Mitt Romney's top campaign aides just concluded a conference call with conservative journalists, in which they assessed the damage from Tuesday's loss at the polls. The participants included campaign manager Matt Rhoades, political director Rich Beeson, polling director Neil Newhouse and digital director Zac Moffat. A few notes from the call:
Matt Rhoades, on the overall race: "No campaign is perfect, and we certainly made our share of mistakes." And on Paul Ryan: "He has come away from this race with a very bright future before him."
Rich Beeson, on the campaign's strategy: "We won independents and held the base. We thought that would be a winning combination."And on the campaign's computerized 'ORCA' system to track the ground game:
"This was the first thing we'd ever done anything like that on that grand a scale. We got data from 91% of precincts across the country," he said, noting that the program will help Republicans track voting habits in the future. As for reports that the system crashed on election day, Beeson conceded that there were issues: "There were glitches in the system, I don't want to gloss over that. We were able to beta test it, but not at the volume of data we needed." He said the program thought it had been hacked, which triggered a laborious process of rebooting it with new passwords.
Neil Newhouse, on the outcome: "It didn't end up like we'd hoped for and expected. They ran a very small campaign in a very big way." Neilhouse says Team Obama effectively targeted specific demos in their coalition, using contraceptives, DREAM Act waivers, and student loan interest rate cuts to entice key elements of their base to turn out. They "pretty damn well succeeded" at turning out their voters, he said. As an example, Newhouse pointed out that in Ohio, 160,000 more African Americans voted in 2012 than voted in 2008. Obama's margin of victory in the state was roughly 100,000 votes. On the other hand, "we had fewer white voters turn out [nationwide] in this election than in 2008. The question we have to ask ourselves is 'how did that happen?'" Newhouse said.
Newhouse, on Romney's strengths: In the exit poll, voters were asked about four metrics of leadership. Romney beat Obama on the questions of which candidate had a positive vision for the country, which candidate shared "my values," and and which candidate was a "strong leader." Obama crushed Romney on the question of which candidate "cares about people like me." This suggests that the Obama campaign's early "kill Romney" approach, painting him as an out-of-touch, uber-wealthy, outsoucring robber barron worked. Newhouse said that the right track/wrong track statistics tightened by 48 net points from November of 2011 through election day, which helped boost the president's approval rating to non-fatal levels.
Newhouse, on the effects of Hurricane Sandy: "It was not determinative. It was a factor, it was not the factor. But it hit the pause button on our campaign and our messaging for about four or give days, and it gave Obama the opportunity to look presidential." Newhouse said that exit polling suggested that almost 3% of the electorate said Sandy was the most important factor in their presidential choice, and that many of them made up minds in the last few days of the campaign.
The Washington Examiner's Michael Barone asked whether the contraception attacks were effective. The campaign brain trust said that the contraception move was narrowly targeted at a segment of the population -- young unmarried women, whom Obama carried by 38 points. Romney's advisers said Team Obama knew exactly what they were doing by running the unseemly "first time" ad; they recognized they'd face blowback from other elements of the electorate, but thought it was worth it to appeal to young women.
PJTV's Roger Simon asked about Romney's bruising loss among Hispanic voters. The entire Romney team acknowledged that this was a big problem, and that Republicans need to think hard about how to reverse this trend. Part of the issue, Beeson said, was that the Obama campaign had the resources to run brutally negative ads against Romney for many months over the late spring and summer -- before Romney had the money to fight back. "By that time, [Hispanic voters] were already predisposed against us." Romney's advisers also mentioned that the attack ads Obama ran on Spanish language radio and television were far "meaner, tougher and over the top" than "any attacks they leveled against us in English."
I asked about the October "expand the map" strategy, which demonstrably failed. Was the campaign engaging in a deliberate head fake by pretending that Pennsylvania, Minnesota and other states were in play, or did they really believe they had their core path locked up (through Virginia, Florida, Colorado, etc) and therefore had the luxury of expansion? I also asked which scenario would be worse. The Romney brain trust seemed to side-step the heart of my question, instead focusing on the Pennsylvania aspect. Newhouse:
"The decision was not made lightly to expand the map. In order for us to go into PA, we had to have every other friggen' thing in the campaign fully funded. We went to everyone to make sure they were fully funded before we went into PA. Every other need was met before we did that. The guys on the ground in PA, including polling guys, were very encouraging. Our numbers were positive there. As it turns out, it was relatively close, but it wasn't as close as other states." Beeson: "The Obama campaign saw the same numbers we did. They clearly saw it closing. We wanted to wait as long as we could to prevent them from getting that Philadelphia machine fired up in time."
These points make sense, but only in the context of the campaign believing that they were safe in other crucial must-have states -- a cataclysmically wrong assumption. When I stopped by Romney headquarters in Boston back in September, Newhouse said they were anticipating a D+3 electorate in November. This seemed entirely reasonable, but it turned out to be incorrect. The actual electorate was D+6. News reports indicate that Mitt Romney fully believed he was going to win on Tuesday, based on the campaign's internal polling. Was that polling predicated on the D+3 model? If so, that would explain the huge disconnect between Boston's expectations and the final results. I must say that even though the D+3 model seemed sensible on its face, it is the campaign pollsters' job to figure out if it comports with reality. This looks like a massive failure.
Finally, Joel Pollack of Breitbart asked if the campaign felt like they'd let down the American people, particularly Romney supporters. The takeaway line from the broad answer to this question came from Neil Newhouse: "There's a sense that we let Mitt Romney down." If the candidate truly expected to be delivering a victory speech on Tuesday night, even as he was in the process of losing the popular vote by two percentage points and the electoral college by a wider margin, Newhouse's assessment isn't too far off.