s.  Where’d those voters all go?

Presumably these were people, mainly white, who had become disenchanted with Obama but couldn’t bring themselves to pull the lever (or whatever we do in a voting booth these days) for Romney. The conventional wisdom now is that the Obama campaign poisoned the well with their over-the-top negative advertising.

I wonder, though, if Romney’s problem began much earlier, going back four years to the view of him as an unreliable flip-flopper, the sense that he would take any position to get to victory. I do not believe that caricature. Yet I am confident that a significant portion of his potential supporters never shook the feeling and was unsure what he would actually do once elected. The president spoke to this unease when he called Romney a “salesman.”

Related to that problem is one American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olson has been talking about for some time now—that Romney had a problem in states like Ohio with whites who had not gone to college. They just didn’t relate to him—or maybe more accurately, they didn’t believe he related to them. Add the skeptical issue voters to the distrustful high-school-and-out voters. I’m betting that together they total enough uninspired voters to make up most of that disappearing nine million.

Here is how I sort it all out.

Despite the technical flaws in the Romney campaign and the superb execution of his own, President Obama could have been beaten. The country was ready to hear another message. That’s why Romney surged so strongly after the first debate. But the governor’s themes hadn’t come together until the convention and not with sufficient depth and clarity to move votes until the first debate. Romney’s message wasn’t clear enough for long enough to convince enough disillusioned-with-Obama voters that they could trust him. So, many of them stayed home.

At the end of the day, the salesman didn’t make the sale.

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