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4th December
written by Sean Noble








There are many theories, excuses, and explanations about what went wrong for Republicans on Election Day.  Some are fairly accurate, others wildly off-base, and most are premature.  I think some fact-based analysis is in order, and I’ll include my opinion as well at the end. Much of the data comes from either exit polls or post election polls I’ve read.

Of ballots currently counted (33 states have certified the result), Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney 65,362,092 to 60,715,413 – a lead of 4.6 million votes or 3.6% (50.94% to 47.32%).

In 2008, Obama defeated John McCain by roughly 9.5 million votes or 7.3% – 69,456,897 to 59,934,814.  Romney exceeded McCain’s vote total, but Obama is about 4 million votes shy of his 2008 total. 2012 turnout was less than that of 2008, both on a raw vote basis and when measured as a percentage of the eligible electorate.

With that said, turnout was closer to 2008 levels in the key battleground states than in non-competitive states.  In the 12 most competitive states, the current cumulative raw vote is more than the total from 2008, whereas the balance of the country is down about 5.7% from 2008.

A few key takeaways:


  1. Support for Obama was weaker in 2012 than 2008.

Obama is the first President since FDR to win reelection with fewer votes than his initial election.  His share of the vote fell in every one of the 12 most competitive states, including as much as 3.7% in Wisconsin.


  1. Romney was unable to convert millions of voters who abandoned Obama.

If we were to look at this simplistically, we could argue that Obama didn’t win the election. Rather, Romney lost the election by failing to motivate the millions of voters who couldn’t vote for Obama to vote for him instead.  Tellingly, a clear majority (52%) of voters said the country was on the wrong track, but Romney only won 84% of these voters.  Obama won 93% of those who said the country was going in the right direction.


  1. Romney won independents by 5 points on Election Day – a 13-point shift from 2008 when Obama won independents by 8 points, and Romney still lost.



Republican pollsters, pundits, strategists and campaigns got it wrong, seriously wrong.  I was one of them.  Going into Election Day I completely believed Romney was going to win.

We relied on data that turned out to be inaccurate.  We were convinced, based on polling results and historical comparisons that Romney was going to win.  That we were shocked at the outcome demonstrates that we relied on serious miscalculations.

There has been significant discussion about how badly Republican and center-right polling got it wrong.  That is true.  The polling that Romney relied on, the party committees relied on, and that Senate candidates relied on was all faulty because it had a common problem – a severe underestimation of Democrat turnout.

Early indications are that this error was driven by use of overly restrictive likely voter screens and an expectation that youth and minority voters would plateau at 2008 levels, rather than continue to grow.  It wasn’t the methodology per se – that is, the error wasn’t necessarily because some pollsters used random digit dialing and others used specific lists of registered voters.  Ultimately, it appears a combination of factors resulted in “weight” being added to Republican and independent voters.

Republican and conservative pollsters tended to use a likely voter model that split the difference between 2004 and 2008, a model that leaned Democrat narrowly and made winning independents the critical piece of a winning coalition for Romney and other Republican candidates.

By contrast, Democratic and news organization polling estimated a turnout model more like 2008, but with continued growth in minority voting as a share of the electorate.  This model was closer to reality, and therefore their polling was closer to the mark.




Just as there was never a silver bullet for defeating Obama, there is no single cause for this loss.  It was a culmination of a number of weaknesses and missed opportunities that, in combination, proved fatal.  Below are several of these factors in a list that is by no means exhaustive:


  • Romney’s decision to not rebut the attacks by Obama on Bain, tax returns, and offshore accounts in the summer proved fatal.  Romney’s delay in defining himself was a major strategic error. Given the amount of money that was spent attacking Obama by the outside, any money spent attacking Obama by Romney was wasted. He should have been promoting himself.  In the exit polls, voters split somewhat evenly into four camps when asked what was the most important quality in a Presidential candidate: “Shares my values” (27%), “Strong leader” (18%), “Cares about people like me” (21%), and “Vision for the future” (29%).  Romney won all but “Cares about people like me” by strong majorities – between 54% and 61% of voters in each group.  However, he lost by 63 points(!) on “Cares about people like me,” which Obama won 81% to 18%.


  • In a post-election poll, swing voters were asked to describe both Romney and Obama in a word or phrase. For Romney, the most prevalent word was “liar” and for Obama it was “ineffective.”  Since elections are a matter of whom do you trust, even “ineffective” trumps “liar.”  Tellingly, this was among swing voters.


  • The much-discussed “gender gap” is better understood as a “minority gender gap.”  Women made up 53% of voters.  Overall, Obama won women by 11 (55-44) and Romney won men by 7 (52-45).  However, Romney actually won white women (38% of voters) by 14 points (56-42).  The problem is that he lost African American women (8% of voters) 96-3, and Hispanic women (6% of voters) 76-23.  By comparison, Romney “only” lost Hispanic men (5% of voters) 65-33 – 21 points closer (net) than Hispanic women.  Put another way, if the Hispanic gender gap had been the same as the white gender gap, Obama’s lead would be cut by nearly 20%.  In 2004, the gender gap was nearly identical for all races and ethnicities.


  • Late-breaking undecided voters defied history and broke to the incumbent President.  Obama won those who decided on Election Day or the few days prior 50-44.  Past elections, including 2004 when Kerry won this group 53-44, found the opposite to be true.  Conventional wisdom has long held that challenger candidates benefit from late deciders, who, by not already having joined the incumbent’s column, have in some sense already decided to consider an alternative.  This “incumbent rule” is clearly no longer a rule – at least in presidential elections.  As Election Day neared and the campaign saw Romney and Obama tied or Obama narrowly ahead but at 47% or below in key states (albeit using admittedly problematic turnout models), they expected Romney to carry a strong majority of the remaining voters.  Most campaign strategists and pollsters expected this effect to help turn the tide in a number of states that, in reality, Romney ended up losing by 5-6 points (e.g., Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, etc.) and to firm up what should have been his victories in Florida and Virginia.


  • Urban turnout was higher than expected.  Employing a long-term ground game and using constituencies of identity politics proved to be effective for Obama in these communities.  For example, in Wisconsin, Obama won by nearly identical margins in 2008 and 2012 in Milwaukee and Madison combined – roughly 300,000 votes.  In the balance of the state, Obama won by 111,000 votes in 2008, but lost by 96,000 votes in 2012.


  • Superstorm Sandy slowed Romney’s momentum and allowed Obama to look Presidential in the days leading up to the election.  Perhaps this is an explanation for the late-deciders breaking to Obama, but it also changed the narrative and preempted Romney’s message that Obama was campaigning on “small ball” issues rather than an overarching vision.






  • Republicans need to get real about grassroots campaigning – and engage in their own style of “community organizing.”  This should be an ongoing effort that does not require rebuilding from scratch each cycle.


  • Candidates matter, and Republicans need to engage in a robust candidate recruitment and training effort.  They need to avoid situations where massive investments in TV ads, grassroots efforts and mail are squandered because of a candidate who says something stupid.  While “47 percent” and “legitimate rape” were certainly not the only causes of the 2012 Republican collapse, they did play a role and had effects beyond the outcomes in the Presidential and Missouri Senate races.


  • Republicans need to get serious about data – collecting it, understanding it, and using it. Obama’s campaign had a group they called “the scientists” to plow through the huge amount of data they collected from polling, the field, public sources, the voter file, fundraising, and many other sources.


  • Finally, Republicans need to recognize that the demographics are changing and they need to do something about it – most notably with the growing Latino community.  I’m not arguing for amnesty (although, I would point out that Reagan campaigned on a platform of amnesty against the union-backed Walter Mondale in 1984), but we need to do something that reaches out to Hispanics in a credible and sincere way.
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  1. Arron

    I’m Hispanic and certainly not pro-amnesty, but every proposal submitted by any group such as guest worker program is labeled amnesty by the hard liners. Let me be clear, I married an engineer from Mexico and went through the 7 year process and paid all fees to get her naturalized, so If followed the rules, I would like others to do likewise. The problem is that Republicans have yet to offer a reasonable solution other than yell and scream and not negotiate. It not just immigration. On a host of other issues as well. Not sure if Romney lost because of the Hispanic vote, but it sure didn’t help.

  2. Aaron Baer

    Well said Sean.

    I think your analysis here shows that this election is no reason for conservatives to panic. As you say, there’s no denying there is work to be done, but nothing that is impossible to overcome.

    I think it’s important to recognize that President Obama is just a very good candidate, who is extremely difficult to beat – he bucked so many trends of incumbent presidential candidates, in many ways because he is such a dynamic candidate.

    There is almost no doubt in my mind that if you replace President Obama with either of the last two Democratic candidates – Gore or Kerry – then Romney wins.

  3. Ryan

    As a self-proclaimed devil’s advocate, I’d like to disagree with something you said in this post. Anything. But I can’t. You nailed it on every point.

    I’d only add from your data, that the youth and minority gains from 2008 to 2012 will continue, if not accelerate, for 2016. And between your excellent point on the “minority gender gap” and the continued growth of the urban vote, 2016 is shaping up to be a perfect storm demographically for the GOP. And, whoever the Dems run will not be as loathed as this one.

    Just sayin’….

  4. Woody

    Sean,I think you left out the most significant reason Romney lost. Republican Primary candidates spent millions, literally for years, bashing Mitt Romney’s character, his record, his wealth, even his religion. Can anyone think of even one negative theme used by Obama that wasn’t first thoroughly test marketed and proven by Republican candidates using PAC as well as rank and file donor money. That is probably the “data” Obama studied most. Those voters who labeled Romney a liar heard it first, most, and loudest by Republican candidates and their talking head cronies–not one of which had a snowball’s chance of beating Obama. Elections have consequences, and so do primary campaigns.

  5. Scot

    Spot on Sean. Candidates and campaigns matter.

  6. […] my previous post, I pointed out Romney’s image problems, his problem with minority women, the unprecedented way […]

  7. Rory

    “Superstorm Sandy slowed Romney’s momentum”

    Please show us one reputable polling aggregator or analyst that showed Romney with any momentum when Sandy hit. This has been repeated over and over but it simply isn’t true.

    Nate Silver, who got 50 states right, had Romney’s momentum end around the time of the 2nd debate, IIRC. Obama had momentum and was gaining in the polls since that date, although the Sandy storm may have furthered his momentum on the last few days.

    This whole idea that Sandy stopped Romney’s momentum has been talked about over and over on the right, particularly by the same right wing pollsters and Romney advisors who were looking for something to blame their utterly inaccurate predictions and prognostications on (and to mitigate how much money they wasted). Self delusion does not help anything, either before or after the election. The fact that Romney and his advisors were so certain that they were going to win does not speak well of their grip on reality or their organization, considering that Vegas had them as 4 to 1 underdogs. It’s one thing for the base to believe they are going to win and look to Fox or Drudge to give them what they want to hear, but when the candidate himself is utterly clueless things have gotten out of hand.

    *If you want to see when Romney’s momentum stopped, take a look at not only the polling analyst but at the odds in Vegas or Intrade. They clearly show Romney had no momentum in late October.

  8. Dan

    What republicans have to do is have a long hard discussion about what it means to be republican. Protecting the rich from their share of taxes is not republican. Protecting the monopolistic and predatory practices of conglomerates is not republican. Race baiting and suppressing the vote among minorities is not republican. Restricting union membership and hiding behind ‘right to work’ is not republican. Protecting despoilers of Americas natural beauty for a buck is not republican. Ignoring the youth of this country is not republican. Ask Teddy Roosevelt. Don’t bother to flame me. Just giving you a bit of advice unless you are really committed to going the way of the Whigs.

  9. 11/07/2013

    8 months after the 2012 elections and listening to all the spin and BS my conclusion for the results was this. The Republicans looked like jackasses during the primary which had to turn off moderate and independent white voters. Mitt was a weak candidate who didn’t connect with the same group. Some evangelicals stayed home because they didn’t like what the perceived as a moderate Mormon candidate. In the end a lot of White voters stayed home that might have made a difference. The Democrats on the other hand ran a strong campaign and the attempts to suppress the vote by the GOP did nothing more than energize the base. They came out and stood in long lines and voted because they were motivated. The Republican party is now hopelessly divided into three groups. The old guard moderates that are nearly extinct, The Neocon/corporate todies and the largest group which is the religious right. They all mistrust the other groups and the fight won’t end until the party is dead. Actually having been a Republican for 30 years I can tell you it died back in the mid 90s and has been stinking up the place ever since. Like many other former Republicans I see no resemblance to the party I joined at age 21 back in 1971.

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