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Republicans Failed to Understand Their Opponent

Byron York reports [1] on the bewilderment of Romney supporters:

“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.”

It isn’t Mr. Sweeney’s fault that he believed this, or at least not entirely. He trusted conservative media and conservative pundits not to mislead him, and they let him down badly. There really was a difference this year between the standard loyalist whistling-past-the-graveyard that one sees in every election and a full-out effort among quite a few in the conservative media to deceive Romney’s supporters about the prospects of success. It’s one thing not to want to be defeatist or to give one’s “side” reasons to doubt its success, and quite another to be boldly announcing that major, overwhelming success is just around the corner when there is no good reason to expect it. I sympathize with people who supported Romney for good, principled reasons, because they were being lied to throughout the year. First, Romney lied to them that they could trust him, and then Romney’s boosters in conservative media lied to them by painting them a rosy portrait of the political landscape that they had to know was almost certainly wrong.

But the problem wasn’t just that conservative media gave Romney supporters bad information. The people in conservative media also seem to have been fully taken in by the idea that Romney would win and would do so in decisive fashion, and the campaign came to believe its own propaganda, too. As York notes, Romney didn’t have a prepared concession speech. It apparently never occurred to his campaign that he would lose. That’s not so remarkable by itself, but it is just one part of the overall pattern of the Romney campaign and the conservative movement’s reaction to Obama. Romney spent years running against a fantasy record and campaigning on a series of gross distortions and falsehoods, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that his campaign and his conservative media boosters didn’t have the firmest grip on political reality.

When you pretend that you’re running against another Jimmy Carter, and you actually start to believe it, you’re not fully prepared to compete with a sitting president whose record and approval ratings are nothing like Carter’s. Organizing an entire campaign on such flawed assumptions eventually came back to haunt them. Romney and his allies not only didn’t understand their opponent, but they went out of their way to make sure that they misunderstood him, and in any kind of contest that is usually a recipe for failure.

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30 Comments To "Republicans Failed to Understand Their Opponent"

#1 Comment By Andrew On November 7, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

Understanding anything, from war to economics, is not exactly current GOP’s strong trait. The party has been lobotomized by neocons and turned into somewhat of a bizarre ideological equivalent (with obvious considerations of locality) of the late CPSU, which was very big on ideological platitudes and propaganda (increasingly ineffective) but was losing governing competence in the most dramatic fashion.

#2 Comment By Kinan On November 7, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

I think this post sums up pretty neatly what’s been wrong with the GOP for the past decade at least, and probably more. And not just in the context of domestic politics (I’m thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example). I’m reminded of an interview between Ron Suskind and Karl Rove that I read about in the mid-2000s, where Rove claimed that the US (ie the Bush Administration) could create its own reality. If I were a Republican, I’d be thinking that it’s about time to start pointing the finger most directly at right leaning media outlets (except this one, of course!) You can’t indugle others in fantasy if no one is willing to shovel it for you.

#3 Comment By reflectionephemeral On November 7, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

Romney and his allies not only didn’t understand their opponent, but they went out of their way to make sure that they misunderstood him, and in any kind of contest that is usually a recipe for failure.

Depends what you mean by “failure”.

The GOP rank and file and intelligentsia fawned over George W. Bush throughout his presidency, despite the paucity of any achievements that could be categorized as “conservative”. Allegiance to the GOP now has exactly the same ideological and policy content as being a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

(No one exemplifies this more than Paul Ryan. He supported Medicare Part D, the occupation of Iraq, the surplus-destroying 2000s fiscal policies, the USA PATRIOT Act, and No Child Left Behind. Today he’s marketed, incongruously, as a deficit hawk and a small-government conservative.)

David Frum (who had actually written one of the many Bush-praising books) has said that “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox”. For Republicans, politics is a subset of entertainment.

Today, some people are acting like Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and George Will let their readers and viewers down. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Conservatism, in the US today, is convincing people to sit through ads for Goldline. Plenty of people, and a substantial chunk of the electorate, are willing to listen to those ads if they get to hear a bunch of stuff about how their side is Good and outsiders are Bad.

Rove, Will, Barone, et al, were just doing their jobs. They should all get raises.

#4 Comment By Stuart On November 7, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

So will they move to “reality” or find a new “unreality”?

#5 Comment By Clint On November 7, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

The Media Brotherhood still “Defines” the issues, although The Alternative Conservative Media is closing that gap.

#6 Comment By MBunge On November 7, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

“Romney didn’t have a prepared concession speech.”

The unspoken truth about this campaign is that Romney was a really sucky manager. Not a sucky candidate. A sucky manager. I wouldn’t trust the Romney I’ve watched the last 6 years to run a hot dog stand, let alone the federal government. I suspect that if you took a closer look, you’d find the things that made him successful at running Bain Capital or the Olympics had little or nothing to do with the qualities we normally associate with successful businessmen. Of course, his supporters and the media largely weren’t interested in looking past the rich, white guy surface.

Mike

#7 Comment By jamie On November 7, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

“As York notes, Romney didn’t have a prepared concession speech.”

I don’t think that’s dispositive; I always assumed Romney, like all salesmen, was one of those “power of intention” guys who believed that if he wrote a concession speech, it would make losing more likely.

“Conservatism, in the US today, is convincing people to sit through ads for Goldline.”

Rick Perlman wrote a [2] on this subject last week. The development of this trend is really more a story about how marketing works, than something intrinsic to the conservative movement.

#8 Comment By MBunge On November 7, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

“I always assumed Romney, like all salesmen, was one of those “power of intention” guys who believed that if he wrote a concession speech, it would make losing more likely.”

Romney wouldn’t have written the speech. And even if you excuse him not wanting to tell his speechwriter to come up with a concession, what’s damning is that no one around Romney had the brains or balls to order one written for him.

Mike

#9 Comment By Sean Scallon On November 7, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

It’s Iraq all over again. Happy talk substituting for reality. Largely from the same people.

However I think cautiously hopeful things might be changing compared to four years ago.

Circumstances were different in 2008. Back then I suspected most of activist crowd were not really unhappy Obama won because they didn’t like McCain to begin with and it threw the shackles off their activism tied down by the Bush II Administration. Now they were free to leave Bush II behind and do what they wanted. That’s how the tea party movement blossomed. It was also a delayed reaction to the financial crisis, the bailouts and the failures of the Bush II Administration. They were motivated again. I hoped the Tea Party would be broader than that but attending one of its gathering I could see where it was heading, one big group of Republicans who didn’t want to make it official (that’s why so many independents voted for Romney).

What do I see today four years later? Depression, despair and anger, anger not just at Romney but all the pundits and profiteers of Conservative INC. who kept telling them Romney would win in a landslide, just trust them. Perhaps we saw the rebellion begin on Fox News last night when the news people told one of profiteers, Karl Rove, “No Karl, you’re wrong this time and we’re not going to listen to you anymore.” Perhaps the news people at Fox were staging their own rebellion against all those from Conservative INC. they’ve helped to enrich since 1996.

Indeed, going over several different websites, one sees far more introspection over philosophy rather tactics or technology as we saw in 2009. And as the old Austin Bramwell article (“Good Bye to All That”) demonstrates, if the panadrums at the top of Conservative INC., (like the Wall Street Journal today) declare immigration restrictionism a dead issue, then it will be a dead issue.

Four years only a few columnists were brave enough to defy the Conservative INC and were quickly isolated as “elitists” (largely because they were). It’s good bet after this election it’s going to be more than just a few columnists at a few big city newspapers. You can only lie to people like Joe Sweeney so many times.

So perhaps the moment may well be coming that the rank n’ file may be willing to listen to different voices because at least the different voices (whether TAC or Chronicles) were actually telling the truth lo these many years.

#10 Comment By Jerry Skurnik On November 7, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

I can’t believe that people are buying the BS that they didn’t prepare a concession speech. Romney telling the press that was just part of their momentum spin.

#11 Comment By IanH On November 7, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

I’m always please to read Sean’s insightful posts.

Sadly I do not share your optimism Sean. It seems far more likely that the GOP will not change at all. Sure there will be a few weeks of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but we’ve seen that before. As Daniel has said, activists hold little sway with the party’s top brass.

As far as introspection over philosophy goes, you do have a point. However, I don’t think they’ll reach the right conclusions. Polls show that only 5% of Florida voters cared about foreign policy. Do I think this will mean that GOP will stop harping about Libya, Israel, and missile defense? It’s not likely.

I also don’t want anyone to blame the tea party for what happened. Sure Akin and Mourdock were duds, but Fischer won. On the other hand, GOP establishment favorites George Allen, Tommy Thompson, Rick Berg, and Dennis Rehberg all lost races they should have won. I blame their total lack of any kind of vision or message beyond being “generic Republican”. Some things went wrong, but it’s certainly not entirely the fault of those mean old right-wingers.

Finally, you have to love how Kevin Williamson of the National Review blames Romney’s loss in Ohio on “crony capitalism.” Because saving millions of jobs that ordinary people depend on for their livelihoods is contrary to their free-market dogma, after all.

#12 Comment By tbraton On November 7, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

Let’s step back a bit. Early this year no one thought the incumbent could be defeated (historically few incumbents have lost) especially when it appeared that the economy was starting to recover at a faster pace. That’s why many fantasy candidates decided not to enter the race. It was only when the economy started to sputter in the late spring that everyone started sensing that Obama could be beat and started expecting Romney to beat Obama s a matter of course. As you said back on March 19:

“Absent poor conditions, a challenger might have a very bold message that theoretically ought to be appealing, but it will not be enough to persuade most voters to support the challenger. After all, the main decision that voters are making is not whether they want to endorse the challenger’s vision, but whether they want to throw out the incumbent.”

And one should not underestimate the effect of the MSM on this election. Despite the fact that the economic recovery was the slowest since WWII, the MSM threw a protective blanket around economic news, hailing each 0.1% downtick in the unemployment rate as “morning in America” while ignoring the very high level of unemployment and slow rate of growth. Every time real estate prices ticked up a notch, the MSM started proclaiming a real estate recovery. In sharp contrast, I can remember watching the network news back in 1992, and each evening they would open up with a shot of long line of job applicants showing up for a job opening for a much smaller number of jobs. And this was more than a year after the economy had started to recover from one of the shortest and mildest post-WWII recessions. The rate which topped out at 7.8% had dropped to 7.3% by October 1, 1992,but to listen to the network news you would have thought the U.S. was bogged down in another Great Depression.

#13 Comment By Sean Scallon On November 7, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

“And one should not underestimate the effect of the MSM on this election. “

You’ve got Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newsmax, WND, online and in print and on the airwaves and you’re complaining about money-losing news operations and network news shows whose only advertisements are for old people.

None of the aforementioned existed or barely existed in 1980, 84 and 88 and Republicans won three straight landslide Presidential elections. Did MSM stop the Tea Party in 2010? Hmmm?

Sorry, your times up. Either present new ideas or go away if you’re going to give us the same freaking excuses every four years.

#14 Comment By Sean Scallon On November 7, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

“I also don’t want anyone to blame the tea party for what happened. Sure Akin and Mourdock were duds, but Fischer won. On the other hand, GOP establishment favorites George Allen, Tommy Thompson, Rick Berg, and Dennis Rehberg all lost races they should have won. I blame their total lack of any kind of vision or message beyond being “generic Republican”. Some things went wrong, but it’s certainly not entirely the fault of those mean old right-wingers.”

“Generic Republican” means “conservative”, or at least what passes for it these days. These people are not “Rockefeller Republicans” we’re talking about here. Even if you believe all of them were bad politicians, maybe that’s because they had nothing to say other than standard boilerplate one could find at NRO (henceforth, Generic Republicans).

What we’re trying to find here at TAC and other non-conformist conservative websites and publications is something different to say that’s still conservative or at least non-Leftist so it doesn’t matter even if they run good campaigns, bad campaigns or not, they can still get elected.

#15 Comment By MBunge On November 7, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

“Early this year no one thought the incumbent could be defeated”

“And one should not underestimate the effect of the MSM on this election.”

The election is over. It’s okay to admit that Romney stunk as a candidate.

Mike

#16 Comment By bayesian On November 7, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

tbraton, six days ago you said

bayesian, I feel even more strongly today that Romney will win by the same margin I stated in May.

i.e.,

My feeling is that Romney will beat Obama by 5% and win over 300 electoral votes.

and I replied

I’m curious – suppose it turns out that Silver’s prediction is roughly right (in which case yours is of course very far off): how would you adjust your priors?

I’m even more curious now to know how you are adjusting your priors, given that they led you to an error of 7% in your popular vote prediction. Do you really think the dread MSM has that effect?

#17 Comment By b.tom.darga On November 7, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

Kinan,

There is a significant portion of the movement-“Conservative” audience who will only listen to those who tell them what they want to hear. If the current right-leaning media stops doing that, these people will respond by changing the channel, not their minds.

#18 Comment By Indya On November 7, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

As Paul Krugman said, there is a problem when the Inner Party starts believing the prolefeed.

[3]

#19 Comment By cecelia On November 7, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

part of the problem is that Republicans (some) have stopped dealing with facts – one might say that this election is a victory for math – in that – we had Wiil et.al. refusing to believe the polls. They seemed to think some magical undercurrent of momentum was going to get Romney into the White House. But facts do matter – and people know that. Facts matter not only in polling but when we assess climate change or the effects of tax cuts on the wealthy. When the CBO issues an analysis showing that tax cuts for the wealthy do not improve the economy – is it the GOP’s approach to re-evaluate their position? No – they demand instead that the facts be suppresed and the report withdrawn. People are not as dumb as the GOP wants to think – Krugman is right – the GOP leadership has started to believe their own propaganda – the American people aren’t buying it.

#20 Comment By Bob Jones On November 7, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

HaHa Bayseian you beat me to it.

Tbraton, same question from me as well. Where did your estimates, prediction go wrong. You can’t really believe what you have alluded to that it was the MSM that won it for Obama.

That seems to be the ultimate cop out for a real loser of a prediction.

#21 Comment By J Hartnett On November 7, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

His arrogance, his almost devil-may-care level of dishonesty and fantasizing makes me wonder whether he is a psychopath. His venal and predatory path through life, his overly smooth and superficial mannerisms, his total disinterest in the affairs of the world around him as highlighted by his total illiteracy of international affairs, his personal profiting by the closing US businesses then his investing in China whilst telling US workers he was the guy for them – it takes a special kind of mind (one with damaged frontal lobes) to pull that sort of stuff off, you know? It looks like a good fit.

#22 Comment By MattB On November 7, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

Sean,

It’s always great to read your insightful comments. Like you I hope that Conservative Inc. may have hurt itself enough this cycle that its hold is significantly weakened. Time will tell, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not particularly optimistic. To some degree it feels like we’ve hit this point before — remember 2006 and Rush Limbaugh’s infamous “I’m done carrying water for the Republican party.”

While Limbaugh and his compatriots might have stopped carrying water for the party, the problem is that they kept carrying water for their audiences, who *wanted* them to carry water for the Republican party. So long as their audiences want to be deceived, there’s little hope for change.

Likewise, the current gerrymandering of Congressional districts isn’t going to help matters. Its going to help the Republican party currently keep control of the House (giving the message “everything’s ok”) and many State Governments even as the party continues to lose popular statewide and national elections.

#23 Comment By William Dalton On November 7, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

Sean, “Rockefeller Republican” is precisely what Mitt Romney is. I’m old enough to remember George Romney, who explicitly worked to defeat Goldwater and entered the race against Nixon as the representative of the pro-war, pro-civil rights Rockefeller wing of the party. George Bush, father and son, are Rockefeller Republicans. Bush 41 entered the race in 1980 precisely to offer Rockefeller Republicans an alternative to the Goldwater platform offered by Ronald Reagan. The same is true of John McCain. Did any of these men work, as Ronald Reagan did, at least early in his Presidency, to roll back the expansive role of the Federal Government in Education, to end racial (and gender) quotas? When it came to the expansive “civil rights” agenda all these men were dependable “Me Too” Republicans formed in the 60’s and 70’s of Nelson Rockefeller. Bush I had enacted the ADA, Bush II pushed through “No Child Left Behind” and Medicare Prescriptions Drugs, both programs that could have, and did, come out of Rockefeller think tanks. Nothing in Romney’s campaign against Obama departed from the Rockefeller playbook.

If you doubt this, ask yourself this question, “What kind of campaign would Jesse Helms have run? Ronald Reagan?” Ronald Reagan would have made this a campaign about Obama’s expansion of Food Stamp rolls, about sale of weapons to Mexican drug lords, about Obama’s repeal of DADA, support of gay marriage and abortion on demand, about every businessman stymied by an Obama regulation, about Obama Supreme Court and Court of Appeals appointments, and, more than anything, about Obamacare and how it is ESSENTIAL to repeal it. This was the campaign that won Republicans their massive gains in 2010 and the campaign Romney steadfastly refused to run. “We’ll repeal and replace Obamacare” are not the words of a Goldwater-Reagan Republican.

You who know me as a Ron Paul Republican know these aren’t the issues that were foremost in my mind this election, but they are all proven winners for Republicans in every prior campaign and would have been in a campaign as close as this year’s was. But Rockefeller Republicans won’t run these campaigns, they are ashamed of them, and when they run against Democrats who are energized and don’t disdain to take off their own gloves, like the Clintons and Obama, they lose.

#24 Comment By Barry On November 8, 2012 @ 9:11 am

Another: “Early this year no one thought the incumbent could be defeated”

Another: “And one should not underestimate the effect of the MSM on this election.”

MBunge : “The election is over. It’s okay to admit that Romney stunk as a candidate.”

And another thing – as the quants pointed out, Obama was leading almost all of the time, for months. But the MSM pundits (you know, liberals like Will, Morris, Rove, etc.) kept boosting Romney’s chances right up until he crashed and burned.

That’s the sort of help that a candidate can’t get for money. If the quant guys’ opinions were widely hyped by the MSM, it’d have been worse for the GOP, because they’d have been demoralized.

#25 Comment By Barry On November 8, 2012 @ 9:18 am

MBunge: “The unspoken truth about this campaign is that Romney was a really sucky manager. Not a sucky candidate. A sucky manager. I wouldn’t trust the Romney I’ve watched the last 6 years to run a hot dog stand, let alone the federal government. I suspect that if you took a closer look, you’d find the things that made him successful at running Bain Capital or the Olympics had little or nothing to do with the qualities we normally associate with successful businessmen. Of course, his supporters and the media largely weren’t interested in looking past the rich, white guy surface.”

Romney’s ‘secret’ to running a succesful Olympics was receiving the largest federal check ever given for an Olympics. His ‘secret’ to being governor of MA was that the legistlature overrode his record number of vetoes a record number of times. His ‘secret’ in Bain was for the most part moving money from one corporate shell to another, before letting the first one collapse in bankruptcy. Romney is really Trump’s blood brother in business, but with more hair.

#26 Comment By Barry On November 8, 2012 @ 9:20 am

William Dalton, when Dubya is a ‘Rockefeller Republican’, the term has lost meaning. Or rather, you’re using it wrong.

#27 Comment By Barry On November 8, 2012 @ 9:22 am

Sean: “It was also a delayed reaction to the financial crisis, the bailouts and the failures of the Bush II Administration. They were motivated again. ”

A very precisely timed rection; waiting until they had lost power. It might be real, but there’s nothing at all to back that. Please note that Ryan was a prime example of everything that the Tea Party claims to hate.

#28 Comment By CitizenE On November 8, 2012 @ 9:25 am

The whole of the right, long painting the President, and thus his following, as aliens, socialists (being somewhat to the right of Richard Nixon on most issues), and anti-life demons, not only misunderstood the President, but the nature of America, in which women really do make up more than half of the vote, in which no matter how many fans of racism are placed in the hands of its base, few really can get excited about preserving tax breaks for the wealthiest among us and corporate welfare for energy corporations and those exporting jobs overseas to drop a dime on their stockholders.

The country is largely made up of working people, people who have been over the past several decades moved out of the ownership society, by the very folks, who like Mitt Romney, claim to promote such, but refuse to really spell out how, and in fact, promote actual policies that in play have had the exact opposite effect.

The whole of the Republican strategy has been one of creating an identity base, a base grounded not in actual policies but propaganda, not only about the opposition leadership, but the folks that support that leadership.

#29 Comment By Sean Scallon On November 9, 2012 @ 3:41 am

If you think of a “Rockefeller Republican” as a liberal Republican you’d be wrong. Once upon a time there many Republicans who were exactly that, liberals. Including one George Romney. If you think of “Rockefeller Republican” as someone who will say anything or change positions to get elected and to pose as something they’re not, then that’s exactly what the term should mean and that describes Mitt Romney in a nutshell.

The problem is not so much the politicians, who will say anything to get elected in their inherit nature, it’s what they’re saying. And unfortunately what Mitt and other GOP candidates were saying was “conservative” in the sense it’s been said by Republican politicians again and again and again, because they think this is what wins votes or it’s what their voters want to hear.

And unfortunately much this rhetoric’s sell-by date was in 1980 or it was too extreme to attract voters beyond the base needed to win or may well have turned off base voters who now come to oppose it after all these years.

Remember, by changing the rhetoric and the language of conservatism and making it more than just stand-pat reactionism, L. Brent Bozell basically created a new movement of people willing to do what it took to make this rhetoric both policy and the law of the land. Well rhetoric changes with the times, new words and phrases need to be found to promote the same values and philosophies that eventually lead into policy. This is what has to be done here at TAC otherwise you’re repeating the same dogmas that voters find to be irrelevant to how they live or how the word actually works.

It’s easy to say “Conservativtism didn’t lose because we had lousy candidates.” Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe you had lousy candidates because they had nothing with to campaign? They were defenseless.

#30 Comment By justajournalist On November 12, 2012 @ 8:06 am

Until conservatives understand and accept that abortion on demand is not only the law of the land, but the right of all women in sane nations, the Republican party will continue its descent into oblivion unabated. Sorry guys if you don’t get it, but the gals do and will vote accordingly.