Team Mitt Fell Prey To Two Big Myths

Before we get into the Daily Kabuki of the fiscal talks, it’s worth taking a look at the new evidence TNR’s Noam Scheiber dug up about the misplaced confidence that Mitt Romney’s campaign took into November 6. Given a glimpse of some internal Romney polling data and then a bit of phone time with Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, Scheiber deduces that the Romney campaign was especially deluded by how it was dominating most-likely voters down the stretch–those to whom it assigned an 8-10 “most interested in the election” number on a scale of 10:

What’s striking is how much better Romney does among those with the greatest interest in the campaign. If you look at Colorado and New Hampshire in particular, Romney is running up big margins among even the 8-10s, which Newhouse said routinely accounted for 80-90 percent of the sample in his internal polling. (In New Hampshire, the 8-10s represented 88 percent of the sample.) Newhouse said the reason the campaign broke out these numbers is that it helped them “try to gauge intensity.” But it also led them astray—it led them to assume that voter intensity was driving Romney’s leads. And it reflected a flaw in their polls. The people who told the campaign they were 8s, 9s, or 10s were a smaller share of the November 6 electorate than the 80-90 percent they accounted for in Romney’s polls–partly because Newhouse and his colleagues underestimated the number of young people, African Americans, and Latinos who wound up voting.

In other words, Team Mitt forgot that in the end a “vote is a vote,” and that interest or enthusiasm beyond the level necessary to get (in conjunction with GOTV efforts) people to show up and cast a ballot is nice but has no electoral value unless it is somehow infectious.

Aside from succumbing to the “enthusiasm” myth, it seems Romney and his staff also bought into the “momentum” myth: the powerfully seductive belief that sometimes-random polling gains represent an irresistible trend. Newhouse saw a significant jump in Mitt’s numbers in battleground states the Sunday before Election Day, and like his colleagues thought this was “momentum” that would probably continue right through November 6:

When pressed on why many of his final numbers showed an erroneous uptick for Romney, [Newhouse] offered that “it may be a function of Sunday polling”—a valid concern given that many pollsters are wary of polling on weekends.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Romney’s closest aides and confidants interpreted the numbers quite literally. One Romney aide told me that he ran into Tagg Romney, the candidate’s eldest son, as the results came in on election night. “He looked like he nwas in a complete state of shock,” the aide said. “[As if] these numbers cannot be real.”

Perhaps we’ll hear less crap about “enthusiasm” and “momentum” in the next cycle.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.