Mitt Romney's top campaign aides conducted a conference call with conservative journalists this afternoon, during which they assessed the damage from Tuesday's electoral loss. The participants included campaign manager Matt Rhoades, political director Rich Beeson, polling director Neil Newhouse and digital director Zac Moffatt. A few notes from the call:
Matt Rhoades, on the overall race: "No campaign is perfect, and we certainly made our share of mistakes." 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." Given the heavily Democratic electorate, it was not. On Boston's computerized 'ORCA' ground game tracking system: "This was the first time we'd ever done anything like [ORCA] 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 and predict voting behavior in the future. As for reports that the system crashed on election day, Beeson conceded that there were significant technical 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 the whole system with new passwords.
Neil Newhouse, on the outcome: "It didn't end up like we'd hoped for and expected (more on the "expected" part later). [The Obama campaign] ran a very small campaign in a very big way." Newhouse said the opposition effectively targeted specific demos in their coalition, using contraceptives, DREAM Act waivers, and student loan policies to entice key elements of their base to show up and vote. They "pretty damn well succeeded" at turning out their voters, he concluded. As an example, Newhouse pointed out that in Ohio, 160,000 more African Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008. Obama's margin of victory in the state was roughly 100,000. 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, on Romney's strengths: In exit polling, voters were asked about four metrics of leadership. Romney beat Obama on the questions of (a) which candidate has a positive vision for the country, (b) which candidate shares "my values," and (c) which candidate is a "strong leader." Despite batting .750, Romney got crushed by approximately 60 points on the question of which candidate "cares about people like me." This suggests that the Obama campaign's early "kill Romney" approach -- painting the former governor and CEO as an out-of-touch, uber-wealthy, outsourcing robber barron -- worked. It also suggests that personal connection and relatability are now more important factors in national elections than experience or accomplishment. Newhouse added 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 five days, and it gave Obama the opportunity to look presidential." Newhouse said exit polling indicated that about three percent 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.
Question and answer period:
The Washington Examiner's Michael Barone asked whether the birth control attacks were effective. The campaign brain trust said that HHS' contraception move was narrowly targeted at a segment of the population -- young unmarried women, whom Obama carried by 38 points on Tuesday. 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 some elements of the population, but thought it was worth it on balance, in order 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 Obama's campaign spent heavily on brutally negative ads against Romney for many months over the late spring and summer, before Romney had the resources to fight back. "By that time, [Hispanic voters] were already predisposed against us," he said. 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." This battle played out intensely, but off the mainstream media's radar.
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 actually believe they had their core path locked up (through Virginia, Florida, Colorado, etc), and thus had the luxury of expansion? I also wondered aloud which scenario would be worse (misdirection vs. bad intel). The Romney brain trust seemed to side-step the heart of my inquiry, 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 Pennsylvania. Every other need was met before we did that. The guys on the ground in PA, including our 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 target 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 analyses make sense, but only within the context of the campaign truly 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 his team was anticipating a D+3 electorate in November. This seemed entirely reasonable to me, based on evidence from 2004, 2008 and 2010, but it turned out to be incorrect. The actual electorate this year was D+6. Post-election news reports reveal that Mitt Romney was "shell-shocked" by his loss, an outcome that can only be explained by shockingly flawed internal polling. Was that polling predicated on a D+3 model? If so, that would explain the huge disconnect between Boston's expectations and the final results. I'll reiterate that although the D+3 model seemed sensible on its face, it was the campaign pollsters' job to figure out if their assumptions comported with reality. In retrospect, their failure to do so looms very, very large.
Finally, Joel Pollak from Breitbart asked if the campaign's gurus felt like they'd let down the American people, particularly Romney's supporters. The takeaway line from a relatively broad answer to this (admittedly tough) 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 assertion isn't too far off.
UPDATE - Here is Jen Rubin's WaPo write-up of the same call.