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post election thoughts

It seems weird that the election is over, I'm still trying to process it.

I've been donating to the Obama campaign semi-regularly since June 2011, and kept wanting to get involved in a more direct way but kept procrastinating until the very last minute. Then, a conspiracy of events happened that enabled me to spend about 8 hours during election day volunteering with the campaign, knocking on doors of Obama supporters in Pennsylvania, reminding them to get off their ass and go vote. I would not have been able to do this unless hurricane Sandy hadn't just come through and delayed my start date at my new job for an additional week (after having been already delayed for a week due to other reasons). I also wouldn't have been able to do as much unless we happened to live in a swing state (well, Pennsylvania was borderline--originally a swing state, then more securely in Obama's hands, and toward the very end Romney made a last ditch effort and started gaining again).

I followed politics in general and this election in particular much more closely than I have any other year in my life. I had a lot emotionally invested in it, for many different reasons.

I've been wondering about what the factors were that allowed us to defeat Romney, and have been reading all sorts of speculation. The most obvious factors are demographics. Obama won 70% of the Jewish vote (which is pretty amazing considering how pro-Israel Romney is, at least rhetorically), 93% of the black vote, 71% of the Hispanic vote, 73% of the Asian vote, 76% of the LGBT vote, 55% of the female vote, 60% of the 18-29 year old vote, and 52% of the 30-44 year old vote. (these statistics I grabbed quickly from this article: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4302640,00.html , they might vary a bit according to which exit polls)

The only groups where Romney got a majority of the vote were among men, whites, and the 45 and up age bracket. And unlike the overwhelming majorities Obama got in most of the above groups, these were only slim majorities. The only thing Romney has that compares at all to Obama's share of the black vote... is if you start combining categories... the Republican party has overwhelming support from Straight White Old Christian men. Especially Straight White *Rich* Old Christian Men. (And let's not get into a debate over whether Mormonism counts as a sect of Christianity or is a separate religion--for political purposes, it counts). But other than this group, what have they got? How can they possible win another election if this is the only group they appeal to? At some point, all of those old white men have to start dying off and being replaced by younger more genetically diverse generations.

This seems to be the primary explanation for why the Republicans lost. But there are two other factors I've seen mentioned that also come into play. One is the efficient "ground game" pulled off by the Obama campaign. I was a firsthand witness to this and was impressed, but also saw a *lot* of room for improvement. We carried around maps and addresses of likely Obama voters, and knocked on their doors, reminding them to go vote. There were drivers and canvasers, and the drivers were responsible for driving the canvasers to different neighborhoods and dropping them off like ants or foot soldiers, to go down different streets nearby. Subtle details were thought out ahead of time, for instance... the odd numbered addresses and even numbered addresses were split onto separate pages so that different people in the same carload could walk down either side of the road, carrying separate sheets of names and addresses. We had check boxes next to each for all of the possible outcomes of knocking on a door, which would be reviewed later and then acted on by someone else (visit them again, try a phone-call next time, or leave them alone if they've already voted). We also carried around the address of the polling location appropriate for whatever neighborhood we were in, so that we could give it to the person if they didn't have it when we spoke to them, saving them the trouble of looking it up. If the person didn't have a ride to the polls, we could make a quick phonecall and arrange for someone else to pick them up and take them while we continued down the same street knocking on doors. One big improvement I thought of is the stickers we left if they weren't home--these had a phone number and website url the person could use to immediately get the address of the nearest polling location. But people are lazy, and I think it would have been a big improvement if we had had stickers that actually had the address on them. I also noticed that we spent a lot of time knocking on doors during the day, when people aren't actually home. We skipped the morning entirely due to the fear that we might be waking people up to early, but the time when people can actually go to vote is usually before work or after work, so we should have focused almost exclusively on these times and not bothered as much with during the work day. (Also, as a general improvement to US law, we should require that elections always be on weekends. I have no idea how we haven't changed this yet, as doing it on a Tuesday makes it so much harder for working class people to vote.) Finally, there was too much "pissing in our own pool". We were knocking on the doors of known supporters, but we were the biggest supporters in town so occasionally we ended up knocking on each others' doors, which served no purpose. Obviously, if we are this committed to the campaign we are not going to forget to vote. I thought in general we should have broadened our pool of targets to weaker supporters, and assume that the strongest ones are going to make it out regardless. These are minor complaints though--overall the operation was extremely efficient.

Romney's team simply didn't have the necessary organization skills here. And having received all of the emails, Facebook ads, and phonecalls from the Obama campaign asking for donations, a few times a week since mid-2011, and several times a day for the past month or two, I can say that Obama really had his shit together when it came to emails and online promotions. Democrats seem to be far more sophisticated technologically than Republicans, at least in this point in time. They got the largest portion of their funding this election from employees of technology companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple while Romney got the biggest chunk of his from employees of Wall Street banks like JP Morgan and Chase. It's no wonder that all of the tech skills are on one side of the basketball court.

But there's a third reason for the Republican's defeat, which I haven't heard talked about as much as the other two. And maybe it's just something I made up in my own head, but it seems important to me. I noticed that early in the evening of the election, they had a panel of 5 pseudo-experts sitting at a table on Fox News. The question posed to each was "who do you think will win this election?" The first one said "I think Romney will win it, because he deserves to. And Obama will lose, for the same reason." The second one said "Romney will win because I feel it in my gut. And also, because I bet my friend he would win and if Romney doesn't, I'll have to wear this really ugly hat." I thought the first or the second of these was an anomaly, that these people were just giving insanely dumb reasons, and that one of them would have an actual reason why Romney might win. But no, the next two gave equally unbelievably stupid reasons why they thought Romney would win, that you wondered how they could possibly believe. Then the 5th person at the table, when it came to him said "I think that Obama will win because I've seen the state and national polls, and the numbers show that he will likely win." (For those not familiar with the Fox News format, it's to make things "fair and balanced", by putting 4 conservatives and one token liberal in the same room, so that they can each present their sides. Then usually, the token liberal gets made fun of by the rest and is condescended to, but in this case, there was no comeback because he had the only remotely reasonable answer.)

The night before the election, I also watched Fox News (and MSNBC and CNN, switching back and forth between the 3), and they did something very similar but not quite as obvious. The night before they asked Charles Krauthammer and a few other pseudo-experts who they thought would win the election and why. Krauthammer had a more plausible sounding explanation of why he thought Romney would surely win, but it was still a stark contrast from the way MS-NBC and CNN were covering the election forecasts. Krauthammer told a narrative about hurricane Sandy, as if he were a father figure with kids sitting on his lap listening. He said that Romney was way ahead in the polls, and then hurricane Sandy came through and the big bad traitor Chris Christie gave Obama a big bear hug, and Obama took some photo ops and then disappeared, not helping anybody with their hurricane problems, but leaving voters with the impression he did... and that this artificially influenced the polls. Then he added "but here's the thing... storms tend to blow over in just a few days, and then people forget about them. So I'm betting that this bump Obama got from this storm is just about due to start turning around this evening or tomorrow. And you can already start to see signs of that happening!" It was a ridiculous narrative, but at least had the form of some kind of argument for how Romney could possibly surprise us. And it at least acknowledged the fact that he was currently the underdog. It's just that Krauthammer had a belief, justified by a lot of story telling and handwaving, that somehow this underdog status would magically transform into an advantage within 24 hours. It seemed to me that on both of the days I watched, Fox did everything they could possibly do to give their viewers the impression that Romney had a fighting chance, if not a better chance, at winning the election than Obama. Meanwhile, Nate Silver at the New York Times had already calculated the chances of Obama winning in great detail, using the most sophisticated advanced statistical techniques available, and had come up with the correct figure (at the time) of about 90%. MS-NBC's and CNN's forecast of the election wasn't as good as Nate Silvers, but at least they went over some data and numbers, discussing the potential routes to winning each candidate had on the map. On Fox, not a single mention of any numbers or data that I saw, just made up stories about hurricanes blowing over or literally "feelings in their gut".

So my third explanation for why the Republicans lost, is because they deluded themselves into being wildly overconfident. They chose a candidate who was just far enough to the right to appeal to his party base, but not so far that they thought he would lose the election. Some of their party had even pushed for more radical candidates early on. And all along, his positions and rhetoric were tuned to achieve this balance. Except they were miscalculating all along, thinking that surely someone as "moderate" as Romney would be embraced enough by minority groups to not alienate them or frighten them. But they were wrong, and I think a big reason why they were wrong is because they were looking through these bizarre colored glasses where facts are subservient to their ideology. They didn't have any clue how offensive Romney came across to non white rich old men, and how urgently this would drive most Americans to the polls to vote against him.

This seems to me to be one of the most characteristic differences in how conservatives tend to think versus how liberals think--for a conservative, facts follow beliefs--you make up your narratives, including whatever facts you need, to fit your beliefs and to support them. For a liberal, beliefs follow facts--you adjust your beliefs to fit the facts. Perhaps this just happens to be true today with the Republicans because anyone objectively looking at the situation tends to agree that our society has drifted too far to the right and needs a correction in the leftward direction. Maybe at some point in the future, if we find ourselves too far to the left and we are due for a rightward correction, the leftwing will become equally willing to discard facts or make up their own, and the situation will be reversed. Or, on the other hand, perhaps there is something uniquely and inherently conservative about fitting your facts to your beliefs rather than the other way around. It at least seems to go hand in hand with the idea of religious faith. Sometimes I think that all of conservatives problems come from the basic root problem, which is that they have a strong tendency toward religious-style delusions.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
I thought this was a good overview of what happened with Romney's campaign and loss:

Not that I agree with everything in it exactly (some of the things they say Obama did "unfairly" I think are actually pretty fair for example) but at broad strokes it does lay it all out.
Nov. 8th, 2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think all of those things were factors.

It's also odd that they quote Ezra Klein at the end as saying that the thing about Romney people like the least is his commitment to "empirical data". Wow, that is SO not the thing I like about him the least (nor do I think he gives much of a crap about empirical data). I wonder what Klein meant by that... maybe that compared to other Republicans, he's not quite as far out there in la-la land?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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