Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Postmortem Fun

Jill Lawrence over at National Journal writes up the Harvard campaign postmortem by organizing it around four things that, she claims, "changed the course of the race and possibly even of history." Via Ezra, who tweeted that "You can never know for sure, but I doubt any of these things would have changed the outcome of 2012."

Yup. All four are worth thinking about.

One is that without his back issues, Rick Perry might have run a much better campaign and been nominated. I think that's probably a plausible story -- but it's hard to see him doing a lot better than Mitt Romney in the general election. Well, let me back up a bit.

Beyond the fundamentals of the campaign, which seems to call for a narrow Barack Obama victory, it seems possible that Mitt Romney was somewhat hurt by the unpopularity of the GOP. But he didn't himself have a reputation to overcome as an ideological extremist; the party did, but he was somewhat shielded from that.

So the question is whether a GOP candidate could have emerged with less of an ideological problem. Could Perry? Seems very unlikely; his campaign was entirely based on going to the right of Romney, Pawlenty, and any other mainstream candidate.

What about Romney himself? Another items basically suggests that -- the possibility that Romney could have taken a more moderate position on immigration. But in fact Romney's immigration position was, if not entirely forced, certainly a logical reaction to where the energy was within the party. On immigration, as with every other issue, there just wasn't room for Romney to moderate and still win the nomination.

The other two points, I think, are even less convincing. Lawrence cites the Ames Straw Poll's roll in knocking out Tim Pawlenty, but I'm pretty sure that gets the causation wrong; Pawlenty did poorly in Ames because his campaign had stalled overall. Yes, I'm sure Romney's campaign was worried about Pawlenty; who else would they be worried about in spring 2011? But they beat him, and while Ames may have provided a marker, it's unlikely it was really an important causal factor.

Then there's Bain. Yes, it was a vulnerability for Romney, and may have even hurt him a bit, but every candidate has vulnerabilities. It's hard to, in the abstract, guess at whether a particular attack hurt a candidate more or less than some other hypothetical attack on some other hypothetical candidate.

I really need to write a post at some point about how to think about election results and the fundamentals when fundamentals models diverge some, as they did in 2012. But overall, the consensus of the models certainly pointed to Obama winning, if not by as much as he did. My general sense is that the key factor (most of) the models don't account for had nothing to do with the individual candidates and instead were about the GOP itself -- both its reputation for extremism, and its reputation for botching the economy and Iraq. I don't have hard evidence for that, but it's consistent with all the evidence I've seen so far, and my guess is that we'll see it when more careful studies of the 2012 election show up in a while.


  1. Arguably, Perry would have had less of an ideological problem precisely because he is a more hard-core conservative than Romney.

    Think about it. Romney spent the entire summer and beginning of fall (including his convention) still pandering to the right wing and trying to convince them that he was a true conservative.

    Perry would have not felt the need to do that. He could have had his "Etch-a-Sketch moment" right after sealing up the nomination, and ran a center-right campaign from the very beginning of the general election. Unlike Romney, who had to wait until the first debate to reveal Moderate Mitt.

    1. This assumes that Perry would have been somehow capable of running a center-right campaign.

      While both Romney and Perry are, in my view, fundamentally unprincipled hacks, Romney strikes me as being far more capable and dishonest.

      I don't consider Mittens to be a particularly bright guy, but compared to Perry, he's a genius. That might have made him a better, or at least more agile, campaigner. Plus, Perry might have had some sort of commitment to ideological roots that Romney clearly lacks.

      I just don't believe that what you are suggesting could play out in the real world with the real Rick Perry.


  2. I got on your case earlier in the year for not being more bullish on the Dems. I think the election results basically proved you right. Do you think that there is anything truly puzzling about the election results? Weak GOP, weakish candidate, pretty good incumbent -- and the incumbent wins what could fairly be described as a squeaker. I don't really understand what moves voters right now. I think we're developing a generation of people who believe that you can't do ANYTHING to get the needle past a 5 point victory -- but it was not always thus. FDR won by 25 points in 1936, Reagan won by 19 points in 1984. (numbers quoted from memory, could be wrong.) How did THAT stuff happen? How did Reagan win Massachusetts and New York? It seems like a different planet. Anyway, point being, this election yielded some puzzles IMO.

    1. It's true that there used to be landslides, and that the age of landslides seems to be over, thanks to increased polarization. But there were plenty of close races in the past, too. Compared with 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, and 2004, Obama's 3.63% margin (according to the latest numbers from Dave Wasserman's spreadsheet--and there are still uncounted votes in New York!) is not that much of a squeaker.

      And it was even less of a squeaker in the Electoral College--to win, Romney would have had to carry some state which he lost by at least 5.36 percent.

    2. ". . . the age of landslides seems to be over, thanks to increased polarization."

      Does polarization have to be symmetrical? Could an electorate be polarized at 60%-40%? Just thinking out loud.

    3. Polarization is not symmetrical.. The current GOP has no place for anything resembling a center right candidate - though low information center right voters will still vote for them.

      Look at the thoughtful Republicans who have bolted over the last 4 years, due to the insanity that has taken over a significant segment of the party. There is nothing like that on the Dem side.

  3. Perry brings the ideological baggage all by himself. It's hard to say that Perry is going to do better amongst minorities than Romney did, with a straight face, after remembering "n-word head." Plus, Romney looked like he was transparently lying to pretend he was conservative; Perry would have been just as transparent trying to move to the center.

    Plus, if we're going to allow for intangibles, how on earth does Perry avoid Bush comparisons? Perry on the ticket makes Obama's strategy simple: Bush, Bush, Bush.

    Andrew makes the point that only Nixon could go to China. But, one wonders if NOBODY in the GOP can go to China in 2012. Perry starts sounding moderate in April and I think there'd be a backlash, too. It's not as vicious as Romney would have faced, but Romney did his only at that first debate, and the bounce in the polls was enough to make Fox hold their tongues. However, Perry pivots in April, and the base wouldn't abide by it. The polls wouldn't move much at all (because nobody's paying attention to them in April), and then some commentators on Fox trying to sell more books by being more conservative than the next guy start jumping down Perry's throat.

    I tend to agree with JB here: the problem is party image. Romney the chameleon blended in with the party image. Perry is already that color to begin with.

  4. I have to laugh at the idea that Perry could have done better. The revelation of his back surgery explains some of his odd performances (the New Hampshire Cornerstone speech looks exactly like a combo of muscle relaxant and a bit of alcohol), but it's not enough to explain one example of policy ignorance after another after another. A regular person doesn't lose that much knowledge from moderate stress, insomnia, and painkillers. However, if you don't have the knowledge, it's hard to learn it quickly in those circumstances.

    Let's face it. Perry was just another idiot marionette from Texas. We've seen that kind before, and Perry shows all the signs of being an unsurprising repeat.

  5. I'm not sure I agree with this: "On immigration, as with every other issue, there just wasn't room for Romney to moderate and still win the nomination."

    But surely there was no reason for him to mention self-deportation as a policy? Going back to the timeline, Perry's "oops" moment was Nov 2011. Mitt Romney makes his self-deportation comment in a debate on Jan 24 2012. Why? Perry was toast and none of the others should've scared him. I don't buy that Romney had to go to the right of Perry to win. There was also the question of state tuition for illegals which Perry defended and the GOP base hated. That was in a debate in September. Surely that fact would've sunk Perry and Romney should've avoided making controversial statements on immigration. Whilst that may not be "moderation", he would've appeared more moderate by comparison with the other GOP candidates and may have benefited as a result. I certainly don't think that would've threatened his nomination. Perry was doing a good job of sinking his own candidacy and by the January debate Romney was certainly the favourite to win the nomination.

    Now, this may've ended up having no effect on the latino vote due to GOP branding problem, but I don't think Romney helped himself during the nomination process. I view it as an unforced error.

  6. Does a worse legislative deal for Obama around Dec 2011-Jan 2012 count for this? It's not exactly campaign-related; rather, it bears upon the fundamentals. But I still think a major turn that could have occurred was if House Republicans truly had dug in their heals and blocked a payroll tax cut extension, as well as some other quiet stimulus. There'd be a momentary uproar, but it would have creamed the economy through 2012, and by the fall, all anyone would be talking about would be Obama's failure to even have a recovery, let alone a weak one. Partisans would still vote as they would, but I think it's likely that all the low-info weak-partisans would swing GOP. The GOP nominee might have carried off a squeaker victory. I truly think McConnell and Boehner were ruthlessly correct in their strategy; they blinked a the very last moment.


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