'It Was Like A Sucker Punch'


Here are two interesting selections from Jan Crawford's rather amazing autopsy of the Romney campaign. First the expectations:

"There's nothing worse than when you think you're going to win, and you don't," said another adviser. "It was like a sucker punch." 

Their emotion was visible on their faces when they walked on stage after Romney finished his remarks, which Romney had hastily composed, knowing he had to say something. Both wives looked stricken, and Ryan himself seemed grim. 

They all were thrust on that stage without understanding what had just happened. "He was shellshocked," one adviser said of Romney.

And then the reasons for the expectations:

[T]hey believed the public/media polls were skewed - they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn't reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. 

That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night. Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks. 

Those assessments were wrong.

You heard a similar line of argument from people like Dean Chambers at UnskewedPolls. But I generally thought that the actual Republican numbers people, and certainly the numbers people in the GOP campaign, were sharper than this. If I were Mitt Romney I would much rather spend the days leading up to the election preparing myself for a punch, then to have myself "sucker-punched" by reality. In other words, it wouldn't be in my interest to have people around me believe the hype. On the contrary, I'd be really angry if I found out they had. Even buying the argument that the people behind the polling are somehow biased, how do you reconcile that with the fact that polls actually predicted Bush's win in 2004?
On some level it's hard to not conclude that the Romney campaign, and Republicans on a whole, were not simply ill-served by their media, and their experts, but they themselves were actually requesting ill service.

Ideology can place blinders on everyone, of course--I don't know how many liberal friends I've tried to talk out of their affinity for rent control--but the incentives for misleading one's audience are not evenly distributed across the left-leaning and right-leaning media. The Romney surge after the first debate didn't translate to a widespread liberal belief about systemic bias among polling firms, for example.

Much of the conservative media is simply far more cozy with the Republican Party than its Democratic counterparts (as exemplified by the numerous Fox hosts and contributors who moonlight as Republican fundraisers), which makes necessary detachment difficult. Having an opinion isn't an obstacle to good journalism or analysis, but no one wants to derail their own gravy train. Departing from the party line, particularly if one does so in a manner that seems favorable to Obama, would be to reveal one as an apostate, a tool of liberalism. There were independent-minded conservative analysts who diverged from this trend, but few were listening to them. 

 I think the business model theory works, but I would suggest that the problem lies not just with outlets like Fox but also with their audiences. That is, I think my original tweet, blaming the conservative media for misleading the readers who depend on them, doesn't capture the fullness of the problem. Conservative media lies to its audience because much of its audience wants to be lied to. Those lies actually have far more drastic consequences for governance (think birthers and death panels) than for elections, where the results can't be, for lack of a better word, "skewed."

The best way to understand the difference between liberal and conservative media and expertise is to think about the response, within  Obama's campaign and within liberal media, to his first debate performance. There certainly were liberals who thought he actually hadn't done that bad, and that the press had given him a raw deal. But there were others who thought he'd performed poorly. And the Obama campaign, itself, thought he'd performed poorly. My point here is there was debate, a fight, within liberal circles which didn't devolve into indictments of DINOs. There was no attempt to "unskew" reality.

There will always a market in self-delusion, and in a political movement, there will always be people who want to invest. But a political leadership investing in the business of "unskewing" is a school of oncology investing in the business of faith-healing.