Here’s a question: How does a politician know what direction to turn if they don’t even know where the hell they are?
This is not a riddle. This was the state of affairs in Boston this past week. And probably the week before that. And the week before that.
This is because the GOP’s resident poll guru, Neil Newhouse, got the model wrong. Very wrong.
Now, polling is hard, and getting the model wrong can happen. But here’s the scary side: The Democrats didn’t get it wrong. They got it pretty much dead right.
Around Washington, D.C., where these types hold court, Mr. Newhouse is described as a traditional, old-fashioned pollster; a textbook man with decades of experience. This is nice talk for using the same old methods. Which is nice talk for out of date, behind the times.
That would maybe be alright, and not a campaign killer if it blighted both sides equally, but here’s that scary side again: The Democrats aren’t out of date or behind the times. They’re pretty much defining them.
This is how Barack Obama’s campaign was organized: The data guys were in the center and every office surrounded them. And on the state level, they didn’t just have communications directors, political directors and so forth: They had data directors.
The Democrats respect their data nerds. In fact, they put a lot of emphasis on them.
Meanwhile, conservative analysts from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal, charged pollsters and other data men with missing the forest for the trees.
The idea that the true spirit of the times is lost in the data — and that zeitgeist and math are mutually exclusive — is a romantic sentiment, reminiscent of the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, who wrote, “But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.”
But the only thing that got extinguished on Tuesday was the GOP’s chances of stopping President Obama from barreling ahead with his agenda in the next two years. In fact, “snuffed” might be a better word.
And these mistakes were not rare or isolated. Some of the best and the brightest the right has to offer came to the same conclusion all around the country. And on Tuesday night, they looked like jerks.
But they’re not alone either. There has been a lot of chatter this election cycle about how much money was spent. Between Karl Rove’s Republican empire and Charles Koch’s libertarian empire, hundreds of millions of dollars changed hands without moving the meter a single centimeter. In fact, the GOP lost in every single swing state except for Indiana and North Carolina. And while Mr. Rove may be to blame for his own mistakes, we’ll wager a dollar that a liberty-minded industrialist in Kansas wants to know what the hell just happened. And heads will roll.
Which brings us to the first question: What needs to change?
November 2012 wasn’t a clean Barry Goldwater conservative defeat or a Bob Dole moderate defeat: The Republicans ran a moderate-liberal Mormon candidate on a conservative platform. Which ideology they decide to blame will play out over the next couple years and will be nasty. But we’re going to out a different factor: The tyranny of the political consultants.
We’re talking about the guys who go with gut feelings. The ones that make the calls on polling, TV advertising, direct mail. The old-fashioned ones with decades of experience, who put their finger in the air and shoot from the hip while the Democrats talk to their data nerds and take careful aim. On Tuesday, the Democrats didn’t just pull the trigger — they squeezed it.
The Democrats have the best ground game in the country, and without unions at their call, the GOP is unlikely to catch up. But the Democrats also have the worst ideas in the country, and with Obama at their head, they are unlikely to catch up. So there is room to win again, and it is going to come down to closing the data gap: Knowing what works and what doesn’t; knowing who the voter base is and where they live; knowing how to reach out, touch them, mobilize them. In short, how to move that meter.
Conservative, establishment, whatever. Republicans can get to that tomorrow. The gap in field intelligence, however, cannot wait. These things take time. These things take years. These things take money, and they take resources, and they take a whole lot of smarts.
And the Democrats are not stopping. Just moments after the election was called, the president’s campaign sent out a fundraising ask. Their war rooms will not close, and their campaigns will go on. Republicans have a lot of catching up to do.
Super PACs may be sexy, but they aren’t winning the war. So please, bring us the heads of the consultants. And bring on the nerds. And get to work.