The Mystery of Why Republicans Were So Sure They’d Win

Over the weekend, I had an extensive conversation with a longtime Republican operative, a veteran of three GOP White Houses, who insisted, despite all the poll data to the contrary, that Mitt Romney was poised to win, possibly by a big margin. I knew it was possible that he was spinning me, but the very real sense I got was that he was not, that he truly, honestly believed what he was saying.

Writing from Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters this morning, the Washington Examiner’s, Byron York makes clear that this willing suspension of disbelief was extremely common among members of the GOP.

A few hours earlier, across the street at the Convention Center, the campaign’s supporters and volunteers fully expected Romney to be the nation’s next president. Indeed, what was striking after Fox News called the race for Obama, at about 11:15 p.m., was how stunned so many of Romney’s supporters were. Many said they were influenced by the prominent conservatives who predicted a big Romney win, and they fully expected Tuesday night to be a victory celebration.

“I am shocked, I am blown away,” said Joe Sweeney, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I thought I had a pretty good pulse on this stuff. I thought there was a trend that was going on underground.”

“We were so convinced that the people of this country had more common sense than that,” said Nan Strauch, of Hilton Head, South Carolina. “It was just a very big surprise. We felt so confident.”

“It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are,” said Marianne Doherty of Boston. “I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do.”

One of the more interesting questions of this election is how and why so many Republicans, who are certainly just as capable as Democrats at reading polls, chose to ignore the overwhelming statistical evidence that a Romney win was unlikely. I suppose one could say it is not much of a mystery, and that this mass refusal to accept politically inconvenient facts is of a piece with, say, conservative denial of global warming. And maybe that’s all it is. But I suspect that there was something else at play, too.

When I was talking to that GOP operative, he repeatedly said that a big reason he was feeling good about his party’s chances was the sense of assurance he was hearing in the voices of Romney campaign aides on the conference calls he was on. “I know when I’m being bullshitted, and they aren’t doing that,” he told me.

So where, then, did the Romney campaign’s sense of assurance (if it was that) come from? Was their internal polling providing significantly different results than public polls, and if so, why? From his piece, Byron York provides some support for the idea that the campaign’s internal intel operations on election day were less than reliable:

Some Romney aides were surprised too, especially since they had put an enormous amount of effort into tracking the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate. In recent weeks the campaign came up with a super-secret, super-duper vote monitoring system that was dubbed Project Orca. The name “Orca,” after the whale, was apparently chosen to suggest that the project was bigger than anything any other campaign, including Barack Obama’s in 2008, had ever imagined. For the project, Romney aides gathered about 34,000 volunteers spread across the swing states to send in information about what was happening at the polls. “The project operates via a web-based app volunteers use to relay the most up-to-date poll information to a ‘national dashboard’ at the Boston headquarters,” said a campaign email on election eve. “From there, data will be interpreted and utilized to plan voter turnout tactics on Election Day.”

Orca, which was headquartered in a giant war room spread across the floor of the Boston Garden, turned out to be problematic at best. Early in the evening, one aide said that, as of 4 p.m., Orca still projected a Romney victory of somewhere between 290 and 300 electoral votes. Obviously that didn’t happen. Later, another aide said Orca had pretty much crashed in the heat of the action. “Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” said the aide.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.