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What Happened In Ohio?

I had a long election day and not just because of the ultimate results.  Yes, I was part of the now infamous project ORCA.  So I spent 15 hours in a polling location focused on marking off voters.  Unlike others, I had few problems and assumed my work was being used in Boston and Columbus to help win Ohio.  Whatever became of the data I was focused on producing, however, Ohio did not flip (nor did Virginia, Colorado, or ultimately Florida) and the election was called a mere 12 minutes after 11pm.

This was disturbing not just because of the impact President Obama’s reelection will have on the country (although that is the most important concern) but also because I had really believed Romney could pull out Ohio and swing the election.  I had even gone so far as to put my prediction or arguments down in writing at NRO’s Battleground Ohio Blog.

“Punditry fail”, as the kids might say these days.  So, first let me just get that out of the way: I was wrong.  The polls and the leftist/Democratic activists were right about what the electorate who showed up to vote would look like.  I wanted to wait to write this post not because I was embarrassed about being wrong, I admitted I was wrong on Twitter the next day, but because I wanted to let the dust settle and gain a better perspective on what happened.  Much of the immediate reaction was emotional and based on faulty data and assumptions.  Having had some time to read some analysis and see the data we have I am ready to offer some initial ideas about went wrong.

For those of you too lazy to click below: this was a narrative/identity election not an ideological one and Romney lost the narrative and failed to motivate key undecideds and low energy Republicans while Obama motivated his base and managed to increase turnout in a few key segments.

For more of my take on what happened and why I was wrong keep reading.

My argument for a Romney win came down to weather he cleared some basic hurdles, a sort of elections 101 test, and then what the turnout would be.  In a series of posts I laid out why and how I thought Mitt Romney positioned himself to win Ohio.

He provided voters with a clear rational for why he was running, reassured them that voting for him was not a risk, and — with help from President Obama — unified the conservative base without having to give up appeals to the center.

I then went on to tackle the critical topic of turnout:

I don’t have the chops of Josh JordanSean Trende, or Dan McLaughlin, so I won’t attempt to repeat their careful analysis of the polling and its history. But they all agree it comes down to a basic question. Do you believe Democratic turnout will match or exceed 2008?

If you think it will, it seems likely that the president will eke out a victory by winning Ohio and other key states. If you think turnout is more likely to land somewhere between 2008 (D+5) and 2010 (R+4) then Romney is likely to win Ohio and the presidency.

I have not heard any compelling argument for Democratic turnout to match let along exceed 2008.

Obviously, I got the turnout aspect wrong but not completely or as badly as it might seem.  Obama did lose support and turnout was not as strong as it was in 2008 nationally.  But the critical curve ball I didn’t see coming is that Romney wouldn’t get the support from some key voters that John McCain had managed to receive.  I, like most Republicans in Ohio, just flat out assumed based on what we were seeing that McCain was a floor for Romney and he just needed to increase turnout a notch or two above that to win.

What happened? I think I screwed up in my second argument.  Romney had not convinced enough undecided voters that he was not a risk; or more clearly that he was worth showing up to vote for on Tuesday.  Urban and blue-collar whites simply stayed home and allowed Obama to roll up large enough margins in critical counties to win.  Add in increased African-American and younger voter participation and you have the margin Obama needed.  See useful posts from Christian Heinz and Byron York.

And speaking of York, I agree with his speculation on what happened:

There are several theories about those missing white voters, but the most plausible is that the ones who were undecideds or weak Republicans were deeply influenced by Obama’s relentless attacks on Romney in May, June, July and August. A steady stream of negative ads portrayed Romney as a heartless, out-of-touch rich guy, and Romney didn’t really fight back. The missing white voters didn’t like Obama but were also turned off by the Republican, so they stayed home.

This is where I went wrong.  It wasn’t because I was in a conservative bubble (in fact I pushed back against the crazy idea that Romney was headed for a landslide and insisted it would be a narrow win if Romney won) but because I misinterpreted the success Romney had after the first debate as applying to undecided and low energy voters in the same way it had to the GOP base.

I assumed Romney would equal McCain and then add in more support from evangelicals and others determined to unseat Obama.  This combined with a drop of support for the president would equal a narrow victory.  The energy and support I was seeing in Central Ohio and some key GOP counties was real enough but it was not widespread and deep enough.  In the large urban counties of Cuyahoga and Hamilton Obama got the turnout he needed and Romney did not.

And this gets to the inevitable arguments over ideology in the wake of an election loss.  Conservatives and liberals are sparing over policy and ideology (immigration, abortion, taxes, etc.) but this is not at the heart of what happened.

In my opinion, Romney lost not because he was a mushy moderate who couldn’t motivate the base or draw a sharp contrast with Obama but because he was successfully portrayed as a rich jerk who would fire you and ship your factory to China; an out of touch plutocrat who couldn’t possibly relate to your life or understand the challenges you faced.  [And ironically, things were actually getting better (albeit ever so slowly) in some key areas in Ohio.]

This narrative or identity was locked in over the summer, I believe, and the success of the first debate falsely convinced me that opposition to Obama, and Romney’s strength with independents, would be enough to overcome this hurdle.  Romney seemed likable and solutions oriented and the party really believed he could win.  But in reality, as the first debate faded hundreds of thousands of potential GOP voters still were not motivated to vote for Romney.  They weren’t going to support Obama, but they were not going to turn out for Romney.

The 2012 presidential race in Ohio came down to two simple things. Ohioans are not really happy with President Obama. Ohioans still like him better than Mitt Romney.

Ohio truly is a swing state (I laid out some of the challenges here) but the bottom line is that candidates matter.  Mitt Romney’s background and personality were going to be a challenge no matter what.  Obama successfully defined him in some critical voters minds early and Romney never overcame that attack.

In further posts I will lay out why I think this narrative and communications challenge is the critical one at the presidential level and political or ideological debates are less so.

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