Sometimes taking the wrong lesson from defeat can be worse than not learning anything at all. While Republicans are scrambling to do damage control in the wake of this month’s election, they should keep in mind that their presidential candidate only lost by a couple percentage points in the popular vote.
The 2012 presidential election was not a repudiation of Mitt Romney or the Republican brand, but rather the result of a confluence of factors: the Obama campaign’s expert execution of its attack strategy, the Romney campaign’s flubbing of its get-out-the-vote effort, and a hurricane.
Obama’s early attack
In the spring of 2012, with the GOP primary still underway, the Obama campaign began attacking Mitt Romney with negative ads. By May, the effort to portray Romney as an out-of-touch millionaire was in full swing. The Obama campaign (with an assist from the other Republican presidential candidates) also attacked Romney on his time at Bain Capital, severely hindering his ability to tout his business experience during the general election.
The Obama campaign’s strategy was to define their opponent before he could define himself. The Bush campaign executed this strategy flawlessly in 2004 and the Obama campaign followed suit in 2012.
Get-out-the-vote efforts are straightforward. A campaign, often in coordination with state parties, will compile lists of voters who are likely to back their candidate. Then, the campaign will contact those voters to ask if the candidate can count on their support. If a voter confirms her support for the candidate, the campaign takes note and the individual is added to a strike list. On Election Day, someone is stationed at each precinct to cross out or “strike through” each of the anticipated voters. As Election Day progresses, campaigns will contact those voters who said they would vote for the candidate but still have not voted.
John Ekdahl does an excellent job documenting his experience as a poll watcher using (or at least trying to use) ORCA, the capstone of the Romney get-out-the-vote effort. ORCA was supposed to allow poll watchers like Ekdahl to electronically report the results of their strike lists to campaign headquarters. Its problems were myriad. In some instances, the Romney campaign in Boston failed to confirm that poll watchers were ready to show up on Election Day. Some poll watchers who did arrive were barred from doing their jobs because they were not certified (the campaign didn’t include instructions on how to become a certified poll watcher in the ORCA preparation packets). ORCA itself was a disaster, too. It crashed multiple times and was spotty throughout the day. The ORCA help lines were apparently down as well.
The ORCA failure had a devastating effect on Republican turnout. Exit polls suggest that as many as 3 million Republicans who voted in 2008 did not vote in 2012. While those of us who pay a great deal of attention to politics may find this hard to believe, there are some folks whose lives do not revolve around elections. These people sometimes forget to vote and need that extra nudge. In 2012, those forgetful Democratic voters received a strong push while their Republican counterparts did not.
Hurricane Sandy significantly improved President Obama’s job approval numbers. Exit polling placed the president at 54% job approval. Pre-storm polling averages had Obama’s approval hovering around 49%. The Rasmussen presidential approval index had the president’s “strong approval” number at 36% in the days following Hurricane Sandy. The last time Obama’s strong approval number hit that level? June 17, 2009.
Voters also told exit pollsters that Hurricane Sandy had influenced their votes. The president received rave reviews on his handling of the storm, and over 60% of voters said it had some impact on how they voted.
Still, the Republican Party has its work cut out. Republicans need to get started on minority outreach — today. This will not be easy, and it will take time. George W. Bush started this in the early 2000s with his voucher plan, faith-based initiatives, and foreign assistance to Africa. The signs of progress evident in the 2002 and 2004 elections dissipated in the later years of the administration as attention turned to the Iraq War and the recession.
Despite the problems Republicans face, the 2012 election was ultimately decided by campaign fundamentals and an event beyond either party’s control. Republicans should keep this in mind as they dig themselves out of the rubble.
Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs.