Frame Game

We Won the White Vote

Romney lost. So why do his advisers brag about the demographic groups they won?

Romney and his adviser, Stuart Stevens, a week before the election

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

In the three weeks since the election, we’ve heard excuses and explanations from Mitt Romney, his pollsters, and his chief campaign strategist. Romney’s pollsters published their initial thoughts on Nov. 12. Two days later, Romney and his chief pollster issued a postmortem report to his campaign donors on a pair of conference calls. This week, we got another review from Romney’s polling firm, an op-ed from his senior strategist, and a follow-up interview on CBS.

The overall tenor of these reflections is that Romney and his advisers are proud of what they accomplished. They won the demographic groups they set out to win. The only problem is that these groups didn’t add up to a majority. The operation was a success, though the patient died.

Let’s take the putative success stories one by one.

1. Incomes over $50,000. A few days ago, in a review of the exit polls, Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, who polled for Romney’s super PAC and for Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, pointed out that “Romney won middle income voters ($50-100K) by six points.” Bolger was troubled that Romney lost the election while winning this group. But two days later, in a Washington Post op-ed, Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, converted this statistic into a boast. “Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters,” Stevens crowed. Brushing aside the campaign’s critics, Stevens concluded that “any party that captures the majority of the middle class must be doing something right.”

Sorry to break it to you, gents, but if you check the most recent U.S. census data (Table A-1 of this report), you’ll discover that 49.8 percent of Americans have less than $50,000 a year in household income. And if you look at the right-hand columns, you’ll find that median household income is slightly more than $50,000. So when you brag about winning “every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income,” that doesn’t mean you won middle-income voters. It means you don’t know what middle-income is. And it means you’re dismissing 50 percent of Americans, which makes you 3 percentage points more out of touch than Romney and pretty much kills you in any election where lower-income people show up to vote.

2. Whites under 30. In his op-ed, Stevens touted Romney’s success with young voters: “While John McCain lost white voters younger than 30 by 10 points, Romney won those voters by seven points, a 17-point shift.” But wait a minute. The joint national exit poll says President Obama beat Romney 60 to 36 percent among voters under 30. How does Stevens turn this into a Romney triumph? By excluding minorities. According to the exit poll, roughly 35 to 40 percent of voters under 30 were black or Latino. Set those people aside, and voila, Romney won young voters.

3. White women. In his Nov. 12 analysis, Bolger discounted the idea of a Republican problem with women:

The first thing I want to point out about the exit polls is that Mitt Romney won white women by 14 points—56%-42%. … So, the next time you hear Republicans are struggling with “women”—push back with that. Yes, the GOP is getting killed with minority women—4% with African American women, 23% with Latino women—but the whole “war on women cost Romney the election” is simply not true.

Really? Let’s look at that exit poll again. Romney’s performance among white women was 6 points worse than his performance among white men. His performance among black women was 8 points worse than his performance among black men. His performance among Latino women was 10 points worse than his performance among Latino men. Shrugging this off as a problem with minorities, not women, ignores a gender pattern that extended across all ethnic groups. Oh, and Romney won the election by 7 points among men. That tells you all you need to know about the GOP’s awesome relationship with women.

4. Independents. In his Nov. 26 analysis, Bolger noted: “Romney won Independents by five points. That’s better than George W. Bush in 2004 by six net points. … Romney was the first national candidate in exit polling history to decisively win Independents and lose the election.” This paradox completely shocked the Romney team, as Slate’s John Dickerson reported three days after the election:

They believed Obama would win only if he won over independent voters. So Romney focused on independents and the economy, which was their key issue. The Republican ground game was focused on winning those voters. “We thought the only way to win was doing well with independents and we were kicking ass with independents,” says a top aide. One senior adviser bet me that if Obama won Ohio, he would donate $1,000 for every point that Romney won independents to my favorite charity. (That would be a $10,000 hit since Romney lost Ohio but won independents by 10 points). 

Again, Romney won the battle but lost the war. Capturing independents by five points gave Romney a 1.5 percent advantage in the overall vote—not nearly enough to overcome the 4.5 percent advantage Obama got from the predominance of Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 38 to 32 percent.

In all four cases, the pattern is the same. Romney won the groups he targeted, and his team continues to point out proudly that he won them. But mathematically, these groups no longer decide elections. In a Nov. 12 memo, Romney’s polling firm asserted that “our research did what it is designed to do—provide strategic counsel to campaigns about key target groups and messages designed to help them win.” But what happens when the “key target groups” aren’t key? You can exclude blacks, Latinos, surplus Democrats, and people who earn less than $50,000 from your target groups and your poll analysis. But you can’t exclude them from the election.

Romney, in his postmortem conference calls, pretended not to have played this game. “The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” he argued. Specifically, Romney said Obama had targeted “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.” By contrast, Romney claimed his own campaign had focused on “talking about big issues for the whole country.” Stevens, in his op-ed and in his follow-up interview, made the same pitch: While Obama played small ball, Romney “wanted to talk about big national issues.”

Please. You guys played the same demographic game the Democrats did. The difference is, your target groups don’t add up to a majority. Narrowing the electorate on paper to the groups that favored you isn’t how you retool for the next election. It’s how you lost.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: